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Hands-On: Dark Souls Prepare To Die Edition

Port Whine

This was never part of the plan. Dark Souls is coming to PC because so many people asked for it, just as Demons’ Souls only travelled West because an unexpected demand arose. There have been worrying signs that the port will be less than optimal and, having now played the Prepare to Die edition, it’s my sad duty to report that the experience is far from smooth. It’s still Dark Souls though, with more content than on console, and, framerate issues or not, there’s nothing else quite like it.

GFWL, or whatever it’s called these days, is in. That’s the worst of the bad news I think, although I do seem to dislike Microsoft’s sentry system more than most. The official word is that it’s being used to implement the all-important multiplayer, including a PvP system that is new for the Prepare to Die edition. The game will be available direct from Namco’s digital store, through Steam or in an actual box with all sorts of fancy goodies, but wherever you get it, you’ll have to sign in to GFWL.

The other bad news concerns technical issues that have, as far as I can tell, carried over from the console versions. No worse but no better. More on that at the end but first, because Dark Souls would still be a brilliant game even if it shot you in the foot every time you played it, I’m going to talk about why the existence of a PC version is still good news.

If you’ve played either of the Souls games already, then let it be known that your PC weeps at night as you caress the coarse plumpness of a consolepad thumbstick, bewitched by the flickering screen of the television and the backside-enfolding cares s of the couch’s embrace. It’s OK though. Sometimes these things must be done. I’ve spent about fifty hours with Dark Souls, my computer pining for me the whole time, and I don’t regret a minute, even if I am occasionally reduced to a quivering mass of anguish and rage by a particularly horrible section of such a brutal game.

In any world, touching a dark pulsating tendrilous mass is probably a bad idea. In Dark Souls waking up in the morning is a bad idea. This is worse.

Everyone talks about the difficulty, to the extent that anyone who has never played the game might expect to load it up and be killed instantly by a skeleton riding a heatseeking nuclear missile toward them. Being killed by such a thing would then, of course, cause the game to delete itself and the disc onto whose surface it is scratched to disintegrate. Unlike so many fictions, when you die in Dark Souls, there are consequences.

It’s not quite like that, of course, and the game’s difficulty isn’t about punishing the player’s mistakes, even though it can feel like that at times. Dark Souls wants to teach you and while that may sometimes involve liberal application of the cane or more capital forms of corporal punishment, its intentions are good. At root, its design is the antithesis of any game that rewards continued effort by making the character more powerful without giving any thought as to whether the player has become more skilful. From Software’s philosophy is thoroughly opposed to the avatar-centric style that still reminds me most strongly of RPGs, with their levelling up and increasingly weighted dice rolls, but with the rise of unlockables it’s no longer confined to one genre.

Dark Souls does have levelling but it’s not simply a reward for time spent, it’s a reward for time spent well. Dying resets the world, with all monsters back in place and the player reawakening at the last bonfire they rested at. Spending souls to increase abilities is only possible at bonfires and also resets all enemies, so levelling is all about one reward weighed against multiple risks. If you die in a dangerous place (that’s pretty much all of the places) then your souls will be even harder to recover, because anything you haven’t spent is left with your corpse.

This picture is a more accurate description of my experience than all the words.

There’s much more complexity than these short descriptions can communicate, whether in finding a balance in expenditure on equipment and skills, or swapping clothing and weaponry to switch between heavily armored beast-knight and spindly loincloth-clad acrobat as the situation demands.

Dark Souls is a difficult game but it’s a game that you – yes, you, not the hulking man-flesh that you are controlling on the screen – will become better at as you play it and it’s incredible to experience that and realise how rare the feeling is. I play, I die, I revisit, I explore, I witness, I die, I learn, I play, I triumph, I die, I quit, I return, I learn, I persist, I die, I die, I die…

The Prepare To Die edition, which contains around ten hours of content that will be exclusive to the PC until the console release this winter, killed me a lot. To provide a tour of one of the new areas, a forest garden that borders a screaming abyss, From Software decided the wisest thing to do would be to drop me in a dungeon, shut off from the wider world. Sure, I could just walk up the steps but there was an arena at the end of the corridor and in that arena there was a Sanctuary Guardian. Imagine a cross between a griffon and a manticore and then imagine that it hates you and you are trapped inside a room with it.

It's a giant clutching hand with a mouth in the middle of its palm. I think it is. It's definitely going to kill that little man.

I played, I died, I played, I died, I played, I died. I died, I died, I died. Stupid, probably, not to have prepared for this eventuality.

There were shouts of anger – OH WHY WHY WHY, FUCK YOU, CHEAP BASTARD – as journalists ground themselves down against the rampaging beast. Then someone succeeded and the room fell silent. How had he conquered the beast?

His tactics were passed from one person to the next and soon we were all learning, all improving even though there was no new equipment to collect and no way to boost our stats. We were becoming better at the game because we were learning the patterns, when to dodge, when to block, how and when to strike, and we were sharing our experiences.

Dark Souls is a collaborative game and even though we weren’t directly co-operating, as is possible, we had soon created a pool of knowledge. It took me more than an hour to defeat the Guardian but when I did, I almost punched the air before remembering that I’m quite reserved in that extremely British manner. I did push my chair away from the desk and consider nipping outside for what would have been very much like a post-coital cigarette, but then I remembered that I’m quitting (I’m always quitting, always dying) and decided to go and explore more of the game instead.

A mushroom asked me if I could be a saviour again. I don’t think I’ve ever been much of a saviour and I’m disconcerted by talking fungi but I said ‘yes’ because saying ‘no’ would have been anticlimactic after I’d had to kill a poisonous winged bastard just to earn the privilege of chatting with the mushroom queen, or whatever she was.

Don't sneak up on golems with weapons that are bigger than you. It's stupid.

The world of Dark Souls is weird, in that unintentional way that suggests the people who designed it weren’t trying to be wacky or offbeat, they just reckon fantasy worlds should be a little more fantastical and a little more frightening than your Tamriels and your Middle Earths. Case in point: the mushrooms appear to be under attack by gardeners made out of twigs. That’s the best way to describe the things that were soon killing me with pitchforks and hedge clippers. At one point, a group of them advanced on me while tilling the earth, stabbing me in the feet as they did so. My worst imaginings finally came to pass and I was gardened to death.

It’s a big, open area, this particular chunk of new content, with giant stone golems capable of crushing with a single blow as well as the mad gardeners who, like so many creatures in Dark Souls, are easy to defeat as long as you don’t allow your concentration to falter. Try to rush through an area or become overconfident and they can overwhelm just as easily as the larger monsters can overpower.

It’s possible, probably essential in fact, to use Dark Souls’ systems against it. It’s practically encouraged as during the process of repeating an area, the flaws of each enemy become more and more noticeable. Those stone golems aren’t quite as deadly once you realise how incredibly dense they are, not just in form but in thinking. Lead them to the abyss, which is an angry scar in this otherwise picturesque patch of forest, and it’s not too hard to convince them to stumble over the edge and down to…well, whatever it is that’s at the bottom of an abyss. I stared into it for a while and it probably had a good look at me as well, but I don’t know what’s at the bottom even though I fell a couple of times just to satisfy my curiosity. Unless it’s a massive black sign with ‘YOU DIED’ written on in red letters, but that bastard thing is everywhere.

Who wouldn't want to go to the creepy, ruined tower? In fact, that might not even be a building. Get closer and it probably turns out to be a giant's eyelash. He's the next boss.

The new area is weird and mysterious enough to fit beautifully into the whole horrid world and, although it’s hard to quantify content in terms of time with a game built around repetition, if there’s ten hours of extra stuff to see as claimed, then I’d imagine at least three areas. New weapons, enemies, bosses and all that malarkey as well. The Prepare to Die edition will be the bestest version of one of the best games of recent times.

But the PC version has all the problems of the console version. It’s not that the game has somehow become worse in translation, it’s that the power of the PC hasn’t been used to make it any better. In terms of visual design, Dark Souls is stunning, but it’s never been at the bleeding edge tech-wise, which is why it’s so surprising to see it stutter and crawl on the PS3. In some areas it’s not just annoying, it’s functionally detrimental. In a game that challenges timing and encourages caution, the framerate can be a killer.

Although I didn’t see any huge stutters I didn’t see any of the areas that suffered in that way on the consoles. The framerate does fluctuate from place to place though, with some areas noticeably slower than others. There’s no reason that a decent PC shouldn’t be able to handle what’s on screen but the port has been quick and apparently there wasn’t a great deal of PC experience to draw on in the team. I’d rather wait longer and see everything outsourced if optimisation can’t be achieved internally. Is this a literal case of ‘less haste more speed’?

My bow is bigger than me but that is a dragon and it will still eat me and then poo out my armour AND the bow. These alt-texts brought to you due to a request by Dzenan Suljevic.

Keyboard and mouse controls are in and can be completely reconfigured, although I have to admit to a fondness for the gamepad for this one. There’s basic visual customisation but the game doesn’t look any different to the console versions from what I could tell, though I didn’t have them side by side. It’s strange to be playing the game on PC at all because even when the petition took off and the possibility grew, it just didn’t seem like something that would happen. I imported Demons’ Souls back in the day because it didn’t seem likely to receive a European release. Now the sequel is coming to Steam in a few days. That’s amazing, but - and it’s the kind of ‘but’ Sir Mixalot would admire – this doesn’t show dedication to our platform. It feels more like taking a look at the premises and deciding whether it’s worth sticking around.

I’ll understand if people find the GFWL implementation and the technical problems too much to stomach but I’m already hoping that whatever comes next concentrates on the PC from the start. Like the game, perhaps this is a learning curve for From and Dingy Souls will finally recognise the platform that can help eradicate its technical hitches once and for all. Given how unlikely the journey has already been, it’s possible.

We’ll have more on the game and the porting once we have code on our own PCs and can pick it apart. For now though, it’s with a certain amount of regret that I fear I’ll be cherishing the game but cursing the port.

Dark Souls: Prepare To Die Edition is out August 24th.

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