4cr Plays: Dark Souls
Dark Souls is an interesting game. The folks at From Software achieved greatness with Demon’s Souls on the PS3 and Dark Souls strives to expand upon the high marks of its predecessor. Dark Souls builds character in the same way a paper route, mowing the lawn, or performing dental surgery on yourself without anesthetic does.
The best description of the “Souls” games is that they are as challenging as they are rewarding. Unlike most games, the difficulty of Dark Souls doesn’t scale in proportion to the character’s level. After what might be the briefest tutorial in gaming history, you are immediately confronted with a boss the size of a house who is more than capable of killing you in a couple of blows. He stuns, stomps, and swings a giant club all within a tightly enclosed area. This trial by fire is typical of the Souls games, but is still jarring for the experienced player. Impossibly huge enemies with few weaknesses are part and parcel of the experience. If you’re expecting enemy weaknesses to be called out in-game, you’re going to be disappointed. There are no villagers discussing how Old Demon Smash Gums has a bad back or sparkling patches of vulnerable scales to be had here. If you’re going to take down these enemies, you have to figure it out yourself.
That approach is what defines the beauty of Dark Souls. The game of Dark Souls is figuring out the rules for each encounter and applying them in the most efficient way possible. This design methodology leads to one of the most pure gaming experiences I’ve seen in the modern era.
That’s not to say Dark Souls isn’t without its problems. From Software is not a PC developer and Dark Souls was their first port from console to PC architecture. They’ve gone on record saying that they were in over their head with it and while they produced a relatively bug free game, the visuals on the PC leave a lot to be desired. Luckily, within hours of release the fan community who had clamored for the game released a video interceptor which corrected many visual problems with the game and actually added much needed video options. The game is playable without patching, but it’s ugly. DSfix, as it’s come to be known, is essential if you are looking to meet or surpass the graphic quality or frame rate of the PS3 version of the game.
This shortfall makes the Prepare to Die Edition moniker entertaining for a few reasons. As any Demon’s or Dark Souls veteran knows, you are going to die repeatedly, with gusto, until you smash through each challenge. What is less apparent is that you’re going to be investing a significant amount of time tweaking visual settings before even starting to seriously play the game. Had Dark Souls been released 10 years ago, this level of game tweaking would be expected, but the PC market has evolved and games are better at working well out of the box. I had actually forgotten how much I dislike having to muck about in the settings of a game before I can play until I really started to try to get the frame rate up on Dark Souls. If you’re not comfortable with editing game files, then you should probably pick up Dark Souls on PS3.
The only other caveat worth mentioning is that the game is heavily designed around using a controller. I played a few sessions using a keyboard before I broke down and purchased a corded XBox 360 controller. This improved playability significantly, and is something to consider if you’re looking to buy the game.
Despite its technical shortfalls, Dark Souls is an excellent game with compelling game play. It is a challenge and requires a high degree of dedication to master, but once mastered it is ultimately one of the most rewarding gaming experiences I’ve had.