Dark Souls PC Review
Gamers need to be careful what they wish for. In the last year, the PC gaming community has been asking Namco to put together a PC port of Dark Souls, the intensely difficult medieval action-RPG by Japanese developer From Software. Earlier this year, those gamers got their wish after an online petition got Namco's attention. But now that the port is complete and in the hands of gamers, many who committed to buying this port have either read the horror stories in recent previews or are finding out first hand: From Software doesn't really know how to make PC games, and while they got the offline and online play working fine in this port of Dark Souls, there's just not much here to make a PC gamer happy.
The game itself already has a pretty notorious reputation. It's a medieval action-RPG with some brutal combat and a lot of tricky situations and gotcha-type moments that will kill you often, and kill you hard. (After all, this is the "Prepare to Die" version of Dark Souls, although that subtitle has been attached mostly because of a new section of the game that's particularly tough.) Characters you build can specialize in heavy or light armor, fast or slow attacks, melee or ranged abilities, swords or spells, and eventually you'll probably build a character with a hybrid of these abilities in order to deal with a range of combat situations. There are no set character classes, although there are some basic archetypes you can choose from when you create your character that pre-assign things in particular ways. And yes, some builds work much better than others, including those you can choose from at the start.
Each of the game's levels is generally set up in a way that teaches you how to win by killing you repeatedly. Not only will you be forced to learn how to attack and defend efficiently, but you'll also have to learn enemy attack patterns as well as how to manage your quickly-regenerating stamina (which you need to defend, attack, run, and dodge). And the way you learn it is by dying and re-trying the level repeatedly. All of this comes without much in the way of a danger-free tutorial, as the first level - the easiest one by far - will kill players multiple times if they're not careful. And if they're new to the Souls games? It's almost guaranteed they're going to die, even if they've heard the warnings from their friends.
Of course, PC gamers are not new to difficult games. Some of the toughest games you can play are exclusively on on PC, from obscure shmups to ridiculously hard platformers like I Wanna Be the Guy and its fan-made spinoffs. But the difference with many of the toughest PC-only games is that little progress is lost in them when you do die; through repetition and muscle memory, players can power through difficult chunks of a game, sometimes with a bit of luck, and they may not have to truly master every single little situation. But in Dark Souls, death not only sets you back quite a ways, it also actually kind of makes it worse if you've been dying repeatedly, because death causes you to go into an undead form which has significant disadvantages over human form. The developers have played with the difficulty a bit by adding new systems into this game over the predecessor, Demon's Souls, like the added advantages and disadvantages of being either undead or human. In practice, though, these features wind up making the game more complicated, rather than making it easier.
Let me stop here for a second and just be clear here. I think Dark Souls is a fantastic game with plenty of elements that the rest of the industry should take lessons from - particularly the idea that today's gamers don't need to constantly be babied like nearly everything out there currently does - but Dark Souls, with its unforgiving difficulty and unflinching adherence to gotcha-games and one-hit kills, well, it's just not for me. Its intense difficulty combined with the loss of progress and frustration that comes with dying can only be handled emotionally by a certain type of very patient gamer, and unfortunately, I'm not one of them. I will admit here that for the sake of my health and for the welfare of small, breakable objects that were within arm's reach, I did not spend too terribly long playing Dark Souls on PC. I did spend enough time to know that this is the same game it was on consoles, but this time with some high-end new content and an iffy technical foundation that many PC gamers will not like.
So what's the problem with the port? Well, technically, it does not make use of a single advantage that the PC offers as a high-end gaming platform. The game's available on Steam, sure, but it also relies on the much-reviled Games for Windows Live. Those who have played iffy PC ports in the past probably don't need an introduction to the issues with GFWL, but highlights include save corruption, Live profile and product key issues, and when combined with Steam, two account sign-ins just to get into a single player session. Playing Dark Souls with a keyboard and mouse is pretty much an exercise in pain (beyond the one that the game itself is), as the key bindings are very strange, the mouse cursor stays on-screen when you're using it to move your character, the settings are difficult to configure, and the on-screen prompts for the many bindings you'll need only ever show Xbox 360 controller buttons. There's more: the game runs at a maximum of 30fps no matter how fast your PC is, and it renders at a lousy internal resolution of 1024x720 and then stretches the image (while adjusting properly for aspect ratio) to whatever screen resolution you have, so the game winds up looking even more like a console port than other bad ports. An industrious user has already come up with a hack-fix for the screen-resolution and mouse cursor issues, but the rest of the problems remain and may have to either have to be fixed by From Software, or not get fixed at all.
All of these technical issues might not be a big deal for some gamers, but Dark Souls is already a frustrating game, and the annoyance of having to deal with a shoddy port like this might be enough to put off even those players who might have been able to endure the deaths and tough-love learning experiences that Dark Souls imposes. And the new content in this edition of the game - which will get put onto consoles as DLC soon for $15 - is even tougher, as you'll get access to new gear, but the levels and bosses that have been added are quite tough. Is it worth it if you absolutely loved either of the Souls games in the past, have a half-decent gaming PC, and don't mind playing it mostly the same way you played the console original? Yes it is, but don't expect to be impressed with From Software's meager efforts to make PC gamers happy. I suppose one upside is that the price tag is set at a mostly-reasonable $40, but if you buy the game and wind up not enjoying it due to either the difficulty or the technical issues, then it seems like a waste at any price.
Despite all the negative things I have to say about my personal Dark Souls experience - both on PC and on consoles earlier this year - there is a way to find plenty of satisfaction in this iffy port of a very good game, but you're going to need to be part of a pretty narrow audience to see it. First: you'll need to be mostly OK with a port that's barebones and about as functional as the console versions themselves. Next: you'll probably want to be the kind of ultra-patient gamer that enjoys persevering through frustration and anger to finally achieve victory. And finally, to really get a lot out of this game, you'll probably want to enjoy a bit of PvP, as the game's sinister, trollish online modes are generally centered around players trying to ruin some stranger's solo experience by way of world invasion - and when combined with multiple playthroughs with different character builds and such, that's where the lasting depth in Dark Souls really lies.
It's unfortunate that I have to attach so many caveats and if-thens in order to recommend Dark Souls on PC, but those that meet the requirements (and I'm not talking about computer specs) will find this one of the deepest and most enjoyable games they've played in quite a few years. If you think you've got what it takes to find fun in this difficult but brilliant game, go for it. I said in my review of the console versions that many game design lessons can be taken from Dark Souls - both cautionary tales and big success stories - and the PC port brings a new one, which is that you really should know your audience better than this before you go and perform in front of them. It seems doubtful that this port of an already inhospitable game will make many new fans, especially with the kind of treatment it got in the conversion to PC, but there will be some that will swear by it as one of the best games made in a very long time. If you think there's any chance at all that you'll be one of those people, then you owe it to yourself to drop the cash and find out.