There are few modern games that throw you to the wolves quite as harshly as Dark Souls does. Originally released on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, the Prepare to Die edition is a PC port that also brings some new content. It is also incredibly aptly named, as in my case, having never played Demon/Dark Souls, I managed to die five times before the end of the tutorial. In Dark Souls, no one holds your hand as you attack large demonic beasts with little more than a short sword. Until you learn how things work, you will die repeatedly, often in the same spot.
There's a lot to grapple with when you pick apart the game mechanics, especially as they pertain to your character. Starting off, you pick rudimentary aspects such as cosmetic appearance and the base class, which affects starting stats and equipment. Nearly every stat is important, and it's important to strike the proper balance to suit your play style. For example, you may pump a lot of points into strength to make your melee hits harder, but then you'll lack enough vitality to take hits or the endurance to swing more than once before tiring.
The stamina system is quite well implemented, forcing you to balance equipment and mobility in a way that feels very adaptable. With higher endurance, you gain a higher equipment load limit and more maximum stamina, but the two are intertwined. The lower your current equipment load, the faster your stamina bar recharges, and it depletes when you perform practically any action that isn't merely running around. Every piece of gear has a weight, so equipping yourself is always a matter of consideration. Depending on your play style, you might want to forgo the higher armor chest piece so you can roll around and attack more often. Only equipped items count toward the load limit; thankfully, the ones in your inventory are weightless.
The humanity system lightly affects your stats and opens up other avenues of the gameplay. In your basic form, you are actually undead; it's not really limiting, as you can progress and unlock checkpoints (bonfires). By expending a bit of your humanity, you can restore your human form, which slightly buffs some secondary stats and lets you kindle bonfires. Under normal circumstances, you leave a bonfire with five health potions that can be used at your discretion, but a kindled bonfire lets you leave with 10. For bonfires that you frequently visit, kindling them is a good idea, but doing so for every bonfire is a big waste of your precious humanity, which is slowly gained through gameplay.
Enemies in Dark Souls tend to be melee based, with few exceptions. They are almost always a threat to you, as even the most lowly skeleton can carve a chunk out of your life bar, even after you've gotten some gear and put in a few points. This has the effect of making every fight feel more engaging, from the first time you encounter an enemy to the 100th time. Even when you know their attack patterns, reacting to them can be a matter of timing and tactics, and rarely can a fight be won by swinging away and hoping for the best.
The problem that many will face in Dark Souls is the frequency of death. At the outset, new players will likely die over and over— often in demeaning or frustrating ways. A single death doesn't have much in the way of penalties, as you simply drop your current carried soul and humanity count on the ground where you died. What's important is making it back to that spot to reclaim them before you die a second time, which makes the first reclamation point disappear along with everything that was in it. This death penalty is soft for one death, but should you die a second time, you can lose a significant number of souls, which are everything in the game.
Souls are used in many ways, the foremost of which is in upgrading your stats. Doing so multiple times costs increasingly more souls, making it harder to bump the stat. Souls are also currency so you can buy new gear, repair existing gear or buy items to improve gameplay. Losing a pile of souls just because you essentially made the same mistake twice can be frustrating as hell.
At the same time, death is very much a part of the game. It is difficult to not learn something every time you die; you know exactly what killed you, and you often have an inkling of how you can avoid it the next time. Assuming you make it back to the reclamation point, even if you just run away afterward, death doesn't have much of a penalty. Once you expect to die, you don't care as much when you do, but you also play with that much more care. It is at that point when the switch suddenly flips, and the gameplay really opens up. What was originally some sort of horribly masochistic exercise becomes one of surprising balance; you'll make progress in Dark Souls, but only as much as the effort you put into it. Making that progress is incredibly rewarding, whether it's slaying a boss or avoiding and exploiting a basic enemy attack.
Progress can also be a relative term. Every time you visit a bonfire to refill your health and health potions, almost every enemy also respawns. If you slug your way through and slay a bunch of enemies before deciding that you need to retreat to recuperate, you'll need to kill them all over again until you reach that next bonfire checkpoint. Just as with dying, this can be initially irritating, but you can keep the gained souls as well as the knowledge of the enemies in the area and how the behave. This makes future trips easier, so what was once an impenetrable gauntlet of foes becomes a series of familiar encounters.
That's not to say that every frustration is one that can be smoothed over with experience. The humanity system is ripe for exploitation, given the multiplayer hooks. While in-game, you often see messages written by other players in the form of glowing interaction points, with messages such as, "Boss ahead," or "Watch out!" You also see ghostly silhouettes of other players that you cannot interact with, running around and dying as a form of ethereal instant replay from other players' sessions at other points in time. When in human form, you can also be actively invaded by other players, with the invading player taking the form of a dark spirit trying to kill you. They have their gear, you have yours, and when it works properly, it can be a big thrill to duel.
The problem is that the title lacks anti-cheat technology, and there are numerous trainers available online that allow PC players to artificially buff their stats without raising their level, throwing off the matchmaking. It is possible to be invaded by someone who is far too strong for their level to the point that they are invincible, and once in human form, there is no way to opt out of these invasions. You can just die, wasting the humanity point you spent to become human in the first place, but either way, it makes for a horrible experience. You need to become human to perform some important actions in the game, but doing so leaves your game open to be exploited by cheaters even if you just want to be left alone.
Cheaters aren't the only area where the PC version of Dark Souls falters. It's a very bare-bones port — to the point that it effectively makes no use of the strengths your standard PC offers. The internal rendering resolution is locked to 1280x720, making the game look like a muddy mess until you download the unofficial DSFix mod to increase the resolution. Keyboard and mouse support exists, but you are going to want to use a gamepad instead. The game was originally designed for consoles, so the scheme doesn't make sense on anything but a gamepad. All menu navigation is completely driven by key/gamepad, so other than camera control, the mouse is effectively useless, and most mice lack the number of buttons you need for all of your attacks.
Ultimately, it is tough to call the PC iteration of Dark Souls an improvement over the console versions. With the unofficial DSFix, the game looks a lot better than it does on the consoles, but you will want to use a gamepad to play the game. At the same time, if you are already using a gamepad, you can avoid a bulk of cheaters by playing on the console instead. Assuming that From Software implements some sort of anti-cheat mechanism, the PC version could be considered the definitive edition of the game, but as it stands, every time you're in human form feels like a game of Russian roulette.
Once you get over the fact that death is part of the game and take the time to learn the systems, Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition is a lot of fun. The game gets a bad rap as being one of supreme difficulty, and it's really not the case; it has a sharp learning curve, but it does so in a way that doesn't seem insurmountable. It is unforgiving, seems to hate you as the player, and is set up to kill you in every possible way. In other words, it's a veritable sandbox of experimentation where observation and perseverance make you feel like a god every time you bypass those obstacles and progress. The PC version is certainly a flawed offering — deeply, in some ways — but it's still a very engaging experience.
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