Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition Review
I’m about to admit to something that, in many reader’s minds, will serve to discredit my reviews: I don’t finish the vast majority of games that I critique. Further, there are some few games where I don’t even make it to the half way point. The reasons for this are various and sundry but all boil down to one indisputable fact; almost every game can be judged with a high degree of accuracy in a matter of minutes if you have enough gaming experience. Call it the game reviewer’s “blink” ability. I didn’t finish Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition. I probably didn’t even get half way into it. I’ll explain why shortly, but rest assured, this game was easy to appraise, and not in a good way.
First let’s get the obvious out of the way. If you don’t own an Xbox 360 controller, don’t buy this game; move along, there’s nothing to see here. The mouse and keyboard controls are so ineptly implemented that I find it hard to believe that anyone at developer From Software even play-tested the damn thing. Needless to say, if you are porting a game from consoles and you can’t even be bothered to perfect mouse and keyboard controls, it doesn’t bode well for the rest of the experience.
After digging out my 360 controller from the box of “useless old console crap I never wanted to revisit” and re-learning how to use such an archaic and clumsy control system, I finally settled in for this self-styled hard-as-hell RPG. Character creation was pretty much the standard set up, letting you choose your sex, starting class and general look. The facial generation system is subpar, creating almost universally unappealing mugs, but fortunately (unfortunately?) that didn’t matter much because, for some stupid reason, you play the game as a flesh-eaten zombie. Why? Well, that brings me to the next big complaint.
Dark Souls happens to be missing an important, if not central, component that all RPGs should have: context. This could include almost everything, from story, to dialogue, to continuity. Why am I a zombie instead of a human? Why am I tasked with ringing two distant bells? Who are these random people scattered around the environment? What the hell is going on and more important, why should I care? All of those questions, and many more, are either never answered, or answered cryptically with prophecy-talk nonsense. Context is what puts the “R” in Role Playing Game and in Dark Souls, you are most certainly not playing a role.
So then, what is this game? I thought long and hard on that question and I finally stumbled upon a decent, though not perfect, answer. Dark Souls is essentially a third-person, more complex version of Diablo (specifically the first game). What I mean by that is that it has almost no story, no meaningful dialogue and other than combat, leveling up and finding hidden loot, it has no real point. Once I realized this, the game became less conceptually frustrating, though no less boring. What remained infuriating was the combat and difficulty.
Depending on how you build your character, combat plays out in the usual melee/archery/magic trichotomy. I will give the game credit for one thing; the leveling system allows for a very elastic character building experience. You pick your class at the start, yes, but once you begin collecting souls (the game’s universal system for both experience and currency), you can easily give your warrior some magic or your rogue a giant shield; nothing is off limits or disadvantageous. However, outside of your character sheet, it’s entirely up to you to fight competently and, boy, does Dark Souls make that task hellish.
Most of the problem lies in the camera and targeting system. The camera is assigned to the right thumb stick (assuming you are using an Xbox controller) and since there is very little auto-tracking, you’ll spend much of the game with both thumbs on the sticks. First off, coming from a mouse and keyboard background, it has never been more obvious how cumbersome and imprecise console controllers are. If nothing else, Dark Souls has made me love the fact that I’m a PC gamer all over again. Secondly, to fight effectively, you have to make use of the A, B, X and Y keys, which means forgoing camera controls while you drink potions or sprint, leaving you completely situationaly unaware. And for a game this merciless, not being able to quickly track swarms of enemies is unacceptable.
Speaking of mercilessness, let’s discuss that in detail, shall we? This game’s claim to fame is in its unforgiving, old school difficulty. At first glance, it’s true, the game is really hard and doesn’t hold your hand, especially during boss fights. But it’s one big deception for a few reasons. If you took this exact game, made mouse and keyboard functional (thus making the combat fun, rather than frustrating), and *gasp* added a manual save function, this would be just another third person action RPG, with very little unique about it except for how half-assed the setting and story are.
The reason people think this game is hard is that when a boss cheap-kills them (because the boss’s bounding box blocks the player into a corner of the level or stun-locks the player with unblockable flurry attacks), they have to run all the way back from the previous spawn point (bonfire), killing all the same enemies they just killed over again. Given that some bosses are very cheap and very far away from a bonfire, this adds up to some of the most wasteful playtime I’ve ever experienced in a game, especially since you may or may not be able to keep the souls (experience) of those in-between enemies you’ve repeatedly killed a thousand times. This game isn’t hard at all, it’s just ineptly designed. So while I may only be a third of the way in, my playtime is well past thirty hours.
Visually, the game is also pretty damn unimpressive. Everything is colored in dark, muted tones of gray, brown and black. The armor and weapons are adequately gleaming but the character models, both your own and those of the enemies, are bland and lifeless. Given that almost everything you fight is a zombie of one kind or another, maybe that’s appropriate, but it sure isn’t exciting to look at.
Finally, the multiplayer portion is a complete waste of time. At a bonfire, you can choose to spend a humanity point (a somewhat rare resource) to “reverse hollowing” (become human) and this opens the multiplayer portion of the game to you. The intention is that it’s a double-edged sword, in that you get a higher loot drop rate and you can call on other players (and even some AI NPCs) to join your world to help you fight, while at the same time, other players can enter your world and hunt you down player-vs-player style.
Even just from that description, it’s obvious that this is not true multiplayer. Instead, it’s just a small taste of both co-op and pvp mulitplayer modes, given to you in a random, chaotic fashion. There’s no microphone support and no keyboard chat box. You can either perform vague gestures (like cheering or pointing) or you can fight, that’s it. So while the co-op, “help me kill a boss” option is pretty straightforward, the pvp is atrocious. When someone invades your world to fight you, all the doors fog over (meaning you are locked in a small area of the map) and you have to stop all forward progress and wait while some random dude loads into your game (it’s not an instantaneous process). You then fight, for no reason, until one of you dies. Oh, and just to add insult to injury, the game doesn’t care about level or gear, they just throw random battles together. So most times, the people who enjoy pvp gameplay (you know, immature douche bags that are super-leveled and decked out in the best gear) will sit in newbie areas and load in just to insta-kill you with one hit and then perform the laugh gesture. Yeah, good times.
When I see the sheer amount of positive reviews this game got from the console crowd, it just reinforces my elitist PC attitude. This Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition is not only the worst console port I’ve ever played (and I play most of them), it’s also one of the worst designed. I mean literally, this game is one step above my character having “lives” and when I run out of those, I’m told to jam quarters into my PC to continue playing. If this is what constitutes a “good console RPG”, then I’ll sleep soundly at night with the knowledge that I’m not missing a damn thing by not owning a PlayStation 3. I guess I’m alone in understanding this, but supposed difficulty is not a substitute for intelligent design. Dark Souls proves that.
Reviewed By: Brian Mardiney
Publisher: Namco Bandai
This review is based on a digital copy of Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition for the PC provided by Namco Bandai.