Review: Dark Souls brings murderously hard gameplay to the PC
At a Glance
PC gamers have had it easy for years. Can't shoot straight? Don't worry, there's auto-aim in the options menu. Don't understand what's happening? No sweat, NPCs will explain it all to you in minute detail. Not sure which way to go? Look for the glowing green arrow flashing over your head, leading you to glory. Somewhere along the line, the gaming industry decided theme-park-style comfort and ease were better than challenging players, and the games they made started to play themselves. Fortunately, no one explained this to Namco Bandai, who have ported their murderously difficult action RPG Dark Souls ($40, buy-only), to the PC after hordes of gamers clamored for a chance on the chopping block.
You begin with a wisp of story and the heavy burden of your fate. As one of the undead, you are imprisoned with countless cursed others who await the world's end, exiled in a bleak northern wasteland. Your quest begins when you escape the cell of your prison. Not many who play will make it to salvation. It's a story framework vaguely reminiscent of Planescape: Torment, and that's high praise indeed. Unlike most RPGs however, Dark Souls works its narrative charms in a very subtle fashion. Some basics are explained, but careful observation and parsing of the scant information you receive is required to follow all that's going on. You'll need multiple playthroughs for true fluency without peeking at a hint book.
You see Dark Souls from a close third-person perspective, with the left stick controlling the camera, and the right stick, movement. Various attacks, dodges and weapon loadouts are available for the deftly fingered, including timed combinations that inflict significantly more damage than standard attacks. The mechanics play out like a more thoughtful, impactful version of the Witcher RPG series.
Dark Souls is not a game for the impatient. Nowhere is this more obvious than combat. The world is one giant deathtrap for your lost, wandering soul. Every area you explore is packed full of ingenious ways to both actively and passively kill you. Yet despite this, the game never takes advantage of the player. The engine doesn't cheat or fudge physics to give the house an edge. Enemies don't spawn behind you; they telegraph their attacks and follow recognizable routines. Traps have visible cues and there are always means to avoid them. When you die—and you will die, often—the first impulse is to blame yourself for missing what was in retrospect an obvious clue, such as scorched stone, a blood splatter or strange noises.
Herein lies the most sublime appeal of Dark Souls. As your character dies, you the playergrow stronger and smarter. You are informed by the nature of your various fates and you begin to notice details, mastering the intricate movement and fighting controls as you persevere. This makes every conquest and discovery an actual achievement and the larger battles particularly satisfying. No one is holding your hand, and the experience is constructed such that the player enters the narrative along the character. Clever stuff.
Less clever are the camera control problems –distance and auto follow both need work to reduce occasional frustrations with poor situational awareness. I never found the camera where I wanted it to be without manual adjustments, and in such a real-time, deadly environment that's a liability.
As Dark Souls is a direct console port, there are some technical issues worth mentioning. The internal renderer is locked to 1024x720, the frame rate is capped at 30 FPS and mouse support is dodgy. Keyboard use is supported but a gamepad is highly recommended. System requirements are also fairly steep; forget playing on a non-gaming laptop or with integrated graphics. Framerates dipped into the teens with regularity on my AMD A10 test laptop system. You'll need a midrange gaming rig or better to get the most out of the experience, and the quality of your videocard will be the primary deciding factor.
Namco Bandai has been upfront about its inexperience coding for Windows, an admission that was a breath of fresh air in its honesty. Patches from the modding community have stepped in to help, providing a fix to the internal rendering limitations just half an hour after the game's release and a 60 FPS patch more recently. As a thoughtful gesture, the developers have included new game content that won't make it over to the console versions for several months, giving the PC version some exclusivity for a time.
In all, it's not a bad effort for a first shot on Windows, and credit is due to Namco Bandai for delivering Dark Souls on time and in better trim than expected. The PC version is in fact the best variant of the game out there currently. Snap this one up and send the right message to the developers so we get a sequel developed from the ground up with the PC in mind.
Note: The "Try it for free" button on the Product Information page takes you to the vendor's site, where you can download the latest version of the software.