Last year, Dark Souls was released on consoles. A towering achievement, its treacherous, interconnected realms offered some of the most absorbing exploration a game has ever conjured, and its intense and grueling combat made victory against even the most common enemies a source of gratification and relief. Now, this masterpiece has made its way to PC as the aptly titled Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition. This version adds a few new areas, improves on the console versions in one sense, and falls a bit short of its console counterparts in another. But ultimately, this is the same incredible game that was released on consoles, and if you didn't have the option to play it then, you definitely shouldn't let this opportunity go unseized.
You are undead, struggling to fight your way through the realms of Lordran on a quest whose final purpose is anything but clear. Where many games burden you with plot and background lore, Dark Souls lets the places you go tell their own kind of story, one lost in time and shrouded in mystery. The stone ruins at Firelink Shrine, the overrun town known as the Undead Burg, the vast marble halls of Anor Londo--these all speak of a once-prosperous realm rich with history, and rather than spelling it out in detail, Dark Souls lets you wonder about what has dragged this land into its current state of miserable disrepair. Item descriptions and brief conversations with non-player characters occasionally illuminate the smallest aspects of Lordran's past, and over time, you may piece together a reasonably fleshed-out picture of the crisis that has befallen the land. But you needn't concern yourself with these details if they don't interest you. The wondrous realms of Lordran are sure to seduce you whether you care to know their history or not.
Darkroot Garden is so oppressively green that you can almost feel the air get warm and muggy around you. Running along the surreal shores of Ash Lake is like stepping into a dream. Locations like Anor Londo and the duke's archives fuse faded opulence with grand machinery in a way that's reminiscent of locations in the classic adventure game Myst, and like the realms of that game, these places have a way of staying in your head even when you're not playing. Terrific sound design is a huge factor in Dark Souls' ability to pull you in. Your steps echo convincingly in vast chambers. A heavy suit of armor clangs with every step you take. The strange noises a feared creature makes may send shivers up your spine before you even lay eyes on it.
From almost your earliest steps in this dangerous world, you're beset by enemies, and you quickly learn to never let your guard down. Even the most common and clumsy enemies you encounter have attacks that can make short work of you if you're not careful. Melee combat is straightforward; there are no elaborate combos to learn, and Dark Souls certainly doesn't need them. With the small assortment of attacks, blocks, parries, and evasive maneuvers at your disposal, the combat in Dark Souls becomes a deadly dance in which each of your strikes that hits its target is a small victory and each potentially devastating attack from an enemy that you narrowly evade offers a new lease on life. Just be aware that poorly implemented mouse and keyboard support makes playing the game that way much too unwieldy; the game demands a controller.
Each new area brings with it challenging new enemies, as varied and memorable in their designs as they are in their techniques. Huge knights slumber in a forest, slowly and menacingly getting to their feet when you draw near. In the painted world of Ariamis, foul abominations with repulsive toxic sacs around their heads threaten to poison you when you deliver the killing blow. And you won't soon forget the first time you're cursed by the big-eyed basilisks of the depths, as your body becomes covered in a crystalline growth and you freeze in a pained gesture as death takes you.
There's a wide variety of weapons to acquire and use, with each type offering a different fighting style. (Some swords are for swinging, and others are for thrusting, for example.) There's also a good assortment of weapon enhancement options. As you progress and collect crafting items, you find that you can have a blacksmith make your weapons more powerful, and eventually imbue them with effects like lightning or fire. Finding a better weapon or making your existing weapon more powerful isn't just a matter of added convenience; it can be the difference between survival and failure. And if you prefer to keep your distance from foes, bows and a diverse assortment of magic spells can be very effective, though you still need to frequently tangle with enemies in intense, close-quarters battles.
The stakes can be high as you venture through Dark Souls, making your determination to survive and persevere that much greater. As you vanquish enemies, you collect souls, which can be spent to level up your character, or to purchase items and services from the few blacksmiths and merchants eking out an existence in certain corners of the world. These souls are a precious commodity indeed, and should you fall in battle (and you will), your souls fall with you. However, all is not immediately lost. If, in your next life, you can make it back to the spot of your previous demise and touch your bloodstain, you regain the souls you had acquired. Perish again without recovering them, however, and they disappear forever. It's a crushing feeling to die, knowing that it means the permanent loss of a significant number of hard-earned souls, but it's precisely that danger that makes the struggle to stay alive so exciting.
In each realm of Dark Souls, there are bonfires that offer your only real sanctuary from the constant dangers you face. It's only at these locations that you can spend souls to level up, and when you perish, you restart from the last bonfire at which you rested. Because they serve as checkpoints on your journey, happening upon one can bring with it a tremendous sense of relief, since you know you won't need to overcome the dangers you faced to get here again. That feeling of relief is short-lived though, because you must soon press on into the unknown dangers that lie ahead.
The sense of trepidation that comes with forging on into unknown realms of Dark Souls doesn't subside after you've played the game for an hour or 10 or 20. It is a sustained feeling that arises out of the fact that you rarely know what lies around the next corner, or if you do, you haven't yet managed to overcome the challenges that await you there. That feeling of dread finds tremendous release in those moments when you finally conquer the boss of an area, and in the discoveries of the many shortcuts that link Lordran's realms in often surprising ways and give you the liberty to bypass long stretches you've conquered at least once.
In fact, few games offer a sense of exploration and discovery as rich and rewarding as that of Dark Souls . There is no hand-holding here, no NPC companion or helpful sign telling you which way to go next. Your discoveries are yours alone, and that makes them all the more gratifying. That's not to say that there is no assistance available for the wandering warrior, though. Players can scrawl messages on the ground that serve as clues or warnings to other players. It's a wonderful system that serves to remind you, as do the fleeting, ghostly glimpses you occasionally catch of other adventurers fighting their own battles, that although you are solitary, you aren't alone in your struggles.
Dark Souls is a shared experience in which each player must mostly fight his or her own battles. However, you can call on assistance in moments of need. Players can leave summon signs, and you can summon one or two of these players to your world to help you take on the boss of an area. (You can also leave your own summon sign, offering your assistance to other players.) These connections are fleeting--win or lose against the boss, players are promptly returned to their own worlds--but the impact they have on your journey can be tremendous. Not all connections with other players are benevolent, though. Under certain circumstances, other players can invade your world with the intention of seeking you out and defeating you. It's terrifying to be deep into a dangerous realm and get the notification that your world has been invaded. It's just another example of the ways in which Dark Souls keeps you constantly alert and a little afraid.
Unfortunately, summoning and invading are somewhat spottier on the PC than they were on consoles. When attempting to summon other players to your world, you may more often than not get a "Summoning Failed" message. Additionally, the PC version is locked by default at a resolution of 1024x720, though a user-created mod is available that resolves this issue. However, the PC version improves on its console counterparts in terms of performance; where the console versions suffer from severe frame rate drops in the area known as Blighttown, the PC version does not.
Most noteworthy in the Prepare to Die Edition is the added content, called Artorias of the Abyss. This content adds new areas that take you back into Lordran's past and find you going toe-to-toe with figures who loom large in Dark Souls' lore. Like many things about Dark Souls, the way in which you access Artorias of the Abyss is shrouded in mystery, and unless you investigate the world thoroughly and pay close attention to item descriptions (or just look up the instructions online), you might miss it.
That would be a shame, as the content thoroughly holds its own when added to the existing game. The bright forests of the Royal Wood offer an intriguing glimpse at the Lordran that once was, and the enemies who populate this land are as memorable as the rest of Dark Souls' fantastic stable of adversaries. Particularly excellent is a battle with the knight Artorias, a fearsome foe even by the standards of Dark Souls' challenging bosses. His appearance tells its own story; his armor drips with a purple substance that suggests the corruption that has befallen the once-noble knight, while his left arm hangs from him uselessly, a dead thing. He is frighteningly agile and powerful, and vanquishing him is one of the sweetest victories to be had in a game full of rewarding challenges.
Also in this new realm is the Battle of Stoicism, an arena for player-vs.-player battles. Here, you can partake in one-on-one, two-on-two, or four-player deathmatch battles with nothing at stake but leaderboard glory. Sadly, a number of issues make the arena a frustrating place. It's not unusual to have to wait several minutes or more to be matched with an opponent. (This is assuming you're playing the one-on-one battles, which are much more heavily populated than the other types.) Once you are paired up with a foe and dropped into the arena to see which of you can defeat the other the most times in a three-minute period, you can expect lag to plague your battle, as your opponent hops around the screen without animating properly and you sometimes take damage despite the fact that your opponent didn't appear to hit you. The arena's presence doesn't harm the overall game since it's entirely optional, but it doesn't bring much to it, either.
Despite this minor disappointment, Dark Souls remains one of the greatest games of recent years. There's so much to do and to discover in its beautiful and frightening world. You might encounter and join one of nine covenants, each with its own benefits and agendas. You might find that one NPC has murdered another and that you can invade the killer's world as a spirit of vengeance. The genius of Dark Souls isn't just in its environments, or its monsters, its thrilling combat, or the unusual and exciting ways in which players are connected. It's in the uncompromising way it throws conventional wisdom to the wind, dropping you into its dangerous world without guidance, making you fend for yourself, and teaching you to shrug off defeat time and time again to finally earn victory. That this vast and unforgettable masterpiece is now only $40 makes the decision to play it even easier.