The dance of death.

There’s a certain undeniable finality about this statement plastered across my screen. Yes, I died. Again.

This tends to happen quite often in Lordran, the land of the gods. In a time convoluted, heroes from centuries past phase in and out of existence, their phantoms thrashing in the last throes of defeat. The undead legion and their demon masters now rule this ruined land, and from its depths you arise as a walking corpse clutching a broken blade.

You are afflicted with ‘Darksign’, a brand of the accursed undead that leaves your body shrivelled and hollow. After escaping the screams of a freakish asylum you are thrust into the world of Lordran with undead armies, hideous beasts and towering demons all out to kill you, over and over and over.

I wasn’t privy to the Dark Souls phenomenon when it arrived on consoles last year, but I did get excited after hearing about the upcoming PC port. Word had spread of this unbelievably difficult dungeon crawler that tested player skills, patience and determination. If there’s something I’ve come to appreciate about video games lately it’s that with bigger challenges come bigger rewards. Difficulty spurs a competitive nature within ourselves, one that yearns to train our dexterity of the controls. The all important gamepad is essential to execute your moves effectively, don’t bother with the keyboard and mouse.

Three guesses as to what’s about to happen next.

Clue’s In The Name

The headlines are true, Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition is the hardest game you will play this year. Every enemy in Lordran has the ability to dispatch you back from whence you came with cunning poise. Combat requires the same level of focus whether its your fourth time decapitating that undead henchmen or you fortieth time – lose concentration just for just a second and you will die. Mastering your weapons of choice is key, being cognisant of it’s range with different attacks and the timing needed to counter.

Your shield is your best friend – don’t be walking into an unexplored dark room without it firmly raised – lest a trap trigger or monsters descend in ambush. The shield blocks direct attacks, some shields can be used as a weapon and some can parry to expose your adversary to the ever-satisfying critical strike. Each move saps your green endurance meter, including blocking the heavy attacks from those towering demons. When your endurance is depleted your shield will no longer hold up, encouraging combat finesse rather than all out tanking.

There is an identifiable authenticity about the gameplay in Dark Souls. Attack with greater ferocity and you get tired quicker, miss your mark and it throws you off balance leaving you open to swift counter attacks. Running at your opponent as you strike causes more damage and turtling under your shield will only let you survive so long. You can wield an enormous two-handed sword beyond your level, but your avatar almost falls over attempting to swing it.

Fill in the blanks. Quickly get to your feet, or you might just BLANK.

It’s these little details (coupled with the unrelenting difficulty) that I found the most alluring about Dark Souls. Never before have I had such hyper-awareness of close proximity combat, and fear of dying, in an action RPG. This game cares not about the fact that you are here to save the world – it will simply put you in your place by killing you, time and time again. The challenging nature of the game can be overcome with patient observation, careful strategy and wise choice. Are you sure you want to drop into that water hazard with several giant semi-submerged sewer rats? Maybe take the long route around, lure them up the stairs and skewer them with your trusty halberd one by one. Risk cannot be taken lightly, lest you die.

Meet Your Maker

In Dark Souls death comes frequently. But the severity of your death depends on how many souls you are carrying. The game’s currency and XP are both measured in said souls, acquired from vanquishing your undead foes. When you rest at the bonfires you will recharge your health, fill up your healing flask and you may spend souls to level up. Humanity is another form of currency which can be used to kindle the bonfires (giving more heals per recharge) and to regain human form, boosting your character’s stats.

When you die – and you will – your souls and humanity can be retrieved, providing you don’t get shanked along the way by all those newly restored enemies. Dying isn’t always the end of the world, but dying twice in a row without retrieval means you miss out on all those souls and humanity that can make your avatar stronger and better equipped. Prepare to expend a lot of profanity as you lose all those souls.

Great. It’s grabbed your sword. YOU’RE GOING TO DIE.

They Call Me Darkness

Another characteristic of Dark Souls is being thrown into the proverbial deep end. From the start there are no tutorials, no maps and the NPCs give no real indication of where to go or what to do. You are, however, thrown the occasional bone in the form of chalk markings on the ground. Other online players can leave clues and warnings (as can you) in order to find helpful loot, avoid the aforementioned traps and ambushes and reveal the Achilles heel of upcoming bosses.

Other online players can leave clues and warnings (as can you) in order to find helpful loot, avoid the aforementioned traps and ambushes and reveal the Achilles heel of upcoming bosses.

Cooperative play is possible by summoning other players or being summoned yourself, but the ability to merge worlds is two-fold – those same players can invade your world when you are in human form and kill you, taking all your hard-earned souls. These battles are always exhilarating with so much more than pride on the line. The lesson? Don’t get caught in the open with too many souls in your belt. Repelling an invader and harvesting their souls however, is one of the highlights of this game. Such blissful productivity.

The graphic presentation of From Software’s PC port of Dark Souls was initially reported as being quite shoddy with an underwhelming resolution locked at 1024×720. Luckily a mod was quickly whipped up by a community member which took care of the muddy resolution, but there is still no control over vertical sync which leads to obvious screen tearing. Not quite enough to affect the overall game experience, but enough to briefly eject you out of the desired RPG immersion. That said, the open-air environment scenes of Dark Souls seem as natural as they are fantastical. The occasional markings labelled “gorgeous view” prompted me to take second and swing the camera around to take in all the scenery. And yes, it was gorgeous -every time. There were a few times when the rag doll mechanic of the corpses got glitchy but nothing you couldn’t shake off.

Combat sound effects could not have been much more realistic – a satisfying puncture-squish as you bypass your opponent’s shield with the pointy end of your halberd or a frustrating whumpf as your swing misses and strikes nothing but air. Music during the boss battles matched the intensity of the fight in the form of climactic operatic scores, which will become all the more familiar in the  epic battles that lay ahead.

A review code of Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition was provided courtesy of Namco Bandai Games. The game was reviewed on PC.

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