When Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition initially hit the PC in 2012, it was met with mixed reaction. It was great that From Software was bringing their most challenging property to arguably the most hardcore audience out there, but at the same time, they struggled with the transition. It had everything we loved from the game, but it just wasn’t up to PC standards, having dedicated fans fix it hours after release. The Japanese developer seems to know what they’re doing now as their second crack at the platform has gone swimmingly, offering higher resolutions, a higher frame rate, and a bevy of graphical enhancements. The extra month of development time seems to have been worth the wait as, while not perfect, this is the most complete and decisive version to get.
Dark Souls II is the story about an unnamed undead character trying to find a cure for their curse. To accomplish this, they’ll have to journey through hard and unforgiving lands to arrive at a kingdom known as Drangleic, a refuge for the undead that can help maintain their humanity. Of course, this is Dark Souls, so that’s about as much story as the average player will grasp. The tale as a whole is quite convoluted at surface level, filled with unexplained characters and cutscenes that seem to be focused on creating a spooky atmosphere. None of that really matters, however, as Dark Souls remains a game focused squarely on its gameplay, something it delivers in spades.
Upon beginning, players can choose from nine different classes including Warrior, Cleric, Sorcerer, Deprived and Swordsman. Choosing any one class won’t limit which weapons and abilities can be used, but tailors the stats to the strengths of the class. For instance, you wouldn’t want to choose the Cleric and then become a tank, as the strength and endurance will start markedly lower. Swordsman makes its debut here and enables the use of dual-wielding weapons. Being able to slice and dice enemies with two swords is rewarding, but be warned that this class is not for a beginner. Without a shield and the ability to parry, all but the very best of players will be decimated by even the easiest enemies. As such, newcomers should probably go with the Warrior or Knight and circle back to the Swordsman or other classes when they become more experienced.
Of course, the most interesting thing about Dark Souls is how all of it is presented. Instead of having linear progression where the character goes through increasingly difficult levels, but is rewarded with new skills or abilities, the option is given for how exactly they advance. At any one time, there’s usually two or three possible routes to take. Some lead to new areas while others lead to a boss. It’s impossible to know how hard the area is until attempting it, leading to frequent trial and error. Players are never directed where to go and, besides one of the most basic tutorials (if you can even call it that) ever in a game of this size, will have to figure out everything on their own. Character progression happens via souls which are dropped from enemies. Upon collecting a certain amount of souls, various abilities can be leveled up. In previous games, this was done through using bonfires, which also restore health. While bonfires remain, there is now a woman named Emerald Herald who handles leveling up. This makes more sense than before (how could throwing souls into a fire level you up?) and adds a bit of intrigue; just be prepared to mash start whenever a conversation with her is initiated, however, as she recites the same thirty second speech every time.
Let’s get down to the meat and potatoes of Dark Souls II: how devastatingly difficult it is. As previously mentioned, little — if any — direction is given for how it should be played. Directors Tomohiro Shibuya and Yui Tanimura said they would add a tutorial and more instructions, but apparently all that meant was placing five headstones in the beginning that display basic button commands before setting you off into the world to figure everything else out yourself. The game can be finished, but how exactly that happens is entirely up to the player. Some will blaze past bosses while others will have to spend twenty hours grinding before being able to topple the first one they reach. Of course, the basic gameplay concept of punishing deaths remains. Instead of spawning at the last save upon dying, players will keep their current “progress” and spawn at the last bonfire they reached. The kicker? All souls (which are the main source of experience and currency) are lost unless you find your corpse, all enemies respawn and your health decreases. In fact, health will continually decrease every time you die (new to Dark Souls and a variant on a similar mechanic seen in Demon Souls), essentially making the game harder when you’re failing. Yes, it’s just that brutal.
In fact, the game is more brutal than ever before thanks to a few new hellish additions. The first is that players only begin with one Estus Flask, which are filled by kneeling at bonfires and restore health upon use. In the last game, players began with five. As you can imagine, this makes things infinitely more challenging. Lifegems are added to take the place of flasks — ten of which can be held at once — and can be consumed quicker but regenerate health slower. While at first this might seem preferable to flasks, each gem costs 300 souls, making players choose if they’d rather survive, buy items or level-up. More still, items now don’t replenish from merchants. This can be devastating for those who already purchased all of the life gems in the area and are about to face a boss. Finally, enemies stop respawning after killing them a certain amount of times, preventing grinding which in turn prevents leveling-up, forcing players the next boss to eventually be faced at a locked level.
Gamers who are expecting the PC edition of Dark Souls II to look its pre-release footage will be sad to know that isn’t not the case. The lighting system found in the PC version is virtually identical to what’s on PS3 and Xbox 360. Even some of the character shadowing, as much as they have been enhanced, is still rendered at a lower resolution than some would come to expect. It’s odd because there’s no consistency of dynamic lighting, with some casting shadows while others are flat. Additionally, when enemies move at a distance, their animation cycles are still rendered at a lower, choppy frame rate. With that said, this is still the version to play as the game runs at a silky smooth 60 frames per second and can render upwards of 1440p. The textures are significantly sharper and you can make out finer details on the screen such as the durability bar below weapons, something I didn’t even know existed.
Most importantly, this game is dark. Playing through the console versions, we noticed that the darkness was not necessarily all that black, even when turning down the brightness. It had a weaker contrast to it that really made the world look less imposing. That’s the complete opposite this time around as lighting the way with a torch will be essential to your survival at times. In certain areas players won’t be able to see five feet in front of them, let alone what’s in the room with them. It’s something the PC version has been able to capitalize on perfectly, creating a more immersive and atmospheric setting.
From Software learned their lesson with the lackluster port of Dark Souls as its sequel now features a bevy of new graphical enhancements outside of the bolstered resolution and frame rate. Players will have control over texture quality, shadow quality, anisotropic filtering, SSAO and so much more. Better yet, if you want to play the game in a windowed mode, the option readily available and, at least on our setup of 2560×1440, there are ten different resolution to choose from. Dark Souls II still doesn’t look amazing as the world can look a bit flat, but these graphical settings really help display the more detailed parts.
Because the mechanics are a little more complicated than your typical third person action game, Dark Souls II requires a difficult control scheme to wrap your head around. By default, the controls can be confusing as it requires plenty of button combinations, holding down alt, ctrl and shift as much as you would in something like Autodesk Maya. Thankfully, the game supports two key features: controllers and key mapping. If you aren’t pleased with the default control scheme, players are encouraged to modify it to their liking, or better yet, grab a secondary gamepad lying around. It’s not that the initial setup is bad but it’s just serviceable and will lead to more deaths than successes.
If you decided to wait for the PC version of Dark Souls II before jumping in, you’ve made the right decision. It’s not leaps and bounds better than its console counterpart, but the graphical enhancements aid the immersion. When walking through the darkness, you’ll barely be able to see what’s in front of you and just the subtle nuances the higher resolution and textures allows us to better see, all accumulate to the definitive experience. It’s a significantly better attempt than From Software’s first PC port, but there definitely are some things that need to be worked out. Regardless, Dark Souls II may not be for everyone, but it remains a stunning accomplishment and one of the purest experiences in the medium.
Version Reviewed: PC