Since its debut on consoles last year, it's the parts unknown about Dark Souls' grim, ethereal world that have made it so compelling to explore and discuss. The decaying medieval castles, the foggy woodland acres and the webbed catacombs that form its underbelly are woven together by a network of pathways the mesmerising extent of which is only truly revealed by the end of the game. It remains an astonishing looker in places too - and a real challenge, in true series spirit, for those that have the mettle to play by its firm-but-fair rules.
So with the announcement of Dark Souls: Prepare To Die Edition for PC, series fans appear to have achieved a rare coup d'état in the name of online petitions, and the game's doors have finally opened up to a whole new audience. It offers the same core game seen on consoles, but also throws in brand new content in the form of areas, weapons and enemies to make up for the year-long delay. For those looking to play through these areas with their characters on PS3 or 360, they're scheduled for release via the "Artorias of the Abyss" DLC, though at an as-yet unannounced date. For the time being then, this new PC version will be the only way to experience this new content.
During our hands-on with this edition at Namco's offices, we're given free rein to explore any levels that comprise the main campaign and up to 15 minutes of the extra areas. The gut reaction is to start with the new stuff, which will be immediately accessible to players via a portal hidden on the perimeter of Ash Lake. Accessing this cues a short transitory cut-scene, and then you're thrown straight into an area filled with mossy temple ruins named Sanctuary Garden.
It's immediately apparent that From Software has lost neither its ability to realise some fantastical visual designs in-game, nor its token standard of difficulty. Within 60 seconds the crimson red "You Died" message fades in, yours truly having just rolled straight into a vicious barrage of head-butts from a now-airborne Chimera [Corrected]. For an experienced player, we're told the completion time for this extra area is around eight hours, and this opener serves as an appropriate wake-up call to those who've been out of the Dark Souls loop for a while. In fact, the strength of this creature suggests that you should have played at least halfway into the game before even attempting these extras. Even with the use of a level 63 Knight, it takes 16 more attempts before managing to scrape through - brutal!
It's a relief to see that every area that follows feels consistent with the rest of the game's brooding visual tone, and yet unique enough to warrant returning to Lordran. Later highlights include flowery woodlands filled with ragged scarecrow-like creatures, hell-bent on chasing after you with pitchforks until you find the safety of a stone bridge. The progression is exciting, too; it starts clear, bright, and beautiful, but the further you run, the foggier and more grossly luminescent the forest's details become. It's more of the same surreal goodness, and it manages to recapture the buzz of jumping into Dark Souls' initial 10 hours - whereas perhaps the latter half of the main game suffered in focus.
Conveniently, once a bonfire is reached within this new realm, an entry is added to the list of warp destinations in your menu as well, making life a bit easier. At its best, an area in Dark Souls can convince you that the world of Lordran was at one stage an inhabitable, lovely place to be, since horrifically overshadowed and twisted. This logic definitely holds true for the Sanctuary Garden and the following areas you will see. As belated as it is, this is a worthy encore.
But the extra content is only half the story of this PC release. In recent weeks, celebrations surrounding this version's announcement have fast turned to worried speculation over how the game performs. This has been spurred on by comments from series director Hidetaka Miyazaki suggesting that From Software's inexperience with the PC format might have an impact on how well the game's been optimised overall.
To cut to the chase, the frame-rate on consoles has always been a major area of complaint among Dark Souls fans, and the notorious Blight Town or New Londo Ruins areas are usually singled out as the big offenders. The implication of a PC release is obviously that all these problems can be tackled by the brute force of a faster CPU, and though there are very light hitches here and there, it's a relief to say Blight Town now plays without all the constant chugging. The improvement is staggering to those that endured the treacle-like pace of the area on PS3 and 360, already making this version a winning proposition.
There is bad news which could hit PC gamers pretty hit hard, though. While the frame-rate's rough edges have been filed down, you're still going to be playing at 30FPS out of the box, as widely rumoured. A graphics menu has been added in, but there are no obvious ways to raise the bar to the preferable 60FPS mark. In fact, options are pretty meagre overall on this front; you have the standard resolution and refresh rate settings (it does nothing to solve this), and also check-boxes to remove anti aliasing or motion blur. Barebones and to the point.
There's also something curious about the resolution too in that there's no change in clarity when attempting to crank up the settings. On close inspection, it appears that Dark Souls PC uses the very same 1024x720 internal framebuffer as the console versions, regardless of which resolution has been set in the menus. The option provided is for output resolution only; a simple courtesy to allow the game to play on most monitors, but the image quality will always remain the same. In short, PC gamers will very much be getting the genuine console experience here, right down to the pixel.
From Software has admitted in advance that there have been technical issues, but this is still quite surprising. This lower resolution doesn't bring out the fantastic visual design going into the game, where we'd hoped a PC version would take it to new heights. It's quite likely this will draw the ire of PC gamers expecting the premium experience. That is, until an official patch or heroic modder comes to the rescue.
This shouldn't detract from the merits of the extra content, of course, which does appear to be fresh and distinguished enough from what we've seen before to make it worthwhile for a fan of the series. Due to the smoother, if limited, frame-rate, the PC version is also looking to be the definitive way to play the game, especially for those planning to jump in for the first time on August 24th. It's worth mentioning that achievements are worked in via the Games for Windows Live service too, which will be bundled alongside all physical and digital copies of the game and used to launch it. Alas, there's no Steam-only version of this edition; in this case, the GFWL servers are being used to handle all the online elements of the game, such as the bloodstains, messages and PvP battles.
Come release, the real test of Dark Souls' success on PC will sadly not be based on the quality of its additional content, but how quickly either From Software or the modding community will react to fans' reactions to these restrictions. Hopefully it will be speedy; considering the developer has only released two games before on PC, this represents its best chance to make a big commercial splash and get a firm foothold on the platform for future games.