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Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition Review

The audacity of hope.

Invading in Dark Souls is an art, and I practice it like a gentleman. You have to pick your spot: somewhere you're unlikely to be bothered by the victim summoning friends, somewhere with a touch of the unexpected. Somewhere, like the Duke's Archives, with a bit of class.

If the victim is fighting enemies, let them finish. Nothing's worse than an invader that goes for cheap shots. No respect. When they see you, all red, magnificent, deadly - and this is the important bit - stop to look them right in the eye, then bow. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy duelling style.

This is one of the games I play in Dark Souls, and there are many more. Waiting outside of a boss chamber for Summon signs to appear, there's corpse football. New Londo Ruins is great for this: loosely booting the bodies of dead enemies back and forth, piling up as many as possible near an edge, then sending them all tumbling down at once. Sometimes you meet like-minded souls and spend ages lining up your avatars so they Praise The Sun at the same moment, then prance in unison to celebrate. Sometimes you'll spend half an hour in a room sprinkling Prism Stones just to watch the world glow.

Dark Souls is not the game it is often presented as, though of course that's a part of it. Yes it is a difficult game, to begin with, and that never quite disappears. And yes, even hoary old pros have moments of hair-tearing frustration, stupid missteps that lead to unnecessary deaths, followed by a spectacular roll off the side of a bridge when returning to collect a bloodstain containing 10 Humanity.

But people spend so long talking about the barriers to entry that, I find, they never quite get on to why this is one of the best games ever made.

Jolly co-operation is how you beat harder bosses, and you find wonderful folk like Elekidz here - who, after we died in an earlier attempt, sent a message saying 'I BELIEVE IN YOU!' then waited around to be re-summoned. What a guy.

There is a great moment in Dark Souls, quite a way in, when you see the city of Anor Londo for the first time. Having defeated a huge golem boss, your character is unceremoniously lifted into the air by two gargoyles and carried up, and up, facing a wall that has loomed over the entire world until that point. Finally you crest it, and Anor Londo spreads out below, its elegant architecture speaking of a race of giants, its bright whites and oranges the antithesis of the ruined and gloomy locales you have fought through to reach this point.

It is a visionary creation, holding more secrets than you may ever know, and in that moment it looks like paradise. That sight and what follows it - countless hours of blood and tears in the making, with many more to come - is Dark Souls writ large.

The title of the 'Prepare To Die' edition plays up what the game's known for, of course, and this expanded version is the result of PC gamers clamouring to have a game like this on their systems. There is much that has been complained about: the locked resolution is one example, which has almost instantly been unlocked by an enterprising neogaffer. Other demands, while desirable, are not realistic, because they would have required From Software rebuilding the game entirely.

In general, the arguments are wearying and all that needs to be said is this: Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition does not come with the technical options you would expect from a well-engineered PC game, because it's a port of a console game, and that's all From Software ever promised to deliver. Anyone who passes up Dark Souls for this reason is cutting off their nose to spite their neckbeard of a face.

Invading with a bow is funny, because most people don't know what to do in response. Some will just start attacking you, hardly in the spirit of things but fair enough.

Prepare to Die Edition does make changes to the original, many of which are so subtle they'll only be of interest to veterans. I'm personally delighted that players using heavy armour can no longer use a particular ring that allowed them to do backflips, but such tweaks are the preserve of those who have already been swallowed by the game. For new players wondering if Dark Souls really is all that and a bag of chips, the answer is yes, and the reason is simple. This is one of the few games that treats you like an intelligent being.

The vast majority of console games these days are stripped of complexity, made to cater to the lowest common denominator. Even games you can love for other reasons, like the Assassin's Creed series, take control out of the hands of the player and place as many of their systems as possible on autopilot. Think about what that game demands of you: holding a button for the right length of time. All effect, no cause. Dark Souls does not condescend to its players in this manner. Its combat system is built around precision and responsiveness, its enemies are worthy of individual respect, and treating almost any part of its world casually is a sure route to failure.

This is why it has one hell of a learning curve. Every weapon in Dark Souls has its own move-set, but this doesn't mean they have different swinging animations: between a rapier and a shortsword there is a gulf in fighting style, two unique approaches that never cross over. Learning how you like to fight is one of its pleasures. (If you're new to the game, may I recommend a spear, which allows for well-defended aggression.) Mastering a technique is a question of learning its subtleties of situation and timing rather than a button combination. And when you finally pull it off against a mighty boss - or, even better, another player - there's no feeling of accomplishment quite like it.

The demands Dark Souls makes of its players are not simply mechanical, however, but mental. Take its approach to story. I was once explaining the role that your character may play in Dark Souls' world to someone, and he said: "So you're the bad guy then?" No, not really. Well, you could be. You might be the good guy as well. But it's the wrong question, because nothing really works like that. There are things you can know for definite, but even then there are no absolutes in Lordran - only details and your own interpretation of them. Beyond a certain point, everything depends on you.

It is worth asking why Dark Souls deserves such investment. For me, it's because this is an experience where you peel back layers to reveal more layers, a game where the mechanics are also the metaphors, and its thinking drills down to the basement.

Take the idea of death, such a lazily recycled trope that the best most modern games can do is give you infinite lives. Here it is the fulcrum, part of the journey rather than a fail state. You are supposed to die, because that is how you learn to do things differently, and misinterpreting this as sadism is why the Souls games have the reputation they do. The 'curse' of immortality further ties into the lore, and your role, but this isn't the place to tease that out. Suffice to say that, in a game where you die so often, it means much more than some abstract number ticking down. It is a part of the experience, rather than the moment it resets.

The visual imagination of Dark Souls' world is one of its unfolding delights - there's never been a 'fantasy' place quite like this, or quite as well-engineered in the way it inhabits 3D space.

Everything has another meaning. After years of playing Demon's Souls and Dark Souls, something that should have been obvious hit me with the force of a freight train. The currency is souls, acquired after defeating enemies or looted from various corpses. I'd never really thought about it much. Then I realised they were those who had given up.

You collect the souls of those who have either surrendered their humanity through a ceaseless cycle of death and rebirth and 'hollowed' into mindless aggression, and you loot the souls of those who wanted to be heroes. In a game that depends on your courage, your willingness to try again, your capacity to learn and come back stronger, you absorb the spirits of those who have failed to do exactly that. Obvious, when you think about it. And a hell of a long way to have come from power pills and golden coins.

This edition can be considered a director's cut, adding significant new content in the form of a huge area with several new bosses, and a multiplayer arena. Both can only be accessed after a significant chunk of the original game's content has been cleared - and even then will take some finding. That's Dark Souls. And is it ever worth it.

Certain sections of this new area are re-skins and reversals of old environments, re-invigorated by the new enemy types and environmental features. The best aspects are the bosses: wonderful new monsters and warped heroes that flow from unexplored aspects of the mythology and stand comparison with the finest moments of the original. This content is clearly designed with experienced players in mind and holds nothing back, even locking away the new player-versus-player arena behind a devilishly tough figure that means everything to serious knights of the realm.

Dragonslayer Ornstein and Executioner Smough is my personal favourite boss fight ever, a terrible twosome that inspire a little gulp of fear every time you traverse the white light.

As for that PVP arena, it's one of the reasons Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition is not getting the top mark that, were everything in order, it most certainly deserves. It breaks my heart to say so, but it doesn't work. I've spent hours standing atop the trapdoors that are supposed to begin fights and haven't managed one yet. This extremely poor matchmaking goes hand-in-hand with an online infrastructure that simply doesn't do what it should.

I absolutely adore Invasions and Summons, and my best Dark Souls experiences invariably involve other players. But all too often the concept of its online multiplayer - which is as sublime as the rest of the game - is let down by cack-handed implementation.

For every successful Summon you'll have 10 failed ones. For every time you manage to Invade, there'll be another five when nothing happens. You kind of roll with it in the end, and barely notice, such is the love Dark Souls inspires. But you can't ignore the fact that hours of precious life is wasted waiting around because it doesn't work as it should, and the titans of From Software don't seem to give a damn about fixing it. I make this plea: if you are, or know of, a top-notch network engineer, please go and work at From Software. It needs you so bad, and so do we.

Is it a reason not to buy Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition? No. That would be like refusing to buy Ulysses because of errors in the typesetting. This is a game that delivers on the medium's true potential, a man-made world of near-endless depth and ingenuity that asks a lot of its players, but gives back so much more.

There are some few entertainment experiences that rise above mere amusement, and the world of Lordran is one of them: an endless feast to be chewed over and digested, each morsel swallowed with lip-smacking relish before returning eagerly for the next. It shows what games are capable of by making its players show what they are capable of. And that is much, much more than you might think.

Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition is out now for PC. It will be released on Xbox 360 and PS3 on 26th October, and the new content will be made available in a downloadable expansion, Artorias of the Abyss.

9 / 10