My sins must be heard: I have not finished Dark Souls. The task was simply too great. It’s my first time playing the game crowned by fellow IncGamers staff as the best of 2011, and the review code only unlocked late on Thursday. I’m writing this on Sunday. Even if I’d debased myself by perusing and abusing strategy guides, the chances of completing such a notoriously punishing title in roughly three days would’ve been slim. I mean, I do enjoy sleeping.
You’re here to find out whether this PC port is up to scratch though, aren’t you? Not to hear about my newb-ish traumas with Bell Tower Gargoyles and Darkroot Basin. Well, the short answer is Dark Souls is a bare-bones port. This brings with it a number of issues; some of which can be solved, others that may have been necessary and one or two that PC users are going to find particularly galling.
Let’s talk resolutions. Prior to release, rumour (and the odd interview with From staff) had it that the port would be locked at 720p. This turns out to be true. As a result, the highest resolution the native game will allow is 1280×720 which, on a monitor that can pump up to much higher numbers, will make the game look stretched out, jagged and pretty terrible. The only aspect ratio supported is 16:9, so if you’re rocking a 16:10 or something like a 4:3 monitor prepare for some letterboxing (black bands above and below your image).
Not good. But here’s some much better news. A splendid fellow going by the name of ‘Durante’ has put together a resolution fix that’ll allow you to utilise your monitor for its intended purpose and even force some anisotropic filtering. It’s simple to use, you just drop a couple of files into the Dark Souls folder and tweak a couple of .ini file values to suit your system (oh, and don’t forget to disable the in-game anti-aliasing too). If that all sounds like too much effort then I can only assume you’re new to PC gaming. Durante’s fix solves the majority of the resolution issues, though the image will still be restricted to 16:9.
This does prompt the question of whether a fix for resolutions above 1280×720 should have to come from an external source rather than the makers of the port itself, but I look at these things pretty pragmatically. Yes, From’s port should have catered for higher resolutions. The main point is that higher resolutions are now feasible.
Frame-rates are a trickier area. Dark Souls has a hard frame-rate cap of 30fps. Here in PC-land that’s a playable, but low, rate. People like to shoot for at least 60fps and many rigs are capable of much higher. The frame-rate in Dark Souls is unlikely to ever improve beyond 30 because, as I understand it, it’s somehow hard-coded to the character animations. In other words, unhooking the frame-rate could lead to some very weird in-game behaviour.
The upside here is that a lot of people are reporting a steady 30fps. That’s a marked improvement on the console versions of the title, which infamously chugged away at single-digit frame-rates in areas like Blightttown. PC players across the board are confirming that those problem areas are now a smooth 30fps (or, at least, improved) on their machines.
Others have not been so lucky. As the port is unoptimised for the PC, there’s no guarantee that your machine will manage a super-steady 30fps. People with lower-end machines than those with issues have said their frame-rates are fine. Others have noted that using Durante’s resolution fix actually increased their frame-rate (this is possibly related to an issue with higher-end graphics cards slipping into ‘low power’ mode during the game; making the card work harder at a steady rate prevents this and keeps the frame-rate up). I’ve noticed clear frame-rate dips myself, though nothing single-digit and nothing that’s severely hampered my ability to play.
Frame-rate ‘tolerance’ is a subjective thing, but just be aware that (for now at least) you may have to put up with some dips below 30fps.
Forget playing with mouse and keyboard. That might sound harsh, but Dark Souls was designed with controllers in mind and no amount of wishing is going to change that. Using a mouse and keyboard here is a bit like doing so with an Assassin’s Creed title; it’s possible, but few will recommend it. Add the fact that you can’t rebind attacks to (say) extra mouse buttons you may have, and a controller looks more and more like the only viable option. Don’t torment yourself any more than necessary.
Games for Windows Live will probably do its best to mess up your fun too, which is unfortunate but unavoidable. In fairness to the much-hated system, it seems to have functioned fine for me. Summoning buddies for jolly co-operation was a hit and miss affair, but my wider reading suggests this is a problem carried over from the consoles. Another case of being a straight port rather than a specific GfWL screw up (though I’ve seen others struggle to get any multiplayer functions working without first opening a bunch of additional router ports).
Speaking of online functions, there’s no real prevention of hacking or cheating so PvP (invading, in Dark Souls parlance) can be as much of a minefield as it was in the console releases. If you’re involving yourself with PvP, you will run into some filthy cheaters.
So why, after all that, am I going to slap a 10/10 on the end of this review?
It’s not for the quality of the port, obviously. I’d have loved Sleeping Dogs style PC graphics options, thoughtful translation of mouse and keyboard controls and an exorcism of GfWL, but even without these things the PC version of Dark Souls is still an improvement over its console counterparts by most measurable standards. Higher resolutions (thanks to an external mod), more consistent frame-rates across the board and a three month head-start on the forthcoming console DLC (whose bosses, as you’d expect, raise the difficulty bar even further). The port is rough, but it otherwise offers the same incredible experience.
Dark Souls is a game that pokes at our soft, flabby bellies and laughs at the way other titles have babied us with cheap gimmicks and easy rewards. It’s a game whose mechanics are the perfect reflection of its bleak, desolate world. You will suffer, you will learn and you will feel triumph after elated triumph when you succeed. The subversion of traditional RPG thinking (levelling up is nothing compared to good equipment, and skill trumps all), tremendous physicality of its combat and clever integration of co-op play are just a few highlights from a truly outstanding title.
Champions are always emulated. Aspects of From Software’s Souls games are already beginning to creep into other titles and be referenced in interviews for forthcoming releases, influencing the design choices of yet more developers. This, not niggles about monitor aspect ratios, will be the lasting legacy of one of this generation’s defining titles. Praise the sun.
Read our PS3 review of Dark Souls.