Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition is, at its very core, an act of fan service. From Software and Namco Bandai couldn't ignore the 100,000-strong petition to get the game ported to PC, yet it's been clear all along that the project has required the developers to step well outside their comfort zone.
Not content to phone it in, though, the PC-agnostic studio has spent these last months creating a wealth of additional content that expands the game's sparse, but poignant lore and explores the backgrounds of semi-familiar characters like Artorias of the Abyss and Dusk of Oolacile.
Brand Manager Brandon Zien walked me through an hour's worth of this new content, which takes place about halfway through Dark Souls' campaign and sends our undead protagonist hurtling into a portal and backward through time.
Dark Souls' signature difficulty is intact throughout the new content, and constantly weighing the risks of every button press still provides a thrill that no other game can replicate. Its haunting and often ambiguous storytelling remains consistent, though fans will be happy to learn more about locations like the great, black Abyss.
With the Sanctuary Guardian finally put down, I proceeded into the Oolacile Sanctuary, the home of Dusk and the first narrative link back to the main story. An NPC named Elizabeth -- a large talking mushroom growing out of the wall -- informed me that Princess Dusk, who I already rescued once in the main game, is again playing the damsel. This time, Dusk has followed the Knight Artorias -- a figure out of legend in Dark Souls' canon -- into the great Abyss, which threatens to swallow them both.
After navigating through a large, forested area (filled with new monsters like the gangly, gardening Wooden Scarecrows and hulking, formidable Stone Knights), I learned firsthand that it was too late to save Artorias.
The great Knight is a fearsome foe, even by Dark Souls' standards. The sweeping swings of his fabled greatsword (previously obtainable through clever upgrading) possess incredible range, and he executes them with startling unpredictability. Radiating waves of the Abyss's dark energy, he flies across the round arena and flips through the air to come crashing down sometimes once, sometimes two or three times in a row, defying my attempts to discern a pattern in his attacks.
I loathe to admit it, but it took some divine intervention from Zien to defeat the great warrior and make it into the next area, the Oolacile Township. Even in the distant past, Lordran is a decrepit ruin on the cusp of natural reclamation, and the Township is no exception. But it's here that players will find what might be the most important addition in Prepare to Die: the matchmaking arena.
"The Gazebo," as it were, features a number of off-color bonfires that will transport you to "The Dais" to fight in rounds of 1v1, 2v2 and four-person free-for-all deathmatch. The Dais features a cross-section of pathways that intersect at a choke point in the middle, with enough room to maneuver (though not quite enough to waste much time playing cat-and-mouse).
Accessibility not generally being at the top of director Hidetaka Miyazaki's priorities, this new addition proves beyond all doubt that the studio's been listening to fans. It's even got an in-game leaderboard in the form of a "Slate of Legends," just waiting for your name to be etched into history.
As caught up as I was in Prepare to Die's new story and features, I almost forgot that most potential PC players are more concerned with the game's optimization -- or, they fear, lack thereof -- on their preferred platform. That concern is valid; Namco Bandai's Nobu Taguchi told me at E3 this year that Prepare to Die is essentially a "direct port."
But truth be told, the game ran beautifully during my demo, and the machine I was playing on -- an HP laptop with a 2.2 i7 processor -- wasn't exactly a powerhouse. Even better, Zien assured me that Dark Souls will in fact run "much better" on PC than it does on consoles, promising that the atrocious framerate issues found in problem areas like Blighttown have been corrected.
That's great news, of course, but even if his assessment turns out accurate, PC players will certainly bemoan the new edition's reliance on Games for Windows Live and its lack of UI optimization (the menus remain identical to their console counterparts, and From Software still recommends you play with a controller). I tested the mouse-and-keyboard controls out briefly, and they seem functional, though I quickly switched back to using the Xbox 360 controller.
I got to experience only part of the new content, but what I did see left me confident that fans will be pleased, if not exactly blown away. The Royal Wood that lies between the Oolacile Sanctuary and the battle with Artorias too closely resembles the main game's Darkroot Forest area, but its dozens of foes nevertheless provides a delectable challenge. And its fields of orange and yellow poppy flowers and warm-hued, dusky aesthetic differentiate it sufficiently enough from existing areas.
In true Dark Souls fashion, falling to Artorias will necessitate repeated traversals of the Wood, as the nearest bonfire is a lengthy trek away. But the unfamiliar enemies that I fought, despite superficial resemblances to existing ones, pack a wallop with new and unpredictable attacks, making the journey challenging, at least.
Even From Software's now-overused trope of scripting fierce dragons to make surprise landings on bridges just as you attempt to cross them hasn't lost most of its impact. And new NPCs, like a giant, depressed, blind blacksmith (no doubt distant kin to his main-game counterpart in Anor Londo) situated behind a locked door in the Township area, possess the cryptic and introverted air that makes Lordran's denizens so intriguing.