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At its core, Dark Souls is about loss. True, your victories may feel much more rewarding than in other games, but that's only because the world of Lordran doesn't shy away from trying to pull you down every chance it can. Even after putting roughly 200 hours into From Software's greatest creation, none of its devious bosses, treacherous territory or gauntlets of pain could prepare me for what would soon become one of the most evil (and undocumented) enemies I've ever faced in an RPG. Like all of Dark Souls' homicidal denizens, these creatures want your life, but they end up taking so much more.
I'll leave you hanging to provide a little context: thanks to an unprecedented amount of free time falling into my lap, I've been spending the past few months returning to Dark Souls, if only to go back in with some sense of purpose after my first shaky, mistake-laden playthrough. I decided to focus on sorcery, and quickly blow through the early sections of the game, only stopping to summon some help for the notorious Capra Demon -- a boss fight that can either go very well or very wrong. I'm invaded by another player -- not at all uncommon -- but after I take a few hits, I notice my max HP has dropped precipitously, and disgusting growths had burst from my character's head. Of course, I recognized these status effects, but knew they typically didn't show up so early; in fact, the latter condition can't be cured until much later. Assuming I'd somehow been ignorant of status effect-causing weapons, I retreat to an Internet message board in search of answers.
So yes, if you read the title of this post, the responses I received shouldn't be shocking: Dark Souls has been hacked to hell and back, and I would have to adapt my play style to work around certain anti-social behavior. But if I had to throw away a handful of hours to learn this important lesson, so be it. I'd simply wait until much later in the game to make myself susceptible to invasions; not an ideal solution, but a small price to pay for Dark Souls safety.
Let's fast-forward to a new character, 50 hours deep -- and if you're cringing, that's a very natural reaction to the story I'm about to tell. I'm making my way through the Artorias of the Abyss DLC section, teaming up with and taking down random players on my way. Delving deeper with a co-op buddy, we're invaded by a curious character who goes by the Games for Windows Live name FunTimeIsOver (whose motto is "Back up your saves!"); the invader takes a few swings at my partner, leaving me to wonder why he hasn't retaliated. I rush in, but my body goes stiff as the screen stutters around me. The screen fades to black, and I'm promptly teleported to the New Londo Ruins, where I proceed to fall through the earth for an eternity. Loading up my game again, I notice my character can barely lift her usual weapon, so I go to my status menu to investigate. And when I saw what had happened, my heart sank.
If you haven't played Dark Souls, it should be noted that stats are extremely important, and the experience system of the game has you fighting tooth and nail to slowly increase these attributes until the bitter end. So you can only guess how I felt when I saw the damage: my character's stats had been reduced to a stunning 25% of their former selves, leaving me wondering if I could even stand to look at one more second of Dark Souls.
Strangely enough, the PC version's susceptibility to modding has made it the superior version for anyone looking to get their Dark Souls on. Technically, Microsoft can ban you for running programs like DSiFix, but I've only been using it to access graphical options From Software should have provided in the first place. But this same permissiveness has also made Dark Souls on the PC damn near unplayable, as there's really no way to avoid hackers unless you completely opt out of the game's online features. And if you don't, I'm guessing the alternative involves keeping obsessive track of your stats while using cheat programs to boost the parameters that get hacked away -- all while hoping Microsoft doesn't decide to eventually drop the hammer on Dark Souls cheaters.
I'm hoping this post doesn't come off as naive, because I'm more than aware that cheating and hacking can happen in PC games. But a ruined match doesn't even come close to the magnitude of decimating a character you've spent dozens of hours fine-tuning. And for a game that runs through the burdensome Game for Windows Live, Dark Souls' transformation into a hackers' paradise feels especially troublesome -- isn't that XBox-like overlay at least supposed to provide the illusion of security? I did report my new best friend FunTimeIsOver via GFWL's castrated reporting system, but the info I provided through drop-down menus could only hint at the severity of the problem; checking in today, I see that he still hasn't been banned despite his stunning one-half star feedback rating. And I feel like this problem is only going to get worse, as cheat programs continue to grow more and more versatile.
What's especially troubling is that neither Namco-Bandai or Microsoft has risen to address the problem. Of course, Namco-Bandai didn't take issue with fans completely fixing their botched port within days of its release, but the abuse seen within Dark Souls only serves to make their Games for Windows Live service feel even more impotent. As of now, I can only find an Internet petition addressing the issue, so I'm not expecting to see my problems resolved any time soon. It'd be a shame if I couldn't jump back into the best version of one of my favorite games, but I'm at least hoping From Software takes these lessons to heart for the PC version of Dark Souls 2. Or at least find some way to punish those who have wronged me in excessively cruel and unusual ways -- if you ever get 50 hours stolen from your life, please let me know if you feel any different. Certain experiences really give you a taste for vengeance.