Editor’s Note: I have been obsessed with Dark Souls for the past month or so and am trying to figure out why. To that end, I’ve started two series on it–one that is about my experiences playing the game and one that is about how I feel about the game in general. There’s overlap, of course, but I felt that there’s also enough separation for two series. This is part one of the series about the gameplay. Part one of the other series is here.
The first time I started playing Dark Souls, I was prepared to die. Or so I thought. I knew it was a brutal game that didn’t give a shit whether you lived or died–in fact, it preferred it if you did the latter, thank you very much–and I thought I could handle it. I’d seen people play it, and I’d watched them die multiple times. I can do this, I told myself. I was so fucking wrong.
I started by creating my character. Dark Souls doesn’t really tell you anything about, well, anything, so I chose the pyromancy class solely because I like fire. I made my character female and old and fat like me. I chose Far East traveler as her race, and I made her look as much like me as possible. It wouldn’t matter because she wouldn’t be human for most of the game, but it made me happy to see her Asian face, so that’s all that really matters. I named her Mulan because that’s what I name most of my characters, and I was ready to play.
The game drops you into the Undead Asylum with nothing but a Broken Sword Hilt to defend yourself. If you go into the game not knowing anything about it, this area will kick your ass, even though it’s the tutorial. One thing you have to understand from the start is that FromSoftware (the developers, from now on referred to as FromSoft) doesn’t give a shit about you. They don’t bother telling you how to fight before they start throwing enemies at you, and if you don’t know that the glowing things are items you can pick up (from corpses, no less), you will miss out on your first shield and weapon right away. The different classes start with different weapons. Mine was a Hand Axe, and even to this day, I’m the most comfortable with axes.
One thing I have to mention–you cannot save in the traditional sense of the word in this game. Instead, you light bonfires in the different areas, and when you die (and you will die, I guarantee it), you return to the last bonfire you reached. You get souls every time you kill an enemy, and souls are what you use to level up and to buy things. If you die with souls on you, they are lost to you forever unless you return to the spot you died and retrieve them. It’s one of the most infuriating things about the game because you feel as if you lose so much progress every time you lose your souls, but it’s also one of the most brilliant things about the game as well because each death means something.
Back to the Undead Asylum. When I first picked up the Hand Axe and swung it, I was struck by how much it actually felt like swinging a weapon. Normally in games like this, you can hack and slash with ease, not worrying about how slowly you swing or how long it takes to recover. But, in Dark Souls, you have a stamina bar that depletes at an alarming rate, and once it’s down to nothing, you can’t do anything until it regens. Additionally, the weapons all handle differently. My Battle Axe takes forever to swing, but it does so much damage. A rapier, on the other hand, is very fast, but it does much less damage. The Black Knight Sword (that I got from killing a Black Knight, of course), does crazy amounts of damage, but takes FOREVER to swing. It is fun to watch the enemy fly backwards when I land a solid attack, though.
FromSoft also does things like have a boss that you shouldn’t fight the first time you see him, but doesn’t tell you that so you end up trying to fight him like an idiot. He wouldn’t be there if you weren’t supposed to fight him, right? Wrong. What you’re supposed to do–and either you eventually figure it out or you look it up on the wiki–is run by him and through a door to the left to escape his ponderous wrath. This is in the tutorial area, no less! As you move forward and breathe a sigh of relief, you encounter enemies who wreck your shit, and your relief vanishes in a poof.
Welcome to Dark Souls, bitch. I hope you enjoy your stay.
I made my way through the early game with a lot of difficulty. Some of it was because I was playing it on my laptop which meant dealing with lagging and crashes. In addition, it’s the first game I’ve played using a controller, so I had to get used to that as well. Most of it, though, was because the game is fucking hard. It doesn’t compromise an inch; it demands that you adjust to it and not vice-versa.I approached the Undead Parish with trepidation because I had heard of the Bell Gargoyles, and I was not looking forward to fighting them. But, I womanned up and traversed the white light* to meet my doom. I’ll never forget the sight of the Bell Gargoyle rising up and stomping towards me. I raised my axe and forged ahead. Here’s the thing. One Bell Gargoyle is bad enough, but when you get him down to half-health, there’s suddenly a spray of fire and, oh shit!, there’s a second one ready to rip you apart.
I can’t tell you how many times I died to these assholes. They brought me to the brink of despair as I fought them over and over again. I could deal with one, but two? Hell, no. Even when I popped a humanity** and summoned the Phantom Solaire (NPC) to help me, I couldn’t do it. The Bell Gargoyles were in my head when they weren’t outright killing me, and I had had enough. I had one humanity left so I told myself that if I didn’t beat the Bell Gargoyles on this try, I was done with the game. I popped the humanity, summoned the Phantom Solaire, and traversed the white fog one more fucking time. This time, however, everything came together, and we made short work of those assholes. I let out a stream of curses as I jubilantly pumped my fist in the air. I did it! I beat the Bell Gargoyles, my nemeses! I felt like a god as I rang the first Bell of Awakening, glorying as the sound poured forth over the land of Lordran.
As the elation faded, however, a feeling of dread came over me. Yes, I beat the Bell Gargoyles, but now I had to fight new enemies, and guaranteed, they were going to be worse. Dark Souls, man. I made my way through Lower Undead Burg and managed to kill the Capra Demon with little effort (known as one of the most frustrating bosses in the game), but I was still struggling as I approached the Gaping Dragon in The Depths. I will admit, I was worn out. I also beat the Moonlight Butterfly, an optional boss that I think is bullshit. I had put over forty hours into this game and wasn’t even a third done with it. Why was I still playing this game other than bragging rights to say that I’d done it? Again, I girded my loins and traversed the white fog.
A crocodile rose from the abyss, and hey, that didn’t look so–what the fuck is that??? A dragon the size of Godzilla towered over me–the crocodile-like thing was his NOSE (or upper lip. Or both), and I was momentarily nonplussed. I quickly pulled myself together and started hacking away with my Battle Axe. For whatever reason, this guy wasn’t that hard. Yes, I died to him a few times, but then, I got the hang of him and was whittling away at his ginormous amount of health. I was focused and in the zone, and I was two or three hits away from killing him. I peddled backwards, preparing to make my last surge. I’m going to kill that–what the fuck? I fell into an abyss, causing me to throw down the controller and scream, “Fuck this bullshit!” I was furious at what I felt was a dirty trick, and I quit playing the game for quite some time.
Fast-forward to over almost two years later. In that period of time, I played a few games that I never thought I could be any good at and managed to become competent after many hours. My brother built me a new powerful rig, and I was getting more comfortable with the controller. I hadn’t touched Dark Souls in all that time, but it never left my mind completely. I decided it was time. I was prepared to die, again.
Before I started, I installed the dsfix patch that made the game run at a steady 60 fps. It also made the game look a lot better than it had any right to look, and I was ready to go back to the Undead Asylum. I created my character to be almost an exact replica of my last character. I stuck with being a pyromancer, which meant using axes again. This time around, however, things were easier. The better computer and patch helped, but it was also the training I’d done from the last time I played coming back to me. I breezed through the Undead Asylum and Undead Burg like it was nothing. I also leveled up my Battle Axe and Pyromancy Flame religiously, which was something i neglected to do the first time around. I made it to the Undead Parish, ready to face my nemeses, the Bell Gargoyles. It had taken me about a third of the time it took last time to reach this point, and I felt much more confident to boot. Still, the Bell Gargoyles nearly broke me last time, and I was afraid to face them again. I knew I had to do it if I wanted to push forward, however, so I traversed the white fog and waited to meet my fate.
I watched the cutscene, which was still fucking impressive, and then stood ready as the first Bell Gargoyle rose up. What I noticed, however, was how fucking slow he was. Last time, it seemed like he was everywhere. This time, I was kiting around him easily, taking whacks at his ass like it was nothing. Even when the second Bell Gargoyle joined the fight, I wasn’t afraid. I kept doing what I needed to do, and even though I died, I knew I had these assholes. I did call on the Phantom Solaire to make the fight easier, but I got it done in no time at all. I wasn’t elated the way I had been the first time I beat them, but I was glad to see how much better I was at the game now. It gave me hope for the rest of the game.
I continued on. The Capra Demon was much harder this time, but he eventually went down. I also did some of the Darkroot Garden and beat the Moonlight Butterfly with little problem. The Depths were not much of a challenge, and in no time at all, I was back at the Gaping Dragon. This time, I was ready. I reminded myself that I had almost killed him before and that it was only that fucking abyss that did me in. I wasn’t nearly as cowed, and while I didn’t beat him the first time, I knew it was when, not if I would be victorious. And it was. I beat him in five or so tries, never coming close to the abyss. I took a triumphant lap around the arena, cursing his ass the whole time. As I pranced around joyously, I couldn’t help but notice that I didn’t see a crack in the floor anywhere. Was I wrong about how I died to him? How could that be when it was seared into my brain as one of my worst gaming memories? After a few seconds, waaaaaaay on the other end of the room, I spotted the abyss. I swore at it, of course,*** but i couldn’t help wondering how the hell I got so close to it the first time I fought the Gaping Dragon. There was no reason to be at that end of the arena–none. “NOOB!” I thought about my earlier self. I trotted out of the arena, more relieved than anything else. I had made it further than I ever had in this game.
*That’s how FromSoft sets off a boss arena–by placing a white fog in front of it (there are other white fog areas, too, but you can usually be assured you’re facing a big boss if you see a white fog). They call it traversing the white light, but I usually think of it as traversing the white fog.
**You use humanity so you can summon other players or NPC to help you fight a boss. In the early game, they’re rare and precious, so you have to be careful when you use them.
***I have never cursed as much as I do when I play Dark Souls.