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 how I feel about the game. Part one of the other series is here.
Dark Souls is known as a hard game, though its aficionados would scorn that and say it’s no biggie once you know what you’re doing. While that’s true to a certain extent, it’s really irritating to hear, especially when you’re struggling with what you think is the hardest enemy in the world. So, pro tip: If someone is having a hard time with something, don’t say it’s easy, even if it is for you. It’s rude and enraging and makes you look like a dick. Don’t be that person. PSA over. Now to the main post.
I heard about Dark Souls from my good friend and gaming buddy, Ian, and it intrigued me. I like trying hard things, but perversely, I give up rather easily because I’m used to being instantly good at things I try. Still, there was something about the game that drew me in, and I decided to give it a try, although I was terrified of it. I knew I was going to suck at it, and I was prepared to die* many, many times. I knew I wasn’t going to have an aptitude for the game for many reasons. I’m old and my reflexes aren’t as good as they used to be. I’m fairly new at games, and I would be using a controller for the first time. My laptop is junk, and I’d have to deal with lag time and crashing. Those are just a few reasons off the top of my head.
Still, I started a character, making her look like me and choosing the pyromancer class solely because I like fire. FromSoftware (also known as FromSoft and From, the developers) doesn’t tell you shit about anything, so unless you want to read the wikis, you pretty much have to just fly by the seat of your pants. It’s not my preferred way of doing things as I like to plan things way in advance,** but you have to take Dark Souls on its terms or you might as well turn around and go home. FromSoft (Hidetaka Miyazaki, the main developer in specific) had an uncompromising vision for Dark Souls, and I admire them for it. Dark Souls doesn’t hold your hand as you play–indeed, it positively revels in your death–and if you want to play the game to completion, you’re probably going to have to use the wikis AND play through it several times.
My first experience with Dark Souls was harrowing. I started with a Hand Axe, and swinging it took effort, stamina, and more importantly, time. In many combat-focused games, using your weapons is effortless–there’s a reason they’re called hack-n-slashes. You can wield a hefty sword effortlessly, and you can swing it again and again and again. I’m not dissing those games. Indeed, I’ve had a lot of fun with games in which I merrily cut swathes through countless waves of enemies. Granted, I’ve mostly used guns, but I have used blade weapons as well. There are no consequences for using your weapons, which is the exact opposite of the combat in Dark Souls. When you swing your weapon in this game, it takes stamina. Also, if you don’t have the stats you need to wield said weapon, you will not be able to use it properly. Your weapon (and armor) degrades over time, which means you’ll have to repair it–if it’s reparable.
Quick note about the economy of the game. When you kill an enemy, you get souls. In return, you use these souls to level up, to repair your gear, and to buy things. In other words, the souls are pretty fucking important. When you die, you lose your souls for good unless you return to the spot where you died and retrieve them. Sounds easy enough, but the chances of reaching the place you died without dying again isn’t always great, especially if you’re me. Therefore, I had to resign myself to losing a LOT of souls which felt like losing progress as well. It makes every death meaningful, and I feel it’s both the most brilliant and the most irritating aspect of this game. In many games, you can die with no consequence or you just pay money to get back to where you had died. In Dark Souls, when you die, you go back to the last bonfire you lit (which is the only way to ‘save’ the game, by the way), and you have to make your way forward again. I cursed this mechanism more times than I care to admit as I fought the same enemies several times in succession.
Stats are also a big part of the game, and an area in which I’m not very knowledgeable. Certain weapons stack with certain stats, and when you upgrade, you need to keep that in mind. I haven’t done that so far, but now that I’m in the middle game, I have to start taking that more seriously. It’s not easy, however, as that’s not one of my favorite parts of gaming. I am not a detail person in general, so it’s not second nature for me to min-max, nor is it enjoyable for me. However, I have a feeling that to make my way through the second half of the game, I’m going to need every advantage I can get. Which is a small problem I have with the game, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
The first time I played the game, I was completely over my head. Everything I knew about video games (which wasn’t much, admittedly) did not apply to this game, so I had to be open to trying new things. And to failing. Often. Over and over again. I don’t do well with failure being a perfectionist and tend to quit as soon as things get hard, but I’m also stubborn as hell when I dig my heels in. These two warring factions of my personality butted heads countless times as I made my way through the Undead Asylum, Undead Burg, and the Undead Parish. Many times, I stopped playing, frustrated at what I perceived to be my lack of progress, and I questioned why the fuck I was playing the game in the first place. Oh, as I mentioned, it was the first time I used a controller, so that was difficult to get used to as well. Because of this, I made a mistake while approaching Andre of Astora, the blacksmith in the basement of the bonfire near the Undead Parish. He can ascend your weapons and repair them, and is, in general, pretty fucking important. The last thing you want to do is attack him, which I accidentally did because I pressed the wrong button. I just wanted to talk to him, but the minute I ‘attacked’ him, he went after me. I ran from the room, but any time I returned, he’d go after me with his intent to kill. I found out that I would have to atone for my mistake (literally, pay for absolution), which I couldn’t do until after I beat the Bell Gargoyles, the big bosses of the Undead Parish. It costs 500 souls per level, and I think I had to pay 15,000 souls at that point. Maybe 10,000. At any rate, I had to crunch a lot of souls that I didn’t have (had to farm for them) in order to de-aggro Andre and make him NOT TRY TO KILL ME EVERY TIME I WENT TO SEE HIM.
That’s Souls, man, though. Every decision you make has a consequence, one that you may not be able to foresee, and you will pay for every mistake you make or have to live with the consequences.. It felt unfair at the time that because of this stupid mistake, I would either never be able to visit Andre again, kill him, or spend so much time farming for souls so I could be granted absolution. I still think the cost is a bit steep for the given situation, but I have to admire the consistency from FromSoft. They want you to be aware of every move you make, and having to pay for every Sin you commit (their term), whether you did it on purpose or not, will certainly accomplish that objective.
The Bell Gargoyles nearly broke me the first time around (as if worrying about Andre wanting to kill me wasn’t enough). I died to them repeatedly, even when I popped a humanity*** and summoned the Phantom Solaire (NPC), I was defeated by those assholes. They’re a perfect illustration of how utterly hopeless you feel the first time you meet a boss in the game. You look at the lumbering visage in front of you and despair that you will ever defeat it. In this case, even when you chip the first Bell Gargoyle down to half-health, you’re still fucked because that’s when the second one arises. He makes his presence known by breathing fire on you. Oh, plus, you’re on top of a fucking roof so you can fall off or be pushed off at any time.
There are two moments that stand out in my mind from the first time I played–one was being out of humanity save one, feeling utterly defeated by the Bell Gargoyles, and ready to give up on the game. “I’ll try one last time, and if I don’t succeed, I’ll quit.” That’s the thought that ran through my brain as I popped my last humanity, made the run up to the roof of the Undead Parish, and summoned the Phantom Solaire. This was it. Thirty or so hours into the game, and I was ready to lay it to rest if I couldn’t beat the Bell Gargoyles. I was resigned as I traversed the white fog.**** This was going to be my last moments playing Dark Souls, and I was at peace with it. I lifted my Battle Axe and stared at the first Bell Gargoyle as it stomped towards me; I was prepared to die one last time.
To my utter surprise, I beat the Bell Gargoyles. To be more precise, Solaire beat them with a generous assist from me. Either way, I let out a stream of jubilant curses as I watched the second Bell Gargoyle evaporate into dust. I marched across the roof and rang the first Bell of Awakening. I was triumphant because victory was mine! I felt like a god as I surveyed the kingdom of Lordran before me. I had beaten my nemeses! I could do anything!
As the elation faded, a feeling of dread replaced it. You see, one thing about dying to a boss over and over and over again is that you get to know the run-up to said boss pretty damn well. What was once hard, slowly, agonizingly becomes easy–well, easier, at any rate. Defeating a boss means leaving the comforts of that area and venturing into uncharted territory which is probably filled with new, harder enemies. It’s terrifying, but the key is to not give in to the fear. You have to remember that the Undead Asylum once seemed impossible as did the Undead Burg. Once you reach the Undead Parish, those two areas seem like a cakewalk. That’s the thing about Dark Souls–it teaches you how to play the game through blood, sweat, and most definitely tears. The assholes above who talk about how the game’s not hard once you learn the patterns have forgotten that it’s the said learning that’s so damn hard. The learning curve is fucking steep–so steep that many people quit before they can be adequate at the game, let alone master it.
The second moment I remember from my first time playing the game was during a fight with a boss called the Gaping Dragon. He’s found in The Depths and is two bosses (one optional) after the Bell Gargoyles. I have to say, I didn’t find him that hard, but the gameplay between the Bell Gargoyles and him had worn me down. The Depths were filled with things that spit poison at you, and I just didn’t find it pleasant at all. Still. I battled the Gaping Dragon, and though I died a few times, I wasn’t cowed. I had this asshole. I HAD him. I had his health whittled down to the point where I would kill him in two or three hits. I backpedaled to evade one of his attacks–and I fell down an abyss. I threw down the controller, screamed, “This is bullshit!”, and instantly quit the game. There are many difficult things in Dark Souls, but I felt it was unfair to put an abyss in a boss fight. Bad enough that he could one-shot me; I shouldn’t have to watch my footing, to boot! That was the end of my experience with Dark Souls, or so I thought.
Fast-forward a year or two. I had played other games that were considered difficult, specifically, Nuclear Throne, and The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth..I became obsessed with them, first NT and then BOI:R, and I played the former until I was competent at it and the latter until I was pretty damn good. Then, Bloodborne (the newest game by FromSoft) came out as a PlayStation 4 exclusive, and I really, really wanted to play it. It was touted as a Gothic horror Souls game, which sounded right up my alley However, I did not have a PlayStation 4, nor was I going to buy one, so what was I to do? Why, watch videos of other people playing Bloodborne, of course, oh, and revisit Dark Souls. I was prepared to die once more.
*Prepare To Die is the actual name of the edition of the game that I’m playing. It’s unnervingly apt.
**Except, ironically, in writing. I never outline. Never.
***You are a hollow in the game, a form of undead. Popping a humanity means you become human and you can kindle bonfires which will double your estus flasks–your health potions, as it were–and summon phantoms, either other players or NPC, for boss fights.
***That’s how FromSoft lets you know a boss area is coming up. They have a fog wall and the message, “Traverse the white light”. More rarely, they have a fog wall just because they’re dicks, but it usually signifies a boss fight.