Dark Souls: Why I Keep Playing This Game, Part Two

Straight outta Undead Parish
Bell Gargoyle is coming at me, bro!

In my last post, I wrote about my feelings the first time I tried to play Dark Souls. I encourage you to read it before reading this post, which will be about my experience the second time around. I’m currently nearly halfway done with the game, so I expect I will write more posts on it as well. This game has gotten under my skin like no other. It’s brutal and unforgiving, and I often hate it as I’m playing it, and yet, I can’t stop playing. It’s my current obsession, and I play nearly every day. Let me try to explain why that is.

The second time I started Dark Souls, I stuck with what I knew. I created the same character I had in the first game, a fat, old Asian woman of the pyromancer class, which meant starting with a Hand Axe yet again. This time, I breezed through the tutorial in the Undead Asylum and tromped my way through Undead Burg and the Undead Parish. I died a few times, but nothing like I did the first time around. In fact, it took me a third of the time to reach my nemeses, the Bell Gargoyles, in the second playthrough than it had in my first. Granted, I didn’t accidentally attack Andre this time around, so that shaved off a few hours, but still. Also, I’m currently playing on a speedy new rig that my brother built for me, so that also accounts for some of the time difference as well.

However, the biggest difference is that I’m better at the game–at the least at the early game. I don’t have much problem with the common enemies in the first areas, and it’s rather refreshing not to be afraid as I defeat a boss and approach a ‘new’ area. I wouldn’t say I was good yet–indeed, I don’t think I’ll *ever* be good at Souls–but I was at least making it through the first few areas with little fuss or muss. I also made sure to upgrade my Battle Axe (my main weapon) and my Pyromancy Flame with regularity, something I didn’t do the first time around. That’s part of the problem with Dark Souls–it’s so overwhelming, you just do the basics because you can’t even think of anything else. At least that’s how it was with me. I missed a lot of the lore and the items you can pick up because I was just so focused on getting from Point A to Point B. This time? I’m more able to explore the areas and find a LOT of stuff that I missed before.

Still, I approached the Bell Gargoyles with trepidation because I remembered how they wrecked my ass in my previous playthrough. This time, however, all I could think of as I watched the first one stand up and walk towards me was how fucking slow he was. I didn’t kill them on the first try, but I wasn’t intimidated. I knew it was just a matter of time before I got them, and I marveled at how helpless I felt the first time I fought them. I did summon the Phantom Solaire after dying to the Bell Gargoyles a few times, and we made short work of them. Once again, it was Solaire doing most of the work with me hanging back and stabbing them in the asses. I didn’t feel elation, but a sense of vindication once they were vanquished–my first big nemeses of Dark Souls were dead forever.

I rang the first Bell of Awakening with a sense of purpose. I savored the view as the sound pealed across the land. Then, I girded my loins to move on to the next area, my first big victory under my belt. I didn’t feel fear as I made my way through the Darkroot Gardens, Lower Undead Burg, and The Depths. There were moments of exasperation and frustration, yes, but no sheer terror. There was nothing too challenging as I journeyed towards my second nemesis–the Gaping Dragon, the asshole who made me ragequit the first time around. I was determined to get my revenge, and I reminded myself that I had almost beat him the first time around. It was only an unfair abyss fall that had made me quit–I would make sure that didn’t happen again.

Ding dong the spider-woman witch is dead!
Ringing the second Bell of Awakening. As you do.

Side Note: I don’t think I can emphasize strongly enough just how much more smoothly this part of the game was the second time around. The difficult parts were more tedious than anything else, and I trusted that I would get through the hard parts, even if I momentarily doubted myself. I have to say, however, that this is not a fun game–at least not for me. There are highs such as killing certain bosses, but there’s not the moment-to-moment fun that I have playing, say, Torchlight. There’s too much thinking and planning every step for me to actually enjoy what I’m doing. However, it’s absorbing and engaging, although occasionally enraging. So why do I keep playing? One, pride. I want to be a part of the elite club that has played Dark Souls and beaten it. In addition, as I’ve mentioned before, I have a tendency to quit something if I’m not immediately good at it, so I want to prove to myself that I can finish something that isn’t in my wheelhouse. Which this game certainly isn’t. I’ve put in nearly seventy hours into this playthrough (at the halfway point!), and I still feel like I’m bad at it. When I fail at something, I tend to do the same thing again and again, thus ensuring more failure. You can’t do that with Dark Souls. If something isn’t working, you have to try something else. Since I’m trying not to read the wikis too much as I play, this means coming up with new ideas on my own. It’s not that big a deal at this point of the game with the common enemies, but it becomes a huge problem later on. I’ll get to that in a minute.

The Gaping Dragon fight was almost anticlimatic. It only took me a half dozen tries or so to beat him (believe me, that’s not much at all), and I never was really afraid of him. After I beat him, I took a triumph lap around the arena, looking for the abyss that had did me in the first time around. As I kept jogging, I didn’t see the abyss, and I started to wonder if I had lost my mind. The moment when I fell into the abyss and ragequit the game had been indelibly burned into my mind, so where the fuck was it? After several seconds of jogging, waaaay at the other end of the arena, I spotted the abyss. After I cussed it out, I wondered how the hell I ended up this far back the first time I fought the Gaping Dragon. There was no reason I should have come to this end of the arena, and I didn’t even come close to it this time. I left the arena on a high, gloating that I had made mincemeat of this asshole, then I realized that I was done with the part of the game I’d played before. From now on, everything was going to be new, and I could feel my confidence ebbing. I also knew that the next section, Blighttown, was universally despised by everyone who’s played the game. It’s dark*, set on scaffolding, has a sucky framerate, and is in general a shitty, shitty area.

I made it through Blighttown, but I hated it. Sen’s Fortress was difficult as well because it’s a bunch of mazes that I had a hard time parsing. Plus, FromSoft piles on the difficulty in several different ways, and some of those ways seem unfair. In Blighttown, not only did I have to worry about new and harder enemies, I had to watch where I stepped because sometimes there were narrow ledges, and sometimes, there were poisonous swamps. In Sen’s Fortress, there’s one section that has huge swinging axes over your head as you race across a narrow walkway that is high above a pit that has nasty critters in it if you fall and survive the fall. In addition, there’s a snakeman waiting for you at the end of the platform. Plus, there’s another snakeman off to the side who is hurling lightning bolts at you. I can’t tell you how many times I died in this section. In addition, there are only two bonfires in Blighttown (well, three, but the third one only shows up after you kill the boss of the area) and one in Sen’s Fortress, so you WILL be repeating the same stuff multiple times.

I go back and forth as to the brutality of the game. On the one hand, I have to admire FromSoft’s refusal to compromise on its vision. FromSoft doesn’t give a fuck about you or your feelings. If you die a thousand times against one boss, so be it. In the day and age of so many games being so damn easy, there’s something refreshing about that. On the other hand, the very difficulty means that most gamers won’t play the game. I don’t think FromSoft gives a shit about that, but it’s a shame. I think having an easy mode would have been a nice compromise, but I’m not sure how you would implement it in a game like this. You could have more bonfires, but that doesn’t matter in the boss fights. That’s really the problem, in my opinion. You can get good at the common enemies because you fight them over and over and over again. In contrast, it’s hard to learn from the boss fights because you’re either being overwhelmed by them, they one-shot you, or in my case, you just don’t want to do them several times after fighting so hard just to get there.

Flying via Batwing Demons. No biggie.
Anor Londo’s interesting transit system

I’m currently in Anor Londo and fighting the bosses that are considered the hardest in the game–Ornstein & Smough. While in Anor Londo, I took a side trip into the Painted World, where I made the biggest mistake yet in the damn game. I took on the boss, even though the wikis warned that if you attack her, you have to kill her, or you’re stuck in the painting forever. They said if you’re not ready, you should just skip it until later in the game. I thought about that as I did the rest of the area. I fought the mini-boss and won. I found all the items that can be found. I fought the NPC phantom and beat him rather handily. The only difficulty I had was in opening the door to the boss area, but once I did that, I thought I was ready. I went in to talk to the boss, and she gave me the option to leave without fighting her. I thought about it for two seconds, and then I attacked her. I could do this, right? I mean, I had just killed the boss of Sen’s Fortress, the Iron Golem by myself, so how hard could Priscilla be?

Really fucking hard, as I soon found out. She disappeared and–wait, I have to say that again. She disappeared. Fucking turned invisible. When I talk about things not being fair, that’s one of the things that stands out in my mind. Enemies shouldn’t be able to turn invisible. Oh, she also can stun-lock you with two swipes of her scythe which also does bleeding damage, and once your meter fills, you fucking die. Yes, she’s really slow, and yes, you can look for her footprints in the snow on the ground, but that’s cold comfort as she killed me several times in quick succession.

Side Note II: One thing you quickly learn to do in Dark Souls is run by enemies if you don’t have to kill them. The first time through an area, I try to kill all of the enemies just to prove I can. By the thirtieth time through, however, I run by the ones I don’t have to kill. For this particular boss run, I killed one skeleton zombie right by the bonfire, leaving two others behind. I ran by the phalanx in the center of the town square, then through the door to the corridor to the boss room. I killed the first zombie skeleton archer and his buddy who was hiding nearby. Then, I ran by the second zombie skeleton archer and his four buddies, plus the Heavy Knight who was guarding the boss door. When I’m about to fight a difficult boss, the last thing I want to do is kill a dozen common enemies along the way. The boss fights take enough out of me that I don’t want to waste time, energy, or my estus flasks before I reach them. This is actually a viable strategy, which tells you something about the difficulty of the game.

This is getting long, so I’ll end this post here and pick up the continuing saga of my quest to beat Priscilla in my next post.




*Visually, I mean. There were times when I literally couldn’t see enemies no matter how high I cranked the gamma. Plus, the camera is awful for this game. It’s awkward and often placed in such a way that you don’t know what the fuck you’re looking at.

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