Mastering Dark Souls – Not Just for the Hardcore
When I think back to my experience of Demon’s Souls and the original Dark Souls I get very strong feelings of nostalgia. It’s unusual because we usually only feel nostalgia for experiences we’ve had at a much younger age, while it would have been about five years ago when I first picked up one of these games. This is probably due to how we come to learn how to play them; I can remember the world layouts and attack patterns like the back of my hand. It feels like I’ve been on quite a journey and they’ve left a massive impact on my life, more so than anything else I’ve ever played. Every so often it’ll dawn on me, I’m actually playing Dark Souls and making progress, how did I get to this point? There will be some spoilers ahead.
Like many others I was introduced to these games in regards to their difficulty. I’m not sure why I felt inclined to seek out Demon’s Souls as I had never previously considered myself to be interested in challenging games (bosses are my least favourite part of most games.) I guess I was just really curious, but never expected to finish it or to be sat here a few years later with Dark Souls and Bloodborne both under my belt. When I first sat down to play I persevered for a surprisingly long time despite my absolute lack of progress. A lot of the systems confused me and I couldn’t get any stronger until after defeating the first boss. Yet there were some aspects to it that really shone for me. I liked the combat system and how each button corresponded to each arm, along with the timing of the parries. The online features were unlike anything I had ever seen before. I felt like I had to share this find with somebody else and my partner enjoys figuring out systems so it was a good place to turn. I started off by playing the game in front of him, showing him what I liked and also demonstrating how ridiculously difficult it was. Before long he had taken the controller and I couldn’t seem to get him off the console (which is odd because he usually has less patience for difficulty than I do.) It came down to, ‘let’s just have another go at this.’ It was now our obstacle to overcome. We spent an entire day getting through world 1-1 together, but we did eventually find ourselves standing in front of the boss room. The Phalanx was surprisingly easy considering how long it had taken us to get there. World 1-1 is now ingrained in our memories, and it’s also where we learnt to be wary of crossing bridges.
After reaching the Nexus our confidence was soaring high and we were keen to continue. I started my own character and was able to repeat our success. I still wasn’t very good at the game and crawled through at a snail’s pace, but it was progress all the same. My partner eagerly awaited the arrival of his own copy and was figuring out the systems as well. It was rather fitting that our first positive experience of the game had been together, as community and sharing is a big part of it. I feel like we bonded over trying to get our heads around it. It had also become apparent that this wasn’t just another action RPG, and that I had actually stumbled upon something rather special. I couldn’t put my finger on what it was at the time, but something kept drawing us back in. Unfortunately we didn’t manage to complete Demon’s Souls on our first attempt. My partner had accidentally killed one of the NPCs by catching the attack button – a harsh lesson learnt. We’d also discovered it just before Christmas, as which point I’d received new games to check out.
Once again curiosity got the better of me when I decided to tackle Dark Souls. The popularity and knowledge around these games had increased a lot since I’d first started. I went in thinking I had a good chance due to my previous attempts at Demon’s Souls, but the timing on the combat and parries felt off. There were also more confusing numbers and different systems in place. I really wanted to be able to say I’d completed one of these games so I persevered. I looked stuff up more back then, including advice on how to deal with some of the bosses and where to find things. I remember scanning through lists of armour and weapons and feeling unsure of how I was suppose to know what to use. I still had that mentally of looking for the obviously better option. It was quite a way into the game when it finally clicked how the upgrade system worked. I was also afraid of messing things up due to me not understanding the game and so I was hesitant to try things. It took me ages to get past the Bell Gargoyles, during which I discovered the importance of keeping my shield up. I also did a few runs in Darkroot Garden to get stronger.
Completing Dark Souls took me longer than any of the other games due to the learning curve I had to go through. I took a break after reaching Anor Londor because I found the archers and Ornstein and Smough to be really frustrating (I don’t often get frustrated by these games, with a few notable exceptions.) I eventually returned after hearing that there was going to be a second game and I wanted to be able to get it on launch having already completed the first one. This time I was able to get past the boss room fairly quickly. I was starting to feel good about the game and made quick progress until the final boss. It took me a while to defeat Gwyn and this has remained in my memories as being the worst boss ever. After Dark Souls I followed up by swiftly completing Demon’s Souls within the span of a week. It felt much easier now by comparison.
Dark Souls 2
Dark Souls 2 arrived and this time I was prepared to face one of these games head on. This was when I decided to actively avoid spoilers and stopped using guides. I enjoy figuring it all out for myself now, exploring the world and dealing with the surprises as they come. I’m not as worried about messing it up anymore. I did still grind a little, clearing areas out as I went through to ensure that I’d never be stuck at any point with a weak character. Just like with the previous games I struggled a little to begin with, but once I figured out where to go and adjusted to the feel of my character I made progress quickly. Overall Dark Souls 2 felt like a much easier game, partly because I think it was made to be more accessible but also due to how I’d improved as a player. It was like my mindset had been gradually altered to think like From Software and I’d developed a play style to fit. I had learnt to become more observant and how to spot their tricks. I move the camera around a lot as I walk through the world to ensure I don’t miss anything. I also tried out the multiplayer for the first time (co-op and pvp.)
Bloodborne followed next. It was a nice change in pace and I preferred it to Dark Souls for a while. Once again it took a while to adjust to the game, although I think my previous experience with Dark Souls hindered as well as it helped. My muscle memory kept trying to raise the non-existent shield. I had previously favoured the tower shield that had become a bit of a crutch for me, but once I re-trained I was able to progress through Bloodborne fairly quickly. Once again I stayed clear of guides and spoilers, and I also attempted to get as far as I could before succumbing to the urge to grind levels. I wanted to feel each boss for just how difficult it was so that I could learn their attack patterns more thoroughly and feel the sense of achievement on defeating them. Grinding is now reserved as an option only to use when all hope is lost. I was able to mostly hold off until reaching Ebrietas, although I gave it a good go before finally caving. I recommend Bloodborne as the place to start for any new player as it feels like the most accessible. It’s hard to assess which games are the most challenging due to how we improve as players, although I definitely feel like they have gotten kinder in regards to the length of runs to boss rooms and the consequences of accidentally hitting NPCs or missing important items.
Dark Souls 3
Bloodborne was a pleasant diversion and I loved the aesthetics, but I was happy to return to Dark Souls when the third game came out earlier this year. I prefer the lore behind Dark Souls and the wider choice of equipment. Dark Souls 3 feels like a mix of all the previous games put together. I picked it up more quickly than the others, although I have found myself switching between a wider variety of play styles, using both melee and ranged (magic and bow) in equal measure. I think some of the bosses are very challenging for this reason as it can be harder to figure out the best methods to avoid each attack – they switch it up a lot. Sometimes I would circle with my shield and it’d work, but on other occasions they could hit through the shield and take out all of my stamina in one. Sometimes attacks would hit me even when I tried to roll. There were also times when I did better by not locking on. Some of the bosses get back up again for another pounding even after you thought you’d defeated them, which could be a bit disheartening. I found the second stages could be harder to master because I had less opportunities to jump in and practice them. Despite this I embraced the challenge and found them to be really fun to figure out. When I first attempted the Nameless King it felt impossible as the dragon could kill me in one hit. Eventually I succeeded in taking it down and had a moment of celebration, cut off short when I realized the following cutscene meant that it wasn’t over yet. From then on however, I was able to repeat this phase easily each time, which just goes to show how you can improve with persistence no matter how impossible it feels to begin with. I didn’t find any of the areas to be too bad this time around (not like the Valley of Defilement, Blighttown, Black Gulch or Nightmare of Mensis.)
I didn’t use a guide for Dark Souls 3 and I also didn’t grind at any point (although I’m very careful not to get reckless when I have a lot of souls on me.) I quite enjoy sticking to lower levels now as this increases the feeling of risk and reward. I managed to impress myself the most with something that happened entirely by accident. I was making my way through the archives when my partner looked over and noticed that I wasn’t getting much health from my Estus. That’s when we realized that I’d been forgetting to upgrade it with the undead bone shards… oops! I’m not sure if I’m more ashamed by this, annoyed with myself that it could have been easier or amazed at how I’d actually made it that far (having defeated all bosses except for the Nameless King) on a basic Estus Flask. For this reason I am most proud of my victory over Champion Gundyr who I did without upgraded Estus or a shield – preferring to two hand and roll. It seems that Bloodborne gave me courage.
I was dismayed when somebody let slip that the final boss was going to be using Gwyn’s move set due to how much I hated this boss the first time around. It feels like a fitting way to end this journey however. The first part of the fight alternates between four different move-sets as well; Each one corresponding to different builds, testing everything that I had learnt up to this point. It didn’t actually take many attempts to get through, but learning how to defeat this final boss was immensely satisfying.
Dark Souls has taught me a lot about about game design and has also changed what I look for in new games. I use to only be interested in character design and storytelling, but I’ve come to realize how important the game world is too. A little bit of a challenge is also a good thing. I’ll never be one of those top players in anything as I don’t have the time, but I’ve still come a long way since Demon’s Souls; From creeping slowly around corners with my catalyst, to approaching from behind the safety of a tower shield to boldly running forward as I strike with my blade. The odd thing is, I’m not even sure what it is that I’m doing differently. It’s like learning a skill such as riding a bike; Eventually you can just do it without needing to think about it, and then the game ceases to feel much harder than many other games.
The difficulty of Dark Souls is often misunderstood. The game is frequently represented as the reserve of the hardcore, but there’s more to the experience than the difficulty. I do consider myself to be lucky to have discovered these games through Demon’s souls when I could form my own impressions free from the influence of others; I’ve noticed the hardcore status deterring many from giving it a go. When I tried to recommend these games I struggled to explain why they were worth checking out; I would usually recieve the response that they’d require too much patience or sounded annoying, which is perfectly understandable as dying a lot and repeating sections over doesn’t exactly sound like a fun time. Some would bravely attempt it, but would come to associate the game with frustration after failing to get past the initial learning curve. As such I use to think they were very niche and could only appeal to a limited audience, but I was wrong. There are some very unlikely people that have embraced this experience – some hadn’t even played a game before. For most of us the hardest part was when we first decided to play the game and not any of the bosses or areas to have followed since.
Whenever I want to learn a new skill or get through a difficult ordeal I remind myself of how I felt when I first put Demon’s Souls into my console. The game teaches us how important it is to be patient and persistent in attaining our goals. So long as we can get back to our feet we can keep moving forward. My journey isn’t over yet of course and I’m currently working towards earning The Dark Soul. I’m not normally one to push for trophies or to feel the need to ramp up the challenge, but I’m also not ready to put this game down yet.