[Dark Souls] Final Day
I beat the final boss of Dark Souls on Saturday.
I’m so, so glad it’s all over.
According to my save file, I spent just shy of 58 hours playing Dark Souls. At no point during that duration did I ever really feel “comfortable.” That is presumably by design. Each new area has new enemies to encounter, bullshit traps to get Gotcha!’d, and just a general sense of subtle malice. If you make it far in exploration but then die, you respawn at a Bonfire and all enemies between you and your corpse respawn. If you make it far and find a new Bonfire, you have to make the choice to sit at it and respawn all enemies or continue onward but risk respawning much further away. None of the bosses had Bonfires near them, so you either had to run like crazy past guardian mobs or hack your way back and hope you could retrieve your corpse to make the otherwise lost souls worth it.
Oh and many Bonfires are just straight-up hidden, because fuck you.
Another fun aspect of the game was the simple fact that I never really found a weapon I liked, and this led me into wasting hours and hours farming for shit I never really ended up using. I used the Uchigatana for a large portion of the game, but it continued to get weaker to enemies over time. Eventually I got lucky with a Black Knight Sword (BKS) drop, which immediately became my go-to weapon for the mid-game. Unfortunately, I hated it the entire time. The Uchigatana moveset allowed for a quick strike to interrupt/kill charging enemies, and the power attack was a longish-range poke. Meanwhile the BKS had a slow regular swing, and a power poke attack that triggered after like 5 seconds of vulnerability. But, what the BKS offered was raw damage, and killing enemies in 1-2 attacks was much more useful overall than 4-5 attacks.
My final weapon ended up being the Gargoyle’s Halberd. It has good range, a relatively quick attack, and its attacks in general don’t cost much Stamina. The unfortunate aspect was the fact that I ended up leveling Strength all the way to 40 in an attempt to give all the dozens of other weapons – including the super heavy ones – a fair shake. Unfortunately, there is a point at which an unupgraded weapon is useless no matter how much baseline attack it brings, and thus you can fall into the trap (as I did) of farming and farming to upgrade weapons that you end up saying No Thanks to.
The combat system in general and most bosses specifically are full of outrageous jank, IMO. Having a shield up 24/7 is how I approached most of the game as I found dodge-rolling to almost be entirely useless. Everything I have read indicates you get i-frames by rolling, but those only seem to exist insofar as your character is at half-height during the roll and the attack may be directed higher. For example, if you dodge-roll backwards but the enemy is doing a poke, you get hit. If you dodge-roll right but the enemy is doing a side-swipe, you get hit. Sometimes you can dodge-roll between an enemy’s legs, but sometimes they shuffle two pixels to the left and you just roll into their feet. Sometimes you can just strafe out of the way of attacks, and other times the attacks will auto-swivel your way.
Perhaps this is all a “Git Gud” scenario. I mean, I beat the game, so… maybe not. In any case, I’m not sure “Git Gud” slaps as hard when we’re talking about QWOP-levels of jank.
Having said all of that, the world of Dark Souls was incredible. More specifically, the level design. You don’t get the sense of how interconnected each area is to one another at first, but by about midgame everything starts fitting together in extremely clever ways. You have probably seen a cave loop around back to its entrance a thousand times in other games, but Dark Souls has a degree of coherence that feels wholly unique. The game is also full of shortcuts that allows you to acquire powerful items much earlier in the game if you have the knowledge to do so. The average player is never going to be able to take advantage of that, but I appreciate the willingness of the developers to not throw up arbitrary barriers in a lot of places.
Overall, I am glad that I played Dark Souls even if it was not the most enjoyable experience. Seeing where things began (Demon Souls notwithstanding) gives you a greater appreciation for where things have gone in the meantime. Plus, it is an extremely boldly-designed game that took risks to stay true to the designers’ intentions, and I respect the moxie.
I do already own Dark Souls 2, but I think I’m going to take a break from the tension and play other things for a while. Perhaps something in which I don’t have to worry about instantly dying all the time.
Momentum is more keenly felt in its absence. The more aware of it you are, the less of it you have.
It has been difficult to play much of anything these past two weeks, as I contracted acute bronchitis with a dash of viral pneumonia. Only today, day 12, would I say that things have downgraded to
tropical depression bad seasonal cold. My physical condition has made it difficult, as you may imagine, to make any meaningful progression in Dark Souls. And it is this progression that I fear may grind to a halt if I coast too much further or take an off-ramp to other titles.
The dilemma is not always present – I have juggled several games before. But it is arguable as to whether any said jugglees had momentum behind them. Or perhaps needed any. Some games just slip in and curl into your lap. Others require you to lean forward in your chair a bit. It is easier to keep leaning than to start again, though. Posture and all that.
Maybe some Youtube and going to bed early, again.
Enjoy your health, when you have it.
[Dark Souls] Day 5-??
This will probably be the last “Day” post about Dark Souls.
I am still playing and enjoying the game… to a slightly lesser degree than before. The first crack in the façade came from the Bonfire hidden behind an illusionary wall. Up to this point, I had considered Dark Souls to simply be amoral. I wasn’t even mad that I missed the Undead Merchant for 10 hours because the stairs to his location was hidden behind some boxes. But a Bonfire? That’s just cruel. Who the fuck even discovered that in the first place? Were people just randomly rolling around and bumped into it?
Speaking of incredulity, who figured out being able to head back to the Asylum? Or Snuggly? I expected to get some kind of prompt from Snuggly’s nest based on what I had read, but there was nothing. I didn’t even realize that you could just up and drop things on the ground. Engaging with this mechanic is not required for game completion, but it is one of those things I would have never figured out in a million years. In Metroidvanias like Hollow Knight and Ori, I do spend a little extra time attacking walls in case there are hidden areas, but Dark Souls is a bit too large for that to make sense.
The third crack came from the Stray Demon in the Asylum. Technically, this was the very first boss that I died to and was unable to retrieve my souls, but whatever. After struggling (read: dying) for quite some time, I finally had to look him up a bit. What was I missing? I knew to avoid being near the pillars as their destruction seemed to remove 95% of my HP. But his fire(?) AoE attack took 55% of my HP and seemed unavoidable, and applying Flash Sweat (reduce fire damage by 45%) did nothing. What was I missing? As it turns out: nothing. Being behind the Stray Demon is supposed to protect you from the AoE but the positioning is janky. Near the tail? Attack goes through his legs. Too far away from his legs? Attack mysteriously wraps around like a backdraft or something. The true answer is… you can block most of the damage with a shield. Ah. Just press L1 and this AoE fire-but-not-fire attack that wraps around everywhere just zoink, deals minimal damage.
Honestly, this wasn’t the first janky boss encounter either. During the Gaping Dragon fight, I was minding my business attacking his tail stump and one of his legs just up and one-shot me. But… I wasn’t near his leg. I started wondering how hitboxes work in this game, and how i-frames from rolling are pretty opaque mechanics-wise. Perhaps having your character change colors would not befit the nature of the game – like characters do when dodging in Metroidvanias – but it’s hard to feel satisfied with your actions as a result. Dodge-rolling always feels like a huge gamble, as sometimes it appears enemies will still turn to track you even when they are midair in the the middle of a jumping attack animation. Part of the “fairness” of Dark Souls comes from the notion that everyone is playing by the same rules. If you let an enemy get behind you, they will backstab you for a ton of damage, just like you can do to them. But more and more it’s becoming clear that some enemies (maybe all?) don’t get animation-locked as you certainly do in the middle of an attack.
I dunno. Dark Souls came out 12 year ago, got two sequels, and then Elden Ring became a wildly successful cultural touchstone (20m copies sold after 1 year). Nevermind how many ancillary games were created in the Soulslike genre in that time too. Clearly they got something right. And I still feel it in there, despite the fact that the game looks like it came out on the PS2 and is locked at 29 FPS.
I just wish it was a little more consistent. On the other hand, I am… kind of ignoring the several times the game trolls me with traps. Boulders, barrels, Basilisks. It does somehow feel like a very Dark Souls thing to do to suddenly say “Illusionary walls are a thing now, deal with it.” So maybe it is consistent.
[Dark Souls] Day 4ish
I rang the first bell.
The lesson learned with Dark Souls isn’t that the game is unfair, it is just amoral. It doesn’t care.
You fight one boss when heading to the bell, and then another one shows up halfway through the fight. During one attempt, the bosses flew through the air, landed on opposite sides of me, and both breathed fire in a cone attack – I was stunlocked into a fiery death. I just had to laugh. If this were a “proper” game, I would say that the boss design was terrible or punishingly difficult. And it is punishingly difficult. But on my next attempt, I somehow managed to get inbetween the legs of the first boss when the 2nd was summoned, and I… just kept wailing on him. Not sure if the boss was stunlocked by me or if it was some combination of the slope and/or me riding its crotch, but it just died without dealing any damage. Dispatching the 2nd boss was easy after that.
Way earlier in the level, there’s an intimidating armored boar. I don’t know its moveset because once I realized it would chase me down some stairs but not into the corridor at the bottom of the stairs, I just aggroed it, then stabbed it in the porkchops when it turned around. At no point was I in danger of taking damage.
In any other game, that would be an “exploit.” In Dark Souls, it’s just business.
The main complaint I have with Dark Souls though are the Bonfires. Not having one immediately before boss fights is whatever. Having Bonfires for the zone be behind fake walls is another thing altogether. Up to this point, Dark Souls has done a good job at organically teaching you mechanics. The hidden Bonfire in Darkroot Gardens though is just dumb. I could understand perhaps if the Bonfire was visible from the other side, e.g. you see it when returning from that area, but nope.
These days, I no longer have hang-ups surrounding looking shit up. Specifically, Bonfire locations, especially whenever I’m deep in a new zone and/or after killing a boss. Going in blind is kind of a big portion of the “fun” of these games, but… nah. Dying with the equivalent of two levels in my backpack and having to traverse an entire zone of mobs that can kill you real quick if you’re not meticulous is not my idea of fun. If progress was not lost, or perhaps if I had barely any souls at the time, I would be considerably more caviler.
Looking up anything is a slippery slope though, and I have slid further down than intended a few times already. Sometimes though, it’s difficult to feel too guilty. Basilisks, for example. I fell down a trapdoor in the Depths that puts you in the middle of like three of them, and I managed to take them out. If I hadn’t known about the Curse though, then I might have stayed in the fog too long and died an ignoble death while continuing to pay for it in the respawn.
Nevertheless, I am still having fun. So on it goes.
[Dark Souls] Day 3
I level up my base sword to +5 by farming souls. It’s not my “main” weapon, but until I find a Dexterity-based weapon, it is the one I have, so why not? This awareness, that one can farm currency/XP, dislodges something stuck in my mind. Where has this notion been in all the Git Gud conversations? Of course, there are probably limits to farming – practical or otherwise – and certainly you must respect boss mechanics. But there is a lifeline beyond trial and error, a sense of progression possible to afford you that slightest extra edge.
I feel more comfortable, even in unknown areas.
From the Blacksmith, I try and remember if there was a shortcut to the Undead Burg. Heading lower, I encounter a crippled statue thing that shoots lightning. I hit it once or twice, note how my power attack deals 15 damage, and then just run around it and down the hallway beyond. Kill some plant creatures. Walk to a vista area, look around for a moment, note “there doesn’t seem to be many mobs around here,” and instinctively turn around and parry the blow from another plant creature coming up behind me. Pretty sure getting hit where I was would have sent me flying over the cliff.
Keep heading down. Find a corpse with a bunch of leather armor and a bow. Head down further. Get waylaid by armored sub-boss. This one has a spear, so I spent a few minutes learning it’s moveset. As I circling him, I started walking down a ramp… and realized that his attacks couldn’t hit me. He eventually started using a new move that actually attacked downward, but I had already thrusted him to 10% from relative immunity. The corpse he was guarding has a shield that gives bonus stamina regen. Welp, that is probably going to be a forever item.
Keep heading down, found a Bonfire, now I’m in the Valley of the Drakes. Die a few times to the first Drake while I learn its moveset. Frustratingly die next attempt when the Drake had barely a sliver of HP; Dark Souls has zero remorse about you getting stunlocked in a lightning breath attack. Regain my souls, then fight it again. This time… the Drake leaps backwards off the cliff and dies. I run past another Drake on the bridge in order to loot the corpse there, then run away back up the elevator, save my game.
Darkest Dungeon plays in my head: “Remind yourself that overconfidence is a slow and insidious killer.”
I know what I am supposed to do, where I’m supposed to go. But I don’t want to. Not yet. Still no Dex weapon. Should I just pivot into some Strength build? Should I murder the Undead Merchant (killing NPCs is definitely a thing in Dark Souls) for his sword? What are the odds that I care about Undead Burg in the future, especially considering how long it took to find the guy in the first place?
Soon. Not today, but soon.
[Dark Souls] Day 2
For the first time since becoming a father, and probably a bit before that, I played a game until 5AM. It was… ill-advised. For reasons unrelated to the game.
Suffice it to say, I’m having a good time in Dark Souls.
After spending mumble-mumble hours farming in the Undead Burg zone around the Bonfire, I started pushing some more progress. Dead bodies that have loot have a sort of white glow around them, and the fact that you retain items upon death naturally leads one to the occasional questionable strategic decision. Do I engage this clearly-powerful sub-boss dude, or try and run past him and loot the goods?
My first attempt to fight him actually went very well, until I died – got a lot of successful parries and ripostes, which deal massive damage. The next half-dozen were inexplicably worse. So I farmed some more levels, came back, and then… got curious how far he would chase me around. The answer is pretty damn far. Which meant I could circle back around an area, drop down to the dead body with loot he was guarding, snag it, and then re-engage in peace. As with many things, once the anxiety surrounding the reward was gone, I was able to casually poke him to death rather than committing to try and parry him.
In the next area, I went down a spiral staircase, encountered another sub-boss looking guy, and was one-shot through a shield at full health. Noted, game.
In the next area, I went
down up a spiral staircase and encountered the second main boss. It took two or three attempts to down it, but that was mainly because I don’t have a real good grasp on dodge-rolling yet. Does it give i-frames? Sometimes it looks like it does, and other times it clearly does not. Eventually I brute-forced learned the combat mechanics and down the boss went.
In the new zone, I eventually found the Blacksmith. This is actually the first vendor I found in the game. I am aware there is supposed to be another vendor in Undead Burg, which would have been real fucking convenient because 100% of my gear has came from rare (trash) drops from regular mobs. My character is a Thief with no Dexterity weapons aside from the starter one. I still don’t actually know where the other vendor is, but I’ll look later. Took down a sub-boss with the ole leisurely poke-in-stab, looted a reward that makes my health potions stronger, and apparently (hopefully) unlocked the ability to quickly traverse from this 3rd zone back to the beginning one. Or maybe that elevator was one-way?
Honestly, it wouldn’t surprise me either way.
[Dark Souls] Day 1
Killing the first boss on the first attempt was not that surprising. Technically, this was not my first rodeo.
Steam says I had two hours on Dark Souls (Prepare to Die Edition) with a Last Played of 2018. At that time, I was a tourist, sticking around just long enough to get the experience of being instantly killed on the ledge, or later after dodge-rolling off a cliff. That sort of experience was just not what I was looking for at the time. I then proceeded to play Dead Cells, Hollow Knight, Sundered, Hades, Salt & Sanctuary, and probably a dozen similar games over the next five years. So “coming back” to Dark Souls, everything clicked right away. Hell, it was surprising to learn that you had 5 Health potions to start – everyone else is so damn stingy.
Anyway, my character is Thief because getting a free Master Key sounded useful. I also chose the Witch’s Charm or whatever because that wasn’t a consumable and otherwise sounded like it could be useful somewhere.
A big part of the Dark Souls experience is exploration. However, when the very first body I looted contained 3 “Humanity,” I sighed and looked up some beginner tips. Do those disappear on death? (No). Is there a reason to use them now? (Technically no). Am I going to screw things up if I use them right away? (Technically no, but ill-advised). There are some things I am willing to learn via experience, such as boss attacks or where traps are. But obfuscated gameplay mechanics or Blind Choices are things I take a dim view on. Which… might be a problem with Dark Souls. Presumably.
Speaking of experience, I walked down some steps and got utterly mauled by the skeletons down there. They didn’t have levels over their heads, but when a single attack brings me to half-health and my attack deals 2% of their HP, I can take the hint. Was I frustrated? Nope. Fallout: New Vegas predates Dark Souls, and walking anywhere but south out of Goodsprings brings death and pain.
Plus, you know, a decade of Soulslike games.
Another learning opportunity was: Poison attacks hurt. For an absurdly long amount of time. Didn’t think much of the Poison meter when I was eating some Giant Rat attacks, but once it got full and started draining health, I started paying attention. Through literally three health potions. Noted, game.
Made it to the second Bonfire after clearing out some Hollow mobs in a new area. Resting/saving your game respawns all enemies, which is intended to create some Press-Your-Luck tension. Which it would… once I’m done farming this infinite pile of respawning Souls steps away from a Save Point. I’m going to assume that gaining five levels this way isn’t going to bite me in the ass later. While farming, I end up getting two “liquid” Humanity (as opposed to the “solid” items), which is a resource that goes away when you die. So, I spent one Humanity to turn into a Human, and then another to Kindle the Bonfire, which grants me more health potion uses for this area. Again, I’m assuming this won’t set me back permanently somehow.
And that was Day 1.
Time will tell how long I stick around farming in the immediate Bonfire area. “Until you get bored” is not a particularly healthy target, but it also feels silly to not make a few more circuits when you can gain levels within 5-10 minutes. Then again, the farm option would still be there if I just plow forward until hitting a brick wall. Hmm.
Let’s be real: I’m going to farm the shit out of this area, aren’t I?
In the middle of an epicly-long Kotaku article expressing the virtue of Dark Souls’ difficulty, the following lines jumped out and strangled me (emphasis added):
Because you repeat each section of the game so many times, and commit it so firmly to memory, you build up certain tricks and patterns. You achieve mastery, which is satisfying, and yet you always feel like something could go wrong, which is exciting.
When it comes to discussing difficulty in MMOs, I firmly fall on the “make it easy” side of the fence. I enjoy difficulty, I enjoy taxing my abilities to their maximum, but I also believe difficulty has its place; specifically, not in waiting for someone else to finally stop failing so I (we) can succeed. Games like Dark Souls work precisely because they are single-player.
That being said… the bold sentence in the quote above is perhaps the most succinct, inspired description of the mechanics of fun I have ever read.
Posted by Azuriel
In the past two weeks, I played a few hours of Blasphemous and Salt & Sanctuary. Both of these games are in the increasingly crowded 2D Soulslike genre, made famous by Dark Souls (or Demon Souls if wish). As I was farming some currency to level up a bunch of times in Salt & Sanctuary – and before remembering I had previously played the game for 10 hours a few years ago – I had a thought. I have played a lot of Soulslike games over the years… and not actually Dark Souls. That’s weird, right?
So, it’s happening.
Not certain whether I’m going to chronical this shit, or just give the occasional summaries. Not much oxygen left in the room between Elden Ring and decades of Youtube videos of people beating the entire Dark Souls trilogy without taking a single point of damage while using a DDR dance pad as their controller. That might be two separate videos. Whatever.
If you want to see me “Git Gud” or otherwise maintain my adequate levels of Gud, buckle up.
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Tags: Dark Souls, Git Gud, Soulslike, What Could Possibly Go Wrong?