Souls newbie attempts not to ragequit Dark Souls

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I knew from the outset that this journey was going to be difficult. And I was ready for it. Just… perhaps not quite ready enough, since I would politely describe my experiences with Dark Souls since the last time we spoke on the subject as being… challenging.

But, regardless of the Dark Souls-related suffering I have been enduring on and off over the course of the last week or so, I have been making progress, and I’m pretty sure I have made it further into the game than I ever have on previous visits. Sure, in the grand scheme of things I haven’t accomplished all that much — but I have achieved something, and in the process I have found myself becoming more familiar with what Dark Souls is expecting of me, and thus how to play it more effectively.

Dark Souls

We talked a little last time about how FromSoftware is fond of making interactive “don’t go this way” sequences, usually by murdering you horribly with an enemy well above your power and skill level. Well, this time around I’ve been encountering a curious companion piece: situations where I have a choice of ways to go, and both seem like plausible options right up until I encounter a significant difficulty spike.

For those familiar with Dark Souls, I’m talking about a split point which occurs when you’ve made it into the Undead Parish. A Basement Key unlocks a passage that leads back down into the lower levels of the Undead Burg, and this allows you to unlock a shortcut from the upper Undead Burg. Alternatively, not following this route takes you through the rest of the Undead Parish and ultimately to the Bell Gargoyles boss — they who guard the first of the two big bells you’re supposed to be ringing as your initial quest in Dark Souls.

My first encounter with the Bell Gargoyles didn’t go well. I wandered out onto the rooftop of the Undead Church knowing full well that the silence was, at any moment, going to be broken by something unpleasant happening. I’ve deliberately been trying to avoid relying on guides too much, so I didn’t specifically know the Bell Gargoyles were coming, but I’ve played enough video games in my time to know when I’ve stepped into an obvious boss arena.

Dark Souls

With a bit of canny shielding — unlike my previous times playing Souls games, where I tend to favour magic-users, I’m being more of a tank-and-spank kind of knight this time around — I managed to fend off some of the first Bell Gargoyle’s attacks, and even get it down to about half health. But then another bloody one showed up, set fire to me and that was that. Expletives were issued.

Okay, I thought, maybe I’m not quite ready for that. Let’s look around and see if there’s anything else I can do. Specifically, I went all the way back to Firelink Shrine and manually ran through the Undead Burg again, killing stuff along the way to build up a stock of Souls, until I eventually discovered the door that the Basement Key would unlock, and the pathway to the lower Undead Burg.

Once down at the bottom — and having unlocked the shortcut — I found myself beset first with zombie dogs, and then with Undead Thieves who had a really irritating counter and riposte ability, as well as a nasty backstab manoeuvre. I just about managed to dispatch them — I eventually learned that there was a clear animation cue for when they’re in “counter stance” — and made it through to another door shrouded in white light.

Dark Souls

With some trepidation, I stepped through and was immediately slaughtered by the Capra Demon and his two canine friends. I didn’t even have a chance to do anything. A little surprised, I looked up this encounter online and discovered that yes, indeed, the exact moment you walk through that door is regarded as one of the hardest parts of the entire game. At this point I would tend to question whether it’s hard for reasons of good design — as most of the rest of Dark Souls is — or if it’s just a bit cheap to put a boss who can two-shot you with two adds immediately behind a door you can’t really see through while you’re walking through it.

I decided to reserve judgement on the Capra Demon until I’d actually beaten it, and the fact I’d been so comprehensively destroyed made it clear that I probably wasn’t ready for that either. I felt like there was potential with the Bell Gargoyles, though; while the lower Undead Burg was within my abilities, the amount of damage the Undead Thieves did to me when they managed to get a backstab or counter in felt just a little too much to be comfortable, so I came to the conclusion that I probably wasn’t “supposed” to be down there yet.

Conversely, at no point during my journey through the Undead Parish had I felt like I was outclassed. There were challenging enemies, sure — most notably the rapier-wielding Balder Knights, who had a counter-and-riposte move capable of one-shotting me — but, on the whole, taking my time and making gradual, steady progress was working out. I even managed to defeat the non-respawning Tower Knight in the Undead Church, which I assumed would probably be beyond my abilities. Successfully making it through that fight was a nice confidence-booster, I can tell you.

Dark Souls

As I was battling my way through, I was struck by something that I’ve often found myself casually thinking about on past encounters with Souls games: despite being real-time action RPGs, there’s actually a surprising amount of turn-based DNA in there in terms of pacing, and a lot of this is down to the stamina mechanic acting almost like an ATB gauge in a Final Fantasy, or a global cooldown in an MMO.

More often than not in Dark Souls, I find myself handling enemies by shielding, waiting for them to strike, then taking my own opportunity to hit them while they’re recovering from their own attack. There’s a very distinct rhythm to it — and the pace at which most enemies attack very much leaves time for you to think about what to do next.

Of course, things get a little harder to manage if dealing with multiple enemies at once — this is one of the reasons the horde of otherwise weak Hollows upstairs in the Undead Church on the way to the Bell Gargoyles is so dangerous — but for the most part, it feels like if you approach battles in Dark Souls as a series of discrete individual actions happening one after another rather than simply hammering buttons, you’ll have a good time. You just need to learn what the sequence of actions required for each enemy is — since there are a number of variations.

Dark Souls

This is apparent right from the outset of the game with some of the earliest enemies you encounter. Sword-wielding Undead Soldiers, for example, are easy to deal with using a simple block-strike rhythm — you block their attack, then you strike them at least once, more if you’re feeling confident and/or are wielding a quick enough weapon.

Before long, however, you find yourself dealing with spear-wielding Undead Soldiers, who are much more fond of turtling behind their shield than their sword-wielding brethren. In this case, the sequence becomes kick/strike-block-strike, with the first action, often deliberately hitting their shield, intended to either stagger them or bait them into attacking you.

And this continues, even with Dark Souls’ bosses. I eventually beat the Bell Gargoyles by having an awareness of the rhythms that were working effectively — in this case, block their heavy strikes, release the block to recover stamina, move in and strike. This strategy, of course, had to change up a bit once the fire-breathing second enemy entered the fray — mostly by paying more attention to positioning — but ultimately it became all about recognising those tells and following the rhythm.

Dark Souls

As frustrating as some of my experiences have been with Dark Souls so far, I feel like I’m starting to “get it”. I’m starting to understand how to be more effective in combat; I’m starting to understand that equipment upgrades are arguably more important than levelling up after a certain point; and I’m starting to really get my head around the whole “learn through failure” concept.

The Capra Demon can still eat a fat dick, though.

Dark Souls Remastered is available for Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xboxeses and PC.

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Pete Davison
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