Finishing Dark Souls: Post Game Thoughts

I probably could not tell you what the story of Dark Souls was. When it comes to fantasy gaming, I usually tune out the lore, as it almost always boils down to "Find the blue key. And see that guy over there? Fuck him up...with magic." So I came into Dark Souls knowing mainly how cheap the opening few levels could be, at least based on the Quick Look.

I made it as far as the beginning of the Darkroot Garden and had to put the game on hold as life, work, and more than a few other big games started to take hold. I figured that I had invested the time, so I'd eventually get back around to it.

...two years later...

I think it was a mix of being burned out on third person shooters and looking for something, anything, that didn't contain a Space Shotgun (TM). I knew that I still had Dark Souls on my PC, but I still needed that push...which came in the two points:

  • I had gorged on the Active Time Babble podcast during my night shifts, and all that infectious enthusiasm for RPGs got me realizing I had missed out on about a generation or three's worth of decent-to-awesome games. Cue many, many impulse driven eBay bargain buys. Shoutout to Cheap Ass Gamer's Amazon Warehouse Deals threads for being a prolific enabler.
  • @rorie's enjoyable Twitch streaming of his ongoing playthrough. Not only did it show off areas that I had yet to get to, but it showed a different style of fighting/evading/gearing up than I had. Something about that made me think that if he could do it that way, and I could still hobble along the way I had played, then maybe it could work out.

I booted back in with the Wanderer I put about 35 hours into. A quick check online made it sound like I hadn't pumped up the wrong stats, so I forged onward...and at level 100 and 97 hours, I finally got it done. What had been evading my first playthrough was a sense of progress. I was afraid that the game itself would just be more variations of the Undead Parish area, but luckily the game knows when to shift when too much familiarity sets in. Threats of stat-dinging curses, vertical heavy areas, diabolical traps, pitch black caverns, frikkin''ll never get comfortable here. For a near-jaded gamer, that's pretty engaging to have a game that constantly keeps you on your toes without seeming too cheap or downright cruel. It almost always deals a fair hand...even if that hand is in a cast iron glove.

And it's not crushingly hard! At least, once you manage to find your groove for each area/monster/boss. The game's difficulty is more about seemingly open ended discovery and exploration. It won't hold your hand to say, "No, you'll be punching above your weight in there...and you really should have the Rusted Iron Ring." You'll have to figure it out, and then determine which area's more your league. While early on I had to reference FAQs (mainly Alex's succinct, indexed version), by the back third of the game, I only looked if I wanted to make sure I had grabbed every bit of decent loot or needed to farm weapon upgrade ingredients.

I feel like this game was an exciting blend of twitch action mechanics with a pretty heavy RPG stat framework. Not only that, it really taps into the wonder that I rarely get in these fictional spaces. Standing in one spot, you can usually see other areas that you can eventually get to somewhere off in the distance and sometimes see the surprising connections each share (you'd never realize that Area A was right next to Area B until you saw A off in the distance). That sense of geography is subtle, and shines whenever you stop and look at what could just be another pretty skybox only to try to plan your next move.

There's also a curious touch of melancholy with not just the perma-fatigued NPCs you meet, but even the enemies. In one instance (should you dig into the wholly optional lore), you discover that the boss you killed was mainly just trying to protect its sickly, peaceful sibling, who will now wither away unless you step up and nurse it back to health. The plot may not be the reason to play, but there's a enough pleasant quirks to keep from glazing over it. It even rewards players who pay attention, often dropping hints or etching character arcs if you seek them out.

The designs were so unique and at times grotesque, that when I heard they were making an english edition of the design art book, I think I may have broken a mouse button pre-ordering it. If I had to play again, though, I think I would have preferred the console versions, as the PC experience has not been ideal (even with the fantastic efforts of the community), and there have been troubling reports of morale crushing hacks going on.

Will I be playing the New Game + mode? Hell no! I barely had time to finish the initial playthrough! But I will be preordering Dark Souls II. Here's to the next 100 levels.

Here's a few random tips I picked up along the way:

  • The sound design can save your ass. Attacks (especially magic-based) can be telegraphed, traps audibly get sprung, or unseen enemies heard sneaking up on you. Turn it up or use headphones. When you're just farming or grinding in areas you're familiar with, listen to Black Sabbath.
  • Know when to attack with both hands for Maximum Fuck-Uppery. This was probably the hardest thing for me to learn, as my style involved getting in close and desperately needing to block an enemy's attacks. By figuring out the longest amount of time when an enemy is between attack animations, you can toggle into two handed mode and start dumping on them. In fact, most enemies, even the bosses, have stagger animations that you can trigger if you do enough sudden damage, which is perfect to switch back into a shielded defensive posture or displace outside of their effective attack reach.
  • Find a weapon type you're comfortable with, as well as armor sets. While you can carry pretty much everything with you, it's good to have a go-to load out, as well as specializing sets for particular hazards (I'd stress figuring out the highest poison, curse, and magic resistant outfits you can cobble together). Armor can quickly impact your agility due to weight, so just know that if you're wanting to feel impervious you're also going to be a slow moving target. Speed can kill just as much as a weapon's damage stat. Find something that works for your movement speed. Once you know what you like...
  • Spend titanite like a drunk sailor on shore leave. Figure out where the blacksmiths are and what they need to modify your items. Aside from the top tier of slabs, all the various shards and chunks are replenish-able, especially with the Covetous Gold Serpent Ring spurring more rare loot/titanite drops (though some of the effort will be a pain in the ass). For the most part of my playthrough, I stuck with vanilla weaponry that I managed to upgrade to +14, a divine counterpart to +10, and my good ol' anti-sonofabitch stick: Lightning Spear to +5.
  • Glitches, please. Once you accept the occasional bit of programming weirdness, you can often find a few in your favor. That one spot where a charging enemy will keep running into a wall until they fall off the map. A certain boss that cannot hurt you if you stand just so. The Enemy AI is a pretty simple and prone to getting slowed down or even blocked on terrain/columns. Take advantage of that!
  • Take the Master Key. Just pick the key. Trust me.
  • When in doubt, grind. If you run into a brick wall of a boss, take some time to level up a time or two. You'd be surprised what those stat bumps can do for you. It's also a good way to refine your fighting style or experiment on trying to riposte or parry.
  • One at a time, please. The main reason I used arrows was to draw out the enemy one by one. You can get overwhelmed so easily with multiple enemies, so whenever you can, single them out one by one.