Dark Souls Journal #02 – Losing Battles but Controlling Myself

Dark Souls Journal is a running series chronicling my experience in a blind playthrough* of Dark Souls

*Blind playthough means I’m not consulting any external guides or tutorials for hints or tips about how to play the game. All I have is the game and its manual.

Read previous entries in this series: Part 1

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At first glance, Undead Burg doesn’t appear to be anywhere near as dreary as its name would suggest. First impressions can be deceiving. The bright and cheery skyline visible in the screenshot above quickly become obscured by dark stone walls, forcing me into conflict with the permanent residents of this particular burg. I can only assume that this is the path I’m supposed to take early in the game, seeing as every other avenue I tried saw me skewered in a matter of moments. If my assumptions are correct, then this twisted medieval version of suburbia is the player’s “real” initiation into the world of Dark Souls. If you can survive here, then you just might have what it takes to survive farther into the game.

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I don’t know if I have what it takes to survive farther into the game.

After a half dozen enemy encounters with results ranging from limping victory to terrible bloodbath, I realize that I still have no clue what I’m doing. Let me give you an example: Undead Burg has a shopkeeper where you can trade items and buy supplies. I accidentally killed him. In the fifteen to twenty minutes it took me to battle from the burg’s entrance to his shop my mind was in a state of combat readiness. When I stumbled into his shop, hidden behind a mess of crates and barrels I was on edge and ready to respond to the slightest stimuli with a flurry of violence. That poor shopkeeper thought the best thing he could to do a well-armed traveler that bursts through the door is start talking. I had to respond somehow. I pressed a button that I thought was supposed to initiate interaction, but I pressed the wrong one and whipped a throwing knife at his face. He doesn’t want to sell me things anymore. In one enraged motion, he came crashing through his table and lunged towards me. I’m forced to defend myself against who I assume is the only one able to sell me supplies in this location. This shop is now closed permanently. No friends do I have in Undead Burg. All because I pressed the wrong button.

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Controls, controls, I must learn the controls. If you ever want to play the PC version Dark Souls for yourself be forewarned that using the mouse and keyboard is horrible and clunky. That’s why I’m playing with a wireless Xbox 360 controller. For the most part, the default layout seems pretty intuitive. The left stick moves my character. the right rotates the camera. Clicking the right stick will snap the camera to face the same direction as my character. Clicking the right stick in close proximity to an enemy will “lock on” to that particular foe, making them easier to track in the heat of combat. The front bumpers and triggers correspond somewhat to the left and right sides of my character’s body. My character’s left arm holds a shield. The left bumper brings up the shield for a block, left trigger swipes the shield in an attack. My character’s right arm is used for offense. Press the right bumper for a light attack that you can recover from quickly, use the right trigger launches a heavy attack appropriate for the type of weapon currently wielded. The D-pad corresponds to four inventory slots. Pressing a given direction allows you to equip or unequip items in that slot.

Moving on to the face buttons: Y will switch between a one-handed or a two-handed combat stance. When using a two-handed stance pressing either the left trigger or left bumper will allow you to use your sword to block. Pressing B while motionless allows you to jump backward, or roll in whichever direction you happen to be moving. Holding B down allows me to sprint. While sprinting, press B again to jump. X uses whatever item is currently equipped. A. What does A do? Aside from using it to confirm selections in the menu I haven’t stumbled upon any use for the A button. I hope I haven’t missed anything important.

Select brings up the gesture menu, allowing me to trigger various poses that I can’t quite understand the use for:

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Pressing Start brings up the standard in-game menu. Not so standard is the realization that bringing up the start menu does not pause the game. On more than one occasion I’ve brought up the menu to change a setting or check the options, only to have an enemy wander towards me from off camera and start pounding me. I vainly start mashing my attack and defend buttons only for my character to stand motionless and take his punishment. Lesson to be learned: Combat does not work with the menu is open. I can’t tell why the game was developed this way. Probably to punish poor saps like me who just have trouble figuring things out.

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Hopefully, familiarizing myself more with the control scheme will make me ever so slightly more efficient in combat. I’ve been stuck in Undead Burg for a while now and have only managed to light one bonfire at what I presume to be the halfway point. By now I’ve tried to progress through the city about a dozen times, dying with alarming frequency. For a while I manage to hold my own against the undead masses. Each battle may be hard and furious, but I can usually take out a few groups of enemies and restore myself to nearly full health with a drink from my Estus Flask. My confidence starts to wane when I approach an unsettling trio of skeletons, each armed with a long pike and shields that look like they’ve been carved from solid granite. They’re different from the mindless drones I’ve had to plow through until now. Backing slowly away from the group, one follows me up a stairwell and paces side to side slowly. He’s taunting me, waiting for me to make the first move.

Patrol

I make the first move. I die.

Thinking that maybe I ought to try a weapon other than my light but fast curved scimitar, I try to equip a broadsword.

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Nope, can’t use that one with only one hand. My strength stats are too low so this is something I have to use with both arms. I’m going to have to step out of my comfort zone and forget about using a shield for a while. The first dozen or so enemies I run into die with a pleasing lack of resistance. Even the trio of spear-laden, granite shielded skeletons can’t hold me back. I make my way up a stairwell and down a few more corridors. I try passing through a doorway shrouded in white fog, “Traverse the white light”, it says. That can’t possibly lead to anything bad, could it?

Yes. Yes it could.

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Taurus Demon? TAURUS DEMON? There’s a boss fight on a freaking parapet walk? And there are snipers firing at me from behind? And I don’t have any healing juice left in my Estus Flask?

YOU DIED

I need a break.

Dark Souls Journal #01 – What Have I Done?

Dark Souls – A Journal is a running series chronicling my experience in a blind playthrough of Dark Souls

Why did I sign up for this? No, really: What did I get into? Or the more accurate question would be: Who got me into this? […] “Try it”, they said. “You’ll love it”, they said. Of course I’d heard of Dark Souls before, I just never had a reason to care.

Dark Souls – A Journal is a running series chronicling my experience in a blind playthrough* of Dark Souls

*Blind playthough means I’m not consulting any external guides or tutorials for hints or tips about how to play the game. All I have is the game and its manual.

Why did I sign up for this? No, really: What did I get into? Or the more accurate question would be: Who got me into this? I blame Zachery and Brandon from the Facebook group I’m a part of, Theology Gaming University. “Try it”, they said. “You’ll love it”, they said. Of course I’d heard of Dark Souls before, I just never had a reason to care. Anyone who has been around gaming even a little but over the past few years has heard of Dark Souls. It’s a game made by a Japanese developer and released to consoles in 2011, and later made its way to the PC in 2012. So what exactly is it? Over the years I’d seen a lot of coverage of the game but never really paid it any mind because it just didn’t seem like it was my thing. Big guys in armor swinging swords. Torches and castles. No lasers or spaceships. No humor. Supposedly punishing difficulty. Story and background history told in an overt manner. The impression I got is that it was difficult hack ‘n’ slash game made to punish anyone brave enough to give it a try.

Turns out I may not have been too far off the mark on that assessment.

20160509203333_1I got the game for $5 during a recent sale at the Humble Store, donating my 5% Humble Tip to the Wounded Warrior Project. After doing a bit of research I found an excellent  guide to configuring the game at the Dark Souls subReddit. While you don’t have to do everything recommended there, DSfix is an absolute must to get the game running properly. I also went for an HD texture pack and font upgrades.

The first time I started the game I got some weird graphical glitches where the HUD was fullscreen, but the gameplay was only showing in the top left corner of the screen. Turns out that was a result of me not fully reading the instructions for DSfix. I didn’t disable Anti-Aliasing from the in-game menu like I was supposed to. Who knew it would make that much difference?

Starting a new game brings you to a character creation screen where you can choose your class, talents, gifts, and a few other attributes. Not having any idea what differences any of these would really make I went with the Wanderer. If I’m given the option I usually try to pick something that might approximately apply to me, and I certainly don’t have the traits of a soldier or a magician. Picking a “Large” physique character who walks around a lot and carries a cool-looking curved sword seemed to make the most sense to me.

20160510064341_1There is an impressive opening cinematic that lays out some interesting-looking history from the world of Dark Souls, but as far as I could tell there wasn’t any context for how my character fit into the grand scheme of things. When I took control of the game my character was locked in a cell, and someone tossed me a key to allow my escape. The only tool afforded me to help in my escape was the hilt of a sword. Not the sword’s blade, or a knife, or anything sharp, but a handle. Why do I get the impression this is a sign of things to come? For some reason I’m a prisoner in the Northern Undead Asylum and I look decidedly less than human. Am I dead? How did I get to the asylum? Why am I escaping? I didn’t grab any screenshots of this opening level because I was too busy mashing buttons on my controller and trying to stay alive. Things didn’t seem to difficult at first; I think I only died once in the tutorial level. After beating the tutorial’s boss a giant raven grabbed me and flew me to what I assume is the main game’s world.

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Hints and other messages are littered throughout the game in the form of glowing scratch marks.

The raven dropped me in Firelink Shrine, an interesting-looking little place. There are ruins strewn about. There’s a guy loitering near the fire who tells me about two bells; one in a high place and the other someplace down below. The implication is that I’m supposed to go to one of or both of those places and ring some bells. So there’s death, darkness, undead, demons, and now bells are involved. Great. I hate bells.

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You’ll see this screen an awful lot.


There may be multiple paths of progression from here, but nothing really stands out. The most obvious one to me involves some stairs that make a winding descent, eventually leading to an elevator that goes down even further. Eventually I wind up at a place called New Londo Ruins. Visually, it’s a pretty place as far as ruins go. Crumbled structres loom in front of a dark blue haze, backlight by a far-off light source. There are some apparently distracted and quite weak zombie dudes, and so far the ruins don’t seem too bad or too hard to go through. After slicing and dicing my way through a dozen or so brain-dead undead I notice that each enemy I kill makes a counter in the bottom-right of the screen go up. Each enemy has a value or something. Come to find out that somehow I’m collecting “souls” from my slain enemies and this is some kind of in-game currency. Morbid, but I guess that’s why the game is called Dark Souls, and not Happy Fun Souls.

Eventually I make my way to the edge of a giant subterranean pond with wood walkways sprawling out before me. Just before the first walkway is one of those helpful glowing hints that says something like: “Bravery: 1 Required”. I check my stats to see if I have any bravery. …no, it doesn’t look like it. Well, let’s go forward anyway; I’m sure it’s just a suggestion! A few steps down the path I encounter two ghosts. How hard can this be? Whoa! They can reach out like the creepy ghost that stole the baby in Ghostbusters 2! I wonder if I can try to mo-YOU DIED.

Well crud. Brutally throttled in the back by an undead vapor. I don’t think I even landed one hit on those guys. I respawn at the bonfire at the top of Firelink Shrine and do the same thing again. Once I hit the ground floor it quite literally hits me: enemies don’t stay dead. Every time I respawn, either from death or resuming a saved game, every enemy respawns back in the game world no matter how many times you’ve already mowed through them. That’s just rough.

Searching through my inventory I find a curse or something that says it allows me to engage in fights against ghosts, and I just so happened to be carrying two of them. Armed with this new knowledge I rush back to the depths only to find out they don’t help, I still died. Twice. Though those last two times I didn’t die quite so quickly. That’s progress, right? I think the game is trying to tell me that progressing through the New Londo Ruins is not what I’m supposed to be doing. Surely there must be some other avenue to take? We’ll find out.

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Those glowing orange marks contain helpful game wisdom and encouragement. It gives me the warm fuzzies inside.