Saturday, 8 October 2011

Dark Souls Diary: Day One

Whenever the subject of favourite games pops up in conversation, I'm often the first to step in, thump my chest and proclaim Demon's Souls as one of the best games ever. Owning two copies of the game and completing multiple playthroughs, I consider myself a veteran of From Software's brutal action RPG. So having done what I can in Demon's Souls, I've been waiting with bated breath for Dark Souls ever since From Software announced it as Project Dark. Considering the sheer amount of time I've put into the predecessor, I assumed I would go into the successor knowing all the ropes, prepared for anything the game could throw at me. How wrong I was.

Dark Souls' first act of cruelty was its avoidance of me. My usual online retailer dispatches their game early so I normally get my games a day before release date. Thursday arrived and I headed to my parents house to pick the game up only to find the red 'in-your-face' you were not home slip locked away in the letter box, to which I had no key. Using an elaborate method of folded pizza menus, my girlfriend and I were able were able to retrieve the slip of paper and headed to the sorting office to pick the game up. However, upon flashing my ID, I was told the postman was not yet back from his round and that they'd be closing soon. I began to think that perhaps Dark Souls didn't exist, and everything I thought of the game was some euphoric dream I had come up with whilst overdosing on Demon's Souls and diet coke. I climbed in my girlfriends car and spent the rest of morning in a sulk like a child that had just been told Christmas wouldn't be arriving until tomorrow because Santa was stuck in traffic. But I finally have it. Dark Souls is in my possession.

Looking back at Demon's Souls' tutorial, it was a very basic run through of controls and the use of items until eventually you come up against a demon five times your size that swats you down like a fly, killing you in one blow. This, of course, is supposed to happen. This progresses you to the Nexus, the games central hub. In Dark Souls' tutorial, you begin in the Undead Asylum as a prisoner. You escape your cell with no weapons except a broken sword. Depending on your class, you pick up a few weapons (I went with the sword and shield Warrior class) and then have to face off against the Asylum Demon. Thankfully, I survived, but I think you'd have to beat this demon in order to progress and anyone unfamiliar with 'Souls' worlds would wonder how they could over come such odds in the bloody tutorial.

Your only place of safety
Having beat the demon, you move on outside where a giant raven flies down, picks you up and sends you to the island of Lordran and this is where your quest begins. Already things are different from Demon's Souls. There is no longer a central hub as the game is now open world. Your only place of safety are bonfires, a place to rest and refill your Estus flasks. Estus flasks are the healing item of the game, so you can't go farming herbs like you did in Demon's Souls. You have a limited number and bonfires can be far and in between so knowing when to heal already becomes a tactic itself. Using bonfires also re-spawns all the enemies on the map (except bosses and some of the more unique ones) so choosing which ones to use, and which ones to kindle becomes a hard choice. Kindling? That is when you offer some of your humanity to the bonfire, strengthening it and increasing the amount of Estus flasks you get from that bonfire. Humanity is a new precious item in the game which depends on your state - living or undead. Using humanity on yourself at the bonfire makes you living, giving you more health and able to use some of the online capabilities. If this all sounds wholly confusing so far, well, it should. Dark Souls wants you discover much of this for yourself but this what makes the journey such a memorable one.

Starting at Firelink Shrine, I had no possible idea of where to go. Talking to a few of the NPC around the area I decided to move on. Following a path and killing a few enemies, I ended up in Undead Burg, a place that resembles Boletaria Castle from Demon's Souls. This is the place your journey begins and you get to put your new found skills to the test. Already the familiarity of the predecessor will be known well to Demon's Souls veterans. Combat is familiar, having you block, dodge and tactically wait until the perfect opening on your enemy so you can strike a killing blow. And oh yes, there is death. A lot. It's amazing how much Dark Souls brought back all the horrible memories of dying in Demon's Souls. Death is unexpected and comes frequently. Bravado is often punished while patience and perseverance is rewarded. I think it was around the two hour mark the honeymoon period was over and anger and frustration began to creep up on me. It was also around this time I felt confused. Yes, there was familiarity to Demon's Souls but the differences began to show. The aesthetic looked different. Where as before you were often walking down dark grim corridors, Undead Burg had me crossing stone walkways as the sun shone brightly above. With no central hub, I was unable to repair my equipment that was slowly degrading with every use and death and using the online capabilities, such as leaving messages, remained a mystery. But it's best not to dwell on these things. If you push on and explore and check items you collect, a lot more options open up to you and things become clear. Eventually I found a merchant that sold me the item to rate and leave messages for other players. That's one problem solved at least.

Taurus Demon: There's no shame in running
What the fuck is that!? Oh it's the Taurus Demon, the games first big bad boss. Stepping out onto a walkway, this massive bullheaded monstrosity appears from nowhere, wielding a hammer so huge it could destroy a small country. Combat is an intense experience in Dark Souls. Since your precious souls hang in the balance (Souls: the game's one currency you obtain from killing enemies, used to level up, repair and buy new equipment. Die and you lose them) every encounter requires patience, methodical thinking and quick reflexes. So when it comes to boss fights, the heart pounding, edge of seat battle that you must win can be paradoxically euphoric and heartbreaking. Because boss fights are the likely places you will die. Dying sends you back the last bonfire you were at and yes, all those enemies you went through to get to the boss have re-spawned. It's normally the chance of reclaiming your lost souls that spurs you on. The last place you died will have left a bloodstain. Make it back to that stain without dying and you can reclaim your dropped souls and humanity. But frustration is your worst enemy in this game. Running back and trying to slice and dice your way through enemies is one sure way to make sure you never recover those souls. I managed to beat Taurus Demon after three ties after discovering a very useful tactic. Even so, besting a foe, especially a boss that has ended your life - that is the euphoric feeling you play Dark Souls for.

I'm making it sound like my time with Dark Souls has been a relatively easy and pleasant one. I wish I could say this is true. Having spent nine hours in the games company, I have died 35 times, not including the times I forgot to mark down a death from being too angry to remember. It got to the point where even enemies I bested with ease seemed to be killing me and anger got the better of me and petty revenge caused me to become sloppy in my tactics. At no point did this become more apparent then the Bell Gargoyle fight. Having made my way into the Undead Parish and my death count was stacking up, I encountered this boss. The first fight began well and I figured I was in for an easy ride. However, once you have it's health bar is down to the half way point, a second Gargoyle joins the fray and they start using the tactic of fire. I spent most of the fight pathetically backing away with my shield raised, healing when possible and unable to find an opening to attack. I would guess I died around 15+ times at this boss fight alone and at one point I had to shut the game off and catatonically stare at the wall while I thought of tactics to best these two bastards. It was here I explored the area some more and heard the loving sound of a blacksmith at work. Finally, a place to repair and reinforce my equipment. With a new found sense of vigour, I went back to face the two bastards that had ended me too many times before. Perhaps it was luck, or the new tactic using a sword and spear that helped me win, but I did it and all those hours of frustration seemed worth it. After the fight, you climb the tower and ring the bell. I heard this bell being rung a few times whilst in Undead Parish and that was the sound of another player beating the boss. Standing at the top of the tower, the bell tolling away, I looked over and saw the sheer size of the world. Where do I go from here?

After that, I needed some rest. Fatigue had got the best of me and playing a game that requires an incredible amount of mental concentration whilst tired is just a recipe to lose. But I slept soundly, knowing I ended one of the hardest boss encounters I had come across. A world of wonder, horror and endless discovery awaits me in Dark Souls and once the sun goes down I'll be back in it's strange and fascinating world. Watch this space for part two.

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