Saturday, 18 July 2015

Dark Souls: Late To The Party

So I picked up this game the other day, you might not have heard of it, it's a sort of action-RPG. It's called Dark Souls and I've died a few times already, but that's not really anything to worry about.

The game and fans love to talk about death, but death is not a permanent condition in Dark Souls
My previous knowledge of Dark Souls was when it became that super popular game that everyone was talking about, a console RPG at a time when I didn't have a console, it was then ported to the PC and I still didn't really get it. I'm still not entirely sure I get it, but at least I've seen enough to give it a shot and see how I do.
One of the guys from the intro, which no doubt will be a boss
My interest was piqued by a video series from the Extra Credits guys, where they're playing through Dark Souls and giving an overview of the design and various interesting bits of information. Not a classic LP by any means, but one that is far more interesting to me than any proper LP could be. Seeing the game in action, and having two people with a design background and an easy-going demeanour narrating it, made the game much more appealing to me.

The destruction of the fight from the intro, where stone dragons fought beings born of fire (Lord's souls?)
So the other day I notice it's on sale over at the Humble store for a mere £4.99 (75% off), and I figure for that price it's worth it even if I end up hating it. Armed with my feeble action-game-playing skills and a certain amount of foreknowledge of the game (from that aforementioned LP), I decided to jump in and see how things would go.

First impressions: I'm actually surprised how well this runs on my laptop (it is a gaming laptop, but it's not got a great video card, I intended it more for strategy or RPG games rather than anything that would require any graphical prowess). Mind you, it is a port of an older xbox360 game, so perhaps I shouldn't be so suprised? Either way, it decided to start in a window so I had to sort that out to begin with.
The Darksign, marking you as undead - not related to The Ring.
Actually in the game proper, I found the controls a little unintuitive. It's a game that rewards precise control and yet I still sometimes find it difficult to appropriately move my character to directly face the enemy, and there seems to be no easy way to finely turn on the spot. I'm glad I had already seen how the inventory and upgrading systems worked, and would definitely recommend watching a video before starting in order to have some of the interface explained.

Chracter creation options, which alter your starting stats and equipment.
The character creation is typical of many RPGs (see also my post on Pillars of Eternity), where you get plenty of options but some can be rather vague and for a new player it can be very hard to know what is an appropriate character class/build to go for. I went for the Knight, which I had heard was generally a good choice (an easier one for a new player, as they have good starting equipment). Dark Souls does give you plenty of freedom when upgrading though, so to a certain extent a bit of grinding and levelling up should get around poor early choices (I hope).

The first sections are essentially a tutorial, you are guided through a series of corridors and experience a few enemies mostly in single encounters. There's a lengthy intro cinematic, and then you get your exposition fed to you in small batches when you meet NPCs. I won't go into too much detail here, but essentially you are marked as Undead, and sent to an asylum to wither away. As you wait in your cell, a knight drops a body down from an overhead opening, and after meeting your gaze, disappears.

This church-like building is the boss area for the Undead Asylum.
The body contains the key to the cell, and from there you are guided by messages written in glowing ink (these are permanent, but most through the game are player-written and part of the multiplayer element). Escaping your cell, you head towards a church like building where a huge demon tries to kill you. The sense of scale is great in this game, the Asylum Demon is a hulking giant compared to your character, and it really works well to convey it's relative danger compared to the "hollow" undead that you meet along the way.

The Asylum demon! At this stage (broken sword, no shield), you best run towards the door on the left (as highlighted by those torches on the wall).
Of course you need to beat this demon, and while it is technically possible to do it at the first meeting, you are intended to take a side-route and learn more of the mechanics and gain your proper weapons and a shield. Once you've done this you meet another knight, who gives you your quest and an estus flask. Your quest is to ring the bell of awakening, which sounds like a simple task, and the estus flasks act as a refillable health potion (limited number of uses before refilled).

When the knight dies, you gain souls, and this is one of the many ways the game tells you that most (all?) of the characters you meet are just like you, undergoing the same changes and the same struggles. You get souls from the enemies you defeat, but you also drop your carried souls when you are defeated. You also notice that enemies will sometimes heal themselves using estus flasks, just as you might. The souls themselves act as the currency, both for levelling up and for item trading and so on.

Before that though, you must defeat the Asylum Demon, which I managed on my second proper attempt (after I got the hang of those estus flasks!). I used my sword two-handed (more power, can't use a shield), and dived onto the beast from a ledge above his head, doing a huge amount of damage. This made the ensuing fight very easy (I didn't manage it the first time, I waited too long and he knocked me off the ledge). After that, it's a brief walk up the hill to a rocky outcropping that looks like an abandoned graveyard.

As a carrion bird, ravens became associated with the dead and with lost souls.
At the edge of the cliff, looking into the sky, a gigantic raven flies down and grabs you, depositing you at the outskirts of Lordran, and from there the adventure really begins. You find yourself near a bonfire (always handy), where you can fill up your estus flasks and chat to a strange man. He, like many of the NPCs you meet, is rather cryptic and creepy in how he speaks, but gives you a bit more information about the world.

It seems you must ring two bells, one is found up above in a church, the other is far below in a charmingly-named place called Blight-town. A bit of classic RPG work here, where a simple-sounding quest quickly becomes more complex as you progress through the game. It gives you clear goals, but also lets you know that it's not going to be a cakewalk.

The raven hangs around near the graveyard.
My first task is a little exploration around this starting area. I know the bonfire is a safe space, so I can use that as a hub and explore around it. Most of the nearby enemies are rather pitiful, and make good practice for me to get used to the combat system. Each enemy type has different attacks depending on their equipment (much like the player), so you have to learn how to approach them, and how best to approach a group.

I would argue it's overconfidence that's the real killer in Dark Souls
I do wander into a particularly nasty area though, as there is a graveyard with lots of tricky skeletons in it. The bonus for running through this area is that I could grab a few items before I died, which were a couple of souls (you acquire souls as usable items, as well as through combat) and the mighty Zweihander sword. This sword requires a lot of strength to use though, which is beyond me at the moment.
Praise the sun!
I grind my way through to the next bonfire (Undead Burg), and after a little while I have just enough strength to use the Zweihander, although it's still not really a useful weapon for me yet. If I can get enough strength, I could even use it one-handed (!), so that might be my goal for the future. All of the enemies (apart from bosses) respawn after you rest at a bonfire, so this allows you to grind a bit for souls to use for upgrades. Each upgrade increases your level, and each level increases the number of souls required for the next upgrade, so it forces you to push forward after a while because of the diminishing returns.
The Zweihander, which I so desperately want to use
So far so good, and I'm enjoying this game. I know a little bit about what's coming up, but there's also a huge amount of the game to go yet. I hope I can continue my progress without getting too frustrated, because at the moment it's all good. Next time perhaps I'll meet another boss and perhaps get enough strength and endurance to properly wield that fantastic sword.

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