It all started when I found out that the Xbox 360 had a downloadable version of Dark Souls along with its expansion pack. Since I must download things, I bought it and happily started playing another character. I did all the things I remembered doing before. I made enchanted weapons, bought the crystal magic spells, re-learned how to backstab and parry. I was easily beating up the mobs and didn’t have that much more trouble with the bosses. Then I went into the downloadable expansion pack. And got murdered.
I tried again, and got murdered again. My enchanted Claymore hit for all of 102 damage when it ought to have done in the 300s. I was distraught and confused. Then the Xbox destroyed my save file after a rage-quit, and I sat back to figure out what I had done wrong.
Note: The rest of this post has a lot of spoilers. You have been warned.
To review. Dark Souls is a third person action RPG/dungeon crawler where you take a character through the world of Lordran, which is full of various creatures who are out to kill you. Your goal is to navigate the world, defeat enemies, beat the bosses, collect “souls”, and make it to the end of the game where you will learn something about the final fate of you and the world.
The game is centered around a melee and magic combat engine. There is hand to hand combat, ranged combat with bows and thrown objects, magic spells, faith-based miracles, and a kind of fire-based magic called pyromancy. As I have mentioned before, the combat engine is very satisfying.
Your progression through the game is measured by the number of souls you collect. You can use souls to:
Level up your character’s stats.
Upgrade your weapons, armor, and other equipment.
Buy consumable items, including items that let you further upgrade your equipment.
Buy spells, miracles and pyromancy.
It turns out that what I had done wrong was to not understand how the upgrade systems really work, especially with regard to weapons damage.
Choose Your Path
The upgrade paths in Dark Souls allow you to increase the damage that your character can inflict along several different dimensions:
You can make the weapon do more pure physical damage. This is called the “normal” upgrade path. Weapons tend to either scale their physical damage with the strength (STR) stat or the dexterity (DEX) stat. In addition, some scale with both, but this requires that you increase both STR and DEX before you get to nice damage levels.
Dark Souls has a wider variety of weapons that scale well with DEX than with STR. That said, a good collection of the best weapons in the game can be had in each category. My personal favorites are: the Uchigatana (DEX), the Man Serpent Great Sword (STR), the Zweihander (STR), and the Balder Sword (DEX). I also like the halberds and the Claymore which are more hybrid weapons.
You can make weapons do elemental damage. This means either Fire or Lightning. The nice thing about elemental damage is that it does not scale with your stats. This allows you to get to damage levels which are sufficient to beat the main game (more on the DLC later) and you can concentrate your stat upgrades in things like Stamina (for attacking) and Vitality (for health).
The bad thing about elemental weapons is that their damage does not scale with any stat. Typically you’ll get to slightly higher levels of damage if you can take advantage of scaling. This is possibly important for PVP or if you want to play NG+ or further.
You can make weapons that do Magic damage. These weapons do damage that scales with either your Intelligence (INT) or Faith (FAI). If you are building a caster, you are probably pumping either INT (for magic) or FAI (for miracles) so this allows you to upgrade your weapons along the same lines.
The problem with magic weapons (and also the elemental weapons above) is that they split their damage between physical and magic (or fire, or lightning). This means that if you go up against an enemy that has high resistances against both physical and other damage types, your damage gets reduced twice.
In the main game, this doesn’t really come up. Most of the bosses have some kind of elemental weakness that you can exploit (it’s usually fire). But the DLC is different. FromSoft rebalanced things, and the bosses in the DLC chew up split damage and spit it back at you. This is why my enchanted Claymore was so pathetic against the bosses in the DLC. Fire and lightning weapons fare just as badly.
What you need to do is make a weapon that deals a large amount of physical damage. After watching this video on the Great Scythe and also this one on other weapons I decided to rebuild a character around DEX to see if I would do better in the DLC. Just for fun, I played around with Faith and miracles for the first time too. I ended up doing a Faith/DEX and a Faith/STR build. In addition, I started to delve into the great pleasure that is experimenting with different weapons in the game.
A Weapons Digression
Dark Souls is, in many ways, a love letter to its weapons. No other video game that I’ve played provides such a wide variety of instruments with which to dispatch your enemies. In addition, no other game provides such a wide variety of move sets. There are small fast weapons, large slow weapons, weapons that poke, and weapons that stab. There are hammers, spears, halberds, straight swords, knives, daggers, curved swords, large swords, great swords, and axes.
Each weapon in the game has a variety of animations for its various attacks. There are at a minimum one and two handed light attacks and one and two handed heavy attacks. In addition there may be jumping, and running attacks. And there are usually special animations for backstabs and parries.
While most of the weapons in a given class handle fairly similarly, there are a huge number of weapons for which FromSoft has build entirely unique move animations. The long lunging poke attack of the Balder Side Sword, or the fast horizontal sweeping attack of the Great Scythe. There are little flourishes of whimsy too: how some enemies will backstab you by climbing over your head and slitting your throat form behind, or how one of the combos of the Painting Guardian Sword makes your character do a backwards cartwheel (the awesome Gold Tracer does this too).
If the juicy meaty center of Dark Souls is the combat engine, the weapon animations and move sets are the mustard sauce and the fries.
To my great pleasure creating a character that maximized physical damage was a success, and I was able to get through the expansion pack with much less difficulty. But, playing the two faith characters made me realize that comparatively speaking miracles are weaker than the other magic in Dark Souls. They have some other advantages that make them better for PVP, but I wanted to have an easier time.
Here is how you have an easier time:
First, pump all your early souls into INT and upgrading a melee weapon on the magic path. I suggest the Halberd or the Claymore. You want around 40 INT.
Second, concentrate on the strong magic spells and on getting two critical items: The Dusk Crown and the Bellowing Dragoncrest Ring. Both of these items increase the damage that spells do.
Third, use your mid-game souls to pump mainly either STR or DEX, and secondarily VIT and END.
Now upgrade a STR or DEX weapon on the normal path for maximum physical damage. This weapon will also be buffable using Magic Weapon and related to spells for a bit of extra oomph. Use this as a backup against the bosses that have more magic resistance or are just harder to kill with casting.
Follow the Big Hat Logan story path so you can get his Crystal spells when you go through the Duke’s Archives. Before Duke’s the non-crystal versions of Soul Arrow, Soul Spear and Homing Soul Mass should get you through. You can use melee on mobs and the big spells on bosses.
Pyromancy is always great. Farm extra souls to upgrade it.
If you play this right, you can wipe out the tougher bosses in the game with just a few casts. Here is a spoiler-filled video as a demo: Spoiler video Spoiler video Spoiler video. The fight starts at 13min in or so.
While Dark Souls has a deserved reputation for being unforgiving, this has not kept crazy players from making it even harder on themselves. The Youtube (and more recently, Twitch.tv) world is full of “no armor, no healing, no leveling, shield only while cursed” runs of the game. As a side note: in the two years or so since I put the game down before picking it up again the major thing that I have noticed is the explosion of online playthroughs, tutorials, studies of the lore and so on. You can probably spend your whole life mining all of this. While doing this, I happened to come across this insane play-through: NG+7 at level 1.
What does this mean? First, it means she has finished the game six times with one character. Each time you finish the game you can start over again and each time the enemies get scaled in terms of hit points and damage, so the game is tougher. This is called “New Game Plus”, or in this case, NG+7. NG+7 is when the scaling stops, so it is as hard as you can make it.
Second, the character used in this play-through is kept at the starting stats for a Pyromancer, which is “level 1” in the game. All this means is that only equipment can be upgraded. No extra HP or stamina, no scaled weapons damage, and so on. I was intrigued by this play-through, but thought it was too nuts to actually do myself.
Fast forward to September 2013. Work had been in a long running crunch time, sapping all my free mental capacity. So I had been playing Dark Souls most of the summer. I had even gotten the Platinum Medal on the PS3, which is crazy for me, and I had gone through Demon’s Souls once to see what I had missed (not a whole lot, it turns out. The farming is even worse in that game).
When you play this game that much, you start to memorize things. Instead of every area taking a week, you can do them in an hour, or at worst a night or two. Eventually the whole game just becomes short runs through the various areas that end in the boss fights. You’ll mostly die only if you get loose and sloppy.
Anyway, having reached a certain level of comfort, I started noodling with an SL1 character. At first I wanted to see how much of the beginning of the game I could get through fast. Then I wanted to play more with the Reinforced Club. This is a fabulous weapon and one of the few that a level 1 character can use. By the time I beat Ornstein and Smough (though with a summon) I felt like I could probably do the rest. For the most part I was right. The Four Kings took a few tries, and Bed of Chaos always sucks. But otherwise the late stages of the game were fairly nominal.
The secret to the SL1 run is that while you are not leveling your character, you still get to level your equipment. Your major friends are
Pyromancy. Most enemies are weak to this, and you can buff it with the magic damage buffs listed above. This is how you kill bosses. Even the final boss, Gywn, can be beaten this way. You just have to learn how to avoid his big sword (of course the standard way to beat Gwyn is to parry him, but I’ll never figure that out).
Elemental weapons. In particular the Reinforced Club.
The only bosses that do not fall to these tactics are the two harder ones in the DLC (Manus and Kalameet). To beat these two you need to refine your technique a bit.
Digression on Dodging
In this section I will expand on the last thought above. Mostly I will meditate on arguably the best fight in the game: Manus.
First, you need to resign yourself to the fact that it’s going to take around twenty hits to kill the boss. Even with Great Combustion this will be the case. So you have to stay alive that long. This means you must exhibit extraordinary patience, only attacking in safe windows and never getting greedy. This is harder than it seems.
Second, you need to be able to dodge. Dodging is a bit subtle in Dark Souls because you need to realize that it comes in two forms.
A dodging move of type A actually gets your character completely out of the way of the attack before the attack hits, and further moves you far enough away that the attack cannot track to you and hit you anyway.
But, sometimes a move of type A is not possible. What can happen is that the attack is so rangy that you can’t actually get completely out of the way. Or, the attack may track your movement so well that you get hit anyway. In these cases, a dodging move of type B must be timed so that the attack hits you during the invincibility frames of the dodge animation.
When you roll-dodge your character becomes invincible to hits during several frames of the rolling animation. During these frames the attack can hit you, but you will take no damage. The way to avoid many boss attacks is to time the dodge so that you leap just as the attack comes down on you and the I-frames save you. If you watch really good players fighting Manus or the Four Kings you can see this happening, and it will look very confusing. You will think “how is that guy jumping through the attack?” I-frames is how.
At SL1 you cannot survive in the Manus fight without learning how to roll dodge at least two or three of his attacks. This is because the club does not have the range to allow you to roll away and then come back and still hit him. The main ones to watch out for are the spinny fist slam, the leaping fist slam, and the dark bead spell. The timing on the dark bead is especially tricky. You actually have to leap slightly after the cast leaves his magic stick, otherwise you don’t get far enough away to avoid the hit when you land.
I have a tendency to jump too early. To get the timing right I need to think to myself “wait wait wait wait …. NOW” otherwise I almost always find myself leaping right into the teeth of the attack and dying.
Anyway, watch this video of the fight to see what I mean. Note this freak is fighting Manus at NG+7, so it goes on a lot longer than in my game.
All of the comments above also apply to the Kalameet fight. Except dodging is less important there, and patience is more important. Kalameet takes even more hits than Manus, but his attacks are a lot slower and easier avoid.
Odds and Ends
Finally, after playing this much of a single video game, one gains some insights that can be helpful for others. So here is my random list of favorite semi-spoilery tips for anyone who hasn’t played through yet and wants to before Dark Souls 2 comes out.
Get the Ring of Favor early and just use it. For NG there are no better rings. The only time you’ll miss it is fighting the Four Kings. But in a pinch you can break the ring for that fight and then get a second one.
After the fourth or fifth time through this game you realize that it’s really just about the runs to the bosses. The stuff in between is mostly incidental. Watching someone speed run the game in 55 minutes emphasizes this structure. Under this kind of extreme repetition the game becomes similar to the “end game” modes of various MMOs, where people just gather to fight the same boss instances over and over for shiny loot.
In my experience, the best place to get Sunlight Medals with co-op is the Capra Demon. People hate doing that fight alone, and it’s great to murder that asshole 3-on-1.
Don’t get the Drake Sword. Get any almost other weapon and upgrade it to +5 and pump the stat that it likes the most. Then you won’t run into a wall when you go into Sen’s.
Upgrade weapons first, shields next (for stability) and armor last. Armor that looks good is more important than armor that can take hits.
Upgrade the pyro glove just for the Duke’s Archives. Fire makes that area a lot easier.
The four shields you want are: Heater, Crest, Dragon Crest, and Balder.
It’s great that you can beat this game with (almost) nothing more than a glorified baseball bat.
My favorite crazy NPC quest line is Siegmeyer. It’s easy to do it all right and still get it wrong. Second favorite is the pyromancy one.
The first part of NG+ is the easiest that the game gets, because the enemies are not really that much harder but you have all of the stuff you collected for in NG. The best Dark Souls moment by far is casually walking up to the tutorial boss that you could not even scratch when you started NG and murdering it with two or three hits.
OK. That’s really all I got. Well, except for the covenants, PVP, crazy back story details, and what happened to me when I picked up Demon’s Souls again as a change of pace.
I guess it never ends.