Further Thoughts on Dark Souls

Posted on January 26, 2015 by psu

In the early days of my console gaming “career” the two games that I would always go back to when I felt that general sense of ennui were Madden and Halo. And not multiplayer Halo, I could play the campaign modes over and over again. There was something about the combat system that just tickled the right parts of my brain when I wanted to turn it off and murder some aliens. What I have found out over the last couple of years is that these two games have been replaced by Dark Souls (and also the sequel, Dark Souls 2, which I will refer to using the same name, for maximum confusion).

Note: The following text has mild spoilers for both games. So if you re still trying to play through one of them blind for some reason, read further with caution.

My ennui came to pass because I bought a PS4. I heard that Bungie had done a new game for this machine, so thinking that I might get some Halo-like goodness out of it I bought a machine and downloaded Destiny. Sadly Destiny turns out to be nothing like Halo, and while its ad-hoc co-op multiplayer might be cool (even Dark Souls-ish, btw) the fact that even the campaign mode makes you go back to a lame hub area and then take the same trip down from orbit over and over again while it does a level load ends up just killing the whole experience for me. Also, there are no backstabs in first person shooters.

Next I tried The Last of Us. This game has potential. It’s built in the standard Naughty Dog “make a movie where you have to overcome random obstacles to see the next story bit” model, although the gameplay and the movie are fairly well integrated. I got bored anyway, and there were still no backstabs.

Finally, tried the new Mordor game. This game is third person combat, with swords and stuff even. But the system is janky and there were still no backstabs.

My solution was clear. I turned off the new machine, turned on the PS3, and tossed the Dark Souls disk in. I spent a few hours running the first four or five areas of the game. Rolling around, swinging my sword and best of all: parrying and backstabbing the mobs to my heart’s content. It was like being home again. I ended up running most of the game and then spent a few days playing with my old PVP characters. I was surprised that I did not completely suck at the PVP. I guess it’s like riding a bike.

By Christmas I was finally ready to get into something that I had been putting off: The Dark Souls 2 DLC. I had avoided this expansion pack because while Dark Souls 2 was enjoyable enough, I didn’t feel like it had really sunk itself into my brain the way Dark Souls had. So when I had finished my month or two of play time with the second game I didn’t really feel like I needed to jump back in. I don’t think Dark Souls 2 really does anything wrong, but one aspect that is missing is a feeling of connectedness in the atmosphere and the world-building. This left me uninterested in re-entering the world. I think I also got busy with some other addiction that I don’t quite recall now.

Anyway, I decided to pick up the expansion to play over the Christmas break. Right on schedule the Playstation Network went down for three straight days, so I could not actually pay for or download the bits. Instead I had to sit and build up a new melee character and spend a few days killing optional bosses that I had avoided before.

The new melee character turned out to be a win. Just like in the Dark Souls DLC, the enemies in the DS2 expansion have insane resitances to all spells and also the split damage that you get with elemental weapons. It is thus far easier to kill them with pure melee than by mixing melee with miracles, spells or hexes.

The enemies in the DLC are also assholes. They hit you like a truck. They gang up on you in threes and fours. They never seem to be in areas where you have a of room to move around. As I mentioned above, they spit on your puny magic damage. I mostly powered through the mobs with my Greatsword +10, but I also spent a lot of time just running away. Running away is in the grand tradition of Dark Souls game play. Don’t be ashamed. Own it.

If the enemies in the DLC are assholes, the bosses are even bigger assholes. There are bosses that summon little gank squads of their own. There are bosses that summon mini-versions of other bosses (!). There are bosses that spend half their time in the air, so your only choice is to unlock and keep track of where they are with the camera. Finally, the bosses hit so hard and from so many angles that you if you try to use a shield you will be dead in two swings or stunned and then dead in two swings.

Side Note: There is also at least one boss that is completely invisible until you figure out that you only ran into it because you went the wrong way in the level. Bravo Fromsoft, that is a new high.

As with any Dark Souls game, you can either learn to solo the bosses, or you can play them co-op. Co-op tends to be much easier and the new DLC is no different. If you summon two actual humans to go into the fight with you, and everyone is familiar with how the boss works, you will have no trouble ganking the poor thing to death. The A.I. is still too stupid to deal with gangs. It’s also still pretty easy to find people to help you since the game is still relatively popular. If your goal is to see the content and get to the end, this is the way to go. So this is mostly what I did my first time through with my melee guy. And it was mostly OK. The run-in with the invisble cat-boss didn’t go so well, even when I could see him, and even with outside help.

Then I decided I liked the DLC areas a lot. They have some of the same old-school Dark Souls spooky castle atmosphere that everyone loves. So I went in again to really learn the boss fights. But this time I did it with my high level guy, who is in NG+2. This is because I am really stupid.

Here I must take a short digression into the nature of Dark Souls combat. Most Dark Souls players, especially players like me, who suck, take a cautious approach to combat. There are rules to follow:

  1. Always fight one-on-one.

  2. Lock-on so you can keep the fight in front of you.

  3. Block enemy hits with your shield until you get a window to attack.

  4. Manage stamina carefully.

  5. Maintain your spacing so you have time to heal up.

Most of the area enemies, and even most of the bosses in Dark Souls will fall to these cautious tactics. The main obvious exception is Gwyn, but that’s because it’s hard to find gear that will tank his fire and stamina damage. Also, you can always either keep Gwyn at range and burn him down with fire, or if you are good you can just parry him to death.

The bosses in the new DLC are not like this. The standard combat algorithm just does not work.

What you learn from the new bosses that FromSoft is using them to make you learn how to play like those freaks of nature on Youtube. Really good players have always taken a different approach to combat. They can fight two or three guys at once. Instead of blocking, they can roll through attacks. Instead of locking on, they can manipulate their position and aim to dead angle multiple opponents at once. They do not have to heal, because they never get hit. They can get criticals whenever they want to thin the groups of enemies attacking them. They seem to have a preternatural ability to control both their position and their point of view to see everything that is going on around them, where normal people like you and I just get lost and end up pointing the camera at the ground and falling over.

To solo the bosses in the DLC, you need to learn how to do some of this.

  1. Two hand your weapon, because the shield is doing you no good anyway.

  2. Learn to dodge everything.

  3. Heavy armor usually does you little good. And you roll much faster in light armor or with no armor at all.

Now practice until you can make it through the whole fight without a major fuck-up. Then you win.

What you notice is that the above style is somewhat similar to how you play PVP matches in the game. In PVP the normal cautious combat style doesn’t really work. Instead, you need to be more reckless and optimize your style for damage output rather than defense. The only real difference between the bosses and PVP is that heavier armor can help you out more in PVP because it gives you poise which allows you to attack without getting stunned. Bosses always stun you, so stacking poise is pointless.

In any case, I find this evolution of boss fight mechanics interesting. As you move from Demon’s Souls to Dark Souls to the Dark Souls DLC to Dark Souls 2 and now to the Dark Souls 2 DLC the bosses at each stage have gotten progressively faster, deadlier, and more aggressive. The result is that the solo fights are pretty tough. Tough enough that they are right on the edge of what is possible for me … but after enough tries I will usually get lucky enough to survive just once and move on and I can tell myself that I’ve “learned the fight” and “gotten better”. The truth is that even with my most powerful character the best I will ever do is to manage to survive once in every 20 or 30 tries. Meanwhile over on youtube there are dozens of vidoes where some freak of nature goes into the same fight and wrecks the thing at SL1 with just a mace and in “red tearstone” mode so any hit is an instant kill.

I currently stand at 2/3rds of the way through the DLC in NG+2. After adjusting to how things work at the higher difficulty level I’m mostly having a lot of fun. I also went and grabbed a few new items, including a sword that has pieces of the move-set from the Artorias boss fight in the Dark Souls DLC. That might be the best thing ever. I have a few optional fights to do in the first two expansion areas before moving to the final one and a re-match with that damned cat.

I have found the DLC to be rewarding. I think it ties the second game together in a nice way and gives the game world a bit of unity that might have been lacking before. Or maybe all the extra hours being punished by the bosses have just left me soft in the brain. With Dark Souls you never really know the difference.