It was less than three years ago that I began my first play through of ‘Dark Souls’. Four times in fact, I made the punishing journey from the Undead Berg to the Kiln of The First Flame. And in spite of all the countless times I died; be it killed by Black Knights, poisoned in Blight Town or backstabbed in Darkroot Garden, I loved every single moment of it.
Because whilst Dark Souls was undeniably difficult, it was never unfair. When you died (which you would, repeatedly) it was no-ones fault but your own. Never mind the legions of unforgiving, lethal monstrosities that blocked every path and corridor, you were your own worst enemy.
But you learned from your mistakes, and quickly realised that if you focused, and underestimated nothing, that you’d succeed. It was because of this, that Dark Souls was one of the most rewarding experiences of the last generation.
So, two and-a-bit years on, through delays and distribution issues, my copy of Dark Souls 2 finally arrived through the mail. And as the game installed and the updates downloaded, I prepared myself, to die again.
The world in which I found myself was pleasantly different from what I’d come to expect.
Rather than the cramped, confined, pit that was my cell in the first game’s ‘Undead Asylum’, my journey began somewhere suspiciously more scenic.
‘Things Betwixt’ read the on-screen text as I marched forward into the tall grass, fully expecting to be insta-killed by a passing butterfly or some sentient foliage. Miraculously though, I was still breathing. And between the gentle background ambience and soft light filtering in through the subterranean ceiling, it was hard not to assume that I was somewhere safe.
The old instincts soon kicked in however, and it dawned on me just how defenceless I was. I had no weapons, no armour and no direction. So I made a move for the nearest light source. A quaint-looking cottage, just over a rickety old bridge (which to my delight, didn’t collapse underneath me.)
‘Off to a good start’, I thought.
The crones that inhabited the ‘Fire Keeper’s House’, proved themselves to be both equally useful and frustrating. The pretence of attempting to recall my own name and face explained my character creation, and a choice of starting class furnished me with some much-needed gear. Any further conversation yielded only cryptic lines of dialogue and mad cackling however. So I resigned myself to striking out on my own, and left the old girls to it.
One paranoia-fuelled trip later from the cottage’s back door through an uncomfortably confined passageway, eventually led me to the hub-world of Majula, and a rather unfortunately named NPC, ‘The Emerald Herald.’
Like her older counterparts, Emmie (as I resolved to call her) turned out to be both essential and frustrating. Whilst her offer to strengthen my character in exchange for souls was most welcome (as was the free Estus Flask), her advice and direction was vague at best. She eventually resorted to repeating the same line of dialogue, (something about ‘seeking larger souls.’) So, leaving her awkwardly reciting to herself, I wandered off mid-sentence and decided to have a look around.
A lap of the area highlighted a number of different paths, some of which were obviously friendlier than others.
The first to grab my attention was a pit leading down, surrounded by a number of player-written messages, all of which offered variants on “try jumping.” The growing number of bloodstains appearing in real-time around the pit however, called the reliability of the advice into question. So instead, I opted for one of the less lethal-looking routes out, and the one closest to the local bonfire.
The beginning of the journey was pleasant enough. No enemies yet, and I’d found a few useful items on the way. I was just thinking to myself what an easy start it had all been compared to my escape from the Undead Asylum some years ago.
At which point I fell into a pool of water and drowned.
Achievement unlocked: ‘This is Dark Souls.’
I respawned back at the bonfire. But not one to be inconvenienced by death, I forged on…
The Forest of Fallen Giants was my first stop, and as I wandered alongside the route’s clear, tranquil stream (which I was now immensely wary of) my first enemy came into view. After the initial shock at finding something other than the environment trying to kill me, progress was surprisingly smooth. The handfuls of gormless, shuffling undead posed little threat as soon as I’d given up on attempting to parry, and fallen back on the age-old tactic of ‘wailing on the enemy until it stops moving’. And with my life bar remaining pleasantly untouched I felt confident enough to take on my first ‘real’ enemy, the forest’s ‘Heide-Knight. ‘
Despite Heide-Knight’s impressively chunky armour and two-handed great-sword, I reckoned I was in a strong position. This was in no small part because he was asleep.
Some tactical wailing before he could wake up and stand might provide me with an advantage, I thought. So positioning myself alongside him, I began my assault.
I’d managed to get a few free hits in, but nowhere near enough to finish him off. Unlike the smaller undead, the Heide-Knight was especially tenacious. He too was a student of the ‘wailing with sword’ school of combat, so the duel that ensued between us wasn’t exactly thrilling, and it ultimately boiled down to who could wail the longest. Of the two of us, he’d clearly had more practice.
I respawned back at the bonfire.
Heide-Knight was turning out to be quite troublesome. In his defence, I had tried to stab him in the face while he slept, so at least his irritability was justified. But round two was upon us and after a swift sword-strike to the chops to wake him up again, the fight resumed. Some tactical use of a nearby ladder proved most effective and allowed me to give him the run around whilst he wore himself down from fall damage. With Heide-Knight still half-asleep and legs mostly broken, I stabbed him in the back. Not the most honourable victory, but I’d take it. I collected my spoils, and headed for the nearby castle.
Carving my way through a few regular undead (and one or two more creative ones launching fire-bombs) I quickly made my way inside. An old woman, who seemed to be suffering from the same frustrating degree of senile dementia as the ones back in ‘Things Betwixt’, accompanied the local bonfire. Still, grateful for the company (laughing to herself in the corner) I restocked my Estus flask and rested for a moment before heading down a nearby ladder.
The interior I’d descended into had a distinctly ‘fiery’ vibe to it. At least more so than the architects originally planned for, I imagined. But the layout of the room and central elevator encouraged me to keep heading further into the castle’s depths. Bracing myself for the worst, I continued down, shield raised, and was spat out into a rock corridor not entirely dissimilar to the one approaching Majula. After shrugging off an attempted ambush from the stone passageway’s resident Hollow, I reached the wall of mist. A handful of player-scrawled messages indicated what was to come: ‘Boss ahead’, ‘Be wary of Boss’, ‘Try attacking’… they weren’t all useful. But ready to go, I stepped forward.
On passing through into the arena, a cut scene kicked in and the boss awakened. The monstrosity that pulled itself up from the earth would have resembled something from a Studio Ghibli film, if the animators happened to all be seriously depressed. ‘The Last Giant’ read the name accompanying the health bar now stretching out across the screen, and the lanky colossus began lurching towards me before I could let out my first expletive.
Feeling rather like a cartoon character attempting to stop falling rocks with a parasol, I raised my shield. A tactic that miraculously seemed to work. The first attack bounced off, leaving me only staggered and off balance. It was the second attack however, that caved my head in.
I respawned back at the bonfire.
Back through the castle I went, casually cutting down the hall-dwelling Hollow as I approached the wall of mist again. Before starting, I took a moment to check my inventory. A liberal application of some Gold Pine Resin buffed my broadsword a little, and added an electrical glow to it which made the weapon appear much more threatening than it actually was.
Perhaps the boss would be subject to psychological warfare, I thought.
I soon realised that if I stayed close to the giant’s feet (but not directly underneath them) I could deal a substantial amount of damage. Blade crackling with questionably useful electricity, I proceeded to wail on it’s ankles, and slowly but surely, the once screen-filling health bar began to diminish. With almost half it’s life depleted, the giant made the curious decision to tear his own arm off. But not one to waste an opportunity, I continued to wail whilst the animation played out. Unfortunately my enthusiastic assault left me devoid of stamina, and was hit square in the face by the creature’s now detached appendage.
With only a fraction of my vitality remaining I began tactically chugging my Estus flask. I was ready to jump back in. Which in hindsight might not have been the smartest move, as I narrowly avoided being intercepted mid-air like a sword-wielding baseball. But landing close enough to the enemy, I resumed swinging. Victory in sight, I dispensed with my shield altogether. Now in two-handed mode there was little I could do to defend, but what remained of the giant’s life was steadily vanishing with each swing.
It came down to the wire. Neither one of us would survive another blow. As he raised his leg like a terrified elephant ready to stamp out an insufficiently armoured mouse, I made my last swing. Barely grazing it’s shin, the strike landed. The last few pixels of health disappeared from the bottom of the screen. With a bellowing cry, the creature evaporated into particle effects and disappeared.
Achievement unlocked: ‘Last Giant.’
Sighing with relief I pulled open my gestures menu. ‘War cry?’ ‘Bow?’ ‘Point?’ ‘Ah, there it is. ‘Fist pump.’
Victory achieved and appropriate gesture delivered, I made my way back to Majula.
Wandering back through the hub-world, I contemplated where I ought to go next and stopped by the bonfire. Emmie had shifted position since I last saw her, and was now sat across from me, accompanied by an inspiring player-written message reading ‘Try tongue but hole’.
‘Perhaps she could offer some direction’, I thought.
Frankly, I don’t know what I expected. She managed as much as ‘Seek larger sou…’ before I slammed down on my A-button to cut her off.
Thanks Emmie. Suspiciously blood-stained hole in the ground it is then.
And off I went…