Monday, October 31, 2011

Dark Souls: Beginners Tips

Part of the brilliance of Dark Souls is that it’s hard to find something new to say about it. It is a game that divides opinion, but provides a unifying experience. Everyone who has played it has felt the same sensations in pretty much the same order: bewilderment, amusement, tension, frustration, despair and triumph. And all that is long before you reach the open world area where the game actually begins.

In many ways, that’s part of the fun. Dark Souls is a great leveller, if you’ll pardon the RPG pun. From the hardened RPG player to the twitchy-thumbed teen who’s been lured away from Call of Duty by all the Dark Souls hype, to the ‘jobbing gamer’ who tries a bit of everything, all of them will have the same experience: Dark Souls will kill them. And they’ll want to talk about how it killed them.

They’ll talk about the how painful it was the first time they lost more than a 1000 souls. They’ll talk about how painful it was the twentieth time they lost more than a 1000 souls. They’ll talk about how they got so despairing that they devoted several hours to level grinding, only to discover that it makes no difference if you haven’t mastered the fundamentals of Dark Soul’s extremely tricky, pattern-and-patience based combat. Gamers often have big, fragile egos, and they bristle easily in defence of their choice of console or favoured game. Dark Souls does away with all of that. The best players in the world will find some common ground with the worst.

I speak as one of the worst. I love games, have done for years, but I’ll admit that my slow, barely dextrous thumbs prevent me from being a power player. I get through games using perseverance and patience rather than panache. Which is fortunate, as that’s exactly what you need for Dark Souls.

I often talk about the sensation of progress being the most important part of gaming. The sense that you’re getting somewhere, that your ability to do things opens up new and interesting things to do. My benchmark for this has always been Resident Evil 2 - a game where you go from streets to cop shop to sewers to waystation to lab. Your efforts are given a constant in-game reward: you’re no longer where you started, you have progressed. It’s funny then, that I have fallen head over heels for Dark Souls, a game that revels in stalling your progress.

I have been playing for nine hours so far. That’s not very long, but think of it this way: I finished the last two Call of Duty’s combined in less time than that. I finished Medal of Honour in less time than that. And Bioshock. And Batman: Arkham Asylum. And the last three Fight Nights. And Split/Second Velocity. Obviously, RPGs always eat up more time than any other genre, but eight hours is long enough that you’d expect to be some distance into the game. I haven’t got past the second boss. My current spawn point is two courtyards and two stairwells away from said boss. In terms of travel time, my character could reach the boss in barely a minute. I’ve been stuck there for about six hours. I’ve tried level grinding. I’ve tried backtracking to explore other areas. I’ve tried half a dozen different weapons, from ranged, to explosive to melees. The end result is that I’ve died dozens of times, and made only modest progress.

With any other game, that would be enough to make you jack it all in, but while Dark Souls pays rough, it also plays fair. Each time you die, you learn something new. You pick up on the timing of an opponent’s thrusts and parries, or you find a shortcut that allows you to strike from afar and behind. Inch by inch, millimetre by millimetre, you win small victories, you master a formerly unbeatable foe and improve your ability to locate the next challenge. The feeling of triumph you get from these moments are what keep you playing. The game is an arduous, frustrating grind, but it never hits you with a cheap shot: when you die, it’s because you got something wrong. Equally, when you win, it’s because you got something right, unlike many games where you progress because the lead developer is a frustrated film director who wants you to lead you by the hand to his next cutscene. In a game that refuses to tell you what various items are for, which hits you with a convoluted menu system, and won’t let you pause, the knowledge that you’re making even incremental progress in the face such obstruction is deeply rewarding.

I’m going back in now. I’ve spent several hours failing to reach a boss. I’ve now learned how to reach him every time. Next I’ll spend hours being defeated by him. Then I’ll learn how to beat him. And my victory over only the second boss of the game will give me greater satisfaction than every FPS I’ve ever finished.

So, if I’ve got you convinced, here are my Dark Souls Tips:

1. The internet is your friend
Researching games before you play them usually leads to spoilers and a lack of satisfaction. Not here. This game is so hard that failing to prepare will mean that you get nowhere. You need to know the basics going in-what character to build, how the levelling works, and what not to do. For example, never, ever attack anyone who isn’t trying to kill you. Other RPGs will let you work around an inadvertently killed quest giver or merchant, but in Dark Souls, if you annoy a merchant that’s it-no arrows or firebombs for the rest of the game.

2. Watch your weight
Your character has an equipment load that dictates the maximum amount of weight you can have equipped. That’s a limit, not a threshold. If you’re using a quarter of your equip load, you’ll slow down. If you use half of it you’ll be sluggish and barely able to dodge. Forget the RPG tradition of wearing the heaviest armour you can find and selling when something better comes along, that extra weight will mean extra deaths. Only equip what you're strong enough to use. Keep the rest in your inventory or the bottomless box, you need to travel light until you've buffed your stats enough to use that Zweihander without paying a speed penalty.

3. Magic early, melee late
Unlike most RPGs, choosing a character type doesn’t restrict you from rebuilding them as the game progresses. You’re not stuck with the old wizard, thief or soldier template. This is handy, as the early stages of Dark Souls are best played using magic, while the later stages suit a more melee oriented character. Start as a Pyromancer, spend a couple of levels buffing your basic skills, then gradually switch to rebuilding yourself into a nimble sword swinger.

4. Restore your humanity early
Your character in Dark Souls is Undead, cursed to constantly return to life after death, while slowly deteriorating into a hollow, inhuman shell. Dotted around the game you’ll find crystals that can restore your humanity, which will allow you to summon other players for help, leave messages and advice for other players and, most importantly, increase the chances that foes will drop items. This can be hugely important. Turning human at the Firelink Shrine allowed us to snaffle a far better shield than we should have had at that early stage of the game. We lost our humanity a few deaths later, but we’re still using the shield.

5. The internet is NOT your friend
When you’re reading messages left by other players, the rating is almost as important as the content. There are places in the game where, for example, you’ll find a message advising you to jump off a precipice. Do so and you’ll find a ledge, some loot and a new route. Great. Half an hour later a different precipice will bear the same advice, only this time it will be a lie, and you’ll plunge to your death, losing souls and humanity in the bargain. I like to think these malicious messages are left by CoDbrats despairing at playing a game that won’t let them be instantly ‘733t’. In any case, the ratings left on messages are vital in helping you decide whether to trust them or not.

2 comments:

Sounds incredibly tough - but am seriously keen to give it a go. Watch my embarassment as I don't make it through the first level!

It is a very Japanes game. Only in JGames can you describe your last boss fight with the words "I electrified my chopper and stuck it into the cow demon."