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“PREPARE TO DIE” warns developer From Software on the case of its unforgiving role-playing game, Dark Souls. Surely, such words only appeal to masochists. And yet, you’ve heard so much praise about it. Your curiosity and anxiety are locked into a ruthless battle to determine whether or not you’re brave enough to give it a try.
I’m here to convince you to do so, and I’ll be responding to some of the reasons that might have put you off picking up this fantastic title so far.
“I heard this game is hard.”
Yes, it is, at least by today's standards. I’ll be honest; Dark Souls will punish you unless you give it your full focus. Accepting the features that make it so gruelling and embracing the challenge are the first steps to enjoying it.
Here's what you can expect:
- You will die a lot.
- Souls, used to level up and upgrade equipment, are dropped when you die. You must reach them before dying again or they're gone forever.
- Combat requires patience, learning and precise timing, especially against bosses.
- The element of cruel surprise persists throughout. Some of the traps you'll be caught in are pretty nasty.
- While in human form, you can be invaded and killed by other players.
- There is no in-game map.
- Much of the best information on playing is found outside of the game.
These things might bother you for the first few hours of play. Stick with it, and after you've gotten over that initial 'hump', you'll enjoy Dark Souls for what it is: a satisfying and engaging challenge.
“So I can lose all progress? Sounds like something I don't have time for.”
If you're unfortunate enough to die twice before retrieving your accumulated souls, you’ve just lost all the time you spent gathering them. It sounds harsh to have an hour or so flushed down the drain, but consider it this way: if there was no punishment for dying, what would be pushing you to survive?
The limited lives system used to enforce this, but it became obsolete with the advent of longer games that use a save function. Losing a certain amount of lives often kicked you right back to the title screen. Dark Souls's penalty is essentially the same, updated for the modern, longer game.
You’re most likely going to die multiple times during boss fights. There's always a bonfire just before these, at which you can unload all your souls to level up. This relieves some of the pressure of holding on to them.
At other times, it's quite clear why you died and you'll find that you quickly learn from your mistakes. Gradually, you'll improve and it'll happen less and less.
“It feels like Death is constantly watching over my shoulder…”
That’s a little dramatic, but yes, you’re going to die a lot.
The difficulty of today's games is often debated, but you can't deny that dying can sometimes be a rare occurrence.
Death in video games is a consequence of failure. By design, Dark Souls doesn't allow for mistakes when other titles might.
Again, all that happens is that you learn how to survive. It's not even something you have to consciously think about; you naturally develop a feel for how to protect yourself, just as you would with aiming in a first-person shooter, or jumping gaps in a platformer.
As a rule of thumb, equip a shield, and keep it raised while you're exploring new areas. Anything that tries to ambush you will usually bounce off your shield, leaving them open to attack.
This small tactic will significantly cut down your death-rate, and you'll pick up a few other tricks which will do the same.
“Alright, I gave it a try. I ran down some stairs and was instantly mobbed by skeletons.”
You went the wrong way. Dark Souls is quite open, allowing you to get to higher level areas earlier than you're supposed to. Some players like to risk running in to try grabbing some nice items, or break sequence just for the fun of it.
For first time players, it's best just to go a different way and return later.
“I'm getting hit all the time and running out of healing flasks!”
This is not a hack-and-slash game. You can't just swing your sword around blindly until everything falls to the ground. Combat is about timing and tactical thinking.
The best way to start is to keep your shield up, wait for the enemy to attack and then counter. Eventually, you'll also learn to dodge, and even circle around enemies for a highly-damaging backstab.
Most importantly, always keep an eye on your stamina bar. If this runs out, your shield is worthless and you won't be able to dodge, leaving you open to pain. Manage your stamina, and only attack when you know you'll still have enough in reserve to block a quick counter from the enemy.
Keep all this in mind and you'll pick up the combat in no time.
“Fighting bosses feels like I'm banging my head against a wall.”
Bosses are supposed to be hard. They should intimidate you and force you to raise your focus and reactions.
Unless you read up on tactics, you're very unlikely to beat a boss the first time. Learn from every death and change your strategy accordingly. If the method you're using fails more than twice, it's probably going to continue that way.
Another option to consider is enlisting the help of up to two other players. They'll have already killed the boss once and will be happy to help out in order to get a nice sum of souls for their efforts. Three heads are better than one, and yours is more likely to stay attached to your neck in this case.
“But I don't really like other people…”
What if I told you they were mute? There's no way for players to speak to each other, which means you're never going to hear poorly formed insults from angry 13-year-olds.
The only method of communication is through a small set of emotes, none of which are going to offend you in any way.
Honestly, every player I've summoned has been nothing but helpful.
“There's no map? I'm lost!”
If there was a map, there'd be no sense of venturing into the unknown. I'm a compulsive map-checker, and I know that if there was one in this game, I'd be opening it every minute to find the next nook or cranny to explore.
There are some pretty valuable items lying around in rooms off the main path, and they're a good reward for those who chance the less obvious routes.
Somewhere along the way, that brilliant part of your mind known as "memory" kicks in. You’ll know exactly how to get to the place you want to be, without pulling up an immersion-breaking map-screen.
“I hear you should read up on stuff online. I shouldn't have to do homework!”
You don't have to, but it helps. There's a lot of useful information out there on character building, boss strategies, item locations, and even how to give yourself a head-start. You can probably force your way to the end without all this information, but it certainly gives you an advantage. Knowledge is power!
Besides, how many times have you looked up character builds and strategies for other RPGs? I'm sure there are few who can say they've never done so. This is no different.
“I don't want to be invaded by griefers!”
You can't be invaded while you're undead. For your first time through, you're only going to need your human form to summon other players. This will usually be just before a boss battle, when there’s always a bonfire close by.
You will inevitably be invaded by someone carrying a much bigger sword than you. Don't worry about it. Try to fight back, and if you die, it's no big deal. You'll only have a short run to pick up your souls and you can carry on with whatever you were doing.
If you find yourself getting frustrated, hold onto the rage. Let it simmer, and once you're ready to do some of your own invading, unleash it on some other poor victims. Continue the cycle of hatred From Software encourages.
Hopefully I’ve convinced someone to really give Dark Souls a chance before dismissing it as too rough. All it requires is the right mind-set to overcome its cruel and unforgiving design.
Good luck, and keep your shield up!