*Minor boss spoilers ahead
I step into the fog gate for the ninth time, with my maximum health locked off to about ⅔ of the full bar. Two hits and I’d be dead. The eerie strings pick up, and the Pursuer lashes out. I dodge to the right, get one or two hits in with my Fire Longsword, and get ready for the next attack. The pattern continues from there. I’ve finally gotten a hang of the timing and get the Pursuer down to ¼ health in several careful, heart-pounding minutes. I mess up at the edge of the arena, the fiery sunset overlooking the sea on my character’s left side as I dodge just a little too late and wind up in the radius of The Pursuer’s sword in the last of his series of swipes. I hold my breath trying find an opening to heal with an Estus Flask before plunging my sword in the Pursuer’s armor-clad shins several more times. With a roar, the Pursuer levitates in pain, disappearing in a cloud of dust. While wiping my sweaty hands on my shorts, the words “VICTORY ACHIEVED” appears in gold lettering across the screen.
These moments--moments when you’ve mastered an area and boss after struggling with what initially seemed impossible--are when you feel best about both yourself and the game while playing Dark Souls. A gradual transition from powerless and confused to empowered and experienced gives you hope to continue your journey in a cruel game world that is mostly ambivalent to your successes and failures. But you can only feel this level of satisfaction when you figure out effective techniques and stumble upon shortcuts and useful items on your own.
Dark Souls is one of my favorite games ever, and my experience fighting the Pursuer and going through the Forest of Fallen Giants in Dark Souls II mirrors my encounters with Gwyn, the Four Kings, and some other bosses in the first game. But for every area and boss I worked through myself in Dark Souls and felt accomplished about afterwards were a few where I feel I cheated my way through. Some areas like Blighttown and some bosses like Ornstein and Smough just seemed insurmountable. I read walkthroughs for a lot of areas to find rare items and secrets to help make areas easier to traverse, and I called upon other players and NPCs to assist in boss fights. The former lessened my sense of discovery and the latter my sense of achievement. I also read tons of information on the general mechanics of Dark Souls, item uses, covenants, and upgrade trees online.
Some of this help I found absolutely essential to finishing the game; I’m not that hardcore a player to spend hours manually figuring out differences in weapon damage and experimenting with different items when I don’t know what they do. Some areas and bosses seemed built for jolly cooperation, and I had some great experiences of teamwork with other players. But sometimes extra assistance, both offered by the game and by the internet, seemed to be ruining parts of the experience. I knew what was around the corner from a walkthrough, so there was no tension whacking at a chest that I knew would come alive to try to eat me. Some co-op companions were so skilled, they essentially let me “skip” the bosses by doing all the work.
I knew what I was doing was dulling my time, but the temptation to ease the burden of brutal encounters, obtuse levelling mechanics, and other stunts to progress that would force me to spend hours in tedium was too much. I blame myself rather than the game because I knew with more patience I could get through rough patches. I rushed some areas; for example, I attempted to defeat Centipede Demon only once before summoning someone to throw lightning at it, killing it in less than a minute.
With the sequel, I planned to get rid of these shameful tactics in order to have a purer experience. I tried to find a balance between receiving useful help and trudging along in stubborn solitude to both reduce tedium and confusion and make my successes my own. I found this balance sometimes, and other times I fell into the same traps. Overall, I played more honorably in Drangleic than in Lordran, so even though I think Dark Souls II isn’t as excellent as its predecessor (for a few reasons I won’t go into here), I had a better experience with it.
Dark Souls II offers many ways to go about journeying across Drangleic as a “bearer of the Curse.” Allowing you to equip yourself with whatever weapons and armor you come across and level up stats individually, you can mould your character into a sturdy knight, nimble bandit, skillful spellcaster, or a mix of traits. Most approaches prioritizing either melee or ranged attacks are viable; often dumping souls into one or two skills makes some areas/bosses easier and others harder. You can also explore the several paths branching from the hub of Majula in any order you choose, with seemingly impossible areas indicating you should explore elsewhere and come back once more powerful. So there is no “right” way to play Dark Souls II in regards to character customization, and the “right” way in regards to progression through the game mostly makes itself apparent (with a few exceptions; see “6” for guides below).
But Dark Souls II also offers different ways to tackle specific challenges that appear insurmountable. And here’s where the different options can affect the quality of the experience as recounted above. Do you use your finite number of items to boost damage? Do you keep repeating sequences until you just get it? Do you summon NPCs or other players to deal with the bulk of your troubles? Do you look up the bonfire locations? Do you walk around the corner, shield up, hoping for the best? At different times each decision can be appropriate and rewarding, but sometimes the question becomes do I make this segment annoyingly tedious or do I make it unfairly easy? We all want that middle-ground of challenging yet surmountable, and a complex web of past decisions on equipment, levelling, item-searching, and multiplayer involvement can affect how individual players should act to reach that ideal difficulty.
With the rest of this piece, I aim to suggest how to deal with situations in order to find that happy medium. Take note that there honestly is no right or wrong way to play Dark Souls II; it depends on what you want out of it. Purists with the time and willpower to go alone all the way through find the intense trials what makes the game so special, while others may just want to play the entire game in co-op to enjoy more large-scale battles with other players. Some players want to explore on their own with the potential to miss things, while others want to make sure they find all the right secrets to be able to experiment with different equipment, covenants, and items. Players like me sort of want all these things. Any play style can cause you to love or hate Dark Souls II, and different people are suited to one or another. But denying help and going in over your head can cause needless frustration. So just imagine this guide like one of the many NPCs you meet in Drangleic: uncertain about his own advice and ambivalent towards your own motives and decisions. Though obviously more verbose.
I want to talk a little bit about the unique nature of Dark Souls because I think some people have a hard time swallowing pride to use walkthroughs and online tips. Despite the intense loneliness Dark Souls evokes, it is a fundamentally communal experience. Dark Souls and its sequel are single-player games that constantly remind you that other players are experiencing the same trials grappling with an indifferent world that obscures information while throwing you into cruel situations. The connections between the worlds of other players via messages and bloodstains suggest that our individual struggles in Lordran and Drangleic are connected in a collective effort to maintain sanity and find the will to continue. Though other players can either help you or harm you, the sense of community is an integral part of the experience. Players uncover the secrets of the world together. You learn of a secret platform watching a phantom drop off a cliff and land safely in darkness. You learn the chest is a trap by touching a bloodstain and watching the player’s ghost die while opening it. You learn about a secret bonfire behind a wall from a message reading “illlusion ahead.” And you leave these clues yourself, consciously and unconsciously. If there’s a wrong way to play Dark Souls II, it’s offline. In fact, I imagine it’s near impossible playing the entire game without looking up any information about its mechanics, level design, etc. while also forgoing co-op. Dark Souls may dare you to complete much of it alone, but, remarkably, it also dares you to work with others.
This communal aspect of Dark Souls exists beyond the games themselves. The obscure nature of the series gets people talking online in order to speculate the truths of its cryptic lore but also to spread knowledge about the games’ item functions, secret areas, and covenants. Like Super Bunnyhop, I think the difficulty might have been designed for this community to form. Otherwise, how am I supposed to know what a Soul Vessel does or where I can use the Ashen Mist Heart without spending hours in aimless confusion? Just like I’m supposed to magically piece together the story through terse item descriptions on my own?
My point is, if you’re just getting into a Souls game, definitely use the online community to your advantage. Read up on the basics here. You would spend hours in hopeless drudgery without understanding the levelling system, upgrade system, status effects, online functionality, and other essential mechanics and item uses if you don’t inform yourself. You’ll also need to use this guide to learn about how to join certain covenants and secrets that ease repetition. The trouble with these wikis and forums is that you might read every little detail and miss out on surprises the game has for you within the level design. To avoid being sucked into looking at the computer every time you beat a few enemies, here are when you SHOULD look at a guide:
1. In the beginning, to learn the essentials as I mentioned (and later on if you need to be reminded of something).
2. To take note of where important items are, such as Estus Flask Shards, Titanite, Pharros Lockstones, and various keys (type in the item name on the search bar of a wiki).
3. Maybe you’ve gone a long way and haven’t found a bonfire. You might have missed one. Use control+F on a walkthrough to see if you passed that one bonfire under the stairs by accident.
4. You meet an NPC. Sometimes you can expect him or her to give you an item. There’s one woman that relocates after you exhaust her dialogue and opens up a new path. Look them up in a wiki to see if they have a questline (questlines are never explicitly written out) and act accordingly if you want to follow it. Good thing I looked up Mild Mannered Pate because I almost missed getting the White Sign Soapstone (used to summon players/NPCs) from him!
5. Maybe you’ve made it through an area once but want to make sure you got all the treasure. Use a guide to see if you want to return to grab a rare item.
6. You have no idea where to go. You received an item from a boss or NPC at the end of the area, but you have no idea how it works or where to use it.
You’re doing yourself a disservice if you read a guide beyond what you need to, as I have. As a completionist, I want to make sure I see everything and collect every item (also without dying much). So I ruined levels like Lost Izalith in Dark Souls and Earthen Peak in Dark Souls II with that obsession. The less you read of an area the more you’ll enjoy it. I’m so glad I went through the Gutter without a guide, which is probably the place most players would want to use it. You must use a torch in one hand to see while walking around wooden platforms in the abyss. So you’re unprotected if the torch replaced your shield. Without a guide, it was easier to focus on taking in the atmosphere of enveloping darkness and feel the fear in trying to decide whether or not to risk dropping down to the ledge that leads to a concealed path. It’s easy to appreciate the game’s design and your own learning process when you fail to see the exploding mummy on the bridge the first time but conquer it on your return.
Now, on to co-op. Naturally, it is much more fulfulling to help others than it is to be helped. That’s why the “Sunbro” covenants are so popular. Getting a thank-you on PSN from someone I helped defeat the two Dragonriders in Drangleic Castle was one of my best experiences in multiplayer in any game. If I use co-op to beat a boss for the first time, I try to undo that moment of weakness by putting my own summon sign down before the fog gate. If you’re on the other end, though, make sure you only call in players when you NEED to:
1. Summon when your type of character is not suited for a fight. For example, as a melee build, Ruin Sentinels were just too hard for me alone. Spellcasters might not be suited for fast bosses in small arenas like Smelter Demon.
2. Summon NPCs to continue questlines. This goes along with looking at the guide and deciding for yourself if it’s worth it. Sometimes summoning NPCs is really tempting because you think the game might reward you. Don’t expect it to; that’s how I effectively skipped Mytha, the Baneful Queen, a boss a good friend told me was “awesome.”
3. You’ve died a dozen times and not once had the boss down to half health.
4. When the area before the boss is too annoying/hard to repeat many times. Note that you may want to use the black separation crystal (which sends the summoned back to their worlds) before the fog gate if you think you can take the boss on your own. For me, that was with the Executioner’s Chariot (though I wish I had thought to use the crystal). I felt the same about the area before Smelter Demon, but that was a boss I needed a buddy to beat.
The Souls series is an interesting and important one because not only does it use its interactivity and obscurity to make players figure out its systems and story, but it also forces players to find out how to make it fun, how to make it valuable. Dark Souls is this scary, beautiful metaphor for life. You have all these options of play in front of you, but no matter what path(s) you choose, you will at times get frustrated and you will get stuck, likely pissed at both the system and yourself. I think that, as a high school graduate since three weeks ago, my anxieties about finding the right career and making decisions that won’t fuck up my life bled into and maybe even defined my time playing Dark Souls II. Maybe I’m so concerned about finding the “right” way to play Dark Souls II because I’m so concerned about finding the “right” way to go about my life. All while this concern swells as someone interested in doing games writing learns that many writers I admire are basically unemployable and starving despite their seemingly endless talent. All while being interested more in ideas, thoughts, and emotions yet getting a math award at graduation.
Of course, I speak from a largely ignorant, young, privileged perspective, but my thoughts echo universal desires for comfort and happiness. Naturally, I want the best Dark Souls experience just as I want the best life experience. The pressures of multifaceted choices and risks permeate both, and maybe I subconsciously think that any poor choice I make in the game followed by devastating consequences foreshadows a life-changing mistake in real life. Thus, I try to avoid those by reading guides and using co-op.
And that’s where the conflict comes in; getting too much outside help is where I feel I don’t own all my successes. Maybe Dark Souls is trying to teach me a lesson, or maybe Dark Souls is the vessel with which I’m trying to teach myself a lesson. You invariably cannot live life totally independent of other people, and you cannot have other people do all your work for you. Emptiness seeps in either from being smashed by the Old Iron Kings of life over and over again on your own or from choosing not to overcome the slow, weak hollows without holding Lucatiel of Mirrah’s hand. But combining our individual efforts and calls for help in some magic formula can give us the healthy qualities of self-worth and sense of community/appreciation of others we need in our lives.
Based on the design of the difficulty, the mechanics, and the story, the Souls games’ themes touch on existentialism (which many more qualified people than I have written about regarding the series). But, if I have the gist right, there’s something beautiful in a game that says that even when everything is sucky, painful, and stuck in a futile cycle of sucky painfulness, we can overcome the shit life throws at us, partly on our own and partly together. Even if we can’t find an innate meaning or purpose, maybe we’ll at least have fun trying.