After looking over the meagre option menu and deciding there’s nothing there worth changing, I move on to “NEW GAME,” which is in helpful all-caps. Maybe they’re worried I’d miss it? If that’s the level of player the developers expect to be dealing with, then maybe all the fuss about Dark Souls being a difficult game are more exaggerated than I expect.
First things first, I have to create a character. The options are not very robust, but I can never be bothered with visually customizing my characters in most games. As far as I’m concerned, the more dials they give me to fiddle with the more likely I am to end up with a hideous troglodyte as my avatar for the rest of the game.
Coin flip. I get tails, which is obviously female.
Alright, this is something. I have spent hours rerolling character stats in games as far back as Baldur’s Gate or Fallout, always looking for that little bit of edge. Of course, those games were incredibly easy to break once the player knows how the stats work. Maybe Dark Souls is the same way. That hardly matters, though, since I have no clue what any of the stats do.
Every class I look at has different base stats, and curiously, different character levels, with the obvious magic-based classes being the lowest level. The classes are:
- Warrior: Seems to be your standard hit things with a sword affair. The description says high strength and dexterity, which are usually an RPG’s main damage stats.
- Knight: A more defensive alternative to the Warrior. The game says it has high HP, and it definitely has more vitality than the Warrior, which is where I assume HP comes from. Or maybe every class has difference dice rolls for HP when they level up?
- Wanderer: Has a scimitar and high dexterity. The game doesn’t want to sell me on this class, and I’m not big on scimitars to begin with. Pass.
- Thief: High critical hits and has a Master Key. Does every class have innate properties, or does the Thief have better crits to start because of its stats?
- Bandit: High strength. Seems to be the standard barbarian substitute.
- Hunter: Good with bows. Better with bows? Starts with a bow? The Wanderer mentions a scimitar and the Bandit mentions an axe. I guess every class has its own starting equipment. Well, as much as I like the concept of pew-pew, I do not trust many games to make ranged combat interesting or enjoyable.
- Sorcerer: Casts Dragon spells or something.
- Pyromancer: Has an axe, casts fire spells. Fire magic is always the most boring of the magics. Pass!
- Cleric: Has a mace and can heal. This is a tempting choice, as personal healing magic is usually a good way to break a game open.
- Deprived: Has a wooden club and a piece of driftwood for a shield. However, it also has the most balanced stats and is the highest level.
In the end my decision is based on trying to measure unknowns. One starting weapon is as good as any other starting weapon in the grand scheme of things, so whether I end up with a sword or a bow or a 2×4 with a rusty nail hardly matters. However, I have no clue what some of these stats are for. Faith? Probably for healing magic? Endurance? Seems like a defensive stat, but there’s also resistance and vitality. Attunement? That’s not even a word. Without any way of knowing what the stats do, how important they are, or how I’ll be able to alter them later on, I figure my best bet is to take the Deprived. A nice blank slate that I can mould depending on what turns out to actually be useful.
I’m only left to wonder how long I’ll have to run around without any trousers. And do the starting trousers the other classes have give them any sort of defence?
This is even less clear than the classes and stats. It looks like some sort of starting item, but, just like my supposed starting class equipment, I expect anything I acquire that early on to be made redundant quickly enough.
- None: Further evidence that the gift items don’t matter?
- Goddess’s Blessing: A full heal of some sort. A single use consumable? What’s the point of that.
- Black Firebomb: “More deadly than std bomb.” Yeah, okay.
- Twin Humanities: “Tiny sprites called humanity. Sometimes found on carcasses.” Utterly meaningless, except to say that I can probably find my own.
- Binoculars: Would I ever need these? I thought I was going to be spelunking through dank caves and decrepit dungeons, not bird watching.
- Pendant: No effect. Maybe it’s cosmetic? Don’t really care.
- Master Key: The item that a Thief starts with. “Opens basic locks.”
- Tiny Being’s Ring: Passive HP regen of some sort. The description says “slowly,” which usually means useless. I don’t imagine I’ll be spending a large amount of time standing in dark corners waiting for my HP to regen. At least, I hope I won’t be.
- Old Witch’s Ring: “No obvious effect.” So . . . could be anything, really.
I’m just taking the Master Key. It’s the only item I can make any sense of.
The other options are all cosmetic. They’re all basic and none of them are visually appealing, so I just pick whatever. And purple hair. Because purple is the best colour.
Finally, the name. Nothing particularly witty comes to mind, though “Dork” seems like a good, descriptive word.
I accept and the intro movie starts.
There is some nonsense about fire and light and heat and cold and dark and blah blah blah. The only thing worse than the rehashed Tolkien-style high fantasy that dominates Western literature, movies, and games, is the really weird Japanese take on it. It’s just as derivative, but since it’s Japanese it also makes no godamn sense.
There is an interesting twist, though, when the obviously evil looking characters it starts showing me, who I assumed would be the game’s bosses, turn out to be ancient heroes? They are showing me distinct character designs in a game where I don’t get a party, so these guys are probably still going to be bosses if they show up at all. I mean, I haven’t seen a more obvious villain lineup in a while. Nito, the Sack of Skulls; a witch who has a posse called the “Daughters of Chaos;” a Lord of Sunlight who has only ever read the Old Testament; and Pygmy, who is so easily forgotten that the narrator forgets about him for the rest of the cinematic. I wonder if he ends up being the most important of all?
Slow pan down a prison corridor. Then a cell with a hole in the ceiling. My cell? What I assume to be a man seems to drop something into the cell. I am given control of my character and what the hell?
This is not what I signed up for in the character creation screen!
I look like a zombie that died while trying to apply makeup in the dark. I guess that whole thing about being Undead wasn’t just a buzzword. Now I’m even more worried about finding some trousers, if only to keep my flesh out of the elements before it starts being blown away by strong winds.
I take a minute to figure out the controls. I seem to have 2 different attacks, 2 block buttons, a face button that causes me to yawn or scream, another that activates a dodge or roll (invulnerability frames?), and one that changes my weapon grip from 1-handed to 2-handed.
The shiny thing that was dropped into my cell turns out to be a corpse, even though I don’t see a corpse. When I “pillage” it, I find a key. Couldn’t that guy have just thrown me the key instead of chucking an entire body in?
After leaving my cell, I walk along the corridor and run into some really useful messages. “Right stick: Camera Controls,” I’m told. “RB: Attack,” and, “RT: Strong Attack.” Glad the game isn’t trying to coddle me. There are a couple of poor fools lounging about, so I take the time to shiv them on the way out. When in Rome.
I can hear pounding footsteps nearby, and when I look to my right I see that there is a large, looking fellow with an axe the size of a telephone pole. He must be the reason why there aren’t any other guards. Even though he’s clearly doing rounds, he’s not bothering to look over at the escaping cadaver, so I guess I’m in the clear. Maybe the guy who tossed me the keys also payed off my guard? It seems like the type to look the other way for a king-sized Mars bar and the latest issue of FDM.
Walking a little further, I find a ladder which leads to a courtyard and the message, “Rest at bonfire: Recover HP.” There is a sword sticking out of an anthill. I guess that’s what passes as a bonfire around here. I light it. This must be the game’s checkpoints.
I poke around the courtyard. There is a door on the right wall, but the game says it opens from the other side. No joy even with my Master Key. There is also a large set of double doors, and from beyond them I hear more heavy, ponderous footsteps. Looks like I’m going in.
I push the doors open–no easy feat with my twig arms and dead muscles. Inside is a large room with nothing but some old vases. I can still hear the footsteps nearby. I scoot to the side and smash some of the vases. No result. Is this going to be one of those games where they put breakable objects all over the place, but there’s never anything in them?
Near the middle of the room I can see another message to be read. I walk over to it. “Get away!” Suddenly, one of the guard demons jumps down into the room. The same one as before? Probably a different one. I guess there are only so many Mars bars to go around.
He takes a swing at me. I try to dodge. Doesn’t work. I take a huge chunk of damage. When I get up, I figure I’ll take his fatass for a ride and run around behind him. I take a swing at his rump. It does 1 damage. The demon’s life bar does not budge. He takes another swing at me, but this time I dodge. Then he takes off, flying upward with his undersized wings. I think this is an opportunity, but it’s not; as soon as I turn around he drops on me, Yokozuna style, and I’m dead.
I respawn at the bonfire. It’s a checkpoint. I figure this is one of those fights that you just can’t win. No big deal; I’m sure I’ll get the chance to come back one day and tell this guy what I thought of his hospitality.
When I open those doors again the demon is gone. I guess the checkpoint resets his spawn, so I won’t be able to mindlessly Zerg him. Running is the only option.
I make a break directly for the large doors on the other side of the room. The demon drops down again, blocking my path. I run around him. The doors are locked! Now what? I turn around and see a glowing green spot on the ground where I came in. I run back across the room and pick it up. “Retrieval,” says the game. The number in the bottom right corner of my screen changes from 00 to 80. Was that the XP I got from killing those other inmates? Seems there is some Diablo-style corpse looting in this game. I’ll keep that in mind.
I turn back around to see what the demon is up to. Happens to be that he’s up to putting his club through my skull. I take a hit and lose 2/3rds of my HP. I get to my feet and make another mad dash across the room, anywhere that’s away from the demon. I see a doorway in the side wall, tucked away behind a pillar. Salvation! I run through, down some stairs, and find another bonfire. There is also a message: “Get your shield!”
Sure enough, when I leave the bonfire room I’m in another corridor, and nearby there’s a glowing corpse. I “pillage” it and find a plank shield. I also find that there’s some jerk at the far end shooting arrows at me. I grab my loot and retreat back to the bonfire, where, after a bit of fiddling, I figure out how to equip my shield. Now I can charge down the corridor with my shield up (nice that I can block and move at the same time). An arrow thunks against my defences, but it doesn’t even slow me. When I get closer, the jerk with the bow turns tail and flees a nearby door. I’m ready to give chase, but I see another glowing corpse. This one yields my wooden club. Now I’m ready to save the world.
I raise my shield again and resume my pursuit of the archer. I follow him up some stairs and then get to work on him like he was a baby seal. It only takes 2 hits before he drops.
Behind his corpse is a shimmering white light. I approach. “Traverse the wight light,” says the game, so I do. Nothing in particular happens. I’m now at a spot that overlooks the courtyard with the first bonfire. When I go left I find some broken stairs with another glowing corpse just out of reach. This is some bullshit. I don’t know how I’m expected to take down dragons and demons if I can’t navigate a 45° incline and a bit of broken stone. But that’s how video games work.
I try going right. I can see there’s a room with some dude inside, and he appears to be alive, but I can’t find a way in. There are stairs that go up, and stairs that go down. I go down and open the door to the courtyard. I try for a rematch with the demon, but that door is locked.
Next I take the stairs going up. I get about half way and then a large ball bearing takes me out at the knees. That’s cool. I get back on my feet and take the rest of the stairs, only to be greeted at the top by a sword-wielding maniac, who was presumably also the guy who pushed that ball onto me. What’s his deal? Does he just stand around at the top of these stairs waiting and hoping that someone will come close enough so that he can squish them? Must be a lonely life, but I guess people will do almost anything to pass the time in prison. This guy is hissing at me and swinging his blade around in stupefied fury. I momentarily panic and try an evasive roll. The problem is that I roll away to my right, and there is nothing on my right except a long drop to the bottom of the other stairs. I’m still alive when I hit the ground, but before I can get my wits about me the maniac with the sword is all over me, and I’m dead.
I respawn, and on my way back I notice that the metal ball that did such a good job ruining my prospective football career also smashed a hole in the wall at the bottom of the stairs, giving me an opening to get into the room with the guy I saw earlier. I talk up to him and he doesn’t seem hostile. I talk to him.
He tells me that I’m not a Hollow, whatever that means, and then complains that he will die soon, and then lose his sanity. As far as I’m concerned, anyone who has their priorities that backwards has probably already lost the sanity they started with. He then asks if I’ll hear his request. Since he’s the only character I’ve run into so far that hasn’t tried to kill me, I agree to hear him out.
He lays out some vague story about Undead and a mission to some ancient land and being chosen, and it’s all so purple and pointlessly mysterious that I can’t be bothered with it. He does give me an Estus Flask, which is a healing item that I can refill at bonfires, and a set of keys, so it’s not a total waste of time. He ends his speech by saying that I should leave before he hurts me. So is he going to turn into a double-zombie? An undead Undead? He said he would lose his sanity after he died, and he’s about to die. I figure there’s no point in taking chances, and he’d probably want me to anyway, so I use my club on his head. “But . . . why?” he gasps, before dying. Why do you think? I can see the Undead aren’t big on gratitude; no wonder nobody wants them around. Also, I get 100 XP (the menu says they’re Souls) for doing it.
I go back up the stairs, kill the crazy dude with the sword, retrieve my corpse, and use the keys to open another door. There are some more messages in there, one confirms that using a bonfire will respawn all enemies. There are a couple more flimsy guys with swords, and another one with a bow. They all die in one hit from my mighty 2-handed club attacks.
Around a corner is another doorway of shimmering white light, and a trail of messages leading in another direction. That’s also the direction of those stairs I couldn’t get up earlier, so I go that way. Inside a small room is another enemy, but this isn’t another skinny pink loser with a rusty butter knife, it’s a skinny brown loser with a full set of armour and a shield. After a furious exchange of blows I come out on top, mostly because I have access to my Estus Flask, and he does not. I give his corpse a good kick. “Unlife is tough, bro.”
Wiping the blood from my club, and then sucking the splinters out of my hand, I pull open the door that he was guarding. Except I don’t, because it’s locked. No option to use my Master Key. Why did I bring them again? Oh well, nothing to do now but head into the light.
On the other side I am back in the large room with the demon. But our positions are reversed. Now I am standing high up above, and he is craning his neck to fix his beady little eyes on me. I take a moment to savour this change in fortune. But the demon isn’t having any of that! He takes off, beating his little wings with passion, and uses his club to smash my perch into pieces. I fall and hit the ground, stumbling. The demon lands on top of me. They say that when all you have is a hammer, every problem becomes a nail. Well, all this demon has is a giant club, and I thinks that’s how he solves all of his problems: nothing on TV? Smash it to pieces. Too much pepper in the soup? Smash it to pieces. Some gangly Undead is getting ideas above her station? Smash it to pieces.
I retrace my steps, and this time there is no hesitation. I grip my club in both hands and leap onto the demon, smashing him in the face so hard it takes almost half of his HP bar away. I hit the ground and roll to his ample backside and get to work giving him an oak enema. He doesn’t last long. He drops a key. I retrieve my corpse and go all the way back through the courtyard, up and around to the locked door. Even with the demon’s key I can’t get through. I drop back down and go through the door the demon was guarding. “Good job,” says a message on the ground.
I’m finally outside and in the open. Ahead of me are what remains of some stone steps, leading up into the hollow ghost of a once great building. An old church perched on a cliff at the top of a mountain? The sky is grey, which seems fitting.
I continue up the stairs. To either side are gaping chasms of raw, empty space. Even for an isolated prison, this is lonely and bleak.
I make it to the edge of the cliff, and as I approach a cut-scene starts up.
“Only, in ancient legends it is stated,” said the voice, “that one day an Undead shall be chosen to leave the Undead Asylum, in pilgrimage, to the land of ancient Lords, Lordran.”
A giant black bird swoops down and grabs me. After who knows how long, I am dumped at another bonfire, in another place. Lordran, I guess. But that is a tale for next time.