I am–and always have been–someone who plays games to see what I can get away with. In the parlance of various gaming communities I am either a low-tier hero, or a Johnny, or just an idiot. When I played fighting games competitively (Never mistake this for playing them well.) I would invariably end up with one of the worst characters in the game as my main, whether from design or choice. There was a long stretch while playing Quake where I did not make weapon binds, or didn’t bind certain weapons because I didn’t like them (of course, the ones I avoided were also the most useful). I played multiplayer Rainbow Six and Rogue Spear using only shotguns or pistols. I honed in on every stupid flavour build I could think of in Diablo 2, from a charged bolt Sorceress (before Blizzard changed the elemental masteries), to a “Mage-azon” that specialized in firing under-powered and overpriced elemental arrows instead of doing legitimate damage.
Last night, while having dinner with a friend, I explained a bit about my Dark Souls writing. He knows nothing about the games, and the first thing he asked was how I managed to avoid levelling up any stats. He remembers our times playing Diablo 2 where I would sometimes hit the high 50s before distributing a single stat or skill point.
It has always been the mechanics of games that interest me. The way things interact and build on each other. For games that rely on stats, like RPGs, I am fascinated with the lower limits of what is possible. Ballooning numbers hold little interest. It’s all about how far a player can get with the little they have on hand. For me, it is almost always the beginning of a new game that is most enjoyable, when resources are at their scarcest. Choosing to spend or sacrifice is more meaningful when it actually costs something.
Hoarding was a common phenomena that was independently observed by many players of classic JRPGs. By the end of the game most player’s inventories would be full of Elixirs and the like, all saved just in case. I did this just as much as everyone else, across the board. From Resident Evil to the Ninja Gaiden Black, and every RPG between, by the end of the game I’d have amassed enough acid grenades and healing items that I couldn’t have used them all even if I’d wanted to.
My reasons for saving those items had less to do with thinking I’d need them later than it had to do with knowing that I could get by without them. That there was always a more interesting option than trying to brute force an obstacle with special items.
My formative experiences with learning the proper way to play games happened in dingy downtown arcades where my limited pocket money made every quarter valuable. Continuing was never an option, and for most of the players I met it was even frowned upon. I learned how to 1CC Golden Axe: The Revenge of Death Adder and Dungeons & Dragons: Shadow over Mystara because I knew a single credit in either of those games meant a solid hour or so of entertainment. I spent hours studying the old Raiden machine, watching others weave through the intricate dances of bullet dodging and bomb dropping while waiting my turn. The first time I saw the ending of Metal Slug was when someone else got a 1CC while I had my quarter on the machine, and I did my best to apply what I’d learned when he finished. At home I played through games like Contra 3 and Turtles in Time until I could beat them without a continue.
I never lost that. I can’t help seeing special items and level ups for what they usually are, which is shortcuts. Yes, there are times when I indulge, and each time I do I know exactly why.
As much as Dark Souls is an RPG, it’s also an action game. While it’s possible to solve most RPGs by throwing levels, stats, and gear at a problem–and Dark Souls can be managed the same way, for the most part–an action game demands mastery of, well, action. Unless I run into a total physical roadblock, I should be able to make it through with what I have already, or at least what I’ve acquired recently. I have never felt the need to grind in a Dark Souls game, and I don’t imagine I ever will. What I lack for in stats and gear I can always make up for with skill and patience. And while my skill may not be top-class, I know my patience is.
If you haven’t figured it out yet, that was more or less a long-winded justification for leaving the Forest of Fallen Giants so that I can run around in areas that I am obviously not supposed to be yet.
Heide’s Tower of Flame
With my club in hand, I warp back to the Tower of Flame bonfire. I can now do damage to the big knights, which is all that matters. “Have club, will travel” is my unofficial motto for Deprived everywhere.
The sword knight doesn’t even put up a fight. I circle around, find an opening, run in and give him a couple of smacks, and then I’m out of reach again before he can swing his sword in my direction. He drops a Cracked Blue Eye Orb, an online item used by the Blue Sentinels. A little confusing how they are in control of a faraway land and also a sunken city, but I’m sure that will become clearer later on.
After confirming for myself that trying to make progress here is a reasonable goal, I warp back to Majula, where the blacksmith has set up shop.
He sells a few basic swords, an axe, a mace, and a spear. He also sells titanite and repair powder, which is perplexing for a moment, but I remember that bonfires heal the durability of damaged weapons, which isn’t the same as fixing a broken weapon. I’ll still need some way to fix something that becomes completely busted, and it’s would be useful to have a way to repair an item’s durability anyway without resetting an area at a bonfire. Looking at the weapons on offer confirms my suspicions. Durability is slashed across the board. I will have to plan for multiple weapons, which doesn’t bother me since I played the first game while often switching between weapons.
Speaking of which, the one I have my sights on now is that spear, if only to see what has changed. I have enough souls to buy it, or to upgrade my club with the titanite I’ve found. I choose to buy the spear, though I’ll need 6 more dexterity before I can use it. Having such ready access to titanite and a blacksmith also tells me that I’m expected to use them. Enemy hit points will be rising at a more regular pace.
One advantage I have for weapon planning now is that I have a better notion of their longevity. For the longest time while playing Dark Souls 1 I expected to find improved versions of whatever weapon I’d been using, which made me cautious about investing in the ones I found early on. If there is a spear and a winged spear, what else will I find that will trump them both? That is how most games work, and though there is still some of that in Dark Souls, the biggest deciding factor for choosing between weapons is comfort and their movesets. Now I know that the club and spear I have right now could carry me to the end of the game if I invest my stats correctly and invest in upgrades. I still want to try as many weapons as I can, especially if I find new and unique categories, but I’ll always have the basics to fall back on.
I talk to the smith and he complains about his wandering daughter, saying that she knows a lot more about orestones (another name for titanite?) than he does. Is she going to be green as well? For her sake, I hope she got her looks from her mother.
I warp back to the Tower of Flame and go about my business of bashing the big knights to death. I spend a lot of lives–doesn’t matter how often I die now that my maximum health isn’t dropping–trying to parry the first sword knight’s attacks, and come to the conclusion that it’s impossible in general, or impractical for me, and either way I’d be wasting time if I kept at it.
Of course, my health not dropping anymore has downsides. The biggest of them is that at half health I can barely survive most hits, and a few of them will kill me outright. But that’s incentive to do better, right?
I kill the hammer knight as well, though he’s still more trouble than the sword knight. I find him harder to read, and his better range is a problem. After he goes down I loot a nearby corpse and find an Undead Soul and yet another Human Effigy.
At the top of some stairs, and through an open doorway, is a bridge leading into the nearest standing structure. There is also a sword knight who is guarding something. A brown square on the ground behind him. A ladder maybe?
When he sees me, the sword knight sets his feet and raises his shield, but doesn’t move in my direction.
He pivots in place to keep me in sight, but that’s all the movement he takes. He must take this guarding thing seriously. Wedged behind the open door is a body holding a Lloyd’s Talisman.
If I turn away or try to walk past, will this guy go for my back? I can hear the clank of his steps every time he shifts position so that he can keep watching me. It makes me nervous.
When I get within striking distance, he finally springs into action, lashing at me with his sword. I retreat down the stairs, and he doesn’t pursue all the way. As he turns his back to return to his guard position I go for the kill. I may have stupid priorities and ideas about how I play games, but none of them involve fighting fair.
As the sword knight dies, I hear a mechanical sound. I climb the stairs and see that a switch has popped out of the ground. So that’s what he was guarding.
I pull the switch. In a nearby building I watch as water rushes out and a ring section of floor rises, clicking into place.
I turn around, and then freeze. Something in the distance has triggered a primal part of my brain. Though all I can see from this angle is a low, red shape, my mind fills in the blanks. There is a dragon up there. Or a drake. Or whatever else they’re called these days. As I watch, the dragon’s body rises and falls at a slow, regular pace.
There’s a dragon up there and it’s asleep.
Which I will have to cross when I get to it. For now I set my sights on the next building.
I’ve used my Estus charges and only have 3 Lifegems left. As I get closer to the building, I can see there are three knights inside. One in the middle of the large space, the other two guarding exits going left, toward the dragon, and right, toward the building with the floor I raised.
I use one of my Lifegems to heal up. The idea of fighting three knights at once is daunting enough to make me second guess my decision to break away from the standard path. I get far enough into the building to look around. I want to make sure there aren’t any more of these guys hiding in a corner or something.
On my right is another square space in the floor. Another switch. Do I have to kill all these guys for it to activate?
As I walk further into the room the two flanking knights raise their shields and freeze in place. At the same time, the one in the middle charges at me. This dude is carrying a sword bigger than he is, and since he’s already a pretty big guy that’s saying something. I back out to the bridge, and the other knights don’t follow. Which is good.
I keep retreating, waiting for the knight to find its leash and run back, but it follows me all the way back to the statues near the bonfire. I decide this is as good a place as any to fight, and I let it have a swing at me to see what it can do. It smashes the sword down, then swings it in a wide arc. Because I’m not that bright, I decide this is all the opening I need. I move in for an attack, and the knight reverses directions, slashing back the other way and killing me in a single blow.
I repeat the process of getting to the building. This time I draw the big guy out and let it go nuts. After I’ve seen its patterns I’m able to kill it, though I still take a hit. It drops a palestone, an upgrade ore that removes buffs from weapons and tells me I’ll get some new effects, like poison, to add to my gear. I hear footsteps and turn to see that the pair of sword and shield knights who had been guarding the exits of the building are now running in my direction, as if to help their pal.
I guess they decide it’s too late, though, because they’re running away now.
I’m low on HP and have no more flask charges. The next hit will kill me for sure. I could rest at the bonfire, but then I’d have to do this all over again. Besides, the sword and shield guys are easy.
Back in the building and I see the switch has popped up.
It has a similar effect to the other switch. Another ring section of floor rises out of the water, and it looks like that has completed the puzzle. The other switch was still pulled even after I died, so this one should be the same. Whatever is in that building, I can now access it.
So, left or right? I’ve been opening the way to the right, so I may as well stick to that direction until I see what I’ve opened up. I kill the knight there. As expected, the other one doesn’t life a finger while I fight.
Past that knight is a wide balcony and another of those lounging white knights, behind him a skyline of blunt, broken towers poking out of the floodwater like stacks of old, weathered bricks. The way the white knights placed is making me more and more uneasy. I keep waiting for the moment they’ll pounce. I get close to this one and there is still no reaction. I leave him alone.
Down some stairs is the final area before a fog gate leading into the building. There is also a treasure chest with a white knight plunked down in front of it, as if daring me to do something about it. Is it a test, or do I have to kill this guy to get the loot? Too bad I can’t kick him into the water.
I’m so close, but those hammer knights still give me problems. I spend another Lifegem, and with it I am able to kill the hammer knight by drawing it out and attacking it as it tries to get up and down the stairs. By fighting it here I risk losing the 5000 Souls I have built up on the way, but the victory nets me a pair of old knight’s leggings. These things have 22 poise and way more defence than what I’m wearing. Almost more than the rest of my gear combined. I put them on as quickly as I can.
I stop by the chest. This guy really won’t budge, and I can’t get close enough to open the chest unless he moves.
I decide that all the evidence points toward me having to kill the white knights, but that I am so close to whatever I’ve been working toward that it would be stupid to try that now.
I pass through the fog gate. Music begins to play. It’s the one thing I didn’t want: a boss fight. The HP bar appears at the bottom of my screen after a few seconds. Dragonrider is the name.
Even as I debate using my final Lifegem, the Dragonrider stabs at me with his huge polearm. I wasn’t prepared for him, and I definitely wasn’t prepared for that range. I die.
And now what? That fat, red asshole has my 5000 Souls. At least he explains that napping dragon, so I have one less thing to wonder about.
What happens next is predictable enough. On the way back I take a bad roll to avoid a hammer blow and fall straight into the water. I lose my body.
I’d care more about those 5000 Souls if I wasn’t pushing double that by the time I’d fought my way closer to the dragon. This happens mostly by chance. I’ve been careful to fight everyone near the bonfire, at the statues. I drag them all back there, so that if I die I’ll be able to recover my body. When I kill the big sword guy in the central building and the other two chase after me, I run after them and kill whichever stays to fight. When I get to the building I see that this time it’s the one on the left that died, not the one on the right. So I’m curious. I poke my head out to see what’s going on in that direction.
What’s going on is that one of the white knights isn’t as lazy as the others.
But this guy isn’t a giant, clanking knight. He’s just another Undead loser in some fancy armour, right? I can take him. Yeah, I can do this.
Of course, he does even more damage than the big guys, and moves a lot faster as well. I try to track his charge, and I think I see a pattern. Which is when he slides across the ground at an unnatural speed and cuts me down with a single blow.
At least now I know. They are going to be hostile, and there is no avoiding them forever.
I decide to test myself against the white knight nearest the bonfire. After taking care of the sword and shield knight, I wake him up with a few taps of my club. Against these guys I am able to parry, though my first attempt just knocks him on his ass and allows me to get a few free hits in. He stands up and instantly kills me with a quick slash before I can recover. I try a few more times, and get a better handle on the timing for the critical attack followup after a parry. The problem is that, though nice to look at, my critical attacks don’t do a whole lot of damage. By my reckoning it would take at least 3 of them to get a kill, and that supposes he does his normal slashing combo instead of a dashing attack that I can’t seem to parry at all.
While fighting these knights, trying different timings and strategies, my Souls stain, or corpse, or whatever you call it, disappears. I had nearly 14,000 Souls stocked, and wasn’t worried about losing them since I only fought near the bonfire. But after a death and respawning, it’s not there. I check the entire area, running around to see if it’s somehow fallen under the stone and I might still be able to pick it up if I find the right spot, but I can’t. It’s gone, and so are all my Souls.
Yes, it’s a disappointing. It sucks to lose things like that. But in a way I deserved it. I shouldn’t be doing what amounts to grinding. I’ve dropped about 20,000 Souls here, which is more Souls than I’ve seen during the rest of my adventure combined. I’m more annoyed that I don’t know how or why they disappeared than I am about losing them in general. In the meantime, I’ve also collected nearly a full set of the old knight’s armour, and also one of their greatswords, though I can`t come closing to using it yet.
The prospect of collecting another 10,000 Souls while I continue to progress in baby steps has lost it’s appeal. I know what the goal is. I know what I need to do, and I’ve already opened the way.
My defences bolstered by the old knight’s armour, this guy only has a single attack that can one-shot me, though the rest come close.
Like everyone else around here, his patterns are pretty simple. He has a pair of horizontal slashes, first left, then right. He has a long-ranged stab attack that will put me on my back with a sliver of health left, and he has an overhead smash attack that kills me every time it connects, and sometimes even if its small area of effect clips me.
I can roll through the slashes without issue. I could even block them if I had to, but at significant cost. The stab is easy to avoid, and so is the slam attack for the most part. It still puts me in the ground a few times, always when I’ve reached a point where I’m sure I’ve got him licked. Maybe I’ve become fatigued after all that work in the Forest of the Fallen Giants, or maybe I’m naturally slow. Every time it hits is also a time when I’m sure I dodged it, which confuses me because most of the time I do dodge it. Perhaps the timing changes when he falls below a certain health threshold? I know that some of his other attacks do, as he begins to chain slashes and slams together after I’ve got him below half health.
At first I fight carefully, keeping my distance and jabbing at him with my club every time he presents an obvious opening, like after I dodge his stab attack. I do well enough sticking with that, but keep falling to an eventual slam attack. As the fights continue, I become more reckless. My experience with 3D fighting games tells me that he’s going to have a weak side, which is why I continually circle to his right, toward his weapon and away from the shield. That way I always have enough time to dodge his slash attack, and when I have the opportunity I can pound away without worrying about him raising the shield. I even stagger him a few times.
It’s my handicaps that keep him competitive. That any mistake on my part guarantees death holds me back for a while, but at a certain point I recognize that I have solved the puzzle.
It doesn’t matter that I have low health and terrible defences. It doesn’t matter that my only weapon is a piece of rough wood, or that I don’t have any more stats than its basic requirements. It doesn’t matter that he kills me in a single hit and each of mine takes out only a small piece of his health bar. I have faced greater odds, and I’m not bothered by them. The great heroes of old died in one or two hits, and it never stopped them from fighting against screen-filling bosses that could withstand absurd amounts of punishment. If I can still fight, if I can do damage, then I can win.
During the final fight I go all out, giving him no chance to mount an offence of his own. I stay as close to him as possible, always circling to his back. I roll only when he does a horizontal slash, and it puts me far enough behind him that he can’t follow it up. As close as I am to him, I have less distance to move relative to his attacks, like the inside of a spinning record. If I keep my distance it only makes it more difficult to avoid him, and also to take advantage of openings. I mean, I’m the one with the club, and he’s the one with the giant polearm.
Even when he raises his massive shield to protect himself from my fury it doesn’t matter, because I’m not on the shield side. I am at his exposed flank, pounding away. During the final battle he doesn’t come close to hitting me.
I gain 12,000 Souls and a Dragonrider Seal. This is like a boss Soul, and I could break it open to gain a bunch of Souls, or save it and use it to make a special weapon later on.
Even as I’m basking in my victory, I hear a telltale clanking. I spin around and find that the hammer knight who guards the fog gate is now entering the room. I’d been running past all those guys to get here, so I expected something like this to happen.
He doesn’t come much closer. Maybe he saw that his boss was dead and decided to let me go this time. Or maybe that’s as far as his leash allows him to get into this room. It’s ambiguous. He turns around and returns to his post.
The boss didn’t drop a Homeward Bone, but that’s no big deal. There is another exit from this room, so I can keep exploring. I expect a post-boss area to be safe enough.
I climb some stairs and find myself on the upper floor of this flooded building. There is a bonfire, and near the edge of the building kneels a woman with her hands clasped together in prayer.
I light the bonfire, then talk to the woman. She tells me she is Licia of Lindelt, and offers to sell me some miracles. She also carries a basic Cleric chime, used for casting miracles, and a ring that improves faith (Does it raise the Faith stat, or amplify its effects? Seems abusable if it it raises a basic attribute.) It costs 28,000 Souls, so it’s not like I can test it out. Again I am tempted by the basic healing spell, and again I decide not to buy it. Instead, I chat with Licia. She drops some very subtle hints that she may not be as good a Cleric as she presents herself to be, that she’s more into bilking saps out of their cash than salvation for the masses.
As with the other NPCs I’ve met, she is eager to make excuses about why she hasn’t left Drangleic. She says she was looking for some acolytes in the tower here, and that the people round these parts must have a great burden of suffering. What burden, and for that matter, what people? As I leave she tries to guilt me into throwing her a few Souls. Even the Clerics here are jerks.
A short bridge connects the bonfire to another building.
The interior of the building is dark, with only a few lights and no windows. I climb down some stairs and figure I must be heading under the water. A dead body holds a Monastery Charm, which heals and cures poison.
Somewhere below me is another big knight, this one with a tower shield and a spear. I walk forward far enough to find another of the huge sword knight and decide I have had my fill for now. I leave the building and a message tells me that I’m back in the Tower of Flame. That must be another transitional area.
I can see that all the white knights have come alive, and are now patrolling the route I used to get here. That’s going to be an issue. But not right now.
Using the bonfire, I warp back to the Forest of Fallen Giants bonfire and speak to Melentia. What else am I going to do with 12,000 except buy the Branch of Yore from her?
Now I have to decide who to free from their stone form, the guy in Things Betwixt, or the lady in that palace of ghouls.
But that can wait. Right now I need a nap.