Dark Souls 2 Diaries – Day 06

Lost Bastille

The bird drops me into an open, circular tower, next to a bonfire and a couple of chests.

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I pick up a couple of effigies and a dull ember. The ember goes into my key items, and seems to do what it did before, which is allow me to further upgrade my gear with different and higher quality titanite.

After resting at the conveniently placed bonfire, I step outside and get my first look at this new area.

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As the name suggests, the Lost Bastille is another abandoned fortress, this one likely also serving as a prison. Maybe this is where they kept Undead dissidents? It did require bird flight to access, so chances are it’s not directly connected to Drangleic’s land mass. Islands are a good place to put people you don’t want getting near you again.

It’s night here, and the sky is devoid of stars. Not that stars would serve any practical purpose–I couldn’t use them to get my bearings, or anything like that. Still, it would be nice to see something of the outside world while stuck in this remote place. The idea that I am under the same sky as I was before the curse is the sort of thing a lonely Undead might cling to when things get tough.

The Lost Bastille has the same isolated environment as the rest of Drangleic, crystallized in a date and time divorced from reality. Every new sight reinforces the impressions I had of Drangleic after I’d first talked to the cat and the Emerald Herald. It’s not only the Undead here that suffer from the curse of eternal, apathetic existence. The land itself seems stuck in limbo, unwilling or unable to take the next step.

What is history without memory to record it? I may as well wonder what is the present if the past never ends.

Somewhere below me is the sound of gentle waves. That explains the isolation, yet my first thought is about when I might finally start to move inland. I’ve been stuck on what seems to be the northern coast of this continent, and I’m getting sick of the sight and sound of the sea.

Ahead, past some crumbled stone, is a solitary figure. When he turns to face me, I see that it’s a hulking man with a face covered in bandages or something. He holds a long, wicked looking polearm of an exotic design, with a sharp looking crescent blade. Annoyingly, I can’t get to him from here. This looks like your classic video game bait-and-switch level design, presenting me with something early on that I will have to navigate a maze to reach. I’m eager to test my strength against his, to measure chances and decide whether I should push forward here. Looking around, it’s obvious that I will have to scoot around a few ledges, and probably have to navigate some traps, before I meet up with him.  But I just took down a couple of bosses, and I should be trying to catch up with my home base so that I can spend these Souls I have.

Which is what I do. I return to the bonfire and warp away.

Majula

My first stop is the blacksmith, who promptly informs me that he can’t use the ember I found. He’s pretty sure blacksmiths used to stoke their flames with embers like the one I found, and that it would be useful, but it’s not something he knows how to do. Well, shit.

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Melentia is now sitting outside, near the bonfire.

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Despite her promise, she has nothing new to offer, and hasn’t replenished any of her stock. I figured she’d end up here, like most of the other NPCs I’m sure to meet. It goes along with the idea that Majula was, and still is, a dumping ground for the the unwanted. I wonder if we are all outcasts from our lands. For one reason or another, that’s likely the case.

I have another awestone that I picked up somewhere in the Forest of Fallen Giants. I offer it up to the Victor’s Stone, which I think puts my donation count at 7.

My next stop is the mansion, where I look in on the map room. Cale is there now, and he starts to gush about a flame that has appeared on the map. He says it wasn’t there last time he looked, and I know it wasn’t there last time I was here.

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His theory is that it has to do with exploration, which makes sense. If I squint at the map from the right angle, the blotch with the flame in the middle looks roughly like the fortress in the Forest of Fallen Giants.

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But what am I meant to take away from that? I know for a fact that I haven’t covered all the ground within that fortress, whereas I have explored the Tower of Flame almost completely, and there is no flame on its part of the map, wherever that might be. Perhaps the flame is a more direct metaphor. It could mean that I’ve found all the bonfires in that area. As with most other things, it’s a mystery I don’t yet have the clues needed to solve. I’m sure the import of this map will be made explicit when when it actually matters.

I visit the Emerald Herald. I have enough Souls to jump up 14 levels, which feels like overkill. I decide to take the 3 points in dexterity needed to use the winged spears, and then a couple more points in vitality with the intention of using a heavier shield, once I’ve found one I like.

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I use the 3 titanite shards I have to upgrade one of the winged spears to +2, which, surprisingly, also raises its dexterity damage scaling from B to A. That’s nice, but for some reason even though I have more total dexterity than strength, and both the club and the winged spear have A scaling from their primary stats, the club has higher bonus damage. Is it because the club is +3, while the spear is only +2, or is it that not every A is equal? Could be there is a sliding scale even within each ranking, and some As are only barely above Bs, as if there were an A- and an A+. Or maybe strength weapons get higher bonuses in general. Once I have more weapons to compare I’ll have a better grasp of how things work, but even then it’s not as if it matters that much.

I still have 30,000 Souls. What else can I spend them on? I run over to Licia in the tunnels and buy her 28,000 Soul faith ring. It does indeed raise my faith stat by 5 points, which also raises my maximum health and resistances.

Using items to boost stats for requirements was a well known, and often used, exploit in the first Diablo game. A character with 20 strength could put on a ring of +5 strength, which would allow them to hold a sword that required 25 strength, and then remove the ring while still holding the weapon. Every player would keep such stat boosting items on hand, and with strategic use they could wear gear way outside their stat ranges while putting all their skill points into vitality for increased maximum health. This was also a way for characters with low magic stats to learn important spells without having to spend stats that could otherwise be used to buff physical attack damage. Such an obvious loophole in the system was excusable at the time, since Diablo was breaking new ground, and nearly every game that followed fixed the problem. For that reason alone I’m sure that having an extra 5 points in my faith stat won’t be that useful unless I start a faith build. Any faith weapon I equipped would become unusable if I ever removed the ring. Likewise, any spell I learned–which would also take an investment in attunement to get spell slots–would fizzle out if I removed the ring, provided the game allowed me to learn such a spell based on bonus stats.

Which is a lot of words to say that, while the ring is an interesting novelty item, it will have little practical use, unless I suddenly decide to become a cleric.

It did get rid of my excess Souls, though, which is good enough for me.

Now I have to decide where to go next. I can’t make any more progress in the Forest of Fallen Giants, and I’ve opened up paths to Lost Bastille and Huntsman’s Copse. Of the two, Lost Bastille seems like the natural next step from the Fortress, what with the bird carrying me from one to the other. But there’s also that unexplored path in the Tower of Flame, which is on my mind now thanks to the map. I know it leads to another area, and I’m no longer the slightest bit intimidated by those big old knights. With a shield I’m not even worried about the white Heide knights.

Oh right, there’s also the pit in the middle of town. I bought that Silvercat Ring, so I may as well put it to the test. I have full health and plenty of flask charges, and homeward bones if I get stuck. So I line myself up with the first platform.

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I’d like to find the person who wrote the descriptions for these items and congratulate them for making partner in the law firm they must work at, because they are filled so many vague weasel words that only a lawyer could have managed it. The Silvercat Ring says it reduces falling damage. So far it has nullified the damage from every tumble I have attempted. Until now. There is nothing catlike in the way I take that landing. There is a sharp crunch, and then I am reduced to a pile of compacted meat jelly as everything in my body breaks. The point is, I do not survive. It would appear that the line between reduced falling damage and completely dead is narrow, and this ring isn’t going to get me down into that hole. It’s not that I was completely surprised, but I’d expected a little more gradation between surviving a drop without even a bruised ankle, and turning into pavement pizza.

So lethal falls are still lethal falls, and I’m stuck here on the surface. Maybe I do need a ladder to get down there.

As long as I’m taking care of unfinished business, I may as well do what that bird prevented me from doing. I warp back to the fortress in the Forest of Fallen Giants, and before long I am back at the top of the outer wall. Having the spear makes getting there a breeze, too. The range and speed allow me to put Hollowed down with ease, and I can even line them up to hit two or three at a time. Not having to worry about swinging into walls is also great. In fact, it seems as if the spear doesn’t bounce from hitting the environment, even if I stand next to a big rock and stab it from point blank range. I also appreciate the new 2-handed attack string, a nice double stab that works like the daggers I’ve found, with a slower leading attack followed by a fast, heavy thrust that does a respectable amount of damage. I’d been prepared to take a hit in my attack strength compared to the club, but for unarmoured enemies the winged spear keeps up just fine.

As if I hadn’t already gotten the message, a gang of Hollowed soldiers are now beating on the poor, defenceless giant sitting behind the boss area.

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Though I’m still not buying the sympathy play, I do take advantage of the opportunity to see the winged spear’s new backstab animation. After I’ve impaled a hapless Hollowed and lifted him bodily into the air before dumping his lifeless corpse on the ground, any remaining doubts are gone. This is the exact weapon I’ve been looking for While my club is reliable and will always get the job done, the spear is something that I enjoy.

Once the soldiers are dead, I drop down through the broken ground to loot the corpse I’d seen last time I was here. From it I gain a full set of Drangleic armour, a Drangleic sword, and a Drangleic shield. This outfit belonged to Captain Drummond, who I gather was the commander of this fortress. He must have gone down fighting early in the battle, which would have been the doom of the defenders.

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The sword looks decent enough, with high dexterity scaling, but also high requirements. The armour also has some pieces with good defence, being stronger in general than the old knight armour I have, while also being a little lighter. This would put it between the old knight gear and the few pieces of Heide knight armour I have. I put the leggings on.

Out of it all, the shield is the real prize. It’s a medium shield, so not too heavy, and also has 100% physical damage block, on top of better stability than my Watchdragon parma. The only problem is it also requires 16 strength to use. Still, it’s the next goal.

I’m willing to look around a bit more. I take the elevator down to the giant’s prison cave, thinking it might be possible to jump off at some point. There is no opening and it doesn’t work. I ride the elevator back up and climb to the bonfire.

Continuing the nature theme, I find the bonfire room is now host to the first, and perhaps only, growing greenery in the fortress. For all the trees and branches I’ve seen, all the sprouts left behind by the giants, I have seen no evidence that they were any more alive than the few collapsed giants I found. Or the remaining defenders, for that matter. Here, at last, a bit of life has returned, as if I opened a pressure valve by putting the lord of the giants out of his misery.

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Not for the first time, I consider flinging myself down toward the fire salamander at the heart of the fortress with the Silvercat Ring equipped. After my experience in the Majula pit I decide against it. This drop is even higher, to the point where I had already assumed the ring wouldn’t help me survive it.

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Plus, I can see the hole down there that I’m eventually going to use to gain access to that area. I can wait. If there’s one thing that’s certain about Drangleic, it’s that nobody and nothing is going anywhere. Nothing is going to change until someone changes it, and that someone is going to be me.

Before leaving, I spend a minute looking over my gear, trying various combinations until I’ve found one that better balances defence with weight and poise. With light gloves I can afford to put on the heavy Drangleic chest piece, giving me slightly less poise than before, but higher defence. It also comes with a cape.

There is only one thing left to do. I warp back to the first bonfire in the Forest of Fallen Giants, and I kill that big, fat hippo-clops thing. I know it wasn’t as overtly hostile as the ones in Things Betwixt, but it still killed me a couple of times, and that’s not something I forget.

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I’m slowed whenever I have to enter the shallow stream, but aside from that I’ve already solved the fight. I use the same hit and run tactics as I’d used on the others, and now I actually do a bit of damage. I have to force myself into a proper pace a couple of times when my relative increase in power goes to my head, but the fight isn’t actually difficult at this point. After a minute, the beast is dead, and I’ll never have to see it again.

That done, I warp to the bonfire in the Tower of Flame, then cross the bridge to the underwater tunnel.

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The amount of damage I do to the big knights is noticeably lower with the spear than it was with the club, reminding me that damage types are a factor, though I still doubt they will ever be important enough to sway me away from a weapon I’m having fun with. I manage to take a bad counter-hit from the knight with the huge sword, and I go down in one hit. There is a lesson to learn from that, but it’s going to take me a while to truly wrap my head around it.

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I return and kill the knight. Nearby is a loot corpse draped over the stone guardrail. I pick up an effigy and some dark torches, which are items that temporarily boost darkness defence, and are likely to be useless to me.

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In a narrow alcove next to that body are two more. I gain a Knight’s Soul and an old knight’s halberd, which is a long axe. I haven’t seen any knights using those yet. I wonder what these guys were doing hiding in here. A skirmish that went south for everyone involved?

Stairs lead down to the lower level of the passage, and I come out to a broad, curved tunnel.

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To the left of the tunnel is the knight I’d seen from above. It’s not another old knight, as I’d thought, but instead one similar to the knight that was guarding the black door in the Forest of Fallen Giants. This one has a polearm instead of a sword, but doesn’t put up any more of a fight. I get behind him and turn him into a metal-encased meat skewer. He doesn’t survive the process.

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I find that he was guarding a chest, and from it I gain sublime bone dust. According to its description, I should be able to use this at the Majula bonfire to upgrade the strength of my Estus flask. I assume that this will be healing strength, rather than more charges.

I check the other end of the passage, and find a room with an ornate elevator.

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When I step onto it, the elevator begins to gently descend, until I am in the dark. I find myself at the entrance to another hall like the one I’d just left, only this one is dim, lit only by a wall-mounted torches. It is also flooded with cold, ankle-deep water.

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I move forward cautiously. A Hollowed pops out of the water like a zombie. I stab it, pick up a throwing knife, move on. Before long, I have come to the mouth of the broad, curved tunnel. At the entrance to the stairs is basilisk guarding a human statue. And here’s me without a Branch of Yore. Lame.

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I kill the basilisk and a pair of Hollowed that pop up, predictably, to help it out. When they die my targeting cursor tracks upward and locks on something on the floor above me.

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My first thought is that it’s one of the guys I saw in Lost Bastille, but this thing has a shield, and a different weapon. Whatever it is, it looks big, and it’s guarding another loot corpse.

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I can’t get through with the statue in the way. How many branches will I need? When I find the next one I’ll have another difficult choice to make.

I walk to the end of the hall, figuring I’ll find a dead end, maybe another knight guarding loot. Instead, I find a hole in the wall.

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On the other side of the hole is a narrow tunnel that leads to a cave with a maze of thick stalagmites growing out of the ground.

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I take a lazy loop through the small cave until I find another bonfire.

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I rest there, and find out that I’m in the Unseen Path to Heide, which apparently counts as a separate area. I get up, eager to find out what might be around the corner.

No Man’s Wharf

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I once made the mistake of disagreeing with a popular Youtuber’s descriptions of the game Salt and Sanctuary as “Souls-like” in a gushing promotional video.

It should be obvious to everyone that Salt and Sanctuary is trying hard to be a 2D Dark Souls game, from general aesthetics to combat and stat systems. I would never be dumb enough to argue against that. I have nothing against the maker of that video–I had never heard of him before, and haven’t watched anything else he’s done, so there’s really no opinion formed at all. I have nothing against fans of the Souls games, or the Souls games themselves. I think I’ve made it clear that I enjoy them as much as the next guy. I don’t have a problem with calling a game that wants to be like Dark Souls a Dark Souls-like game, either.

What I objected to was the broad brush that some fans of the Souls games seem to be using to paint themselves out a little sub-genre, because I guess there has to be one. The Dark Souls games are hits, so it was inevitable that others would try to ape their style, either from pragmatic greed or sincere adoration, but Dark Souls didn’t spontaneously form in a vacuum. It has as many debts as any other modern game.

The idea that a game is Souls-like because it is difficult, because it has bosses with patterns to memorize and attacks to avoid, because it has safe areas with save points in them, or anything along those lines, seem absurd to me. Not only are the Dark Souls games not that difficult in the grand scheme, but even if they were, that is not something unique to them. Neither are boss patterns and and save points.

When I was first playing Prepare to Die–when I had no other context besides the game I was experiencing, and not a series that was inspiring others like it–I had no problem labelling the game a metriodvania. It shares the most important cornerstone of the genre, which is the large, interconnected map and the non-linear way the player must tackle it. Prepare to Die even had a lava level that required a special item to traverse, which has the fingerprints of Metriod’s Varia Suit all over it. The safe haven save areas are a legacy of Metriod and the later Castlevania games, so didn’t strike me as something special.

I may be an argumentative jerk, but I at least have the common decency to turn that back on myself now and then. The Souls games are unique in the minds of many people, and it may be true that those people simply lack perspective, but it’s also true that the Souls games are not merely 3D versions of metriodvania games. I mean, there already have been a bunch of those, and I’ve played a few of them. They were not Souls games. And there is more to it than atmosphere or setting alone.

The question I asked myself is, what sets the Souls games apart for me? After thinking about it for a while, I found an answer.

Allow me to demonstrate.

The very first thing that happens when I enter the Wharf, even while I’m looking around to confirm that I have found myself in a vast cave that seems to be functioning as an old pirate base or ship graveyard, is an archer standing on a distant pier starts loosing fire arrows at me.

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This sets the tone for the rest of the area. After knocking a Hollowed into the water and passing a few unlit sconces, I close with the archer and put him out of my misery. Nearby is a melee fighter, his back to me. Is this really what I think it’s going to be?

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He has higher poise than I expected, and when I attack him he turns around to hit me. It’s a pirate, of course. I suppose with the general watery theme this game has had so far it was inevitable that I would run into pirates. He swings a pair of curved swords, and I stab him in the face. After he’s dead I loot a body floating in the shallow water nearby, picking up a Lifegem and a large Undead Soul.

I take a left along the dock, and get hit right in the face by another arrow. I look up and see a pirate camped out on top of a rough shack built into the wall of the cave.

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I head inside and take down a couple of Hollowed lackeys that pop up from around old wooden tables. Up the stairs and I see a chest resting amongst old junk and barrels. I want to open it, but the pirate archer has pulled a sword and is attacking me. He slashes and kicks at me, and the chest breaks apart, leaving a glowing item on the ground. Chests can break, I’d found that out earlier, but what happens when there’s something still inside? Assuming there are mimics in this game, being able to attack every chest on sight would remove most of the danger. When I’ve killed the pirate, and a nearby zombie dog, I pick up the item that fell out of the chest. It’s a nice pile of rubbish. Which makes sense. I wonder what it would have been had I killed the pirate before he broke the chest.

Another pirate pops up from the water when I’m back on the dock. This one has a shield, but it’s not a good one, so he takes a lot of damage even when he blocks my attacks. Things do not go well for him.

After clearing out the immediate area, I head back to the bonfire and light a torch. I then light the first few sconces on the dock, which gives me a better idea of what I’m up against, and which parts of the water are shallow enough to enter.

There is a big, and much too obvious, chandelier hanging from the cave ceiling. It stands out even more when the only other decorations are empty hanging cages.

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By the docks I see a raised bridge, and it would appear that I’ll need to lower it to get access to the ship floating in the water nearby.

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To get to the other sided of the bridge, so that I can lower it, I’ll have to fight my way through an entire pirate shantytown, built in tiers so that I’ll have to climb to the top before descending again on the other side.

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I have entered the area, and the game has shown me the goal. That’s all pretty standard stuff, and the Souls games have the courtesy to let me work that obvious out for myself instead of panning the camera over to the bridge, and then to a switch on the other side.

What comes next is what makes Dark Souls interesting to me.

I don’t play open-world or sandbox games. They bore me, because they are mechanically uninteresting, and the tools given to the player often eclipse the challenges they are meant to overcome. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing–I used to play in real sandboxes when I was a kid. The power of imagination and creativity are not lost on me. I can’t draw, or paint, or play music, but give me a pile of Lego and I can build just about anything. I had a fleet of Lego Star Wars vehicles long before there were any licensed sets.

But there was something pure about those activities. I stopped playing with Lego when the licensed sets took over. They were no longer interesting when the designer pieces started to take over. I enjoyed building things because of the challenge of using the bricks I had to make something that I pictured in my mind. Once that challenge was gone so was my desire to keep going. It’s the same with modern open-world and sandbox video games. They are too structured, too based on assets that I had no input in creating. Even something like Minecraft has no appeal, though I think that if I were born at a different time, and didn’t already have my experience with physical Lego bricks, I’d be more receptive to its charms.

There are ideas present in sandbox games, about being able to tackle any problem from any angle, with any set of skills, that I admire. The problem is the follow-through. I am no expert on the genre, the complaints I see and hear most often about the average open-world sandbox-type game are about the parts where the developers try to force linearity for a time, like a chase, or an escort, or a race, or a boss fight.

What I feel Dark Souls does, that sets it apart from metriodvania and action games both, is how it marries the simple sandbox philosophy with more engaging action game mechanics. This allows Dark Souls to build and tell narratives within the gameplay itself, using map design and enemy placement to nudge players this way and that, and using the focus on dying and repeating to continually elevate the tension.

Your typical action game uses the environment as a cage, as an arena. The player enters an area, and enemies attack. They may be placed in a specific way, but it won’t be long before combat devolves to the point where it hardly matters, even as more enemies spawn. Each level could take place in a blank, empty space and there wouldn’t be that much lost, outside of the occasional puzzle or key that acts as a roadblock before the next boss fight.

Your typical metriodvania has enemies almost as an afterthought, as filler before the next boss fight. Usually it’s safe to ignore them completely, if they aren’t physically standing in the way. The gameplay centres itself more around exploration and physical progress, on getting the next power-up to access the next area, on using those power-ups to access secrets that involve getting more power-ups.

Each type of game challenges the player in different ways. In the metriodvania it is usually about putting the puzzle together, figuring out where to go and how to get there. In the action game it is about defeating increasingly difficult enemies, and terrain only matters when it’s a physical roadblock.

Like in the metriodvania, I have looked over the broader area and identified where I am supposed to go and how I’m likely to get there. Like the action game, I am going to have to kill a lot of enemies on the way. Like the sandbox game, how I take them on is largely up to me, at least when it comes to the order of things.

But, because Dark Souls limits my tools, and still presents enough challenge to make the combat itself interesting. I have to engage with its mechanics, fight its battles. Not only that, but I want to.

Most areas in Dark Souls games involve smaller skirmishes that connect more complex and punishing set piece areas. No Man’s Wharf is not an exception. I begin the area by taking down Hollowed soldiers and pirates in their ones and twos, or threes and fours, as is the case with the first set of shacks and the small group of Hollowed that rush out at me when I get close. I fight them on the narrow dock, where I can take advantage of my spear’s reach and hit them all at the same time.

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Almost without thinking about it, I have decided to commit to this area. I’m not leaving the Wharf without getting to that ship, or as close as the game will allow.

I go from building to building, or shack to shack, which is usually more accurate. In one I find a strange looking Hollowed holding a torch, and above him, standing on a roof, another pirate. As the pirate doesn’t have a bow, I put him out of mind as I move closer to get a look at the guy with the torch. Which is when the pirate hits me with a plunging attack, and then slices me in half before I can flask up.

I return, pick up my body, then kill the pirate on the roof after he drops down. He leaves behind a Varangian sword, which tells me that these guys were indeed pirates, the scourge of the northern Drangleic coast, but the King captured them and imprisoned them here to do hard labour. Why they still have all their weapons is a mystery, though it’s possible they were rising up, given all the turmoil Drangleic must have been in at the time. A pair of Varangian leggings tells me that to the north of Drangleic, across the sea, is an unexplored continent full of monsters. Unexplored then, or now? And considering that Drangleic is already supposed to be way in the north, what are we talking here, a polar region?

The torch guy doesn’t do anything special, but he does drop a torch when I kill him.

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On to the next level, and my spear is nearing the breaking point. I switch over to my club. Though the pirates like to wait in ambush, it’s easy enough to spot their swords sticking out from their hiding places. I dodge more plunging attacks, and before long I have found my way into a relatively well-lit building. There is a man inside, leaning casually against a wall.

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Only, it’s not a man. It’s a woman wearing a mask with a man’s face on it, complete with a beard. I discover that when she begins to speak, her words muffled somewhat by the mask, but still feminine. Of course, since she’s the one cross-dressing while in the middle of a cave full of zombie-pirates, she calls me the “odd one.” Other than that, she’s nice enough. She tells me her name is Lucatiel, and she’s from Mirrah, a land far away, across some mountains. (Which isn’t much help, since mountains surround Drangleic on all sides.) She came here to get Souls, which has me wondering if Souls are what everyone uses to buy and sell these days. In the first game it was at least implied that regular commerce went on outside Lordran, that the Undead there used Souls because cash would have little meaning to them. There were even coins to from the outside world. Perhaps Souls have another use outside of Drangleic. Lucatiel tells me that if I need help, she’ll be there. Seems I’ve found my first NPC summon.

I burn an effigy, then keep going. I’ve decided not to stop until my club gives out. I need to figure out how far I can get with my weapons, and then decide which enemies I can avoid to keep enough durability to make it to the end.

Which is when I make it to the Wharf’s centrepiece.

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A wooden cart blocks a narrow gap between two rock walls, and past it is an area of flat, open ground at the base of the largest building I’ve seen so far. A group of dogs are running around there, overseen by a pirate standing on the building’s front steps. On a second floor balcony are a pirate archer and another one who starts throwing out jars of black oil when I get closer. I can already tell this is going to take some work to get through.

I get as close to the dogs as I’m able to, and they don’t seem to notice. The oil bombs start landing nearby, and I take a few swings at the dogs. They finally notice me when I’m just about touching them, and charge in a pack. It takes some tactical positioning and my final flask charge, but I take them all down.

When I get closer to the building a pirate bursts out the door and runs at me. I kill him, but take an arrow in the back. There is an archer behind me, in the direction of the dock. I turn to face him, and find that he’s guarding another Pharros device. I’ve made the mistake of placing myself in a crossfire, because trying to fight this archer means I’m getting hit by the one on the balcony. After another arrow hits me, I stumble off roof behind the Pharros device, landing safely on the ground below. And then the pirate lands on top of me, with his sword, and I die.

Maybe it’s how I learned to play games, but I’m not bothered by that. I know many would see it as a cheap death, having enemies hidden in ambush all over the place, so that every fight comes with the risk of a previously unseen enemy stabbing the player in the back. But death is a part of playing any game, and is a huge part of playing Dark Souls. For me, those deaths don’t denote difficulty in particular, but surprise, and I love surprises. The games are designed around dying, and there isn’t much consequence involved for the player. It’s not as if I’ll run out of lives, or lose my collected power-ups. I die and respawn at a nearby bonfire, and by the time I’ve collected my body I’ve usually come out ahead in Souls.

Those deaths are woven into the gameplay to create a narrative. I have new information now, which means revising my plan. Killing the dogs and fighting a few pirates that I can drag out of range of the balcony archer is one thing, but dealing with the one guarding the Pharros lockstone, and his body guard, while I take continuous fire from above is something else.

Which is where I take the next step in the narrative.

A better plan might be to take the path along the cliff above the building, where I could drop down on the balcony archer and eliminate him first. So I do that, taking a left up some stairs and past another Hollowed soldier, until I’ve reached a narrow path that runs through the darker parts of the cavern. I mean, the path is right there, so it only makes sense to take it.

What I find up there is not merely more Hollowed up there, but an honest to goodness monster. Is this the sort of thing they have up north? If so, I understand now why nobody wants to explore it.

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It comes at me, knuckle-walking on grotesquely elongated arms, and when it gets close enough it lifts one of those heavy, clawed limbs and swings at me sideways, like it wants to knock me right off the cliff. From the little of it that I can see, it’s not that big, aside from its arms, and doesn’t look to have any natural armour or scales. Maybe I can break its poise and avoid the hit.

That doesn’t work out well at all. We trade blows, and though I do some damage, I eat a combination of claw swipes that send me reeling. I barely survive the attack, but take heavy bleeding damage that finishes me off before I can back up and heal.

And that’s where the pseudo-open world design of the Souls games stands out. If this were a normal action game I would have had to take the challenges sequentially, or at least in a way that separated them. The docks, then the path to the building, the building itself, then move on to the cliffs above. Each would be its own section, closed off from the others. If this were simply another metriodvania, chances are the sections would still be closed off from each other, and that either way the challenge would be in figuring out the way in, not in getting there. In a true open world game, I would have so many other tools and options, so many other things I could do, that before long such a challenge would be trivial.

But in Dark Souls that level design allows the designers to direct and anticipate player action, reinforced by the death by design philosophy. That’s what creates the subtle narratives for each player, allowing them to tell stories without having to interact directly with plot, with NPCs, dialogue, and cut-scenes. It creates a journey that matters as much or more than the destinations.

Not to say that Dark Souls doesn’t scale, to a degree. It is still an RPG in many of its mechanics, and at the end of the day grinding is always an option. Even without levelling up, I could buy spells and items to ease the passage. I could have dropped my 12,000 Souls at one of the vendors and picked up an expansive supply of throwing knives and firebombs and killed most enemies before they saw me coming. I don’t hold that against the game, either. It’s a sort of variable difficulty that works for a game that doesn’t have a developed hard mode. There is always a shortcut, always a way around, a way to cheese through something giving the player trouble, and they can choose for themselves to take it, or not.

After having the knife twisted like that, I have begun to learn my lesson. I have to do a better job of dealing with the Hollowed soldiers and pirates, so that I have more leeway later on, when the surprises pop up. I’m having issues with priority and recovery right now. The spear is a weapon designed around counter-hits, which only happen when I land an attack during the animation and recovery of an enemy’s attack. Standard fighting game stuff. The problem is that enemies seem to build up poise during their attacks, so that they become difficult, or maybe even impossible, to interrupt after a point. I take a lot of bad trades because of this, and it takes adjusting to suppress my natural instinct to go for those counter-hits. Without a stronger shield I’ll have to better use my range if I want to get them. There is also a noticeable change to recovery frames for my attacks and those of my enemies. If I don’t put them down completely with my attacks, chances are they will be swinging at me before I can back away, before my stamina has begun to recover. Keeping a small reserve so that I can retreat is becoming more and more important.

I have to track a delicate balance. When I am the aggressor it is because I have the damage and opportunity to take a fight in a quick, savage burst. Against an enemy that can’t survive my damage, I am able to take the initiative and kill them before they kill me, even before they can fight back. When my enemies have reached a point in their power curve where I can no longer take them down before they react, they become the driving force of combat, and I have to respond to their actions. The trick for me is recognizing which situation I’m in.

The next time I fight the beast in the darkness I am more careful. I use my spear, hold my shield up and watch its attacks. I attack when there is an opening, and soon it dies. There is another beast ahead, past it are dark buildings. Next to them another pirate hangout, which should lead me back down to the water and the bridge.

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Below me are the oil thrower, the fire arrow pirate, and below them the dogs and the Pharros device. I’ll have to fall down multiple levels to get all the items on the roofs that I couldn’t reach from below.

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While I’m planning my next move, another of the beasts attacks. I fight it on the narrow cliff, confident now that I’ve figured out its attacks, its strengths and weaknesses. It’s good to have a shield in such a narrow space, because having to roll away from attacks here risks tumbling over the edge. I take a hit, rack up some bleeding damage, but heal and kill the beast. There is a third one, and fighting it teaches me that I can backstab them, and that the period of invulnerability while enemies stand up is now short enough that I can finish the beast off before it has a chance to get its feet.

Despite everything I’ve said, it seems apparent now that I could bypass this pirate enclave entirely, moving along the cliff above it, then around to the dock and the bridge. That’s an option that your standard action game or RPG wouldn’t have. But that would mean abandoning not only the loot I’ve seen, but whatever is in that building, and the Pharros device. That’s not going to happen.

So I drop down on the archer, killing him quickly. I want to see what else I’m up against here. The archer below starts firing arrows at me, and I take one high in the chest, forcing me to duck behind a wall for cover. While there, I see a solid iron gate, and on the other side is a thickly armoured warrior. A prisoner? No time to think about that. My Ring of Whispers is blaring at me, as if I didn’t already know I was surrounded.

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I charge out of my cover to take out the bomb throwing pirate. Even as I close for the kill, another pirate is behind me, hacking away at my back. I am low on health now, nearly dead, and need space to heal. I can’t use my shield, because even the little bits of damage that would bleed through are more than enough to kill me, so I try to roll away. It doesn’t work well, and I fall from the roof, which is too much for my legs to take in this state. I hit the ground dead.

I have come to the point where the durability on my club and spear are at such a premium that I’m using other weapons to break down barriers. During a fight a pirate pulls out an Estus flask, because of course they all have those. Eventually, through failure and adaptation, I figure out the position of most of the pirates, beasts, and zombie dogs, and work out an efficient route to run through them. I manage to kill everything around the building, from top to bottom. I take down the beasts first, then circle back and kill off the dogs, and the pirates that rush out after them. I almost fail when I go after the archer on the Pharros device and yet another pirate charges me from the building, but I manage to back out, kill that pirate, then return for the archer. That leaves only the guys on the balcony and whatever guards they have inside the building. I find a body outside.

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More smooth stones. I wonder what I can trade them for. Even their description says that someone is looking for them.

I take a peek inside the building. There are a bunch of pirates sleeping at tables inside. It must have been the local booze hall, before things got real bad, and some sort of ingrained memory is keeping the pirates at this sacred post.

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A pirate comes rushing down some stairs at me, but doesn’t bother to sound a general alarm. I lead him outside and then stab him through the heart with my spear.

From this vantage I get a good view of the outside, past the mouth of the cave. I see a blue sky over dark water, and I know that the ship will be able to sail out to sea. The path to the ship is clearer here, and I can see definitively that I’ll have to climb up past where I fought the beasts if I want to make it there.

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In the new calm my murder spree has caused, I can hear the sound of someone drinking. One of the pirates inside?

Close to my goal, I decide to pop an effigy and heal up before going inside. I go in quietly and stab the nearest slumbering pirate through with my spear, taking him out of the fight immediately. The guy across the table from him stumbles to his feet, adjusts his helmet, and then comes around at me. I kill him quickly, my eye on the other table. The pirates there don’t move, so I repeat the process, and soon the room is clear. I wait. Nobody else comes, and I wonder if I’ve killed the guards on the second floor as well. That would be nice.

There is a chest behind the bar. Inside is a bandit axe and a set of brigand armour. The hood confirms what the map in Majula already showed me, that treacherous mountains surround Drangleic on all sides but the northern coast. I can understand why many population centres would be up there, with trade concentrated in that region, but I’m assuming that the capitol will be further south. King Vendrick seems like the type that would do that.

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The gear is mediocre, with average weight and defence paired with a lack of poise, and the axe has alright damage but a low strength bonus. Not anything I’ll use.

I head upstairs. When I’m near the top and panning the camera around to get a look at the room, a pirate pounces on me from above and behind, taking out half my health with a single attack. Should have seen that coming. I get down the stairs and kill him when he follows. Again I wait, and again nobody else comes. Is that it, finally? I go up and outside, looking for the archer, but he’s now standing below me, on the ground. I hop down before remembering the falling damage I took last time. It’s more than I expected, but not enough to give the archer any chance. I take the fight safely, waiting for a backstab opportunity. There’s no point in risking a trade when I’m not in a hurry and don’t have to worry about other enemies coming up behind me or shooting me in the back.

There is a chest on the second floor, and inside is some repair powder and a titanite shard.

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Everything is dead, and I can still hear the drinking. I go out to check on the guy behind the iron gate. Standing near, I can see that he’s the one chugging away, but I can also hear the groans from my Ring of Whispers. Is he hostile? It doesn’t matter right now, since I can’t get through from this side.

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Next is the Pharros device. But what will it do? Show me another secret doorway? Standing there, I catch movement below, and see there are more of those beasts down by the water.

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I look around for a bit, even waste some of my weapon durability attacking various walls. I don’t find any secret entrances. I return to the Pharros device and lean down to insert my plug into the hole provided.

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Light fills the cavern. That seems to annoy the locals, and another archer starts firing arrows down at me.

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It takes a few moments longer, but I realize that the Pharros device has lit up the giant chandelier that I saw when I first entered the Wharf. It’s really a huge hanging lamp. But is that doing anything besides giving some extra illumination and pissing everyone off?

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I kill off the archer and loot a nearby corpse, picking up an Undead Soul and an Emit Force miracle. Next, I check out a suspiciously empty building at the back of the cave, where no light had been able to reach before I’d lit the big lamp.

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There is a door in there, and when I open it one of the beasts swings a huge arm, breaking the wall apart.

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I move away from the door, back into the open. I can see there’s another of the beasts, but neither of them follow me.

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That must be why they were lurking so deep in the cave. If the light doesn’t harm them, it does a good enough job of putting them off that they try to avoid it. Neither of the beasts will come after me if I step away from the shadowed interior of their building. I manage to coax one out for a few seconds, and though it doesn’t take damage, it doesn’t like it and retreats quickly.

With that advantage, taking them down is trivial, and soon I have reentered the building to look for loot. I find stairs to a second floor, and before I can take them I also see a hole in the ceiling, just in time for another beast to dive through it at my face. I take a solid hit, start bleeding, but I can go outside and heal without worry, then return and kill it.

Another door on the second floor, and through it is a small room holding a couple of chests.

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I pick up a plain greatsword from one chest, while the other has a poison trap and a couple of silver talismans. These are consumables that camouflage the user, allowing them to hide from enemies and invaders. Which makes me think of the Ring of Whispers. Is this what it’s meant for? To find people hiding during PvP?

Back outside and it’s time for the final leg of my route through the cave.

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Inside another building I kill a couple of dual-sword wielding pirates, then make my way to the roof, where I find an unlit sconce and a bell that I can ring.

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I’m not sure what ringing that bell will do, and I’m prepared to leave it for now, till after I’ve cleared the rest of the cave. Below it, on a flat roof, is another loot body. I could jump down to it, but then I’d be committed, and I still have other avenues to explore. I can see that there’s at least one pirate hanging from the edge of a cliff down there, face stuck to the rock while he waits patiently, forever, for someone to wander by. The life of a Hollowed is not glamorous.

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Both my spear and my club are dangerously low on durability now, with only 5 points left on the spear and 8 on the club. I did find some repair powder, but that should be for a real emergency. From what I can see, I’m only dealing with a few stragglers now, and I’ll be back at the bonfire soon enough.

I do have to drop down somewhere to keep going, and after some consideration I put on my Silvercat Ring and hop down to where the drinking NPC is holed up. He’s not hostile, which is a relief. Between his gulps I can hear the croaking of one of the beasts down by the water, but I seem to be safe here.

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With thick, hesitant words that border on grunts, he tells me his name is Gavlan. The only major feature I can make out is the beard that spills out the bottom of his heavy helmet like the bristles of a dirty broom. He’s a vendor, selling things, but more importantly, he’s buying items. Using the card collecting logic of my youth, I immediately sell off the excess of any item I have multiples off, and completely throw out a few items I know I’ll never use, like the scimitars I’ve picked up from the pirates. I end up with a sizable amount of extra Souls. I hope this guy is willing to move to Majula.

Gavlan sells a few items as well. Various poison-based consumables, like venom-tipped throwing knives, resin used to poison melee weapons, poison arrows, and bits of moss that will cure the effects of poisoning. He also sells a heavy Ring of Giants, which increases poise, but there is no way of seeing how much the increase might be. He has nothing else to say except for his monosyllabic sales pitch, but I decide to throw him a bone and buy the Ring of Giants. It gives me +10 poise, but is pretty heavy for the cost and not something I’m likely to use.

A pirate is waiting for me on the floor below Gavlan. In the confined space, with my durability so low, I am careful to position myself for a backstab. One more floor down and I find a door leading back outside.

I’m close to the dock now, but before I can look for the best path down, an arrow hits me. There is another archer, and he’s standing on a level above mine. I can’t reach him from here. I walk forward, looking for a way up, and that’s when a ninja drops down from the ceiling and starts screeching at me while throwing knives.

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I stab him once when he’s close, and the message appears telling me my spear is about to break. This is not the time for that. I want to backstab the little bastard, but he won’t stay still. He’s jumping back and forth constantly, and while I look for a good position I’m taking arrows from the archer behind me. I get close and stab the ninja twice, quickly, putting it down just before my spear snaps in half. The ninja drops a shadow dagger, which marks him as an assassin from Mirrah. Some relation to the masked woman I met earlier? The shadow dagger itself seems to be a worse version of the regular dagger, with higher requirements and lower stat gains, and also without any additional effects like poison damage. Weird.

I find a door leading into the building underneath the archer. Inside are more sleeping pirates and a bunch of clay pots.

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I get up behind the nearest pirate and smash his head in with my club. The other hops up and starts to swing his sword in every direction, smashing a few of the pots. Green gunk is flying all over the room, and soon we’re both poisoned. I keep my shield up while the pirate just dies. There is a chest in the room, and near a wall I can hear a magical tingling. There is a crystal lizard somewhere nearby.

The wall by the chest has been rebuilt at some point in the past. I break the wall open with my club, and there’s a crystal lizard sitting right there, in front of a few skeletons.

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I smash the lizard with my club. None of the skeletons move. I pick up a large titanite piece and a couple of titanite shards from the crystal lizard, and loot the rest of the room. There are a few Lifegems and Undead Souls on the skeletons, and inside a chest is a Royal Soldier’s Ring. It increases total equip load by a small percentage. It’s likely to be a powerful item, but not so much that it was worth dying for. I doubt being sealed in this room was voluntary on the part of guys that became these skeletons. Maybe they had attachment to the office the ring represented, and decided to die with it rather than give it up to the pirates, or maybe it was an unfortunate masonry accident.

I gain a total of 7 equip load with the ring on, which is good enough for me to hold both the club and spear at the same time and keep under 50% weight.

The chest in the poison jars room has a Branch of Yore. Well now. What am I going to do with this one? I’ll decide that later. I put it away, and then find another body hidden behind a couple of the poison jars. I roll through them and pick up throwing knives and a flame butterfly. The butterfly allows lighting torches and sconces without another source of fire, like a bonfire. Could be useful. Right now, though, I already have this place mostly cleared out, so I can safely light my torch and run through to all the sconces without having to worry about attacks.

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There are no stairs in the building, no ladder to the roof, so I still can’t reach the archer, or the ninja I spot hanging from the ceiling up there.

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I can’t reach the archer, but I do get the ninja to drop down. Worried about my durability, I again look for a backstab, and again fail to get one. I block so many attacks that his claws inflict bleeding damage through my shield, taking out a chunk of my health. I have to run back to an empty building and flask up before he can finish the job. I bash him a couple of times with the club, putting him down and saving on Estus charges, but that’s my club out of commission as well.

Looking at it from down here, it’s clear that to reach the archer I’d have to drop down from above, from the bell I’d seen earlier. Getting there means going down to the dock, crossing the bridge, and circling all the way back up and around.

I equip my backup winged spear, the one without any upgrades, and go down to the water. I find more of the beasts cowering in the shadows of a small, broken building.

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I kill them, then take down a pirate that hops up from the edge of the dock. A corpse nearby holds Lifegems and an effigy.

The sides of the pier are encrusted with hanging pirates. It’s not effective at all, since I can spot their hands and the weapons they’re holding. Whatever happened to the old dagger held in the teeth trick?

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Each time they pop up I simply knock them back into the water. They may have fingers of steel, but they can’t swim. You’d think that would be an issue for pirates, though it’s possible they lost that skill in the Hollowing.

Soon I am at the raised bridge. There is no obvious switch to lower it, and that archer is still firing arrows at me from above, so I don’t stand around to look.

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Instead, I keep walking along the pier, toward the ship. I can see an NPC nearby, sitting cross-legged. I run over to him and start chatting.

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He is an old man wearing a distinctive jacket. He tells me his name is Carhillion, and that he is only interested in talking with the magically inclined. So, a wizard. I guess he’d be willing to sell me some spells if I were able to use them. A crane nearby has its rope deep in the water, but there is no way to activate it. It seems like I’d be able to pull an item up. Oh well.

Though I didn’t find a switch for the bridge, I’m still able to drop down into the shallow water on the other side. I light a torch and carry it around the Wharf, lighting each sconce I mentally mapped out. I get up the bell and drop down to the body on the roof. It holds a homeward bone and more Lifegems.

I drop down again and enter the building above the archer. On the floor below me are a couple of the beasts, but they’re unwilling to climb the stairs into the light.

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Fighting them on the stairs is all kinds of awkward, since I can’t move close enough to hit them without going into their attack range, and I can’t move around them to draw out attacks and get openings. I still take them down, and one of them drops a longsword, which is a strange thing for a monster to drop. Could it be that they were human once, and corrupted somehow? A body on the lower floor holds an Undead Soul.

I open a door leading outside and the archer charges in at me. I kill him easily, which leaves only the pirate hanging off the nearby ledge. I knock him off and I’m done.

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I light a few more sconces, and I think that’s the lot. Nothing happens. I walk toward the ship, to see if there’s another sconce out there, but I don’t see any, and I can’t reach it anyhow. That must be what the bell is for.

Back at the bridge I get close enough to see that there’s an option to kick it over. Oops. I’ll have to account for direct action in puzzles now instead of always looking for a key or a switch.

With everything opened up, I do one last sweep of the area. I find a chain next to Gavlan that opens up the iron gate to the pirate bar. That may have been useful earlier, but I’d have run the risk of Gavlan getting hurt in a fight.

I can’t shake the idea that the torches have some purpose other than lighting up a few areas. I find one more in the small building on the ground floor where the pirate smashed the loot chest. Still, nothing happens.

Even though I’ve killed off everything that has tried to attack me, the Ring of Whispers is still sending out a warning call.  I am briefly fixated on a hollow in the cave wall near the final set of buildings. It’s such a conspicuous space, but there was nothing in there, no enemies hiding inside, no secret doorway.

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After all this, the real question is what the Pharros device accomplished. I have two examples what they do now, and together they are still inconclusive. Lighting up the big lamp here seems to only have made progress through the area a little easier, while the one in the Forest of Fallen Giants pointed me toward a room full of treasure. I’m leaning toward my first thoughts about that earlier Pharros device, that I might have found that room on my own, and device was there as an introduction to its uses. After all, the Forest of Fallen Giants is the first area I should have cleared, and was still my first encounter with this new gameplay element. It seems as if they are there to give hints and a helping hand, but are not required or essential in any way.

All that’s left to do is ringing the bell.

As I expected, when I pull the chain, and the peeling sound echoes through the Wharf, the ship lights up. Ghostly flames coming alive in the hanging cages, and glides gently to the dock.

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I can see there’s at least one enemy on its deck, and as I approach the ship I consider my situation. My club and spear are both broken, and even my backup spear has lost more than half its durability. Lowering the bridge means I’ve opened a shortcut from the bonfire to the ship, and I’m pretty sure I’m about to face a boss. I decide to be smart this time, and I turn away from the ship and return to the bonfire.

After resting, recharging my flask, and repairing my gear, I make it to the ship, running past everyone on the dock. I’m ready to jump aboard, but when I hear footsteps behind me I turn to find small parade of pirates chasing after me. They must be the ones that were hanging in the water.

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I let them get to the stairs, then drop down past them and sprint back to an open area, where I’m able to kill them. After that I get on the ship and kill the first pirate that comes at me, as well as an archer on an elevated deck.

On the bow deck (I’m going with that over forecastle, but really I have no idea about ships.), coming down the stairs, is a familiar enemy. It’s a bandaged, or wrapped, man holding a long polearm, like the guy I saw in Lost Bastille.

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Though he’s tough when compared to the pirates, he’s still a big, slow target. I can’t seem to land a backstab, but I still have the speed and power to take him down with minimal effort and no danger.

Wooden boxes and old iron cages litter the upper decks. I mean, that’s a pirate ship for you. I stand by the wheel, but I can’t use it.

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I head into the forward cabin. There is nobody inside, but a weird glow is coming from below deck.

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Down the stairs and I’ve found what must have been a mess area. Skewed tables with old dishes, more wooden detritus floating in shallow water. There is also a fog gate. Boss time.

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I’m not sure how well I got my ideas across here, but I think reading other entries, both the ones from the past, from my Dark Souls 1 adventures, and the ones I write in the future, will show a consistent through line in how I play the games. Which is also how they work for me. What I write about them is what I feel makes them distinct. I couldn’t do what I’m doing with a normal action game, or a metriodvania game, or any type of sandbox-style game. The paths that I weave, the tales that the Souls games and I tell, are what sets them apart. It’s not their supposed difficulty, nor is it any single mechanic–not death, not light and heavy attacks, not guard breaks and stamina bars, not stats or experience lost with death, not weighty combat or rolling and dodging. Each of those are things that I have experienced in many other games.

Perhaps its too simple, somehow, for obvious reduction. I’m not going to be as silly as saying that it’s just a feeling, something that is only experience while playing. Yes, atmosphere plays into it. Yes, the lack of a driving plot helps. Yes, there are numerous other details that Souls players identify with. But those are there to serve the hole.

I wouldn’t be against the idea that the Souls games are more than the sum of their parts. That is why the few other games that try to copy the style somehow miss the mark. If the Souls games are not quite unique, they are at least special.

Flexile Sentry

There is a concept that arcade players and speed runners knows well. A broad description of it is AI manipulation. Not to say that every player of every game doesn’t take advantage of enemy AI in some way, but there are specific ways that people who play games for speed and efficiency learn to trick specific AI into doing specific things. It can be as simple as finding a blind spot in their patterns, a place on the screen where the player can rest without worrying, and it can be as deliberate as forcing a boss to run through certain routines at certain times. This is usually done to avoid more dangerous attacks and patterns, or just to save time. The most common method is to stand or move in a certain way, triggering an ingrained if/then clause in the AI’s programming.

I learned all about this in arcades when I played beat ’em ups. Invariably, there would be a way to avoid attacks and fights that could lead to a continue screen. It was all about saving money, and for someone with a limited allowance, that was a big deal.

Though AI has improved through the years, and though the games are more complex, there are basics that I still use in nearly every game I play.

Take this boss, for example. When I pass through the fog gate there is no cut-scene. Instead, I’m standing in an open space with water covering my ankles. The Sentry hobbles over to me, and I get a good look at it. The thing appears to be a melding of two warriors, connected at the waist and facing opposite directions. One holds a pair of curved swords, the other, which is facing me, holds a long, spiked club in each hand. Its heads are serpentine, and it makes no sounds besides its stomping footsteps and the swinging of its weapons.

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The idea is simple enough, but the name seems like a misnomer. If anything, this thing is the opposite of flexible, because it never turns around. If I get behind it, it attacks me with the weapons on that side. Since the clubs are forward by default, I mostly deal with them, except for the few times it bends forward so that the sword half can get a swing in.

As with most melee enemies, the Sentry has a couple of basic attack strings that lead to different finishers, either a lunging attack with both clubs, or a horizontal swing. Enemies in Dark Souls 1 were much the same, but they were more willing to complete combos regardless of whether the attacks were going to hit. It would seem that, while developing the AI for Dark Souls 2, someone realized this was an obvious flaw in the AI, because it allowed players to stand at a comfortable distance while enemies attacked the air. Ranged attackers could get in free hits, and melee fighters could wait for the big recovery of the finishing attacks before running in for free hits. Plus, it looks pretty dumb.

So what they did was stick in an if/then check for the AI to determine the distance between the player and their enemy. If the AI realized that the player was too far away for their attacks to hit then it would abort the combo before doing the finisher, because the finishing attack was the slowest in the string and left the biggest opening. I’ll admit this caught me off guard a few times early on, though it mostly meant I missed opportunities to go on the attack. By the time I was clearing the Tower of Flame I’d worked the entire thing out.

The Sentry has these rules, and I have my spear. Using it, I’m able to stay at the perfect distance to poke at it without worrying about taking hits. The fight is going well, if a little slow, when I realize that it’s becoming harder and harder to move. The water in the room is rising, and by the time I’m paying attention it’s near my waist. Distracted, I take a hit that I shouldn’t have, and unable to move away far enough to heal up, I take another hit and die. Lesson learned, and I’m willing to give the first one away, so I don’t mind.

I return and do the fight again. This time I am more aggressive, and use the AI against itself. By standing far enough away to be safe, but moving close enough that the AI thinks it might hit me, I can draw out the heavy club attack finishers, and each time I’m able to completely unload on it, draining all my stamina as I pour on the damage. It dies without getting a clean hit, and before the water has risen past my knees.

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“Victory Achieved”

I gain a Flexile Sentry Soul and 14,000 Souls.

According to its Soul, the Flexile Sentry was used to punish Undead. Why would it be on this ship, then? I head for a door on the far end of the room, and up a ladder I find a small cabin with a chest and a compass.

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Inside the chest is a pyromancy flame and a fireball spell. Does Lost Bastille have some relation to pyromancers? I doubt I’ll be using the flame unless it has some simple spells to light fires or something. I mean, its magic that is all about fire, so you’d think it could do at least that. When it comes to fighting, I prefer to do that with my own hands.

I examine the compass. A cut-scene starts. The bell is ringing, and the ship is sailing away from the dock, out into open waters. I stand on the deck, watching the moon in a cloudy night sky, as the ship glides toward distant towers.

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I land on another dock next to a sheer cliff. Below is an opening showing warm firelight. A bonfire, I hope.

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Of course, it’s not a bonfire. It’s more goddamned pirates.

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I clear the room as efficiently as I can. There is an elevator, which I step into. Am I still in the Wharf? There hasn’t been a transition title yet. When the elevator stops I am standing in a prison, black bars all around holding in forgotten, abandoned Undead. I can hear their moaning even before I see anything alive. Somewhere, a wolf is howling.

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I step out of the elevator, and after checking the nearby cells for signs of life, and only coming up with an Undead Soul and a Radiant Lifegem behind some broken bars, I move toward the stairs.

Lost Bastille

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Looks like I’ve come full circle and found a different entrance. Is this the front door or the back? It’s hard to judge between getting carried off by a giant eagle and taking a ghost ship out of a cave full of zombie pirates. Does it even matter? Probably not.

I start forward, passing cells that are alternately empty, or occupied by tiny, huddled figures that had given up on everything a long time ago. Some mumble, some groan, a few laugh. I find a body holding a couple of common fruit, which temporarily boost poison resistance. Is that going to be a problem here? Are there going to be more of the ninjas? I equip my homeward bone, just in case.

It’s not needed. Soon I find another open cell, and inside is a bonfire. It’s about time.

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After resting, I walk just far enough past the bonfire to see what’s ahead. I’m standing on a long wall under the moonlight, and in the distance is a fog gate on a bridge leading into a tall tower. I stand there long enough for a Hollow with a crossbow to fire a bolt in my direction, blowing up a stack of explosive barrels. That’s enough for now.

I return to the bonfire. According to descriptions, I’m in the exile holding cells. Exiled Undead, I assume. Is this Drangleic’s version of the Undead Asylum?

I warp back to Majula and see that the entrance to the underground tunnels is lit up.

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I go down there, but there’s nothing new. So I return to the bonfire and burn the sublime bone dust I’d found. My flask is now upgraded, and should heal more. I wonder what the final slot for burning items is for.

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And I still can’t burn an effigy at the bonfire.

I have enough Souls now to level up 11 times. At this point, why not? I put 4 points into strength, so that I can use the Drangleic shield, and dump the rest into vitality so I can carry it comfortably. It occurs to me, not for the first time, that I could be doing this completely wrong. But I have an out with my Soul Vessel, and not distributing my stats perfectly is only a problem if I make it one. I doubt anyone else would be running around at this point with only 6 points in vigour, either, but if I can get by on the bare minimum of health, why not? I’m still exploring, and unless I find something that forces me to change directions, I’ll screw around until I stumble into what works.

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I use my titanite to upgrade my winged spear to +4, and the Drangleic shield to +1 for the bit of extra stability. I then move my equipment around again till I’ve found a better defence to weight ratio, and I’m ready to call it a day.

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Because, really, right now all I want is a nap.

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