Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Dark Souls Game Diary No. 1: Ring That Bell

Back around the beginning of the year, I bought Dark Souls along with Mass Effect 2 and 3 and Batman Arkham City. Of those games, the only progress I made was really made in Mass Effect 2. I did start into Dark Souls but I had become stuck on the Taurus Demon. Eventually I lucked into defeating the first major boss of the game and then got stuck working through Undead Burg towards Undead Parish.

Of course it also didn't help that the first time I played the game was the night before I got sick with a nasty stomach bug making its way around the family. I still haven't eaten the type of pizza I had that night, and Dark Souls honestly had a negative connotation for me that I could not overcome.

Time heals all wounds though, and I was inspired by hearing Bill Abner enjoy the PC port of the game (Prepare to Die Edition). So I picked it up again this week and have finally made some substantive progress. That and the great feelings I have about how the game plays already led to this first in a series of game diaries about my experience with Dark Souls.

For the uninitiated, Dark Souls is a sequel of a game called Demon Souls and both games are known for their brutal level of difficulty. However, if you can stomach the difficulty, what you will find is a game filled with subtle storytelling and a combat model that revitalizes what it means to play an RPG. It doesn't strike you in the first couple hours of game play, but with a few levels under the belt and some harder enemies coming in the second zone of the game (Undead Parish), the nuances of the combat model begin to come out.

You have to be strategic and careful with attacks and counter-attacks. I think it is a certainty that the shield you carry is far more important than the weapon you wield. That makes for a combat that feels more realistic. It is not just button mashing and cooldown timers, although the stamina bar is a manner of limiting your actions. There is real depth here, and I feel like I am just beginning to mine that depth. It brings a whole new meaning to "do a barrel roll" out of the way of that sling blade.

The thing I learned while trying to reach the Gargoyles boss at the top of Undead Parish was that sometimes you have to explore about to find all the connections and spots in this world. The game does not just hand things to you. Discovery is just as important as good tactics. I had been running through the gauntlet all the way from one of the initial bonfires (save points) in Undead Burg to the main church of the Undead Parish. I had made it to the church a couple of times, but the new level of enemies there always put me back at square one with a long road ahead.

But on the other side of the walkway from the entrance to the church is a wooded path the other direction. And what do you know, there's a bonfire right there as well as a blacksmith! This save point stops the 20 minute run back to the church and makes it a 1 minute walk. With this in hand, I was able to work on my tactics against the stronger enemies and not waste time spinning wheels in Undead Burg. This is key to success in Dark Souls...discover and know where your resources are.

The first couple of times I went up to face the gargoyles, it ends quickly and badly. I realized that I was not going to win making small bits of progress with my battle axe (even upgraded a bit at the blacksmith). So I retrained myself by grinding a little bit against the tough church mobs with a longer range and more devastating halberd weapon. The slower swings take a different strategy to use effectively compared to the battle axe.

But more importantly, when I equipped the weapon I did not have sufficient strength to use it one-handed well. I could still use it one-handed, but it was clunky. So I worked up a couple of levels to add some more strength points and the weapon became more and more useful. That is another great system in the game...sure you can use whatever items you pick up, but if they do not fit your character build, then they will not work well. It forces you into intelligent decisions and wise character building.

As a side benefit of grinding a couple of levels, I came up with the shards I needed to upgrade the halberd significantly at the same time I could use it more effectively. That allowed me to finally take some good attempts on the Gargoyles. On about my sixth or seventh serious attempt, I finally got them down. My combat and play skills still are not up to the par this game will require later, but it really feels like progress when you figure a boss out and find a way to defeat it.

And of course, the subtle story begins with you trying to ring two bells, one in the Undead Parish and another in Blighttown. The first bell has been rung. Game on, Dark Souls, game on.

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