Dark Souls: A comprehensive retrospective and guide

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Before the much anticipated release of Dark Souls II, it’s important to reflect and discuss the original Dark Souls video game. The aim of this article is twofold: to entice gamers unfamiliar with Dark Souls I to play this game before purchasing the sequel, and to take advantage of the tips and strategies provided in this guide, and for experienced gamers looking to relive the glory of, and gain additional insight into, Dark Souls.

When I first bought Dark Souls back in 2011, I was told by people not to use a strategy guide for my first play through, warning that it ruins the experience. I am glad I listened to their advice, because my first encounter with the Souls series was by far the most enjoyable gaming experience I’ve had in my 20 year love affair with video games; despite all the cursing, frustration, and fisticuffs with my couch cushion every time I died. I loved this game so much that I will be purchasing a PS3 for the sole purpose of playing Demon’s Souls, the first installment of the Souls series, which is exclusive to that system. I also have an Xbox 360 for my main gaming console at the moment, not because of some sort of bias (I plan on getting a PS4 and an Xbox One as well as the PS3 soon), but simply because the 360 was cheaper than the PS3 when I bought it back in 2007.

Frequent death in a video game is not something everyone can handle. I’m sure you’ve heard the slogan “prepare to die,” and it rings very true. If I were to add anything to this slogan, it would be something along the lines of “a shitload of times”. Despite this game’s absolutely glowing  reviews, some even branding it one of the greatest games of this generation; there are some who simply put the controller down and never picked it up again, calling it “cheap and unfair”. Nothing could be further from the truth, and it’s a sad realization that too many people are used to a game that holds your hand the whole way through. Dark Souls is a third-person action RPG, developed by Japan-based FROM Software, though the game is not at all similar to most traditional Japanese-style role-playing games (e.g. Final Fantasy, Persona, Xenogears, etc). The style of play is more similar to games like Baldur’s Gate and Dragon Age. And when I say similar, take that very lightly, because Dark Souls is so masterfully crafted and original that you will be hard pressed to find any game outside of the Souls series where you will say “Hmm, this reminds me of Dark Souls”.

Dark Souls is a wonderfully complex and atmospheric game. It is beautiful, yet sometimes nightmarish, and brutally unforgiving. You encounter gorgeous sunlit vistas that offer a glimmer of hope, as you traverse through a massive world where you often fight tooth and nail through areas that sometimes appear to be a twisted imagination of the bowels of hell.  It can captivate and intrigue you, if you enjoy action RPGs with a darker, more sinister tone. It will also at times probably frighten and enrage you. At some points you might even feel the game is unfair, but eventually you will realize that the opposite is true. Every death is caused by a mistake, and you have to learn from your mistakes in order to progress. But all the frustration and occasional anger is very worthwhile. When you finally learn how to defeat that boss that has killed you 15 times, and watch its death animation, you gain an immense feeling of satisfaction and achievement.

Now all I need is a change of underwear!

Now all I need is a change of underwear!

The precious Souls that are awarded for every enemy defeated and the amount given in proportion to the difficulty of the enemy you have slain are used for both leveling up your character and as currency. Every time you level up, or upgrade a weapon or piece of armor, your character becomes a bit more powerful. And that is a very important improvement in a game that thrusts you into a treacherous world that makes you feel so tiny and vulnerable, as sometimes the simplest missteps can lead to death.

Dark Souls does not hold your hand, and vaguely describes where you need to go. There is no direction arrow or map. You might wander into an area where the enemies are ridiculously hard, and can quickly kill you, which is usually a sign that you are in the wrong area. That being said, sometimes these areas are worth exploring with overpowered undead enemies in pursuit, as you might find a useful weapon, shield, or piece of armor that are absolutely worth multiple deaths, as long as you are not carrying a large amount of Souls and Humanity.

Hmm...a graveyard. What could possibly go wrong?

Hmm…a graveyard. What could possibly go wrong?

Sometimes, other players will leave short messages for you, if you are playing the game online. They come in the form of bright orange streaks on the ground or on a wall. Walk up to them and you can read them, and occasionally a kindhearted player will leave you clues about a trap around the corner, or a way to defeat a difficult enemy. There is an item that can be acquired early in the game for a cheap price that allows you to leave messages that players in other worlds can see. It only allows you to choose certain word combinations, so the messages will always be short and usually ominous. Don’t always trust these messages, occasionally players will attempt to mislead you to your death. It’s the nature of the game.

There is no pause button in Dark Souls, but there are safe zones. If you have to put the controller down for a minute and you are in a dangerous area, either backtrack to a safe zone, or quit the game. Otherwise, you might come back to find your character dead, resting at a bonfire in Hollow form, missing a bunch of Souls and Humanity.

You begin your journey in the unforgiving world of Lordran, in a place called the Undead Asylum. You yourself start out as a form of undead, or “Hollow”, as it is referred to in the game. You will notice that the character you customized during the character creation section, which is right before you begin the game, looks like a walking rotting corpse, rather than the handsome or pretty human that you spent five to ten minutes creating. You are the Chosen Undead, and your goal is to bring light to a once beautiful world that is now corrupt and lives under the shadow of evil. Pay very close attention to everything in that first area, because messages scrawled there are pretty much the only hints you will get, and all they do is tell you what the controls do. Two very important pieces of advice I will give you from the start is to learn the timing of parrying so you can land a riposte, and to learn how to back-stab. Both of those moves will inflict massive critical hit damage.

When you reach Firelink Shrine, an NPC there will tell you that you need to ring two bells, allowing you to either go up or down. This is also the extent of detailed instructions you will get for most of the game. All actions in this game have consequences, and many of them are permanent. Accidentally attacking a friendly NPC, like a merchant, will turn them hostile, so be very careful. Accidentally killing one is permanent. It is not worth ‘dashboarding’ or quickly shutting off your console or PC if you make a mistake before the very quick autosave as it can corrupt your save file, causing you to lose everything. It’s better to live with the consequences of a dead NPC than risk worse. If you do happen to accidentally attack someone you didn’t intend to, then early in the game you will come across an NPC who can ‘absolve’ you of your sins, for a price. So as long as the NPC you didn’t mean to attack didn’t die while chasing you, once you pay the price, things will return to normal and you can interact with them as if it never happened. The NPC that can absolve your sins will not be accessible until you reach the Undead Parish, so you might want to avoid the area the hostile NPC is in until then.

This guy is kind of a dick.

This guy is kind of a dick.

Humanity is a precious commodity, which can be found in the form of an item, or sometimes automatically added to your Humanity counter in the top left corner of your screen near the health and stamina bars. These are generally referred to as ‘hard’ Humanity (the expendable item form) and ‘soft’ Humanity (the amount in your meter at the top left). To recover to human form, you must spend one point of soft Humanity from your meter at a bonfire. These are found all throughout the game (more on bonfires later). If you do not have any in your meter, but have the item form of it, expending one will add one Humanity point to your meter and allow you to use it at bonfires. Using the item form of it also heals you to max health, though using Estus Flasks will be your main source of healing throughout the game. Bear in mind that being human is not the same as just holding Humanity in your meter.

Human form, as well as having soft Humanity in your meter has some very important benefits. Being human allows you to kindle bonfires, which increases the amount of Estus Flasks you can carry, which are replenished every time you rest at a bonfire. It also allows you to summon other players into your world as white or gold phantoms, whose sole purpose is to help you through a level and/or defeat a difficult boss. It also allows you to invade another player’s world, which upon killing that player, you are rewarded Humanity, and Souls based on the level of the player killed. These benefits are not without risk, however. Human form also allows you to be invaded by other players that will try to kill you.

God. Damn. It.

God. Damn. It.

Soft Humanity (the amount in your meter) increases your physical and elemental defenses, your resistance to certain status effects, your item discovery rate (increases the chance an enemy will drop a certain type of weapon, armor, etc.), and it also increases the damage output of a certain elemental weapon type and the damage of a couple of special weapons. Most of these benefits cap out at 10 soft Humanity, even though you can hold a maximum of 99 in your meter, as well as 99 in the item form. Just as being human has its rewards and risks, carrying soft Humanity does as well. Whenever you die, you leave behind a bloodstain at the exact spot you died. That bloodstain contains all of the soft Humanity you had in your meter and all of the very precious Souls that you had in your soul meter (bottom right corner of the screen). All of the enemies re-spawn as well. If you were in human form when you died, you will turn back to Hollow.

You have one chance to go and retrieve your bloodstain, and regain all of the Humanity and Souls that you were carrying. Quite often you will have to fight your way through the same difficult enemies to get to this spot. If you happen to die on your way to your bloodstain, you lose all of those Souls and Humanity permanently. There are ways to avert this potentially rage and sorrow inducing loss. There are rings you can acquire pretty early in the game that can be worn to protect your bloodstain should you die on your way to retrieving it, or, if you die while wearing this ring, you will not leave a bloodstain or revert to hollow form, and you will keep all of your precious baggage. You will simply spawn at the last bonfire, and the ring will break. These rings do cost a decent amount of Souls, however. You will also pick up a few for free later on in the game as well.

A large amount of Souls are far more important than Humanity to lose, so another way to prevent this is to never carry too large an amount, because they are at risk of being lost for good should you die, and then die again on your way to your bloodstain. Use them at every bonfire you come across to level up, or repair and upgrade your weapons and armor, and spend your soft Humanity by kindling every bonfire you rest at. Sometimes you will be forced to carry a large number of Souls to save up so you can buy items from merchants, or spend them at a blacksmith to upgrade your weapons and armor. Sometimes, you will find Souls in the form of carried items that when used will give you a certain number of carried Souls depending on its soul type. For example, an item called a Soul of a Brave Warrior will give you a shitload more Souls when used than a meager Soul of a Lost Undead. Never use those items until you are ready to spend them. The majority of your Souls will be carried however, since you gain carried or ‘soft’ Souls for every enemy killed. Here is a little tip: upgrading your equipment, especially your weapon, should always take priority over leveling up if you are only carrying enough Souls to choose one or the other. You will encounter your first blacksmith fairly early in the game, but before then, spend those Souls on leveling up.

Bonfires serve as checkpoints throughout the game. There is at least one per area, and sometimes two or more in the much larger areas. When you come across bonfires, they are unlit. You will see a sword stuck in the ground with some skulls piled up around it. Simply light the bonfire and rest, and now you have created a checkpoint, replenished your Estus Flask supply, replenished your number of spell casts, healed to full health, and you can level up if you have enough Souls. You can kindle the bonfire at the cost of one point of soft Humanity (you must be human to kindle, so if you are Hollow it will cost two). If enemies have followed you near a bonfire, you won’t be able to light it until the enemies are cleared. Weapon and armor blacksmith equipment can be purchased fairly early on, which will allow you to repair and upgrade your weapons and armor at a bonfire, as long as you have the required upgrade materials and Souls. To ‘Ascend’ weapons and armor, which means upgrading it higher than +5, or adding elemental damage, can only be done by certain blacksmiths.

One should also take note that resting at a bonfire also causes all of the enemies that you have killed to re-spawn, with the exception of bosses and mini bosses. It’s also important to note that some bonfires are safe zones, while others are not. If you happen to be resting at a bonfire that suddenly goes out, and your character stands up, someone is invading your world. When all enemies have left, the bonfire will relight itself shortly after, and you can use it again. An easy way to tell whether a bonfire is safe from invasion is to see if you have the option to use the White Sign Soapstone, which is given to you early in the game. This item allows you to place a summon sign which can be seen in the worlds of other players, whom can choose to summon you. If this item cannot be used, you are in an area that is safe from being invaded.

Jerk.

Jerk.

The lengthy campaign will encourage you to complete the game multiple times, as there is a New Game Plus mode that goes all the way to NG+7, each mode more difficult than the last. New Game Plus allows you to keep your character as is, retaining your character level and gear for the next play-through. The game world is massive, and filled with secrets that will encourage you to explore every inch, often at your own peril, with some lengthy areas that you will likely not discover on your first run. It’s pleasantly surprising to come across some hidden content that allows you to enter previously-undiscovered areas, all of which are quite large. These secret areas that add extra hours of play, weapons, spells and items that are often very useful, and some of which you cannot find anywhere else in the game.

The multi-player aspect of Dark Souls is loads of fun, and can be extremely addictive. It’s the main reason I still play the game to this day. It’s quite complex and very enjoyable due to the excellent combat mechanics and several other various factors. To put it simply, the multi-player aspects of Dark Souls comes in three forms: Invading the world of another player to kill that player to gain Souls, Humanity, and if you are a member of a certain covenant, other types of rewards (depending on which covenant you are a member of). Another form of multi-player is summoning another player (or being summoned if you wish) with the intention of receiving or giving assistance to get through an area and defeat a boss. Being summoned and helping a player defeat a boss can earn you Souls, Humanity, and also covenant-specific awards. The last form also involves summoning, but it is for PvP purposes only. If you wish to duel another player, you can put down a specific type of summon sign that will appear in the world of other players who are in the same area as you are. If they are looking for a duel as you are, they can summon you for combat with the victor being rewarded Souls, Humanity, and with one specific covenant, a certain rare item.

There are a total of nine different covenants, each of them unique, that a player can join. Some are ‘good’ or player-friendly covenants, which generally involve being summoned to help another player through an area or defeating a boss. A couple are somewhat neutral, one being a ‘policeman’ type covenant, in which you can invade and hunt players who have accumulated copious amounts of  misdeeds, or “sin”, which it is referred to in game. Another covenant considered to be somewhat neutral, bestows upon you the duty to be a guardian of a forest. Equipping the covenant ring will summon you whenever an intruder enters the treacherous but sacred forest. There are also ‘evil’ covenants, should you choose to go that path. The covenant considered the most maleficent allows you an item which enables you to invade every area in the game that can be invaded, solely to kill the target and reap the rewards. Your prey is anyone and everyone who is in human form, and as a victim it can be quite unnerving when you are traversing a difficult area with tough enemies when suddenly you are invaded by another player that is about to make your journey even more dangerous. And although that’s not even half of them, each covenant has it’s own purpose, and some can be plenty of fun. Keep in mind that some covenants are fairly secretive and hard to find. A couple of covenants are useless for PvP and only serve a small purpose, like acquiring items or magic spells. Rumor has it that they were meant to be expanded further, but FROM Software did not have enough time to fully flesh them out.

I have about two dozen different character builds meant solely for PvP, ranging from the simple warrior type characters that focus on either Dexterity or Strength (and hybrids) to use specific types of weapons, a ninja flipping Dexterity based Pyromancy caster with a spear, a heavily armored, high poise walking tank that can cast powerful spells uninterrupted,  to a glass-cannon Sorcerer that is nimble on his feet, with stats and equipment geared towards casting the most damaging spells in the game. These spells can kill many players in a single hit if they are unable to dodge them.

I also have several builds that are specific for hunting PvPers that summon one or two other players to gang up on a single invader. People who summon allies and just stand around and wait in PvP ‘hot-spots’ for someone to invade (and then gang up on the invader two to one, or sometimes three verses one) are referred to as “gankers”. They either do this for an easy way of farming Souls, or simply to give players grief. Although you may think that all invaders are ‘griefers’ since they are invading another player’s world, the Dark Souls community has unofficially made certain areas hotspots for people that simply want a fair 1v1 duel. In PvP areas, there is a certain code of “honor” that players are foolishly expected to abide by, so naturally, people gang up on invaders just to cause them grief. I don’t care for this silly player-implemented code, such as bowing to each other before a fight, no backstabbing, no spamming certain powerful spells, etc. When I invade, I just try to kill whomever I invade, and by any means necessary. And I have enough experience that the core reason for playing the game is to hopefully invade a world with two or three players looking to gang up on me. I don’t always win, but it’s quite fun nevertheless. The PvP system in Dark Souls shares the same tone as the game’s cruelty, and since the combat mechanics are so well implemented, many players who have already beaten the game continue to play just for PvP.

A player facing off against two 'Gankers' in the forest.

A player facing off against two ‘Gankers’ in the forest.

Now, I want to give you some advice on some mechanics of the game to help you get started, without spoiling the game for you:

There is an extremely impressive variety of different weapons, different weapon types, armor, shields, and so on. To sum up all the different types of weapons, which include an also very impressive amount of unique weapons under each category: Daggers, Straight Swords, Greatswords, Ultra-Greatswords, Curved Swords, Katanas, Curved Greatswords, Piercing Swords, Axes, Great Axes, Hammers (including Maces), Great Hammers, Fist Weapons, Spears, Halberds, Whips, Bows, Greatbows, Crossbows, and spell casting weapons. Each weapon under each category is unique, and most of them have different move sets. Most weapons can be upgraded, and there are several different upgrade paths, including elemental types. There is also a good amount of special weapons that can cast very damaging magic spell type effects, at the cost of weapon durability (though they can be repaired). Quick tip: When upgrading weapons, NEVER choose the ‘Raw’ upgrade path, it’s absolutely useless.

Almost all weapons have different attack animations, which can be very important. There is a regular attack and a strong attack. Some weapons are heavily favored over others because of their attack animations. The general consensus for a good sword, according to the Dark Souls community, is that a horizontal slash for a normal attack and a thrust for a strong attack is optimal. There are so many different weapons, I recommend that you experiment, and find what works for you. Don’t forget that learning how to parry/riposte and back stab is very important.

When choosing character classes, keep in mind that any class can become anything you want later in the game. Choosing a Warrior as your starting class can become a magic caster, or vice versa. The classes are named simply because they start out with better stats for that specific class in the beginning (e.g. a Sorcerer will have a higher Intelligence stat in the beginning of the game than a Thief, while a Thief will have a higher Dexterity stat). Also, don’t bother picking the Deprived as your starting class. It’s pointless for the most part.

The stats are below, and I will try to sum them up as best as I can. Also, it’s important to note that after you reach 45 or 50 in almost every stat, you will start to get severe diminishing returns in regards to the bonus that the stat gives you.

  • Vitality increases your maximum health. It’s one of the most important stats for any class. Level up this stat as often as possible. You will get severe diminishing returns after it reaches 50.
  • Endurance increases your maximum stamina up until it reaches 40. Your stamina bar will not increase after that. It also increases your equip load by 1 point, and resistance to Bleed. Since carry weight has a massive effect on your movement speed and ability to dodge, many players level this stat well past 40 so they can wear heavier armor and not be hindered too much by it. It is also another very important stat for any class.
  • Attunement increases the number of spell slots your character has. Ten Attunement gives you 1 slot, 12 gives you 2, 14 gives you 3, 16 gives you 4, 19 gives you 5, 23 gives you 6, 28 gives you 7, 34 gives you 8, 41 gives you 9, 50 gives you 10. Ten slots is the max. It does not increase the number of spell casts for certain spells, unless you stack the same spells in different slots. It does not increase the effectiveness of spells, it’s solely for spell slots.
  • Dexterity is generally for lighter, faster weapons. A weapon that’s main or sole stat that scales with it is considered a Dexterity weapon. As you level up Dexterity, the higher the scaling (S is the highest, A is the second highest, then B, and so on), the more damage the weapon will do as you level up that stat. Dexterity also decreases casting time for spells, but it is most noticeable with Pyromancy. After you reach 45 in Dexterity, you will start getting diminishing returns. Spell casting speed also caps at 45.
  • Strength is primarily for heavy, slower, but much harder hitting weapons. ‘S’ ‘A’ or ‘B’ and below scaling in this stat means it is a Strength weapon. They are usually large weapons, but they do more damage than Dexterity weapons as long as you level up Strength to scale with the weapon. You get diminishing returns after reaching 50 in this stat.

*Note: Some weapons have scaling in both Strength and Dexterity (and occasionally Intelligence and Faith as well). The weapons that have decent scaling in both Strength and Dexterity are referred to as ‘Quality Weapons’ in the Dark Souls community. For example, weapons like the Claymore (considered one of the best weapons in the game for Strength/Dexterity focused characters), which has C/C scaling in both Strength and Dexterity, can still be effective for a class that only levels up either Strength or Dexterity. If you upgrade both, it will deal even more damage. You still must meet the minimum requirement for all stats on each weapon, in order to be able to wield them. Example: If a Dexterity weapon requires 10 Strength and you only have 9, you won’t be able to wield it properly and will do very little damage, even if your Dexterity is very high.

  • Resistance raises your Poison, Fire, and Physical defense, but not enough to warrant ever leveling up this stat. It is completely useless, do not bother with it.
  • Intelligence is the primary stat for Sorcery spells. The higher your Intelligence (plus the correct Catalyst for your Sorcery level), the higher the damage dealt. Leveling up Intelligence also increases the damage of weapons that scale with Intelligence. All Sorcery spells have a minimum Sorcery level required to cast them. Sorcery spells are arguably the most overpowered offensive spells in the game.
  • Faith is the primary stat for Miracles (Faith spells). Higher Faith plus the correct Talisman for your Faith level equals higher damage for offensive Miracle spells. Leveling up Faith also increases the damage of weapons that scale with Faith. Faith also increases Magic defense, and all Faith spells have a minimum Faith level required to cast them.

Every time you level up any stat, all your defenses increase a little bit, which is another reason Resistance is pointless in leveling.

Also, do note that Pyromancy is another type of magic, but it does NOT depend on a stat for damage. It depends on the level of your Pyromancy glove. You will get a glove fairly early, and upgrading it costs Souls. All spells from any type of magic must be bought from a merchant or found in a specific area.

And don’t forget to lock on to enemies. I watched a professional gamer do a ‘blind’ play-through of Dark Souls, and he didn’t bother to read the developer note on how to lock on. He spent hours and hours dying, and missing his targets, all while cursing at how stupid this game is because he kept missing his targets. This was a famous professional gamer who did not even bother to experiment with the buttons of the controller for something like 10 hours until he finally realized that you can lock-on to enemies.

Lastly, after reading this, I cannot stress enough, do NOT use a strategy guide for your first play through of Dark Souls. It will ruin the experience. Trust me on this one. Just pay careful attention to everything in the game. Once you start to learn how everything works, you will not be able to put the controller down, unless you are smashing it with a sledgehammer out of frustration.

Enjoy, and see you in Dark Souls 2 coming this March!

About Author

A self-taught writer with some college (a nice way of saying that he didn't graduate), Nate fell in love with pocket billiards in his mid teens, and has spent more than half of his life as a student of the sport. Yes, it's a sport. He will argue incessantly if someone claims otherwise. He also loves video games, his favorite game being Dark Souls, followed by Dark Souls as a close second, and The Last of Us being his fourth favorite game (Dark Souls is his third favorite game). He has a tendency to ramble on when you strike up a conversation with him, so asking him for a short bio is a dangerously boring proposition and not recommended. Otherwise he tends to keep to himself. He is also an editor and founding member of Tech Gen Mag, living in southern California.

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