IMO: Praise the Sun!

Platforms: Sony PlayStation 3 | Microsoft Xbox 360 | PC

One-hundred and twenty-one hours. That is what my only Dark Souls save file currently says is the time I have spent playing. I religiously quit out of the game if I’m away from it for even a second just so I can trust its accuracy. The bulk of that (just the hundred hours or so) have been played in the past two and a bit months. Every free and waking hour I’m sat in front of my PlayStation 3, controller in-hand, thinking about where I’m next headed in Lordran, how I’ll get there and what I hope to achieve. When I’m not free and sat in said position I’m thinking about what I want to do next, what my short-term goals are and where I’m going in the end. I’ll admit it, I’m addicted to the world of Lordran, the story of Lord Gwyn of Cinder, the furtive pygmy and the primordial serpents.
I first started the game around Christmas 2011. I spent a thoroughly exhausting twenty hours over a couple of weeks inching forwards, progressing at a rate less than a sloth would hope for and slowly realising that my choices on character creation were naive at best; sheer folly at worst. What idiot chooses a tank class without heading for the best early-game melee weapons and not a single projectile item of any kind? Anyone, it turns out. Dark Souls doesn’t freely share its secrets - they must be earned, at first, and latterly shared in return for others with the community inside the game and outside; online and off. I was never going to start again anyway - the hard-work put into those early game sessions were magnificently won. The sense of achievement was great - the relentless desire to try again and again one felt rarely elsewhere.

I only stopped because other things needed my attention. I didn’t realise it at the time but then on, whenever I thought about going back in the fear came over me. The game is incredibly challenging, so much so they chose to tell everyone when marketing the game and everyone’s abiding memory of the title if they’ve not played it is that “it’s that hard one”. I was scared to start again. I’d forgotten what I knew, completely sure that any return would be destructive. That was one-hundred hours ago.
Really Dark Souls isn’t hard. Not really. It’s merely a game which requires learning, memory, understanding and strategy to take on and defeat. It’s a shame that folk hear it’s hard and run away, like I did even having tried it. What is there once you get absorbed into the world of the Gods, and accept your hollowed state is remarkable in so many ways.

The way other players will flitter in and out of your world at bonfires, fleetingly visible and then gone, perhaps imparting a few extra Estus flasks when you rested. If a miracle is cast in another’s game you’ll be made aware and yours strengthened should you cast the same. You can witness people’s glorious deaths and withering failure all at the touch of a bloodstain. Leave messages for friends and foe, guiding or misleading as preferred. If unhollowed, after having restored your humanity, you’re invaded you can put up a stand and typically die. But you get the last laugh as you can indict them and one day your wrath will be focussed on the sinner. The best part of the asynchronous multiplayer genius of this game, the interactions with others allowed thanks to the distortion of time in Lordran (and depending on your take of the Lore drip-fed and inviting interpretation as it is), is when you choose to offer support to others as you’ll likely have asked of them in battles past: you lay your summon sign down and wait to be brought as a phantom into an alternative world to aid in defeating the area boss. It’s a wonderful feeling and the safest way to grind for souls - if you die you lose nothing as only your phantom is vanquished. When you get a message from the world’s player thanking you for the help it’s impossible not to crack a smile. There are actually things that I’m only finding out about and experiencing now. On New Game + I see phantoms when invaded by a Gravelord Servant, I saw my first vagrant too and was unceremoniously one shotted. How can a game that still teaches you things after so long not be considered genius?
My first playthrough was littered with moments of awakening. It wasn’t until twenty hours in I realised how useful a shield was, nor had I obtained the Drake Sword by then either - had I done so progress would have been significantly swifter. After forty or fifty I started focussing my Soul Level upgrades on specific stats and upgraded particular weapons accordingly. I loved the fast blades so went for a Dex build and upped my trusty Iaito and Uchi, the latter with lightning power. The jump in capability was immense. Around now, having rung the bells, passed through Sen’s Fortress and obtained the Lordvessel I took a detour through various optional areas. Some of the finest area in the game for many reasons, not least their beauty. Ash Lake has to be seen to be believed. The painted world is jarringly different. In taking this detour I was able to level up further and by the time I went back to the main questing I was actually starting to feel cocky. I was more capable of solo-ing bosses now, reckless in my passage through areas. Even in a game so immediately challenging as Dark Souls I could feel near-invincible. Yet also be destroyed in one swing if my wits left me, as they often did.

I reached the final boss after around eighty hours but did not want the game to end. Not only that I was by this time seriously considering a NG+ run through and wanted to be prepared. So I ground things out for thirty more hours, made sure I’d visited everywhere and completed all NPC side-quests. Oh my! The NPCs in this game. How wonderful, quirky and fascinating (Solaire! Praise the sun!). Some you help, others help you. Some are fleeting and others you interact with at various junctures. Some you want to save, others end their misery. Their dialogue, the notes on any given item and the remnants of the world itself are what allow you to interpret what has happened, is happening and will happen. On a single playthrough there’s no way to obtain all the key information you need to be sure in yourself of what is true. Even once you have the missing information (and I mean just the really key stuff - getting everything will be nigh-on impossible alone) you can only be sure in what you believe, not in what is actually the truth. It’s a stunning way to tell a story in an RPG and one which ensures my continued thinking long after I’ve finished playing.
The community is key. Wikis all over the place explaining upgrade paths, walkthroughs, shortcuts and more. Videos teaching you how to take on Smough & Ornstein and people speedrunning it without using glitches in well under two hours. Linking up with like-minded gamers for some jolly cooperation, or listening to Gary Butterfield and Kole Ross of ‘Bonfireside Chat’ just wax lyrically about each area for hours on end. This game encourages such teamwork and when everything is fair and everything reproducible and repeatable it’s invaluable and essential. It’s noticeable also that throughout the entirety of this community not one person ever flames or rages, it is all support, help, advice and the like. Without fail. This alone is reason enough to lift Dark Souls onto the top tier.

I’ve just solo-ed the Four Kings in NG+ as I work my way towards the Dark Lord ending, as opposed to linking the fire as I did first time. I adopted a combo strategy whereby I tanked them with my dextrous build and for the first time ever risked the Power Within. Success was glorious, as if I’d won my freedom in the arena. I’m about two-thirds of the way through. I’m starting to change my mind about what has actually happened in Lordran and what my purpose really is. It’s startling in some ways. Rather upsetting given what I did first time around. At such times I travel to Firelink Shrine, a place you can reach from many directions thanks to the wholly interconnected world we play in. The music soothes me (the entire score of the game is playing on repeat at home) and I feel safe, secure and comfortable once more. I can ready myself to continue my journey. When I’ve joined the final few covenants, offered Lord Gwyn’s soul and finally defeated Artorias’ best friend a third time I’ll be The Dark Soul and finally my addiction with one of the finest experiences ever shared will be over.

Since writing this I have become the Dark Soul. It was a glorious moment. Praise the sun.

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