Last night, I finished Dark Souls. As Gwyn, Lord of Cinder fell to my sword in The Kiln of the First Flame, one of the most amazing experiences I've had in my gaming life came to an end. It took me a long time to learn how to parry attacks in the game - so many deaths caused by moving my shield a split second too late than I'd care to count. I'd died to fluffed parries against almost every enemy in the game, until I ended up re-running the area from the bonfire in Anor Londo to Ornstein & Smough so many times that I'd been forced to learn the technique. I never mastered it completely - but I got to the point where I could pull it off 9 out of 10 times. It turns out, that was enough for the fight against the game's last boss. I stood chin to chin with him, blocking and riposting with a vicious blow from my Great Sword of Artorias. Once I got into the rhythm of it, I did it perfectly.
I lit the bonfire. The credits rolled. The achievement popped. I put the controller down for a moment, exhausted and elated and, if I'm honest, a little bit overwhelmed. It's a game that comes with a MASSIVE reputation for difficulty. A game that is famously rage-quit and retreated from, and a game that leaves you feeling like a god if you do actually manage to overcome it.
To say I "really enjoyed" Dark Souls would be a colossal understatement. I started it under the suspicion that it wasn't really meant for game players like me; too hard, too long etc for an average middle-aged gamer whose reflexes are no longer what they once were. What I didn't really expect was to find a game that rewarded every inch of progress, and one that would open up a whole genre to me. I'm pretty sure most of us have a list of things that they would love to experience for the first time again - for me watching The Shawshank Redemption is on that list, as is reading The Stand. Last night as I finished my first ever run through, experiencing Dark Souls was added to that very elite list.
If starting Dark Souls is like standing at the foot of the mountain, what I realise now is that from basecamp, you can't see the summit. That mountain disappears upward into cloud and fog. You can see that there's a long way to go... but you have no way of really judging the either the distance or the height. Standing at the end of Dark Souls and looking back, you can realise that the world, while not as big as it first feels once you unlock the short cuts that make massive sections of it skippable, is actually a place you can come to know intimately and even to appreciate. There is no map, and it's famously obtuse in its quest giving and storytelling - and yet you'll appreciate it anyway. I think part of it's because of the way in which you're forced to navigate the terrain, endlessly inching forward and then backtracking. Every step feels personal - something to embrace and to remember, and something that probably panned out slightly differently for you in comparison to those that have gone before (and at this late stage, there are many).
I nearly gave up on the game at Ornstein and Smough. As I wrote here, it was a fight that just felt insurmountable. Prior to them, the game had felt consistently difficult but always with a glimmer of hope. Even the most difficult boss fight would seem to allow me to get an inch or so further forward each time - but running into The Bastard Brothers (as I came to call them) was like dropping a steel girder in front of a moving train. Every time I began the fight, I felt an almost dread certainty that I was going to lose. Their reputation preceded them a bit, but meeting them in person absolutely justified the dismayed tinge to my anticipation. For a while I improved but then I seemed to slip backward. I began resorting to online guides and walkthroughs, and all I could find was advice to "get good, or get help." I ended up opting for the latter, farming humanity so I could unhollow and summon some assistance. See the two guys in the pic above? Those two, probably above all others, are the ones who helped me to finish Dark Souls. Together, they beat Ornstein to death in about a minute - then they carried on to hit Smough so hard that I landed only a handful of attacks. The fight ended, and they disappeared to their own worlds never to be seen again. And I was free to proceed.
Delivering the Lord Vessel to Firelink Shrine treated me to a cutscene showing four golden gateways becoming accessible. I knew for sure where one of them was. I suspected I could find another fairly easily. The other two... I had no idea of. At that point more than any point before it, the game left me to explore and find my own way. There were four places to visit, four bosses to kill and so far as I could tell no prescribed order in which to do it. I floundered for a while, wandering and levelling. This time felt aimless, as though I wasn't progressing - but I was. I was learning how to explore, how to engage with the game's different environments and enemies. I was settling into a play style that worked for me (I ended up with a largely strength based build, wielding a greatsword). I encountered soft gates - areas where the enemies were too tough for me. When that happened I'd turn around and explore off in a different direction, gently probing for a path of least resistance.
I wandered through areas of the game that are apparently entirely skippable (Painted World and Ash Lake, I'm talking about you guys). I got lost in New Londo Ruins and turned around endlessly in the Catacombs. I slayed Pinwheel in four hits, and I'm not sure whether I lucked out or whether he's supposed to be that easy, or whether I should have fought him far earlier. I defeated the Great Wolf Sif, swinging my sword miserably as he limped toward me, apparently mortally wounded at the end of the battle. It slowly dawned on me that my character might be the bad guy as I killed the Moonlight Butterfly - one of the most beautiful beings left in this battered, decayed world. One by one, I began to earn the Lord Souls I needed to put into the Lord Vessel. The Four Kings were the first to fall, in what (for me) was one of the toughest solo battles of the game. Lost Izalith was beautiful, followed by the utter bullshit that was the Bed of Chaos boss.
And suddenly, I had two out of the four and the end was in sight.
By that point though, Dark Souls had wormed its way into my conciousness. It's a game with a world that's basically a winding tower, linked by elevators and shortcuts. It's a game where every enemy engagement is a dance, with steps that you can learn and tells that you can interpret. Pay enough attention, and you not only know where every enemy is but also when they'll attack, how, and how best to avoid it or parry it to turn the move to your advantage. There must be a myriad ways of navigating this maze - and it's the first game in a long time that I've finished and immediately rolled into New Game+ on.
Seath the Scaleless and Gravelord Nito both subscribed to the old Legend of Zelda rule of "hard level = easy boss and vice versa", although I wonder whether some of that apparent ease was due to the level I was at by the time I hit them. I'm not sure. Next run through, I might see if dealing with the final four in a different order yields a different experience in that regard. I suspect it will. With those two done, it was time. I opened the door to the Kiln of the First Flame and walked through the ash - and on the third or fourth attempt, Gwyn fell to my hand.
My experience with Dark Souls has been eye opening. I've learned that, actually, as long as the difficulty is fair, I can overcome it. I've learned that a game that doesn't lay everything out on a plate makes me far more willing to engage with it than one that does. I've learned that obscure systems and muddled narratives told by unreliable narrators can work if you're prepared to dig beneath the surface. And I've learned that if I, an average gamer, can finish a game with such a crushing reputation for being difficult... then maybe everyone can. If you're one of those people who's been eyeing these games but has never jumped in, please - grab a little bit of faith in yourself and do it. It'll take patience and it'll take perseverance... but you WILL be able to do it.
And if you give it a try and end up needing some help at Ornstein & Smough, hit me up. I'll drop you a summon sign.