Rising to the Challenge in Dark Souls

Last time on Shame and Suffering in Dark Souls, we managed to kill a boss on our first attempt. Some might think I’d let such a glorious victory go to my head, but have no fear. My ego is already so massive anyway, such an accomplishment would have a negligible effect.

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Anyways, today, we’re going to conquer the second half of the forest area, the Darkroot Basin! The entrance to this area is a slightly hidden path soon after the entrance to the Darkroot Garden. The location itself is pretty low-key. It’s just a slow walk on a mostly barren path down a cliff. There aren’t even any enemies around for much of it! The only other living thing I find is a small titanite lizard, a being that would much rather flee than fight. Well, if I let it, of course. What?! You think as small a thing as “not being remotely a threat” is going to stop me from destroying everyone in my path?

So, Dark Souls is technically a JRPG. From Software, the game’s developers, are a Japanese company, and Dark Souls is an action-rpg, doesn’t take a genius to figure out how that works. The thing is, Dark Souls plays nothing like a JRPG. While the game does have a story, it’s really opaque and you have to work to get it, rather than the typical JRPG’s strong focus on story-telling. The characters and locations are quite simple and dark in design. The game feels very non-linear, and draws a lot of focus to its open world. In all, it plays so much more like a modern western RPG than a typical JRPG. Guess it just goes to show how obsolete genre borders are becoming.

Heading down the cliff further, the path I’m following splits into two parts, one that levels out and is marked by another player’s message stating “Be Wary of Golem” and one that continues downward with the message “Be Wary of Knight”. I take the one downwards. I’ve got a feeling as to what I’ll…

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Yep, yet another black knight. This one’s a little new, as he’s wielding a halberd rather than the blades we’ve been facing up ’till now. He rushes me as soon as a round a bend in the pass. I back off a bit, staying out of his range while drawing him into an open area where we’d have more room to fight. And fight we do. And then he dies. I’ve been going up against these guys all game now! The last two I fought had me while I was still a bit rusty an stuck in enclosed spaces. This knight has neither advantage. His new weapon might throw lesser warriors off, but I am the Best Chosen One, and he doesn’t last long against me.

Beyond him, I find a corpse holding a Grass Crest Shield. Like the shield I took in memoriam from the benefactor knight at the Northern Undead Asylum, this shield is less than perfect for defending against physical attacks but fares better against alternate sources of damage. Unlike the plain Crest Shield, which is well specced for magical attacks, the Grass Crest Shield provides strong protection against fire. Still a very circumstantial shield, but I can see it having its uses. Such as against that blasted bridge wyvern. It also boosts my stamina recovery, but that’s not nearly so fun to talk about.

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Further beyond the black knight is a cave. Inside the cave is a bonfire, providing myself with a convenient checkpoint for this area. You know, with how often you’re expected to die in this game, you’d think they’d be a little more generous with their checkpoints. Beyond the bonfire is an elevator that leads down to the Valley of the Drakes. Beyond the Valley of the Drakes, well, I don’t know. There were like five drakes staring at me, each of whom looked like he could easily bite me in half without sparing a thought, and I quickly became overpoweringly interested in that other path in the Basin that I passed by before. Not running away, just…. just got other things to do right now.

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Oh hey, and in case anyone’ curious, here’s the undead burg and parish where we spent a good chunk of our first several entries. Somewhere up there is that stupid wyvern’s future grave.

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Beyond that enticing thought lies a bit more forest with both some treasure and some of those crystal golems.

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They take umbrage to my presence.

These golems are, as you may expect, strong, but very sluggish. They mostly attack either with punches or by summoning a crystal bludgeon, but if you spend too much time at a distance they’ll let loose with that crystal field attack you see above. They’re also tough, too. Tough meaning that they take two hits instead of one to kill. Between them and the giant stone knights, I’ve been running into a worrying amount of enemies I take more than a second to kill. Considering I’m using an incredibly powerful sword I don’t think I’m really supposed to have yet, I’m kind of wondering whether this is an area characters of my level are really supposed to take on. Oh well. I can kill them, so I’m not running scared just yet.

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There are four crystal golems in that area, and in the back… well, you probably can’t see it in this picture, but there’s a massive hydra rolling around in the lake. Ladies and gentlemen, I think we’ve just found this area’s optional boss.

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Before that, though, there’s a tower to the side here. A message is warning me that there’s a knight in that tower. I think I’ve gotten pretty good at handling these black knights, I really don’t have anything to worry about. I trot on up to the tower door, and, seeing a bit of my opponent clip through it, I stab him a few times through the level geometry. The enemies in this game don’t play fair, and I’m not going to either. Once his health is most of the way down and I’m feeling confident, I open the door with the key I got from that Andrei look-alike last entry, and step through.

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That’s… that’s no black knight. No, instead, it’s number two on my hatelist behind that accursed bridge wyvern. Havel the Rock, that knight whose attack I blocked but still got creamed in a single hit way back in that first entry. I’m shocked enough by his presence that I give him enough opportunity to make it a two-fer.

Respawning, I make my way back to the tower. The door’s stuck open now, meaning I can’t slay Havel with my “clip through the level geometry” shenanigans. I’m going to have to play this one fair. By opening this door, I’ve created a handy little shortcut between the Undead Burg and Darkroot Basin, but if I can’t slay this knight, it’s useless. Last time I faced Havel, I cleanly blocked his attack but he still did enough damage to kill me in a single blow. However, I’ve upgraded both myself and my equipment quite a bit since then. First order of business is to see how well I can withstand his blows now.

Well, I’ve got a bit of bad news and a bit of good news. Bad news is that Havel may the highest attack power of any foe I’ve faced so far. As he already demonstrated, a single strike is enough to kill me outright. Good news is my shield arm’s strong enough to absorb that blow entirely, although not without significant stamina loss.

At least I’m not defenseless, now. Havel’s surprisingly quick for someone in such massive armor, and is easily able to match me in speed. I can block him, but that takes stamina and if it’s too low when I do so the hit goes through anyways. If I mess up at any point, I’m dead.

This battle is all about managing my stamina. It takes stamina to strike, to dodge, and to block. I restore stamina when… well, doing pretty much anything else. Stamina recovers pretty quickly normally, and considerably slower when I have my shield raised. In this match, I’m constantly having to keep an eye on that green bar. I have to pick my moments to strike, keep some distance at times to recover my stamina, and make snap decisions on whether to block or dodge that massive dragon tooth of his.

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It takes me a couple tries to get the rhythm right. My technique has to be flawless; a single hit and I’m right back to the start. I stick with playing defensively here, only striking when I know I can get away with it. Eventually, though, my strategy pays off. Havel over-commits himself to a double handed strike, giving me the time to slip in behind him. The opportunity is just too juicy for me to pass up, and I surgically replace his right lung with six feet of black knight steel.

As reward for my triumph, I get Havel’s ring. The ring ups my max equipment load significantly. If this were any other game that probably wouldn’t be quite so useful, but keep in mind that speed in Dark Souls is determined entirely by how much of your equipment load you’re taking up. This ring is why Havel was able to move so well. By bumping up my equip load, I’ll be much swifter in combat.

Well, theoretically. Even with the ring equipped, my weight still isn’t below the threshold that would actually make me faster. That black knight sword is really freaking heavy.

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I take a break and head back to Andrei to upgrade my equipment. In some idle conversation, Andrei starts speaking of the types of undead he sees passing through. As you can see, I am clearly not the only person who sees my obvious grace and respectability! So, Andrei. Have you ever thought about relocating? I’ve got this project going at Firelink Shrine.

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I head back to the forest of the crystal golems, ready to make like Hercules on that hydra. Fun fact, did you know that hydras have really good eyesight? This guy sees me well before I can clearly see it. You can tell by the many blasts of water I have to evade as I’m going through the forest. These blasts do a good job of clearing the rest of the golems out, but still, I think I’d rather do without them. They’re slow-moving, but each of the hydra’s head fires its own blast, creating a very wide attack. Moreover, each blast has an area of effect when they hit. Now, I can block them, theoretically, but taking a blast to the shield tends to leave me vulnerable to the splash damage of the rest surrounding me. Undaunted, I advance, using the trees for cover, at least until I run out of trees.

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The lakeside has little available for cover, not nearly enough to protect me from the wide spread of water blasts. Also, the hydra’s in the middle of the lake. I can’t swim. That presents a little bit of a problem.

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Instead, I have to use myself as bait. By waiting within range and hoping that the hydra tires or spitting at me, I’ll eventually coax the beast into striking. It takes a little while to pull its heads back, giving me ample time to cut one off.

That’s assuming it does chose to strike, of course. More often, it’ll just continue shooting water at me. At this range and against so many blasts, I don’t have the space to dodge. My sexy undead body is ripped to shreds, and there’s little I can do to defend myself.

I try this over a few times, with little more success. I can’t dodge well enough to make this anything but a battle of attrition, and with the hydra out of range I have no chance of winning that battle. Well, when something’s not working for you, you just have to change the context.

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We’re going to be getting use out of Havel’s ring earlier than I thought. I strip myself of everything I can to lower my weight, and switch my chainmail shirt out for the wanderer’s coat I started the game with. I could have dropped the shield, too, but I wanted to keep it in case I found myself in a pinch. Without as much equipment weighing me down, and with Havel’s ring countering the Black Knight Sword’s weight, I can move much faster. Fast enough to clear those water blasts? We’ll see.

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The battle’s just as one-sided as it was before. This time, though, it’s one-sided in my favor. With my added speed, I can easily skirt the hydra’s attacks. Water blast, snake strike, it doesn’t matter. It just can’t hit me. The only option left to the hydra is to offer up it’s various necks and wait for me to part them.

The hydra falls, and offers me a dragon scale, which I could use to upgrade my drake sword if, you know, I didn’t already have a better weapon. I also gained a Dusk Crown Ring, which offers me more spell castings in exchange for halving my hp. As you might recall a couple entries before, I really suck at magic, so I don’t know if this will ever be worn.

Changing back into my heavier duds, I head into a cavern behind the hydra’s domain, and spy another large figure in the distance. Are we going to go three for one on optional mini-bosses this entry? I think we are!

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What we have here is a golden crystal golem. Larger, stronger, and tougher than the standard fare. However, he doesn’t have any new moves. Between all the times I’ve died to Havel the Rock and the Hydra, I’ve dealt with their attack patterns more than a few times, and you can only use the same tricks so often before I learn to deal with them. Before long, I shatter him. As he falls, a women seems to be set free from his corpse. I can’t be a proper Best Chosen One without rescuing a damsel, can I?

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Lady Dusk of Oolacile. Mayhaps the owner of the ring I got from the hydra? In any case, she claims to be from an age long before mine, meaning she must have been trapped in that golem for centuries. She’s unable to stay in this realm long. However, she knows a lot of ancient sorceries, and worries that they’ll be lost when she disappears. She wants to teach them to me. Now, you’re probably aware that my skill with magic is just about as high as my skill with singing, and I know that nobody wants to see me do either. But just look at her! So gentle, so elegant, I just can’t bear to disappoint a woman like that! She gives me her signature, and tells me to summon her when I’m ready to learn, before disappearing.

She’s gone. Such a shame. That’s one more opportunity lost in my “Make Firelink Not Suck” mission.

Next time: Must I finally admit defeat?

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