Doom, Despair, and Dark Souls

Last time, on Aether’s Grand Struggles in Dark Souls, I managed to both lose and win at the same time. I’m so awesome that even death can’t bring me down! Seriously, I’ve been rampaging across this game for close to forty hours, and I’ve yet to show any signs of stopping! I’m starting to think the heavy reputation this game has is just people blowing wind. Well, at least I was. Something happened, though. Something turned my opinion around. Like, all the way around. I had an experience that once again filled me with fear for what’s ahead in this game, an experience that nearly ended this entire playthrough, an experience that once again had me prepared to die. Anor Londo, much like most areas, has a boss battle. Among veterans of the game, this boss battle is particularly infamous.

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And it’s the only thing I have left to complete.

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Stepping through the fog, I’m greeted with a brief pan over the area I’ll be fighting in. It seems to be a large chapel or great hall of some sort. At least I won’t be running out of room here.

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At the other end is… this. Executioner Smough. You may remember Smough from one of the statues at the start of Anor Londo. I… think he’s supposed to be male? It’s a little unclear. He looks to be wearing a corset, but obviously that’s doing him absolutely no good. He wanted to be part of the Four Knights of Gwyn, a group of the strongest and most trusted warriors serving Geezer Zeus. His skills we up there, but he was barred from entering due to his brutality and cannibalism. Still, he remains, guarding Geezer Zeus’s old home, Anor Londo. Swift, strong, and massive, I’ve got myself a very tough challenger in him. I can already tell, this fight will take me to my limits.

But wait! There’s more! As I ready my blade, motion in the balcony above catches my eye.

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Again, this is someone we’ve seen as a statue at the start of Anor Londo. Dragon Slayer Ornstein. Captain of the Four Knights of Gwyn. Possibly the most powerful warrior at Gwyn’s command.

He leaps down.

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Two warriors, both at the height of human potential, both among the most dangerous fighters in Lordran, individually. And I’ve got to take them both on at once.

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Ornstein is one of the fastest opponents I’ve faced, and his spear is imbued with lightning, giving his attacks an extra kick and making them impossible to fully block. Smough is surprisingly fast for his size, and his hammer is absolutely brutal.

Unfortunately, they work very well in concert. Whenever one leaves himself open, the other strikes. Focus on Smough, and Ornstein can zip off from completely across the room and lodge his spear in my spine. Focus on Ornstein, and Smough will rush in from my blind spot. Alone, they’d be challenging. Together, they’re absolutely overwhelming. My first try, I fall without ever getting a clean shot against them.

That’s not a problem, though! I usually seem to fall in that pattern. Come up against the boss, lose the first round in a humiliating rout, then the second or third time, I know their moves so I can just crush them at my leisure. So, I know their moves. I can work something out. Second time, here we go!

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Ornstein is speedy. Smough is of average speed. If I put distance between us, Ornstein will naturally outpace Smough, giving me a few moments alone with him before the executioner catches up. I put that plan into action, and it works remarkably well. Especially in the beginning. It seems Ornstein’s go-to move is to just fly straight towards me as soon as I enter, leaving Smough in the dust. After that, though? Ornstein mixes it up enough that I can’t reliably get him alone. Sometimes he gets right in my face, other times he hurtles halfway across the room before trying to dart in to my blind spot, or throws homing bolts of lightning from afar.

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I’m able to catch him alone enough to knock off three quarters of his health, but the two of them overwhelm me after that.

Third time’s the charm?

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Not so much. I do marginally better, but this time around, right when I get Ornstein close to death, I take a hit from Smough that makes me drop my guard. The dragon slayer follows it up, and it’s all over.

Well, I haven’t had to go a fourth try against a boss in a while. Maybe it’ll be fun?

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Spoilers: it’s not. It goes much the same as last time. So do the fifth and sixth tries. I get a few hits in against Ornstein, but the moment the two of them are able to press me at the same time, I go down. Like, right out. Smough may not be as fast as either myself or Ornstein, but he’s freakin’ persistent, always charging towards. I get little more than a moment to safely press Ornstein, and oftentimes just have to let openings go because fatty there’s going to be charging through in a few seconds. I’m confident that, as skilled as Ornstein is, I’m the better fighter, and I could easily take him down one on one. Yet there’s Smough, always Smough, throwing me off. If I try to get more than one hit in, I eat a hammer. If Ornstein attacks from the wrong angle, I eat a hammer. If I try to play even the slightest bit aggressively, I eat a hammer. This is getting frustrating.

It’s frustrating for a very specific reason, though. So far, Dark Souls has been really good about creating challenges that, no matter how hard, you’re obviously meant to defeat. There’ve been a few missteps, but with few exceptions, every challenge you’ve faced, no matter how hard, has all been within the game’s system, they’ve all been playing by pretty much the same rules and restrictions that you are. This challenge breaks it. It’s difficult, largely because it takes advantage of flaws within the game’s engine. If you were a designer, and wanted to decrease the difficulty of this fight, you’d have plenty of options. You could pull the camera back, so the player can keep more in view. You could give the option of having the camera look down from above, to more easier track the two opponents. You could offer some sort of dynamic camera, to where it moved and adjusted to always keep both opponents in frame. Do you see what I’m getting at here? I feel the main difficulty I’m having with this fight is not the opponents themselves, but the fact that I can’t keep both of them in view. Focus on Smough, and Ornstein will zip in from out of nowhere and stab you. Focus on Ornstein, and he’ll have you’re camera twisting all over the place, to where it’s not possible to keep Smough in view. Either case is not good game design. This is not a system that’s really designed for taking on more than one long-lasting opponent at a time, yet they’re forcing you through it anyway.

But you know what? If the designers are going to cheat, I’m just going to have to cheat right back. See, there’s an option I’ve had almost all game, that I never took advantage of. An outside source of help. It’s always been there, particularly for boss fights, but I never used it, mostly because I felt it’d cheapen the experience. Here, though, after my umpteenth try, I don’t think I have any other option. Here is the choice I never thought I’d make, the technique I hoped I’d never need.

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It requires me to be human, so first, I cash in one of my humanity items…

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then…

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Take yourself a good look. You aren’t going to be seeing skin on that face very often.

You may remember, from way back in the Undead Burg, there was someone who offered me help if I needed it. A comrade, a battlemate, and perhaps a friend. We hadn’t seen him for the longest time since, until we arrived in Anor Londo. He’s here, too, and while he’s present, we may as well see if his offer still stands.

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I may be up against the world, but I am no longer alone.

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So, best case scenario here is that Solaire and I are able to each break off out opponents, having them focus on us separately while one or the other is able to take our opponent down solo. And with luck for once on my side, that’s exactly what happens. I start by coasting to the right while Solaire stays in the doorway. Ornstein goes straight after me, while Smough hones in on Solaire. Hey, do you remember how I said I was pretty sure I could beat Ornstein in a fair fight?

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I was right.

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The Dragon Slayer, the chief of the greatest knights of the god Gwyn. Still no match for the Best Chosen One.

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Like many before, he falls.

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Smough has no respect for the dead.

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Well, at least he didn’t eat him, but still, pancaking him to absorb his lightning powers? Not cool.

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The ensuing battle does not go in our favor. Solaire keeps distracting his attention while I whale on him from behind, but it’s not long before Solaire’s had as much as he can take. I play it as aggressively as I can from there, but I only get a few more hits in before Smough leaps into the sky and slams his butt down, sending lightning coursing everywhere, doing enough damage to kill me in a single hit.

Again, I’m back to square one.

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So, I figure if having one partner brought me so much closer to victory, two might be even better, right? Well, it probably would. If I could ever get two people to connect with me at once. For whatever reason, most of the time I try to summon another player, it doesn’t go through. I don’t know if it’s having a rural internet connection or people just don’t like me, but I’m lucky to be able to summon one player when I see the sign, let alone two. The only help I can summon reliably is Solaire, and he’s and AI character. Moreover, I can’t summon him and a player character at the same time. I do get a few actual players, and try the bosses a few times with them, but the result is always the same. Kill Ornstein easily enough, do enough damage to the powered-up Smough to drop him to around half-life, then he one-hit kills me with his electric-powered butt slam. That move is just absolutely no fair. The damage is massive, and the range is so huge that if you’re in melee range when he starts doing it, you don’t have enough time to escape. Time after time, I die to that one move, and there doesn’t seem to be anything I can do about it. It’s either don’t bother attacking or don’t have time to evade, both of which aren’t going to get me through this fight.

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I try. And I try. With many different partners. None of them are good enough to handle this fight on their own, so I can’t just sit back and let them handle it. That wouldn’t be an honorable way of handling it anyways.  I may be undead, but I still have some standards.  So many times do I die to Smough’s stupid butt slam move. All the rest of his moves are easy to handle, ducking in or out as appropriate. That one move, though, I’ve got almost nothing against. I do learn to predict it, a bit. He only seems to pull it out once someone’s gotten right up in his face, so if I keep backing off after I get too close, I can avoid it sometimes. Not anywhere near well enough to break through, however.

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While my internet connection may be having a lot of trouble connecting me with partners, it seems to have no problem matching me up with opponents. Dark Souls has some forced PvP combat; if you’re in human form, and connected to the internet, you’re eventually going to have to fight, and I get invaded as many times as I actually manage to summon someone. I have a problem with that. I don’t particularly enjoy PvP outside of people I actually know, and frankly, the type of people who are going to chose to get into fights with others are generally going to be more experienced at PvP than the average player, such as myself. So, up against players who are probably much more experienced at this type of combat than I, I’m actually pretty proud of my performance here. This is the first time I’m up against other players, yet I still manage to pull off an even Kill/Death ratio. I end up fighting four invaders, beating two and losing to the other two. I never had a metric to weigh this against before, but now I know for sure. I am very, very strong. So much so that I kill my first darkwraith in a single hit, sidestepping her greatsword and lashing out with my own. My second victory comes from another melee fighter. He and I both hit each other at the same time. Immediately, it becomes apparent that I have better poise than he does, as his hit did not stagger me, while mine did him. I press the advantage, and finish him off with a second blow before he can recover. The two I lost to were both mages, using the exact same spell I’d never seen before, which summons six black orbs that home in and strike all at once. Still, not a bad outing for my first PvP session. Now, let’s never do that again.

Still, I needed some success because I sure as hell wasn’t getting that from the boss battle. Over and over again, I tried and failed to defeat Smough. It felt like I was just bashing my head against the wall. This fight got me so frustrated, so resentful, I had literally turned off the game, given up, and started thinking about how to elegantly end this series.

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After I had some time to calm down, I decided to give it another go. Rather than another player, I picked up Solaire again. This time, I changed out my armor for the silver knight set I picked up recently, which has slightly higher lightning resistance, and the cost of looking far more distasteful. Seriously, I really liked my old armor. So outfitted, I walked into the boss room, hoping that the playthrough would not end here.

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The fights went pretty much the same as they always had, at least at first. There’s just one change. Rather than instantly killing me, my new armor reduced the damage from Smough’s butt-slam enough that it merely almost killed me. And that made all the difference in the world.

So long as I stayed alive, I could recover. Solaire, for his part, handled himself remarkably well. He didn’t do much damage, but he did a wonderful job of drawing Smough’s attention just when I needed it.

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The fight was not easy. Not even close. It took just about everything I had to wear him down, and it’s outcome was never certain. Here, I took this screencap just to commemorate how close I had gotten him, in case he still managed to kill me with the sliver of life he had left.2014-08-09_00057

Luckily, I stand triumphant. With his health down to that magic pixel, Solaire still bravely weathers the storm Smough’s bringing against him, keeping his attention focused. That gives me the opening I need to slip in behind him and cut him down.

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This is the toughest fight I’ve faced in this game. This took both me, Exodus the character, and me, Aether the player, to our absolute limits. And we still rise above.

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The battle won, Solaire fades back to his home world.

Seriously, let’s just take a moment to bask in the magnitude of my accomplishment. That was perhaps the biggest challenge I’ve faced in gaming all year. It certainly took more time, frustration, and tears than any of my gaming accomplishments in recent memory. Yet still, I faced it down. I’m pretty awesome, aren’t I?

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I take a moment to look at the scenery. There are a few statues at the far end of the hall. There’s Geezer Zeus in the center. To the right, that’s Gwynevere, the Queen of Sunlight, his daughter. It looks like there used to be another statue to the left. Perhaps another child who fell out of favor?

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I find an elevator that leads up to the balcony above. Up there, I find a corpse wearing this armor. This is the same gear that Lautrec was wearing. Would this be his corpse? I wonder. Does that mean he isn’t really undead, or that it’s possible for the undead to truly die, under special circumstances? But if he wasn’t undead, he’d have no need for humanity and almost none for souls, and if the undead can truly die, well, I’m sure I’d have stumbled onto that in the myriad ways I’ve died already. Maybe this isn’t actually him, just someone who had his armor? Or maybe if you’re killed by the Best Chosen One, it’s possible to have a final death? I don’t know. I may have to think about it.

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I find a bonfire, and gladly rest there. Seems an odd place to me, as there doesn’t seem much of a level ahead of me, but still, I’m glad for a break.

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There’s a bunch of signs saying something along the lines of “Amazing Chest Ahead”, all oriented around this door. That gets me excited. I love loot. I love loot so much, and if there are so many people proclaiming how great this is, it must be something special. Happily I open the door, and…

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It’s like I just stepped into a painting.

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You have no idea.  It’s Gwynevere, Queen of Sunlight. Daughter of Geezer Zeus, and presumably a goddess in her own right. I kneel before her.

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I am the Best Chosen One. Better than all the wannabe chosen ones prowling around Lordran. Even the gods recognize me as such. In honor of my great stature, she gives me the Lordvessel, macguffin for saving the world or whatever the Best Chosen One is supposed to do. It also lets me warp between bonfires. This is going to make delving the depths of Lordran immensely more convenient.2014-08-09_00078

So, as Best Chosen One, I am supposed to become Geezer Zeus’s successor, ‘inherit the fire’ whatever that means, and by doing so, I will end the ‘eternal twilight’, put a stop to the ‘undead sacrifices’, and keep everything from being plunged into a frigid and endless Dark. Which I assume means that I have to become the young, sexy Geezer Zeus to keep the sun from going out and making the undead stop dying. Tall order, but I think I can do it. She recommends talking to Kingseeker Frampt, the big doofy snake, for more information. Which I think I shall do. But before I leave, my lady, wouldst thou do me the favor of going on a date with me?

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Awww.

Next time: I will never be clean again.

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13 responses to “Doom, Despair, and Dark Souls

  1. I love planting my summon sign and just spamming ornstein and smough with other players in need of a helpful phantom. Such a tough fight, glad you made it through!

    • I think I might follow in your footsteps, with that. After all the times they beat me, I don’t think I’m satisfied just defeating them once. And, of course, it seems to me that if anyone needs help, it’ll definitely be right around this point.

  2. Blimey! I would totally have given up before then, I don’t do well unless I can win something in like 3 tries! 😀 Well done to you for sticking through it!

    Another hilarious post into the world of Dark Souls! 😀

    • Well, I figured since I was making everything public, it was slightly less humiliating to just see things through than it was to give up here. Public shame helped me power through it!

  3. Another fun read. Maybe you learned a valuable lesson though. Sticking with one set of gear is not always the best choice. The game has forced you to change tactics time and time again. Makes sense that you might have to keep changing gear as the situation dictates.

    • I know, I really should have thought to change that earlier. Gamer rage got hold of me, and I just wasn’t thinking. Could have saved myself quite a bit of strife had I made the change. In my defense, though, that armor looks really, really lame. My Elite Knight set was much cooler than that!

    • It got me through it, so I really can’t complain. I just hope I find something better soon, because I don’t want to be looking at that armor the rest of the game.

  4. So, I discovered this series of blog posts only earlier today, and I’ve been enjoying them a lot. And rest assured, despite everything I’m about to say, that I’ll be checking back periodically to enjoy further updates as well. But, this…:

    “I feel the main difficulty I’m having with this fight is not the opponents themselves, but the fact that I can’t keep both of them in view. Focus on Smough, and Ornstein will zip in from out of nowhere and stab you. Focus on Ornstein, and he’ll have you’re camera twisting all over the place, to where it’s not possible to keep Smough in view. Either case is not good game design. This is not a system that’s really designed for taking on more than one long-lasting opponent at a time, yet they’re forcing you through it anyway.”

    …C’mon now. It’s not only possible to keep them both in view, but a very simple matter with just a little bit of diligence. If this were another situation like the Capra Demon fight, where the arena was highly constrained and there were obstacles to block your vision and there was nothing much to do about either of these, a point like this might have some validity. But the very first thing concerning the boss fight that you pointed out was how the room was so large that running out of room wouldn’t be an issue. If the arena is large enough to maneuver your character, it’s also large enough to maneuver your camera.

    In this case (disregarding summoning altogether, which is also an option the game provides you and not synonymous with “cheating” just to get past the boss fight), you have to utilize both. If you’re locked onto one of them and the other’s out of view, then don’t stand there and attack to give the other one the chance to catch up to you. If you don’t get the opportunity to attack without knowing for sure you won’t be attacked in turn in the process, then you shouldn’t be taking the risk of attacking until such an opening presents itself. This is one of the most fundamental principles of all the game’s combat, one with which I expect you’re well familiar by now; your mistake seems to be in not fully realizing that this extends past merely keeping track of attack animations. Solving the problem of not having both bosses onscreen at once rather than just trying to suffer through it is in itself a key component of the design underlying the unique challenge of this boss fight.

    And it’s as simple as backing up to a distance/in a direction that puts them both in view, switching your lock-on between them periodically to keep track of their movements, breaking lock-on altogether in order to take direct control of the camera, and so on. Purely movement-wise, even, you can position yourself relative to the bosses in such a way that Ornstein gets trapped behind Smough, or either of them gets trapped behind one of the pillars during a given attack, or neither of them are baited to do their distance-closing attacks very often…

    There’s a ton of options the game provides you, and by this point it expects you to be skilled enough at handling its systems to figure them out. And it’s not the duty of the game design to hand you a crutch divorced from its preexisting mechanics for having failed to do so, in this game least of all.

    • I spent a good long while trying to make the camera work, I honestly did. And while I found I could get my view on the both of them when I put some distance between us, I just couldn’t get it to work for me in the midst of combat. As soon as I got close to one opponent, it became a crapshoot as to whether or not I’d see enough of the other to accurately guess the best way to excise myself from the situation. I’ll be the first to admit I’m not the greatest at mid-combat camera management, but I still feel this battle is taking advantage of flaws in the way the game engine handles the camera and camera movement. Ornstein’s charge halfway across the room and back in particular seems tailor made to screw with the lock-on function, either yanking your view way to the side of the room and the leaving it there as he passes the minimal lock-on range if you’re targetting him, or just disappearing from view and leaving you guessing where he’s going to come from if you’re not. The very close field of vision also leaves you ill-prepared to track multiple opponents when they’re not all directly in front of you, a definite problem with how zippy Ornstein can be. Given that you can’t switch your lock to an opponent that’s not already on screen, as far as I remember, it was particularly difficult for me to track the both of them while within melee range.

      There may have been better ways for me to handle the view, sure. And I will admit to typing that up holding a significant amount of frustration. But one of the biggest things I’ve appreciated about Dark Souls was how fair its difficulty generally was, that the challenges came from facing powerful and skilled foes rather than weaknesses imposed on you by the game engine, and I felt that this particular battle broke with this philosophy. When listing the ways this battle might be easier with a different method of handling the camera, I wasn’t recommending that the developers should have changed it just for this fight; rather, I was trying to illustrate my perception that much of the difficulty came from developer fiat rather than arising organically. I have, after a few more times going through it as a phantom, started to look on this fight more kindly, particularly with how well Ornstein and Smough’s moves compliment each other, but that still remains my impression from my solo outings.

      Thanks for the well-thought comment, though. You may be right, and I just didn’t put enough work into managing the camera to properly handle the situation. I may need to learn to use it better on my next playthrough.

  5. Pingback: Potential narratives (texture and theme ideas) – Will Woudman's Blog

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