Dark Souls: Cursed

I continue to get the impression that the difficulty of Dark Souls is overrated, or at least it is if you play it like an RPG rather than like an action game. In a typical action game, if you can’t make it past a boss, you’re just stuck. The progression of levels is linear and when the game says it’s time to fight the boss, you fight the boss. There are exceptions, of course. Metroidvanias. The Mega Man series. Like Dark Souls, these offer the possibility of backing off for a while and trying something else and coming back later with new powers.

And yet, apparently there exist people who consider it dishonorable to do this in Dark Souls, as if repeatedly banging your head on the same wall is the intended experience. I say that if the designers wanted you to play linearly, they would have made a linear game. Instead, they made a voluminously branching one. Indeed, the need to put a fight aside for a while and go exploring is tutorialized. The Asylum Demon in the intro area is absolutely not meant to be beatable in your first encounter, when you don’t have a proper weapon yet. You are absolutely meant to escape that fight and return to it when you have the means. This is the prototype for the whole game. (But then again, it also reminds me of the way that a lot of JRPGs include an impossible or nigh-impossible fight near the beginning specifically to teach you how to run away from combat, and usually that’s the first and last fight where I actually take advantage of that ability…)

Anyway, the reason I bring all this up is to emphasize my hypocrisy. I spent much of last night in “git gud” mode, repeatedly attempting the same area, making slow incremental progress not through improved stats or improved equipment, but just getting better at the fights in that area. (And it really is mostly a matter of getting to know those particular fights, learning what to anticipate in specific places.) This is because the game all but forced it. There’s a status called “Cursed”, which cuts your maximum health in half, and unlike most status effects, it doesn’t go away when you die. The only way to get rid of it (at first) is to consult a wizard in the New Londo Ruins, which are full of ghosts that can’t be fought with normal weapons unless you’re cursed. So it’s all very tightly controlled by the designers: you’re meant to go there when you start encountering enemies that can curse, and no sooner. And the curse interferes with your ability to survive enough that exploring new areas isn’t really a serious option until you’ve got rid of it. Your only real options are to make repeated runs against the ghosts, or to grind in places where you feel safe enough that your diminished health doesn’t make a lot of difference. And in fact I did a bit of both — after some upgrades, I could kill a ghost with one blow, which helped a lot! But there are a lot of ghosts, and they gang up on you, and you can’t control the battle easily because they can pass through walls. So it took a while.

Anyway, it’s over now, and it’s a big relief. Exploration of new areas has been so much faster since I got rid of the curse. One side benefit to the experience: I ran through the area leading to New Londo often enough to finally find a side-path leading to a third blacksmith, who sells a few sorcery spells on the side. So now I have access to all three schools of magic, as well as someone who can upgrade my weapons if I accidentally kill the other remaining smith. This guy is in a cage that presumably protects him from your attacks — not that I’ve risked trying.

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