Dark Souls: Anor Londo

I have reached the lost city of Anor Londo! I’m given to understand that this is a big deal for my quest, although I’m still not entirely clear on why — I’m pretty sure the game has told me, possibly more than once, but it hasn’t made much of an impression. Something about a box, and four lords? Which presumably means four sub-quests. This game is a lot bigger on lore than on story. Still, I know the name Anor Londo has come up before, and it’s clear to me now that breaching its walls has been the actual purpose of basically everything I’ve been told to do in the game so far, bells and all.

The significance of this moment is underscored by contrast. Nearly every other place I’ve seen has been a crumbling, moss-covered ruin, and often cramped and poorly-lit to boot. Any remaining human inhabitants have gone Hollow, and without their care, the whole place goes to pot. Whereas Anor Londo is pristine. It’s a gleaming marvel of wide plazas and elegant spires, bathed in an eternal golden-hour glow, like it’s Kadath or something. And the inhabitants?

That’s the creepy part. There aren’t any.

OK, that’s not quite true. There’s the Firekeeper. And there’s these ninjas or something, although they seem to be just as much interlopers as myself. And there are these armored giants with absurdly small heads passively standing sentry in some buildings, looking like part of the furniture until you get too close. So actually there’s quite a lot of inhabitants, but they’re not regular city people; they’re all fantastical guardians of some sort. In the ruins, that sort of thing is understandable. You don’t expect to see normal people living in a ruin. But it stands out as something strange in need of explanation when no one’s living in a place in such good repair — or at least it does if the game draws your attention to the fact, and makes it clear that it’s a deliberate authorial choice, by drawing such a stark visual contrast.

Dark Souls: Bosses

Dark Souls is a longer game than I was anticipating, and I’ve been playing it for a while now. Given that this is me, this doesn’t necessarily indicate that I’m enjoying it, but in fact I am. It has a lot to do with the way it offers multiple parallel avenues for advancement at a time: driving ahead in the main quest vs exploring outlying areas vs trying to find a way onto a ledge where you can see a pickup, for example. Grinding for souls so you can level up vs grinding for items that let you upgrade your equipment. There are a couple of optional bosses that I keep going back to, just in case I meet muster by now.

I basically gauge my progress by bosses. There’s a large but finite number of them, and many of them are placed to gate access to new areas, so if I can keep crossing out at least one per session, I’ll eventually reach the finish line. There’s basically two grades of boss. There’s bosses proper, which have names and intro cinematics, and live in special areas, accessed by “walking through white light”, that you can’t leave while the boss is alive. And there’s minibosses, which live in the main world but, like bosses proper, die permanently. I don’t usually like the word “miniboss”, because it’s vague and only meaningful in certain specific game structures, but it’s an undeniable pattern here.

Generally speaking, I don’t defeat proper bosses on my first try, although often my first try is close enough to encourage further attempts. I did, however, manage a first-try kill last night against Ceaseless Discharge, a fire-based tentacle monster that keeps the lava pools in the Demon Ruins topped up and impassable until you kill it. There’s a lot that could be said on the theme of tidying up as a player goal in games, and beating this guy is a great example of it. At any rate, I didn’t do anything particularly fancy to defeat Ceaseless Discharge. I wasn’t even really able to dodge its attacks, due to the constraints of the area. I just found its rhythm, a rhythm of “Get knocked down, stand up, hit it a couple of times, and drink down an Estus Flask to heal before getting knocked down again”, and by luck, it died before I ran out of Estus Flasks.

Now, many boss fights offer clever tricks, ways to use the terrain to your advantage, like climbing up onto higher ground where you can safely fire arrows down and/or employ a devastating plunging attack. But there seems to be a general rule that a straightforward method of charging at it with a hand-to-hand weapon and dodge-rolling whenever it takes a swing at you should always be feasible, if you’re powerful enough. If it can fly, it’ll land occasionally just to put it in striking distance. In the Darkroot Basin, there’s a lake with an immense hydra in the middle, out of reach, thrashing its heads about very high in the air and emitting powerful long-range attacks. The targeting system lets you select it from an unusually large distance, which is only fair, but also really suggests that you’re supposed to fight it from a distance, with arrows or spells. And yet, the one time I tried taking a good run in its direction (motivated by pickups that I still haven’t obtained), I was amused to see its heads suddenly coming close to shore, as if magnetically attracted to my halberd.

Dark Souls: Sadness

I’ve rung the second bell, the one in Queelag’s Domain. Queelag is an elephant-sized Lolth-like spider-woman who clogs up the battlefield with big blobs of lava, and her domain is a cavern covered with webs over egg-sac-like orbs. In its entrance are a couple of unfortunate souls crawling on the ground, moaning piteously under the weight of more cocooned eggs; on the far side, after Queelag is gone, there’s a multitude more. They’re not dangerous if you leave them alone — only a couple seem to pursue me at all, and they do it very slowly — but if you decide to put one out of its misery, the eggs burst into hostile worms as big as your arm.

In both mechanics and theme, these hapless fellows remind me a lot of the fly-infested children in The Binding of Isaac. But Isaac‘s vibe is one of childish gross-out humor, like a dead baby joke, and in Dark Souls, the main feeling these people provoke is sadness. Revulsion, but also pity and a sense that they’re not so different from you.

That’s a constant throughout the story. You’re Undead, and will presumably eventually become Hollowed, just like everyone else. Your primary enemies are people who were once like you. Some of them even attempted your quest, and their corpses bear equipment like yours. You’re meant to have sympathy for them even as you cut them down. The only thing separating you from them is that you’re the Chosen One, but the choice seems to have been rather arbitrary; there’s nothing special about you, really, but they had to choose someone.

There isn’t a lot of music in the game, but what there is, is mournful. One of the most powerful recurring enemy types — strong enough to function as a miniboss the first time you encounter it — is a large animated statue that’s missing one leg, dragging itself around awkwardly and clearly having seen better days. The main setting is ruins, which is cliché in games, and usually emotionally neutral, but this game does a reasonably good job of making them feel like a place where something of value has been lost. Partly, I think, it’s because the immortality of the Undead and some hinted-at time weirdness means it was lost within living memory.

And yet, when the game really decides to go for gross, it really goes for gross. The sewers are downright sickening, with their slowly-animating columnar mounds of slimy sludge that breaks into chunks when struck. As in Isaac, though, you get used to it.

Dark Souls: Bonfires

Apparently Hidetaka Miyazaki, the director of Dark Souls, has said that the bonfires dotted around the lands are meant to symbolize hope. They’re sites of light and warmth kindled by the hero in an otherwise relentlessly dark and dangerous landscape. I have doubts about their efficacy as metaphor, but they’re definitely one of the most mechanically crucial things in the game. They serve as checkpoints, but simply calling them that sells them short. They’re more like base camps, where you not only refill your health but level up, perform maintenance, upgrade your equipment, and prepare spells. I’m told that you eventually get some kind of fast travel between them, but I’m not there yet.

Still, their greatest impact on the gamefeel is simply as checkpoints. But that means something very different in a game based on free exploration than it does in a more linear game, and the way Dark Souls treats death makes it more crucial still. It all has to do with Souls. “Souls” doesn’t mean what it sounds like; it’s just a sort of combination of experience points and currency. You get them by defeating enemies, and you spend them to either level up or to buy stuff from vendors. And that’s often a difficult choice. Levels cost a lot — the value of “a lot” increases, but the game is balanced such that it takes a considerable time to level up by grinding for Souls in the areas you can handle easily at your current level.

Now, when you die — and you die a LOT — you respawn at the last bonfire you touched, without your accumulated Souls. The Souls are recoverable, dropped in a green-glowing pile at the spot where you died (or, if you died by falling off a cliff or something, the last place you stood on the ground — a welcome mercy!) But you only get one such drop spot at a time. If you die again, your old Souls are lost. Crucially, there’s no way to “bank” unspent Souls. Anything yet unspent is always at risk, and the farther you are from a bonfire, the greater that risk: if the drop spot is on the far side of a tough fight, you might just resign yourself to the loss. This is where the sense of tension comes from in exploring new territory. It’s not the fear of death itself. Death is nothing. You can’t die for real. It’s the fear of losing your Souls.

And that’s why finding a new bonfire is such a big deal. Suddenly, the sense of risk in the surrounding area is drastically decreased! The feeling is less one of hope than of relief.

Now, this game isn’t exactly designed hub-and-wheel, but the closest thing it has to a hub is the Firelink Shrine, the first area after the tutorial, which provides access to three other zones from the beginning and shortcuts that can be opened to a couple others. It’s got the most prominently-presented bonfire of them all, and the game encourages you to think of it as home by making it the place that vendors and other helpers go after you rescue them from dangers. At a certain point in the story, the bonfire there goes out and can’t be rekindled, or at least not immediately, and it’s a fairly big moment. I don’t think this is the start of a trend, but it makes me think: What if other bonfires started going out? That makes the “hope” interpretation more plausible again. Not so much that it makes me feel hope, but that its loss would make me feel a loss of hope.

Dark Souls: Weapons

One thing I’ve found fairly impressive about Dark Souls is the variety of melee weapons available. It isn’t just a matter of varying some stats and which damage types they do. Weapons vary in how they move. You have to learn how to effectively handle them.

That’s a large part of why I’m still sticking to my trusty halberd in most situations: it’s familiar. But another part is its versatility. See, weapons generally have two attacks, one that’s faster and weaker and one that’s slower and stronger. (They can also be wielded one-handed or two-handed, but this usually only affects the resulting damage.) For some weapons, the fast attack and the strong attack are essentially the same: a spear just gives you a fast poke and a strong poke. But a sword might give you a a fast poke and a strong swing, for example. Or it might give you two different swings, the strong attack being slower because it goes wider. The halberd’s fast attack is a slow poke, more or less like the strong attack on a spear, and its strong attack is a swing that goes in a full circle around you, hitting everything close by and things directly in front of you twice. I like to fight just one thing at a time when possible, but it’s good to have options when you’re suddenly mobbed.

I’ve seen two main places where the halberd isn’t the best option, though. One is in Blighttown, where you encounter giant flies that spit poison. They move fast enough to sometimes dodge the halberd, but more importantly, they’re frequently simply above where its attacks go! Target-locking an enemy lets you poke it when it’s below your normal line of attack, but there’s a limit to how far the halberd can rise. A lighter weapon solves this, but sorcery solves it even better: the best way I’ve found to deal with them is to take them out is at a distance, before they can spit poison at me, using magic missiles.

The other is in the Tomb of Giants, where your main enemy is giant skeletons. Skeletons are traditionally more vulnerable to crushing than to slashing or piercing damage, and so it is here. For normal-sized skeletons, I don’t really have to worry about this, but the giants take enough more damage that I need to optimize. And so my main weapon against them is a Greatclub — essentially, a tree trunk, taller than you, that you carry over your shoulder. Its fast and strong attacks are both ponderous but unstoppable overhead blows. A more nimble enemy could easily step out of the way of such an attack, but these giant skeletons are just as slow as I am. Essentially, it turns the fight into a contest between two similar opponents, trying to out-giant each other.

Dark Souls: Remastery

The Dark Souls that I’ve been playing is more fully titled DARK SOULS™: Prepare To Die™ Edition. If I understand correctly, this is simply the original PC version of Dark Souls with some DLC bundled in. It’s not the most recent version of the game. That would be DARK SOULS™: REMASTERED, which is the same thing with a facelift. And that makes me think: Does this game really need remastering? Perhaps my aged eyes are behind the times, but the the graphics in the version I’m playing look perfectly fine to me, and the remaster doesn’t look noticeably different — looking at a comparisons, the only really noticeable difference is the bonfires, which got a lot more detailed. (The blurb for the remaster even emphasizes this by staring with the line “Then, there was fire”…) Other than that, I can look at two side-by-side images and have no idea which one is supposed to be the improvement. But perhaps my standards for this sort of thing are higher than those of Kids These Days: in my youth, if a game got remade years after its original release, that usually meant switching from EGA to VGA, which really made a difference to the look of the thing. (And not always an improvement — skilled artists working thoughtfully within constraints can produce effects that are ruined by haphazardly slapping in color gradients.) Remastering Dark Souls seems to be less a matter of updating it to utilize new technology and more just a way to get a new SKU on the market and revitalize sales.

Even though the visuals are mostly up to modern standards in the original, there’s one thing that really strikes me as having aged badly: the ragdolling. That is, the way that fallen enemies wiggle and flop around and tend to get caught on your feet so that they’re dragging behind you as you run about, even if it’s the body of a huge stone knight whose footsteps shook the earth. It’s as if everything gets replaced with a hollow rubber dummy at the moment of its death. Maybe “aged badly” is the wrong way to put it; maybe this came off as ridiculous ten years ago, too. I remember people being very impressed by the ragdolling in Half-Life 2, but the context was different. There, you were picking people up with your physics gun and throwing them around the room, so perhaps the whole situation was bizarre enough to excuse some bizarreness in the visuals. Also, I don’t recall the corpses being nearly as clingy there.

Anyway, I have no idea if the remaster changes the ragdolling at all. It’s hard to tell just from pictures.

Dark Souls: Missed Opportunities

In the Undead Burg, the lowest-level area adjacent to the hub, there is a treasure chest visible on a balcony near the main path. You can see the open doorway leading onto this balcony, but the building leading to it is locked tight, and I couldn’t seem to find the key. This lack of completion troubled me whenever I went back to the Undead Burg. It wasn’t the loot that I desired, really. Whatever was in the chest, chances are that, a few dozen hours into the game, I already had something better. But it bothers me to leave anything unopened.

Well, last night, I finally found the key. It’s sold by a vendor in another part of the Burg, off the main path forward. It’s possible that I’ve passed right by him before — he’s sitting on the floor amidst a bunch of clutter, and kind of blends in with the clutter. Finding him solves another mystery as well: I had obtained a crossbow early on, but couldn’t find any ammo for it until I reached the smith way at the end of Undead Parish, who sells bolts and arrows in addition to weapon upgrades. Well, guess what? That vendor in the Burg also sells bolts and arrows. I could have been doing ranged attacks a lot earlier. If I had, I might not have gone down the path of the Strength-based melee fighter the way I did.

If you’ve been reading my previous posts, you know that this is not an isolated incident. It keeps happening. I take a break from pressing ahead, and I wander around an area that I think of as “completed”, and I wind up finding new stuff that could have been old stuff if I had been more diligent. But I think this is just part of the structure of the game. When you first come to a new area, your ability to explore is curtailed by the fact that you’re fighting for your life all the time and have to make it to a bonfire (checkpoint) before your healing supplies run out. It’s only on returning with greater power that you have the luxury of true thoroughness. Every new player’s experience will be constrained by what they’ve found, but probably in different ways from person to person. And that’s fine. I didn’t absolutely need those arrows at that point in the game. There’s always an alternative.

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.

Dark Souls: Fire Support

I’ve had a little success in the hunt for NPC assistance: I found a pyromancy trainer! He was, as predicted, in a place I had passed by multiple times, a storeroom where he had been stashed in a barrel by an insane cannibal chef. After rescue, he made his way to the game’s central hub, where I found him and learned my first spell. One thing I had been wondering about: Spells in this game are items of equipment, and one of their attributes is “number of uses”. Did this mean that I would use it up and never be able to cast it again unless I re-purchased it? Or was it like the “Estus Flasks”, the health potions that replenish themselves whenever you either die or sit at a bonfire? I’m relieved to report that the latter is the case. “16 uses” means 16 uses per sally.

But I’ve also had something of a setback: Vamos, the skeletal blacksmith who can upgrade your weapons with magical fire, is dead. This is the result of an accident. He has his forge set up in the Catacombs, in a hall adjacent to a cavern where skeletons stuck to spiked wheels roll around and make a nuisance of themselves. At first, I didn’t understand that these were monsters that needed to be killed, because you can’t easily make out the skeleton part while they’re rolling. Even once you realize this, they’re tricky to catch — they move fast, so when one is temporarily rendered immobile by a wall or something, you have to pounce on it quick before it starts rolling again. Anyway, one of the skeletons managed to roll itself into Vamos’s hallway and get stuck on the anvil, and when I tried poking it with my halberd, I wound up hitting Vamos as well. Vamos did not like this. I tried letting him kill me, in the hope that it would calm him down, but he was still hostile when I returned to the area. So I killed him instead.

As far as I know, I haven’t killed any other peaceful NPCs. I wish it hadn’t happened, but it seems to be permanent. At least he drops some pretty good loot: a cool golden horned helmet with good damage resistances, which has become a permanent part of my wardrobe, and a hammer that does fire damage. Apparently the hammer is considered substandard, but it’s the best I’ve got for melee fire damage, and the best I’m likely to get for a while now that the only smith who can imbue weapons with fire is dead. Thank goodness I’ve got that pyromancy trainer around. I’ll try not to kill him too.

Dark Souls: Monsters that Aren’t Zombies

Earlier, I said that every single enemy in Dark Souls other than the bosses (which tend to be various kinds of demon or dragon) is a zombie, or “Undead”. This turns out not to be true. I suppose I should have known: very early on, you get to meet skeleton and giant rat enemies. But skeletons are, from a certain point of view, just zombies in a more advanced state of decay, and the rats are diseased-looking enough to plausibly be zombie rats. And when you meet dark knights in full armor, they’re not exactly confirmed zombies, but in context, when the vast majority of things you’ve encountered are zombies, it’s a natural first assumption.

But once you get into the Darkroot Garden and areas beyond it, this stance becomes more difficult to maintain. It starts with some sort of plant-people, with spiky bushes growing out of their heads and bodies, who attack with vines. That could still be a kind of zombie, I guess? Just… zombies that spent so long lying still that plants started growing in them. In an adjacent zone, there are these crystal beings, basically big lumps of quartz with stubby arms and legs. This seems even less likely to be a kind of zombie, but the mere fact that it’s humanoid, that it moves like a person, means that the possibility of a zombie crystallizing at least crossed my mind. Giant figures in stone armor, lying on the ground and covered in patches of moss, that stand up as you approach: Giant zombies? No, these have lore attached to them. When they drop a weapon or a shield, its description states that they’re stone statues, animated by sorcery.

And past that, you get some creatures that aren’t even a little bit zombie-like. There are these bright red manta-ray-like creatures that crawl along the forest floor and attack you with froglike tongues. The Valley of the Drakes has exactly what it says on the tin. The sewers under the ruined city have amorphous slimes and weird leaping bug-things. Apart from the slimes and the rats, though, there’s a general tendency towards the humanoid. If you ignore the wings, the drakes have suspiciously human proportions, and walk upright when they’re not flying. When the manta rays die, they flip over to reveal incongruously human arms and legs, which is at least consistent with pictures of baby manta rays you can find online. I suspect it’s all due to motion capture.

Oh, and those skeletons? Turns out they’re not Undeads. As I’ve said before, an Undead in this setting is a person marked by a curse that makes them come back with diminished humanity when they die. The skeletons are just ordinary bones animated by a necromancer.

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