You’ve probably heard of “Dark Souls” (especially if you’ve known me for more than five minutes). “Dark Souls” is an action RPG by Japanese developer FromSoftware and mastermind director Hidetaka Miyazaki (whom we can also thank for “Bloodborne”). It was made famous for two reasons: first, that it’s unforgivingly, awfully difficult; second—and the real reason why it should be remembered—it is very, very good.
It is very difficult though, especially if you’re not used to games of the type. But don’t let that scare you! It is only difficult because you’re unfamiliar with it. There is a reason why everyone says that “the hardest Souls game is [the first one I played]”.
Many insufferable Souls veterans will say that you need to be very good at videogames to get through these games, but I am of the belief that anyone and their grandmothers can beat “Dark Souls”, so if you’re interested in this absolute masterpiece (and its masterpiece sequels), this will be a phenomenal time to start playing them. It is my favorite game of all time, my favorite series of all time, and an experience that literally changed my life. It does sound dramatic, but if 100 people read this post, and 25 try “Dark Souls”, I’ll be happy. If 10 of those 25 finish it, I’ll be very happy. If just one feels the way I felt when overcoming its many challenges, then this will be more than worth it.
Why I Played “Dark Souls” (And Why You Should Too)
You’re probably here to read the tips, so let’s leave this for the end of the post. I do think it’s important to share a bit of this personally life-reaffirming experience, so if you’re interested, let’s meet at the end of the post. Right now let’s get down to it.
Have Heart (No Really)
This might sound absurd, but the hardest thing about “Dark Souls” is not giving up. Barring some minor bugs which probably will be fixed in the Remaster, this is an extremely tight game, with a mind-bending attention to detail put into everything, but most particularly its design and intended play.
The best part about “Dark Souls”, and what makes it different to other ‘difficult’ games, is that it believes in you. If you’re Rocky Balboa stuck on a boss, “Dark Souls” is Mickey rubbing your shoulders and telling you that you can take this bum. Every single time you die, you’ll be able to tell exactly why you died. You will make mistakes, obviously, but each of them will help you do better next time. Remember that the game is designed to rewards players with victory, not punish them with defeat.
Remember: People Beat It In All Kinds Of Crazy Ways
People can beat this game without leveling up, using only the broken sword, using “Guitar Hero” controllers, through Twitch in one insane stunt, or even without taking a single hit. No, this isn’t meant to make you feel inadequate (I would feel the same way). It should tell you this: the game can be mastered. Luck is never ever an important factor in “Dark Souls”. If you feel like one particular boss is impossible, remember people have beat it against much worse odds.
You can beat it. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to beat it.
Isn’t that reassuring?
Pay Attention To Its Language and Be Patient
“Dark Souls” is very often the object of scrutiny and study for game designers—even those who don’t play the game. There is a lot to learn about it, but as someone who’s experiencing it rather than studying it, keep in mind that the game is telling you how to get through its challenges—even if its language is often obtuse.
The first several hours of “Dark Souls” are hellish for new players, mainly because of how intimidating and unfamiliar it can be. It’s really important for you to be patient and feel your progress, even if it seems insignificant (it never is). Feel how you become intimately familiar with the Undead Burg, how getting through a segment becomes easier each time. Try to stick around enough to begin understanding the game, and why people like me have a cult-like fanatism.
When you’re stuck, look around. Look at the way the level or the boss arena is designed. Think of the items the game has recently given you, remember any tips you got during the tutorial level. There aren’t many instances when “Dark Souls” is not speaking to you, giving you advice. Try to listen. This brings me to the next point . . .
There Is More Than One Way Through
There is a certain genius sadism in the design of “Dark Souls”. Many things about it are meant to troll you into oblivion. It is meant to test your heart, your patience, and your tolerance for frustration. But remember: there are no missteps in how it’s designed, and anyone can beat it.
The game is only as unfair as it needs to be (after all, it’s about a zombie trying to kill gods), and will never punish you. If you’re hopelessly stuck in one bit, it’s very likely that there is another way to go. If one bit seems very difficult, take a second, return to a safe area, and look for other routes. This is not a linear game, and there is always another way that, maybe, will be easier for you. There is no area to which you won’t be able to return whenever you want.
Asking For Help is Part of the Game’s Design
There are many insufferable “Dark Souls” elitists who will tell you there is only one true way to beat the game. Don’t listen to them. “Dark Souls” (and its spiritual prequel, “Demon’s Souls”) were designed with a core concept: people getting through horrible challenges together. Remember that despite how dreary and desolate the atmosphere is, you are never alone.
There are many ways to get help in “Dark Souls”, and they’re all perfectly acceptable ways to play it. You can:
- Get help using the in-game messages left by other players.
- Get help asking your veteran friends for tips and tricks.
- Get help by summoning NPCs to assist you with bosses.
- Get help by summoning other players to assist you with bosses.
- Get help by checking a strategy guide or Wiki.
My favorite type of help is asking friends who have already beaten it. If they’re not assholes, they’re likely to give you very good advice on how to break whatever wall is in your way. I know I wouldn’t have gotten far without my team of expert coaches, for whom I am very thankful. In the end, short of someone taking the controller from your hand and beating a boss for you, no advice will ever save you from having to beating a boss yourself.
Asking for help in any capacity is not cheating; it’s part of the game, and often an awesome bonding experience.
Try Yourself First Though
There are awesome anecdotes of the first ever players (critics with early review copies) helping each other. If you want to go by it alone, without any help, you’re a champ, but “Dark Souls” is in essence a multiplayer experience, so if you use help to get through it, you’re also a champ.
My recommendation vis-à-vis asking for help (especially with bosses) is to try it yourself first. Try it and then try again and again. Don’t ask for help until you’re about to explode, but then do. The sensation of overcoming a boss that made you its bitch for hours or even days is one of the greatest aspects of the series. Don’t cheat yourself out of that amazing feeling immediately.
Remember: you can do it; at least give it a try. Sadly, once you know how to beat the game, it will never be that hard again, so quote Miracle of Sound: learn to enjoy the bloodshed and butchery.
Your Starting Class Isn’t Very Important
This is very often a problem new players—including myself—face. It’s easy to think that the starting class will determine your play style or even how hard or easy it will be. This isn’t the case.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a Knight, Thief or Mage; every time you level up you will be able to assign points to your character’s attributes. Yes, certain classes have certain attributes leveled higher than others, but none is locked depending on class. You will build your own class (or “build”) as you progress. If you start as a mage, you can begin assigning points to other attributes later in the game and become a big strong tank if you want.
That being said, remember that points assigned to Vitality (HP) or Endurance are never wasted.
Don’t Pick the Master Key
During the character creation menu, you will be able to pick a ‘gift’. These are usually minor things that won’t have a significant effect on your game experience. That is, except for the Master Key. This item will give you the chance to open almost any locked door in the game.
It does sound tempting, but I always advice new players to stay away from it, as using the Master Key will completely shatter the game’s intended play. It will allow you to skip bosses and even entire areas if you get creative. Even if it is definitely a legit item that the designers put in there (and I still don’t understand why they did), I urge you to play the game as it was designed to be played: all the way through, no cutsies.
If you’ve heard of “Dark Souls”, you’ve probably heard of “git gud”. When people ask for advice from veteran players, they’re likely to hear this and though it is often said in a smarmy annoying way, it’s better advice than you think.
In “Dark Souls”, the game only demands one thing: skill. It’s not about equipment, certainly not about numbers and levels and stats (though of course they’ll help). The most important thing about the game is skill. You need to get good.
Unlike something like “Final Fantasy”, in “Dark Souls”, if you have trouble with a boss, grinding won’t do the trick. What these bosses ask from you is to fight them, to pay attention, to learn how they behave, understand their tells, their strengths and their weaknesses. This is what “git gud” is about. You don’t need to come back 10 levels stronger; you need to get better at the game, and the only way to do it is by playing it. The tightness in the design lies in the game’s consistency. It never breaks its own rules so play and die and learn from your mistakes and play again and make new ones.
Again: have heart. One of my favorite reassuring thoughts is this: every time you fight a boss can be the one you beat it.
Find My Summon Sign
Ever since I played it last year, I’ve gotten enough people into “Dark Souls” (at least to try it) to start a cult. Seriously, I should be getting residuals from FromSoftware. But I don’t only get them into it; I do so and try to follow their progress as closely as I can without being intrusive. I’ve enjoyed coaching people through these games almost as much as I’ve enjoyed playing them myself.
If you want my help, don’t hesitate to ask (Twitter is your best bet). I’d love to help anyone get through these games; if you need anything from me—minor advice or straight-up jolly cooperation—I am a certified Warrior of Sunlight, and want to help. Everyone deserves to enjoy “Dark Souls”.
Now, to the personal part.
Why I Played “Dark Souls” (And Why You Should Too)
If two years ago you had told me that a game I played at age 31 would dethrone “Silent Hill 2”, “Mass Effect 3” or “Final Fantasy VIII” from my favorites of all time, I would’ve laughed. My love for “Dark Souls” went from zero to one hundred when I played it, and I wouldn’t be lying if I said that it’s the single most important piece of pop culture for me, personally (though it might share that title with “The Lion King”). It did change many aspects of how I look at life, definitely made me change the way I look at videogames and in many ways ruined them for me.
It all began as a self-appointed exercise in temper control, in tolerance for frustration. I never considered myself good at videogames, even when I played dozens per year. I knew that I would have a shit time with “Dark Souls”, but I felt that if I could get through it without turning green, I would be able to pat myself on the back.
And I didn’t just manage to finish the game; I played through the trilogy plus “Bloodborne” in one epic string of over 210 hours of gaming, and came through a changed man. It was a bittersweet, often horrible experience, but I will never forget it. I will never forget the absolute desperation I felt many times, or the innumerable moments of joy and satisfaction. I certainly will never forget watching the third game’s desolate final shot, eyes watering at the thought of the journey being over.
The thing is: I wish I could play these games again for the first time. If you haven’t played them, I pity your past but envy your future. Unlike many other veterans, I know that anyone can beat “Dark Souls”, and I want to be there for anyone who’s brave enough to at least try to do so.
“Dark Souls” has ironically become my happy place. Playing it asks me to focus, helps me forget the shitty things in life. It makes me feel capable and strong. It’s even helped me make great friends with people with whom I thought I had nothing in common. To some, it even helped them cope with depression and suicidal tendencies.
This is, in many ways, an important game.
The story has an interesting metanarrative: many undead try to become the Chosen Undead, but most fail. Most lose hope, lose humanity, give up, and become Hollows. In this way, only some will finish the game and call themselves the Chosen Undead, Lord of Cinder, someone who stood up against all odds and conquered the greatest challenges. Any one undead can be a Lord of Cinder—so why not you?
See you all in Lordran, and praise that incandescent Sun!