Dark Souls Playtest: A Dance Of Trial And Error

By Aung (DrakosAmatras) . October 25, 2011 . 3:08pm

When you start a new Dark Souls game, you can create your own character from scratch: name, body build, face, hair, class and gift. If you’re interested in fine-tuning the face, you can do that too. Class determines your starting stats and equipment; for example, Knights starts with good physical stats and defensive metal armor at the expense of agility (due to equipment load), while Thieves start with very light armor and a knife but can’t take a lot of hits.


Your starting Gift is chosen from a list of items ranging from recovery to accessories; from what I noticed, most players end up choosing the practical Master Key which can open most generic doors as well as shortcuts. But if you’re a Thief, you start with a Master Key in your inventory, so you can freely choose another Gift of your choice.


After finalizing your character setup, you find out what happened to you: A curse has spread across the land, turning a lot of people into Undead. And you’re one of them. Once a person becomes an Undead, there’s only a matter of time until they degenerate into a mindless state called “Hollow”. Luckily, your sanity is still intact. Unfortunately, you’re still among the Undead locked up in a prison in the snowy mountains to the north, aptly named “Undead Asylum”.


After a knight in high-class armor kicks down a Hollow into your cell through the roof, you can take control of your avatar. Upon checking the body, you gain your cell’s key, allowing your escape. Along the way, you see strange messages on the floor instructing you about different actions, left by enigmatic individuals. You only start with a broken sword hilt which seems to do decent damage to the Hollows you encounter — up until you run into a giant axe-wielding creature called Asylum Demon.


Since you do only 2-3 damage per hit with no proper weapon, you ideally have to flee and take another route. It’s through this alternate route that you get the starting weapon shield for your class. After a couple of corridors, you run into the knight who seems to have saved you earlier, near death. He gives you a healing flask which only works on the Undead, and dies. With (minimal) proper equipment in hand, you emerge victorious against the Asylum Demon and head outside to a cliff. At which moment a giant crow suddenly appears out of nowhere and snatches you away.


That was the gist of what occurred in the tutorial level. I died more than a handful of times against the Asylum Demon, figuring out his patterns a little by little with each failure. Observing the enemies is the key element of combat — how they attack, when they’re left open, etc. You also have to watch out for your Stamina, which is represented by a green gauge right below the red HP gauge. You exhaust stamina through attacking, running or dodging. It does recover very quickly when you’re not doing any of those, but in a hectic battle, every split-second counts, making Stamina management — when to attack, guard or just roll away — a key to painless (or rather, less painful) progress. A few slip-ups also taught me to never empty my Stamina gauge, and to leave at least a small chunk for an emergency dodge in case an enemy pulls off a reversal, often involving a move you haven’t seen before.


The crow drops me off in front of a bonfire at a place called Firelink Shrine, which is the biggest safe-zone in the game. As such, it serves as a hub of sorts to different locations, particularly once you’ve opened up various shortcuts. I should also mention that the whole map is an open-world that you traverse without any loading screen for area transitions. It really is seamless for the most part; the trade-off is that in some areas with a plethora of objects on screen at the same time, the frame-rate drops noticeably.


Bonfires spread across the land serve as your multi-purpose checkpoints. They initially look like a pile of ash with a sword vertically stuck in it; after lighting them up and resting at one, that one becomes your current checkpoint which you’ll respawn from when you die. Bonfires also completely restore your character and your healing items, called “Estus Flask”. You can’t buy healing items in this game, so it’s important to not lose a lot of HP in combat, as your Estus supply is limited. You can also Level-Up at bonfires; it demands Souls, which is the game’s currency you gain from defeating enemies.


After looking around and talking to a few NPCs loitering around Firelink Shrine, they give me a general idea of what I need to do: There are apparently two mystical bells called “Bells of Awakening”, and I have to go ring them both. Of course, it’s definitely not gonna be as simple as it sounds. After finishing whatever I can do at Firelink Shrine, I headed up to the citadel nearby through an aqueduct which leads me to a new area called “Undead Burg”.


Undead Burg introduces shielded enemies that you can’t directly attack. If you do, your weapon bounces off and leaves you open, which is when they’ll strike for a lethal blow. You have to use a kick-attack which heavily drains their stamina; about 2-3 kicks usually breaks their guard. While breaking objects like barrels and boxes in search of hidden secrets, I found a stairway leading to an Undead merchant. He sounds like he’s starting to lose his sanity a bit, but his shop is definitely useful: He sells pretty much any type of basic weapons, as well as bows and arrows. I changed my weapon setup to a metal shield and a spear which lets me attack while guarding, plus a bow and a bunch of cheap arrows.


After more trial and error, I got the hang of which types of enemies stand where in Undead Burg, which helped me progress onward. Finally, I got to the top of the citadel. I jogged along the walkway merrily, thinking the storm is over, only for another boss called “Taurus Demon” to suddenly jump down in front of me. About halfway on the path, I tried to run back, but a moment’s hesitation from surprise left me cleanly in the wide swing of his giant axe, knocking me off the citadel.


That’s “Stage 1” of Dark Souls. I did manage to beat the Taurus Demon, though, after more than a handful or two of retries. I decided to just forget about weapons, grinded some Souls from enemies, bought a ton of Firebombs and went grenadier on him while dodging his swings. Now that the worst was finally over, I could continue on. I even met an NPC who gave me the key item needed for online co-op! Nothing could stop me now!


Or so I thought; a minute later, I was lying (un)dead and charred from a giant burst of flame, courtesy of the Hellkite Dragon who appeared without any warning. In retrospect, I should have noticed the giant burn-marks on the bridge, along with tons of black, twisted corpses…


Dark Souls is a really big game that couldn’t be covered fully even if I attempted keep the points brief. All that I’ve said above is just an abridged version of my discoveries after a handful of hours’ playtime. So instead, here’s some helpful knowledge I gathered through pain, blood and tears — but mostly trial and error.


1. A note to those switching over from Demon’s Souls: Enemies take significantly larger chunks out of both your Stamina and HP. Don’t let your guard down just because you had prior experience. If you’re not familiar with enemy behavior, combat experience can’t help you much.


2. Try not to bring any liabilities (i.e: a lot of Souls) when you tread into a new area. For that matter, don’t feel too attached to Souls you earn there either. You just might lose them due to a trap, an ambush or a strong enemy.


3. Walk slowly in unfamiliar terrain and keep your eyes and ears open for the surroundings. Traps and ambushes tend to have some sort of subtle cues.


4. Never empty your stamina gauge. Learn how your weapon of choice works, see how many attacks you can do and always leave a hint of stamina for one emergency dodge, if not two for safety, in case the enemy pulls a surprise reversal on you.


5. Learn how to roll. There’s a small window of invincibility if you can time it right!


6. Be mindful of your Equip/Load ratio, because there are three “agility ratings” depending on it. Less than 50% can be considered average. Less than 25% means you can roll almost consecutively and recover stamina very quickly. If it’s over 50%, you might as well put on a good armor and go for a defensive approach.


7. If a tough enemy is ploughing through your defenses like nothing, drop the finesse, forget the shield and go in high-speed mode. Also remember that holding your weapon with two hands gives you a 50% Strength bonus.


8. Don’t engage multiple enemies at once if you can afford it. Lure them out with bow and arrows, and take them down one-on-one. When luring, you can head-shot them for extra damage.


9. Choose a weapon that fits your character build, because different weapons get different Stat Bonuses. Powerful weapons like Greatswords and Maces deal extra damage as your Strength increases, while technical weapons like Spears, Katanas and Bows draw on your Dexterity. Swords and Fists gain average, yet balanced, bonuses from both stats, making them safe beginner’s choices.


10. As you progress further, you’ll come across various “Covenants” to join. They are various “factions”, each with their own agendas. They’re essentially a more complex version of the multiplayer system in Demon’s Souls; whereas the predecessor’s multiplayer factor only involves helping or disrupting someone’s progress, each of the Covenants specialize in a particular aim.


For example, “Darkwraith” Covenantmembers can invade other Human players’ worlds as a Dark spirit and kill them for certain precious items, and “Blade of the Darkmoon” focuses on hunting those Dark Spirits as a Spirit of Vengeance. There are nine Covenants for players to discover and join, and players in the same Covenant are more likely to be linked up in online co-op. But be warned that breaking a Covenant’s rules expels you from it and makes you a Sinner.


11. In Demon’s Souls, if you attack an NPC for any reason, they become hostile to you for the rest of the game. Dark Souls has a remedy for that. You can talk to a certain Pardoner to absolve all your Sins; this neutralizes all NPC hostility at a very high price that increases by your Level.

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