I'm crap at Dark Souls.
I finished the game but I never mastered it. My build was a mess, I summoned co-op partners relentlessly and with no guilt, and rather than face each enemy with dignity I sprinted through difficult areas. I selected not to fight the boss in the Painted World of Ariamis, because why would you? That would be hard. I cheesed Ceaseless Discharge. I was a second rate warrior, permanently undead with a graceless, clunking gait.
Despite all this, Dark Souls 2 is one of my most eagerly anticipated games ever. I've been thinking about it for nearly two years. I sometimes dream about going hollow. I have not been crunching numbers in advance to figure out what kind of build I want, because I suck at Dark Souls and RPG levelling systems confuse me.
When people get angry about Dark Souls 2 maybe being easier, I secretly hope that it is. Just a tad, thank you.
The reason I want to play Dark Souls 2 so badly is because I want to see how its world will interconnect. I want the glory of finding a new part of the map. Dark Souls was masterfully designed and its difficulty was an incentive to wonder at what comes next - how the world's varied settings would interweave. If that means bashing my head against insumountable odds for the next say, four months, then I am prepared.
I'm a filthy casual and this is my Dark Souls 2 adventure.
Packing my Bags
I choose the Warrior class because I never had the patience to build an effective magic-oriented character in Dark Souls, even though some argue it makes the game easier. I choose the Ring of Life as my starting gift because it slowly regenerates my health bar and I need all the help I can get. Then I bumble my way out of a large dusky cave and into Majula. I talk to a cat. It laughs at me. I talk to some miserable blokes throughout the small ruined township. There is a woman with an American accent, which is video game code for "she is not evil". She invites me to level up but I have no souls.
These opening moments of a Souls game are blissful because there's no need, as yet, to worry about stats. Nor is there any reason to deliberate over whether to use souls for levelling up or purchasing goods. There is basically nothing at stake. You can explore and get the hang of it.
I savour this period. I stand at the top of a coastal monument and gaze at the landscape ahead of me. It is full of things that will kill me. Nearby, an NPC whinges that he's lost all hope. I'm scared for the real Dark Souls 2 to start. I never had much hope to begin with.
I talk to the cat again. I find a guy with a big blue sword and Scottish accent and we chat for a bit. He is annoyed about a cement statue blocking the path to some area I definitely do not want to enter at the moment, because then the real Dark Souls might start. I don't want that.
There are two possible directions to go: into the Forest of the Fallen Giants, or across a nearby harbour dotted with traversable ruins, called Heide's Tower of Flames. Wielding a useless broken straight sword and a floppy shield, I select to press into the forest, but before I do so I trip onto a hidden Majula path and find a Morning Star.
The hard lessons
Look: I finished Dark Souls using the Drake Sword. That's the kind of player I am. I never used other weapons because my playstyle was configured around the speed of a sword's animations. Nevertheless, as I enter the forest and start beating undead to a pulp with my trusty Morning Star, I'm feeling pretty confident. I even find a bonfire, which seems too easy and too soon. Maybe it's a trick. I approach with excruciating care with useless shield up. It's not a trick. I'm safe.
This is where you start learning the hard lessons of Dark Souls 2. The important things I learned about Dark Souls 2 during my first week with the game were:
- Life gems - the game's slow health regeneration item - may seem abundant at first. Don't be fooled. Avoid using them and learn to rely on your Estus flask instead. There is an item called an Estus Shard in the well at Majula. You can use this to upgrade to two Estus draughts per bonfire, if you take it to the woman who levels you up. Early game, you'll be able to get up to five Estus no problem.
- If you find yourself low on lifegems, you can farm them near the first bonfire in the Forest of Fallen Giants. Those angry lumberjack guys often drop them.
- The gradually deteriorating health bar is incredibly stressful. Get used to it. The only item that can reverse the deterioration is a Human Effigy. These are scarce so do not waste them. Get used to operating with half a health bar. Get used to using Estus.
- When is the best time to use a Human Effigy? They should be saved for emergencies - when the odds seem completely against you - or when you want to become Human, ie, if you're desperate to summon an NPC for a boss battle.
- On that note: NPC summons for boss battles tend to be useless. When I was playing the servers were switched off. You'll be better off summoning human players.
- Early game, there is no way to farm Human Effigies. So let me repeat: do not use Human Effigies.
- Get the Ring of Binding. It reduces your health bar reduction from 50 per cent to 75 per cent. It is located near the drawbridge in Heide's Tower of Flames. Suicide run to it if you need to.
- Explore every area thoroughly. The best items are never in plain sight.
I have played Dark Souls 2 for a full week now, and I have managed to defeat four bosses. One of them, The Pursuer, took five hours of repeated failure to conquer. When I finally defeated this boss, I got drunk.
It's excruciatingly difficult to stop playing Dark Souls 2. Sometimes, at 3am, I stop to wonder what I am doing with my life. The answer is simple: I am playing Dark Souls 2. This game offers such immense rushes of ecstatic achievement that it's easy to mistake your small victories as important. The four bosses I have defeated, according to a fellow journalist with an advance copy, are 'the easiest in the game'. No shit.
The real Dark Souls 2 has yet to start for me.