I got really, really, really lucky.
All I wanted was the Rusted Iron Ring. I don’t like running Blighttown without it, so I swung by the Undead Asylum to grab it. The plan wasn’t to kill the Black Knights and I sure as hell wasn’t prepared to take on Stray Demon, so I intended to go in, grab the ring, and get out. But along the way I also decided I wanted some parry practice – I’m rusty – so I stopped by the Black Knights. The third and final one dropped his sword for me and my current playthrough suddenly became a Black Knight Sword run.
It has since been upgraded to +3, and I’m making my way through Anor Londo, whacking away at all the things with my glorious sword.
Small things like this change so much and that’s a big part of the beauty of Dark Souls. I haven’t played any of the other games in the series, something I intend to remedy in the near future, but I am truly, madly, deeply, wildly in love with the first entry (not counting Demon Souls because I haven’t played it) – but it’s the little differences between playthroughs that make the experience so incredible, so rewarding, so different each time.
For example, the Black Knight Sword is a weapon that I’ve never gotten early enough in the game to really appreciate, and I’m having a blast just playing through the early and middle game with it because it feels so different from weapons I’ve used before. My last playthrough was with the Demon’s Greataxe – Taurus Demon dropped it for me and I specced heavily into strength so I could use it early. (After having run through most of the game with it I can safely say that there are few feelings as satisfying as parrying Gwyn and smacking his face off with a ginormous axe.)
Fundamentally, the game is exactly the same. Nothing has changed between the last few times I played Dark Souls and now (except for Blighttown; I’m playing Remastered for the first time and no swamp lag, yay). And yet, simply getting a different weapon has done so much to make the game feel fresh and exciting.
I can actually feel the differences in my own abilities and the way I’m approaching the game. What felt so incredibly difficult the first few times around is suddenly content that I feel like I’ve mastered. I know which enemies I can parry and which ones I need to dodge. I know that the buckler and the target shield offer the easiest ways to parry so I’m now enjoying parry windows that are roughly three hours long.
I did not know, however, that it is entirely possible to die on the Moonlight Butterfly fight because I’ve almost always two-phased that boss. Came close to dying this time around, so much so that I panicked and Homeward Boned out. (Came back with ten Estus and did not die like an absolute pleb, in case you were wondering, but it was a close thing.)
And that’s another reason I love Dark Souls. This game will kill you dead. Quite thoroughly – though not irreversibly – dead, if you give it the opportunity to do so.
I had, my Moonlight Butterfly shame included, not died to any of the bosses in this playthrough – something I was quite proud of. Heck, I even got through Sen’s funhouse without falling off of anything so, by the time I got to Iron Golem, I was feeling cocky. Real cocky. The only boss I was expecting to perhaps die on was Ornstein and Smough. But I’ve never had trouble with Iron Golem before, so I went in with my Black Knight Sword and instead of swinging at one leg as is sensible, I alternated between each. He did not approve, I mistimed a dodge, and he gleefully slapped me backwards and off the edge.
I howled at the untimely end of my no-deaths-on-bosses run, chortled for a bit at my own stupidity, then went back and killed him as dead as he had just killed me.
It’s stuff like this that make people say that Dark Souls is brutal and unforgiving and only for the hardcore but, after having played the thing a few times, I couldn’t disagree more. Dark Souls is a magnificent, glorious, learning experience. Yes, the first playthrough will be hard. Yes, collision is occasionally weird. Yes, sometimes those goddamn Silver Knights will poke holes in your intestines through a wall. Yes, the experience is rough around the edge. But when you figure out the quirks, when you learn what you can do and what you can’t, what enemies can do and what they can’t – when you figure out what each death in Dark Souls has to each you, that’s when you really begin to approach mastery.
There’s genuine skill in being able to run through Sen’s Fortress, or in parrying Gwyn to death, or killing those terrifying Titanite Demons, or in simply figuring out the right time to dodge an attack. It’s progress and growth and a measure of your own burgeoning skill and, to the best of my knowledge, there are almost no single player, PvE type games that offer that same sense of accomplishment.
There are plenty of games you can win, but there are far fewer that you can truly master and Dark Souls is damn near top of that list.
That’s why, once every year, sometimes twice, I come back and replay Dark Souls. Maybe with a different weapon, maybe with a different class, maybe tackling bosses in a different order. Some self-imposed challenge to test myself, to see if I remember everything I’ve learned, and to see if I can learn something new.
And in that sense, Dark Souls is a lot like going home. Every time you come back, you’re reminded of how much you’ve changed. How far you come. But it’s home and whenever you go back, you realise that there’s something new here to love, or something old to appreciate in a brand new way.