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The Beginner's Guide to the Dark Souls Series

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We’re officially now in the ramp up period to Dark Souls 3, set to be possibly the darkest, most soul–y game in the franchise yet. The sort of game that will require a comprehensive set of guides. So we’re starting here: a back to basics, stripped down guide for the player who hasn’t encountered a Souls game before. So precious. So unscathed. That’ll change, don’t worry.

The short answer is that it’s the new and upcoming instalment in the Dark Souls series, a fleet of action RPG games. The short answer is sadly very simplistic, however. Dark Souls itself is a spiritual successor (that most unhelpful of terms) to a game called Demon’s Souls. Together the games are collectively known as the Souls series, a term which sometimes includes Bloodborne, another similar game from Dark Souls creator Hidetaka Miyazaki. They have a big following, with the first Dark Souls and Bloodborne in particular being heaped in critical praise. Seen any memes featuring a helmeted knight and the phrase PRAISE THE SUN? That’s a reference to an NPC in Dark Souls. People really liked him, for some reason.

The big talking point around Souls is the core mechanic: when you die you come back slightly worse off, having lost all your in–game currency/XP (souls, or Blood Echoes in Bloodborne, collected by defeating enemies) and with all the enemies in the area reset.

A lot of people really loved Dark Souls, mostly because of the aforementioned dying mechanic. It’s very difficult, but very rewarding because of it, so people responded (even if the response was to get fucked off by how difficult it is).

Dark Souls 2, which came out in 2014, received some criticism for not living up to the previous games, possibly because it lost some of the strength of design of the original while Miyazaki stepped back to direct Bloodborne. Bloodborne, meanwhile, was a great game as well as a fantastic looking one, so with Miyazaki back at the helm for Dark Souls 3 people are getting excited, and it might be the incentive you need if you haven’t played any Souls before.

There’s nothing better out there to prepare you for playing Dark Souls than playing some Dark Souls.The first was for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC; the second is on current gen consoles too, although most people will tell you that Dark Souls gives a more authentic grounding in the game than Dark Souls 2. You do have another current gen option, though.

Bloodborne came out almost a year ago, and has many similarities to Dark Souls, notably the cycle of endless death, but also parts of the XP and levelling system, and the beautiful–but–forbidding feel of the worlds each game is set in, like a bag of Haribo with razor blades at the bottom.

Our Deputy Editor Steve Burns played Dark Souls 3 and described it as “Dark Souls with Bloodborne combat”, so it’s a good place to get some fighting chops.

Dark Souls comes with a fearsome reputation attached, and you may find yourself approaching it with caution, even, perhaps, fear. You’ll have seen people talking about it online, celebrating getting past a particularly horrible boss, and lamenting the difficulty (or, just as often, praising the difficulty and saying that this is what games used to be like in the good old days before they got shit, Castlevania is the best thing ever, etc etc.).

The thing is, even if it’s not like the games you’re used to, it’s still just a game. It has a steeper learning curve, and is a crueller mistress, but the worst that can happen to you in real life is still nothing, unless you’re easily frustrated and smash your controller against a wall, and an errant bit of plastic flies into your eye or something. If you persevere with Souls you’ll feel a glorious sense of achievement unlike any other.

Right, so you’ve worked up the nerve to boot up your first Souls game. If you haven’t played any before then you’re going to have to do a bit of a mental shift going in, because even though everyone will have told you that death is an integral part of the game it’s still a weird thing to come to terms with. In e.g. Uncharted you restart from a checkpoint as if Nate never died. In Dark Souls you did die, but came back to life, your fuckups forever on your shoulders.

Although you should, as with most games, generally try and avoid getting killed – and it’s theoretically possible to do so completely – the process of dying and respawning is all part of the (harrowing, frustrating) experience. Once you’ve accepted the notion that Dark Souls will not hold your hand as you cross the road, but will instead boot you onto a motorway and watch dispassionately as you dodge oncoming traffic, the game becomes more enjoyable. Instead of working against the process work with it: learn, grow. Conquer.

It may be that you’ve already achieved a zen state of total balance and calm, in which case good for you. Many of the rest of us have a demon to wrestle with, that being the demon of propensity towards frustration and instinctive dislike of things not going our own way (this is the same patron demon for most toddlers). In order to enjoy the game as much and for as long as possible, without having to rage quit every half an hour and blame the sticky controller triggers instead of your own ineptitude, you’re going to have to stay calm, so breathe slowly and remember that ultimately none of this matters. Think of each death as an opportunity: you’ve learnt what lies ahead and consequently will be better next time.

The other option is to be skilled enough at the game that you don’t die very often, but that is unhelpful advice and exclusionary to people that aren’t very good at games (e.g. most games journalists).

At times the Souls experience can feel quite desperate and frantic, but refer back to the previous point and stay calm. Don’t act without thinking; spamming the attack button is not your friend, and neither is running around every corner with the assumption that you’re a stone cold badass that can take anything you run into. You can’t. Step back and assess the situation you’re presented with.

It’s best if you do this yourself voluntarily, because otherwise Souls will smash it out of you and it’s a painful process. If you’ve assessed the situation and found that the enemy (or group of enemies) you’re facing appears to be a bit of a bastard, your options aren’t always restricted to kill or be killed. There are some bosses that you have to beat to get to the next area, true, but if you’re not in the mood to grind through trash mobs, or you’re just feeling delicate, then it’s a very viable option to just… bugger off away from them. You can preserve your health, and no one need know.

With a lot of conventional RPGs you can muddle through the character creation process and still end up with a serviceable hero on the other side, but you’re going to have to give it a bit more thought for Dark Souls. It’s difficult to play well with a balanced character (i.e. one with an even spread across different skills), because then you’ll never be good enough at one thing to be able to kick ass effectively. Take some time with character creation and figure out, as much as you can, how each starting class has their stats skewed and which play styles these are best for.

When you’ve decided which style you’d prefer – spellcasting, agility, strength – level skills and improve weapons in line with that. Don’t try and compensate for weaknesses elsewhere in your build. Go with what the kids call an ‘imber’ character – imbalanced; shit hot at what they’re good at and terrible at what they’re not. Then just use the skills you’re good at.

From what’s been seen of Dark Souls 3 so far it looks like it’s going to be a strong successor to Dark Souls rather than Dark Souls 2, harking back to the high difficulty and enemy design of the original that everyone was raving about. This doesn’t mean it won’t still throw off veterans of the series, though, especially to start with. The combat looks much faster paced, with more significance on quick offense.The enemy AI is better too, so your opponents will be aware of some of your tactics and respond to them.

Dark Souls 3 is still going to be a massive challenge. That’s part of the point of playing it. But we’ll take on that challenge together.

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