The first time I played a Souls game was the original Dark Souls back in 2013ish, when it became free on Xbox Games with Gold. I immediately fell in love with the aesthetic, its contemplative pace, and its dense RPG systems. Choosing a sword-and-board character, I found progression difficult but rewarding, and I looked forward to having a large, lauded game to sink my teeth into.
I quit after a few hours.
I'm not sure what got me to retry that first Dark Souls a few years later. But I did, with a different approach, and it completely changed my enjoyment of the game and the series. After 6 years, I've now played all of the Soulsy games available on PC and Xbox, beating all of them except Elden Ring. What I'd like to do here is share the things that gave me a new outlook on the first game I got into in a real way. The unfortunate thing about Souls fans is we are extremely eager to share tips with people just starting out, and it leads to an overload of information. With that in mind, I'll try to keep this relatively brief, with the intended audience being people who find themselves bouncing off the game:
Tip 1: Use A Walkthrough
There is a kind of gaming purist, certainly not limited to the Souls games but very vocal within the fandom, that absolutely abhors the idea of using a walkthrough. Don't listen to them. Without a walkthrough, I wouldn't have finished Dark Souls, not for difficulty so much as just feeling like I was on a progression of some kind. It opened up areas I never thought to search. Some would argue I robbed myself of making these discoveries organically; while I appreciate their concern for my enjoyment, I wouldn't have gotten there in the first place without walkthroughs. And even with a written description of a cool or trollish thing that happens, actually playing the game and reaching that point is the only thing that does it justice.
Perhaps the most useful aspect of using a walkthrough is item mop-up. By the time I played Dark Souls 3, I was progressing through an area solo then consulting a walkthrough to grab the items I missed in my first go-around. Items are super important in these games - maybe that weapon that'll totally change your play style is in an obscure chest in some dungeon you raced past. Historically, I've used the Fextralife walkthroughs, although the guide for Elden Ring is still very much a work in progress. Maybe if you find something not covered there, you can add it yourself! If you want some looser guidance, they also have a map for recommended character level in each location. Warning on this last one for the spoiler-averse: that link shows the entire game map.
Tip 2: CHEESE CHEESE CHEESE
The dirty secret among Souls fans (as Jess gathered in a recent Twitter thread) is that the "git gud" bravado masks a reality: that most of us are just exploiting very video gamey flaws in every enemy and boss. Anytime you find something to exploit, From Software put it there, so it's entirely legitimate to take advantage. I got hung up on trying to do things the "right" way in my first whack at the series, and it made me enjoy the game less as a result. Even now, the only reason I beat Margit, the Fell Omen was because I summoned a jellyfish that poisoned her early on, so I could play conservatively and watch her life tick down when I didn't want to put myself in harm's way. I also summoned that NPC sorcerer mostly as another character to draw aggro, which led to me taking fewer hits early on. All of this shit is exactly as valid as some Parry God beating Margit in 30 seconds.
A notorious aspect of the Souls games is how poorly many enemies fare on different elevations. If you're just downstairs of an enemy, you can whack its legs continuously while it feebly swings a meter above your head. And this tip is not limited to pure exploits. One thing I cannot recommend enough is carrying a ton of bone throwing knives, and using them specifically to pull one poor fucker off an encampment or group. You might feel like you're being a coward by picking off a lone person while his idiot buddies don't notice you dispatching him ten meters away, but that's just taking exactly what the game gives you. Lastly, summoning is always welcome. If you feel like you need to beat a boss solo, let me offer this: the type of person that wants to help you beat a boss is full of joy, and when you eventually fell that boss, you get to share the victory (and often a gesture) with an anonymous stranger you will likely never see again. It's a strange, beautiful moment that is a great part of what makes the series so fun.
Tip 3: Make A New Character
This one is mostly directed at anyone who's played less than 10 hours, although it can apply to everyone. Sometimes your initial choice doesn't work for your play style, and you end up fighting your own class as much as you fight weird skeletal dogs. You don't have to delete this character, but you will probably benefit from starting a new game with a different class. Early game is mostly about the loadout you receive; the differences between each class fade over time as you accumulate items and levels. Perhaps you wanted to be a tanky faith-caster on first glance, but you discover that it's the greatsword-and-bow Samurai that really works for you. Or maybe you even bounce off that second character, but it gives you new perspective on the one you chose the first time around. There's really no limit to how many characters you can make to explore the early game, as long as you're having fun. Much like Outer Wilds, the true item of value you obtain is knowledge. You may find yourself breezing through early sections that were difficult with a higher-level character, thanks to your new fit and your memory.
I addressed some of these above, but I tend to write more than I intended so here's a bulleted list:
- Summon whenever the game gives you the opportunity to do so: whether that's a few "lone" wolves or a stranger over the internet. You can do both at the same time!
- Put YOUR summon sign down in front of a boss door. The lower stakes (no rune loss if you die) relax you and might give you new insight to a boss' attacks and weaknesses. Note: I have not done this yet thanks to Xbox only fixing network play yesterday, so I'm assuming it works like the other games.
- Craft a bunch of those bone knives and draw aggro with one enemy. If it backfires, get on that horse and run away.
- Put levels into Vigor (at least to 20 to start). More HP means you can get away with more errors, and winning a battle you feel like you should have lost is a thousand times better than losing it.
- Making progress is overrated. If you're enjoying exploring a certain area, don't feel like you need to leave to go do the next big thing. And when you get tired of that, the recommended level map I linked above can help point you in the direction of gentlest progression.
- Finally, you can always walk away. From an encounter, from the area, from the game itself. I walked away for three years and now I love the series. Even if you don't return, the world is stressful enough without games adding to it.
I'd be interested in hearing if anyone had a similar experience to me, and if these tips mirrored their own path. And if you think I'm bad at games and a pitiful wretch, you're right, so you can keep that to yourself.