With Dark Souls Remastered set for release in May, Mark Beaumont explains how the Soulsborne world ate his life, and why he's desperate for his next hit.
It was in a wood-lined chapel basement that I met my digital nemesis. We’ve all got one – maybe yours is a persistent Twitter troll, the only Tory on your timeline, or Azealia Banks. Mine was a nun, and quite a meek looking nun at that. As I trotted down the secret chapel steps she stood, head bowed, at the far end of the torch-lit crypt holding a scythe. Waiting.
Walkover, I thought. I was a hulking great beast of a thing, more heavily-armoured tank than man, wielding a shitting great battle-axe spewing lightning like Thor’s codpiece. I wandered up to the nun, Sister Friede by name, and went to hit her with it, wipe her innards casually from the blade and go about my day. She sprang out of range and sliced me into arrogant pieces with a flick of her scythe. Next time down the steps I baited her to come to me for a devastating swipe to the cassock – instead she disappeared, re-appeared somewhere behind me and skewered me like a shield-bearing shish kebab.
Hours, I studied that nun. I threw knives at her so I could see where she disappeared to, learnt how to catch her with a strong strike to the back of the head and finally, she fell. No Nameless King, I thought, and turned to go, in search of a real challenge. Then the nun got up again. With a full health bar. And now she had a gigantic hairy Ewok smashing a massive bowl of lava on my head as backup. Weeks later I learnt to separate and, by the skin of my teeth with barely a sip of life-restoring Estus left, slay them both… and Sister Friede got up AGAIN. And this time she was the speed of a pissed-up Ant McPartlin and flinging magic attacks around like Gandalf gone postal.
This was how Dark Souls III destroyed my life – in a good way. And why I am currently a twitching wreck, losing sleep in anticipation of the forthcoming next-gen remaster of the original 2011 game at the end of May. I need this game like Kanye needs ass-kisses. Because the Soulsborne series – as the notoriously difficult collection of intelligent slash-‘em-ups created by From Software are known – systematically made me its masochistic slave, a grovelling glutton for its relentless punishments. It lured me in with its seemingly impossible challenge, humiliated me like a Red Sparrow in Undead Legion armour and then rewarded me with by far the most euphoric and satisfying sense of achievement that gaming has to give.
Y’see, I came to Dark Souls arse-about-helmet. In 2016 I was sent to Hamburg to cover the press launch of Dark Souls III knowing little about the series and with no idea what I was letting myself in for. In a mist-filled church full of preview screens, the earliest levels of the game beat me into the ground again and again. The scrawniest skeleton in this game would carve you to pieces before you’d got your gloves on. Every single thing I came across during my four-hour nightmare on the walls of Lothric Castle – devil dog, starving ghoul, mutant worm – spatted me like a drowsy bug, and the game gave me no choice but to revive back at the last bonfire (where your progress is mercifully saved but the enemies respawned) and go up against them again, increasingly hopeless, an insect trying to kick down the Great Wall Of China. Failing to find crucial bonfires and constantly eaten by monsters pretending to be treasure chests, the game became tediously difficult. I left Hamburg psychologically broken, knowing full well what it was to be wounded roadkill.
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For weeks, though, the experience niggled at me. What gave this the right to be so hard? How could my decades of gaming experience be rendered as naught by such puny opponents? And what if I took the coward’s way and just stayed by the first bonfire killing the easiest enemies, respawned them, rinsing and repeating, until I’d collected enough souls (Dark Souls brand of XP) to level myself up to the point where I stood a sliver of a chance against Dark Souls III? So that’s what I did. Like Cartman shooting boars, I farmed up a formidable strength build and raced through the wyverns, Vordts and Abyss Watchers of the first half of the game like a knight through butter. By the time I came up against Pontiff Sulyvahn and the game’s difficulty caught up with me again, I was thoroughly hooked.
I tackled the increasingly ridiculous (difficulty-wise) second half of DSIII as I should have tackled the first, with patience, determination and strategic fury. The Nameless King, Dragonslayer Armour, Lorian and Lothric, Slave Knight Gael; these were amongst the hardest bosses to topple in gaming history, each raining new and inventive forms of magical violence down upon your inadequately protected frame and demanding you learn their intricate move-sets and weaknesses by heart and choose precisely the right moment to strike. It’s a wonder my wife didn’t leave me during one of my swearier outbursts at the Dancer Of The Boreal Valley, easily the most graceful bastard I’ve ever battled. When, after literally months of attempts, I finally plunged my lightning axe into the last chunk of health of the final incarnation of Sister Friede, I marched around the room with my arms in the air, wishing I had any friends left to worship me.
The very next day I was down at Game, slapping a copy of Bloodborne – the previous game in the series – onto the counter. “I should warn you,” the counter-guy said, “this is supposed to be quite hard.” “I,” I announced with a flourish, “have just finished Dark Souls III!” He took my money, I knew, with a shrug of awe.
Having gitten gud (as online Soulsters call ‘getting good’) by the end of DSIII, I farmed up and sailed through Bloodborne, barely bothered by its werewolf priests and wart-smothered witches – only Ludwig the massive monster horse and the final Orphan Of Kos boss of the Old Hunters DLC, which is essentially a really vicious Morph, caused me much grief. Dark Souls II seemed just as lightweight, with so many NPCs available to distract the bosses while I chiselled away at their manky mutant arses. Now my Dark Souls journey is set to end at the beginning – the original game (not counting 2009’s much-revered Demon’s Souls, as yet unavailable on next-gen consoles) is reputedly the hardest of the lot, and I approach Dark Souls Remastered with a kind of desperate trepidation, like it’s the dark door of a brutal schoolmaster. I want it to hurt me, it’s the only way I’ll learn.
Because Dark Souls hasn’t merely taught me that I can beat any game. It demands such bloody-minded tenacity and self-will that it convinces the successful Hollowed One that they can achieve absolutely anything they set their mind to in life. Build a successful business. Farm up enough real-life cash for a house. Or launch a lucrative career making YouTube videos of yourself beating Dark Souls bosses. Make no mistake, Dark Souls Remastered is a game for winners, so long as you’re prepared to lose your summer.