Dark Souls’ Problem with Strength Builds

This post contains gameplay spoilers for the final sections of Dark Souls and Bloodborne. If you haven’t played either, I highly recommend doing so and reading this after.

I submit the soul of one of Dark Souls’ final few bosses, the Four Kings, to the Lord Vessel. That opens the game’s last area, a long path to the final boss, Lord Gwyn. Dark Souls has a reputation for being difficult which can sometimes be overstated, but I was understandably nervous about the climactic battle in a game packed full of really tough boss fights. From Software even emphasise the magnitude of the fight through level design here, since the whole area slopes towards Gwyn’s chamber which is visible from minutes away. When I arrive at Gwyn though, I’m disappointed. Visually he looks great, the boss arena is wonderful, and his moves are suitably intimidating. He isn’t a badly designed boss like the Bed of Chaos or the Capra Demon, both of which will almost always kill the player once. Instead, my problem is that he’s easy. When Gwyn swings his sword, I can absorb the blow and attack through, literally trading hits with him. I take a more substantial chunk of damage than him, of course, but I also have the ability to heal which Gwyn lacks. Moreover, I’m wearing Havel’s armour, the heaviest in the game so I can afford to take multiple hits before I even think about retreating to heal. He doesn’t even harass me as I drink my Estus, like the giant duo Ornstein & Smough. I’m thrilled when he’s dead initially. I’ve beaten an extremely tough game and concluded one of my best experiences in videogames overall. When I’m watching the credits, though, I’m left to wonder: did I play Dark Souls wrong?

That is not a boast. Dark Souls wasn’t easy. By the standards of most games, even Lord Gwyn wasn’t easy. I died to the aforementioned Ornstein & Smough at least twenty times and my victory felt like a (well deserved) fluke where Ornstein didn’t charge me endlessly with his lightning spear. After I finished that boss fight, though, the game gradually became easier, with the obvious exception of the bosses in the DLC (no, I still haven’t beaten Manus). It wasn’t just that I got better at the game either. Yes, I could counter attacks more and my sense of when an enemy was vulnerable was sharper, but my power also seemed to accelerate faster than the game’s challenge. Even though I was better at dodging, I found myself having to do it less, and fights would often devolve into a slugfest where I absorbed enemies’ hits and repeatedly clobbered them with my great sword. Interesting bosses like the Great Grey Wolf Sif and the Four Kings were robbed of some of their charm since I didn’t have to know their moves intimately and prepare for their attacks. Areas like New Londo Ruins, Lost Izalith and the Tomb of the Giants weren’t as compelling as Anor Londo or Blighttown as much because I didn’t have to tread with incredible care or conserve my Estus flasks as any individual level design issues.

There are well known issues with purely ranged builds in Dark Souls, which appear to have been an afterthought by the developer and consequentially make many areas trivially easy. Less well acknowledged is that builds which focus purely on strength, endurance and vitality (in that order) make the game less fun towards the end. Even if it’s not strictly more difficult to play a dexterity focused character since they deal equal or greater damage with the right equipment, the moment-to-moment combat is more exciting since dodging is essential and backstabbing more viable. With a dexterity focused character, combat is a dance where you’re constantly jockeying for the best position to land your devastating blows. There’s always a danger you miscalculated, though, and you’ll get caught in the combo that’ll kill you. From this perspective, playing a strength character, especially using armour like Havel’s, is a kind of safety net. It eventually robs the game of the lethality I found so compelling up to Anor Londo and replaces it with a stupid system where tanking hits is an acceptable strategy.

From Software understood and solved this problem in Bloodborne. While complaints were levelled at the game upon release that it was proscriptive in terms of playstyle, since it forced players to dodge and use riposte, it was ultimately for the best. I spent much longer losing to Gehrman than I did to Gwyn, but I consider it a more satisfying experience. Even at the end of the game, I could be disabled by his ranged attack and simply slaughtered by the combo that often followed. Bloodborne understood that for the game to be consistently tense, players had to feel the same sense of threat and terror versus the final boss as they did versus the first (or more accurately the second). It provided a more structured levelling scheme, which allowed you to regulate the extent to which you dodged or performed visceral attacks or unleashed multiple swings quickly rather than whether or not you engaged with certain aspects at all. Its admittedly more proscriptive nature meant players had a consistently spectacular experience with the game on their first play though. The same cannot be said for Dark Souls. I’m hopeful that in Dark Souls III From Software have found some way to balance the desire for variety with a consistently difficult, wonderful experience but just in case I’ll be picking a dexterity build for my first playthrough.

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