Dark Souls 2 continues to put series fan Dave Cook to the test, as he visits the sequel's equivalent of Blighttown. Say hello to The Gutter.
Note: This is the third chapter in Dave's ongoing Dark Souls 2 impressions journal, in which he plays the game from start to finish. This entry follows him up to level 103, and over 28 hours in. Look:
I'm almost loathe to say this as a fan, but as a balanced writer I think I'm starting to encounter a few problems with Dark Souls 2. In previous entries to this series I mentioned that early areas featured quite complex environments with various paths and areas waiting to be explored. You go into these locations, fight lots of grunts and take some time to explore before battling your way to the next fog gate.
"The distance between fog gates has narrowed, and there's almost always a boss on the other side. They're stunted locations by comparison, and deliver less of the intrigue that comes with exploring for secrets."
Except now I'm past level 100 and the 25 hour mark, the distance between fog gates has narrowed, and there's almost always a boss on the other side. From Majula I beat a path through the the sizeable and complex Forest of the Fallen Giants and The Lost Bastille, followed by Belfry Luna and Sinner's Rise, which seem to only have one boss and a single bonfire each. They're stunted locations by comparison, and deliver less of the intrigue that comes with exploring for secrets.
I've gone as far as I can in that direction, and my travels took me to the Sinner's Rise boss; the Lost Sinner. He was pretty tough to begin with, crushing my guard with heavy sword swipes and giving me little chance to recharge my stamina. After a few attempts he keeled over and I received his soul as a reward. It's a different type of soul; bulbous and flaming, and when I showed it to the Majula maiden she remarked that it was the soul of an 'Old One.' I'm yet to uncover the significance.
I decided to head the opposite way and found myself in Heide's Tower of Flame, which looks a little bit like a flooded Anor Londo, right down to the massive cathedrals and hulking sentinel guards. These guys look brutal but at the time they were really simple thanks to their slow speed and my levelled-up Knight. My Twin Dragon shield was bolstered with a ton of Titanite Shards, so my poise is now excellent, not to mention the fact that my Ring of Giants boosts the stat considerably. I was fairly immovable at the time.
"I'm not boasting or being a dick here, but the game felt like it was getting easier and the environments less-inspired."
My guess is that the area is simple because it's almost like a second starting area, depending on which way you go from Majula at the beginning. Regardless, it's a decent place to level up until the guards become extinct, and there also an easy boss battles in there. It's a Dragonslayer who resides beneath a flaming lighthouse, and he's quite good at knocking you back with his halberd. This is a problem seeing as the room's floor is precarious and flanked by lethal drops.
There are switches dotted throughout the area that raise more sections of the chamber floor however, and if you get them all there's no chance of him knocking you to your death. I do like the opportunity to manipulate the battle in this manner, but I'm yet to see more examples of this. Once the Dragonslayer is dead you can take the stairs to the top of Heide's Tower, where you'll find another bonfire and a vendor selling Miracles and other provisions. I bought my first magic wand there and my intelligence was high enough that I could finally use Soul Arrow.
Leading off from this area is the Cathedral of Blue, which is home to another boss. It takes less than two minutes to walk from the Dragon Rider room to this battle - which I'll keep secret as it's actually quite awesome - underlining just how close the boss fights were becoming. I'm not sure I like that. Either way, it's another easy fight that you can win by just blocking and circling, and retreating whenever it uses magic. I'm not boasting or being a dick here, but the game felt like it was getting easier and the environments less-inspired.
After defeating the Cathedral of Blue boss I doubled back to the lighthouse bonfire and took a spiral staircase down to No Man's Wharf, which is a dank pirate cove. I like it there, mainly because we've yet to see the Souls series do pirates, and because it's a clever area that encourages the use of fire. It's full of dark areas where these horrid, spider beasts live. They're capable of causing a bleed effect after just a few hits, even with a decent Bleed Res stat, so blocking isn't a good defensive tactic.
"At long, long last there's a proper merchant who will buy your junk in a Souls game."
I learned by accident that those things are shit-scared of light. I was standing by a fire pedestal trying to coax one of the buggers out of a ruined tavern, and it ran over for a fight. As soon as it entered the light it cowered and backed off screaming. I lit a torch and walked up to it, forcing it into a corner for a quick and easy kill. Better yet, I used a Pharros Lockstone to activate a huge burning lantern hanging above the cove, which caused every spider-beast in the area to roar and hide, waiting for me to slaughter them with ease.
I have to admit that's a clever piece of game design. The No Man's Wharf area is small but complex, and there's also a creepy guy in one of the houses who will buy your unwanted items for souls. Yes, at long, long last there's a proper merchant who will buy your junk in a Souls game. Kingseeker Frampt doesn't really count as he ate your items for a crap price. I carried on after unloading my gear and rang a bell high above the ocean to call in a ghostly pirate ship. The next boss, Flexile Sentry, resides down in the cargo hold. It's sort of like two ogres stuck back to back, but with one pair of legs. Very weird, basically.
He's a piece of piss though. It took less than 30 of my Soul Arrows to see him killed, and while I noticed that the hold's water level was rising throughout the fight, I managed to beat the monster without any difficulty. It was at that point I started to get a little concerned about Dark Souls 2's difficulty, but it certainly wasn't hampering my enjoyment any. Past the boss room I found a contraption that activated the boat and it sailed me back to The Lost Bastille's prison area. Now I was really stumped. I had gone as far as possible in both directions, and was lost once more.
I went back to the Cathedral of Blue to enter the Way of Blue covenant, just to see if that did anything, but the prick inside said I wasn't worthy enough to join. Cheers pal. I doubled-back to Majula and looked around for new places to go. I had a piece of fragrant wood - no, not my penis you fools - that was capable of curing petrification. I forgot to mention in my first journal entry that there's a third path leading away from Majula, which is blocked by a woman who has been turned to stone.
"Each unique soul can be cashed-in for several pieces of gear, but you can only choose one item before its gone for good. The choice is pretty excruciating."
I'll be honest; I forgot she was there too, so wasted my wood item on another stone person in The Lost Bastille. He's on the top floor, just above the bridge to Sinner's Rise. I shouldn't have saved him first, but he's quite useful. If you cast your mind back to the first Dark Souls you'll remember that to make 'legendary' soul items you had to upgrade pieces of base gear to a certain level then use the unique soul to make something new. In Dark Souls 2 you just give the Bastille guy a boss soul and pay for whatever you want. That's definitely not as challenging.
In something of a twist each unique soul can be cashed-in for several pieces of gear. The Dragonslayer's soul can be used to make his halberd or shield for example, but you can only choose one item before its gone for good. The choice is pretty excruciating, and you need insane stats to use the heavier weapons or shields, so this isn't something you can take full advantage of right away. After a bit of shopping, I started to get a little worried about where I was meant to go next.
That's when I decided to take another look at the big well outside the shop in Majula. If you peer over the edge you'll notice there's some beams with items on them. They're really far down - certainly too far to jump without getting myself killed, unless I jumped down with the Silvercat Ring equipped. You can buy the ring from the area's cat vendor, who looks suspiciously like Alvina from Dark Souls. It's expensive, but it ensures you can make the drop without dying. By this point I had seven Estus Flask+2 and was having to swig one after each drop.
At the bottom lies the Grave of Saints, a festering sewer network filled with rats. They're easily defeated however, and the area itself is small and lacking in content. After just a few minutes I hit another bonfire sat just outside a boss fog gate. This is definitely a trend that keeps going in Dark Souls 2. At the time of sitting here to write this article I'm still encountering areas that are both small, sparse with enemies and often feature a bonfire that's not too far from the next boss. Part of the anxiety of previous Souls games was perfecting the arduous journey to each boss, and trying to minimise damage while travelling there.
That sense of achievement had suddenly become diluted, but as luck would have it, things have become much harder where I am presently. It will pick up again as I get further into the quest. It took me 65 hours to finish the first Dark Souls and by then I was level 100. I'm only 25 hours into the sequel, so I expect the challenge to increase whenever the game decides to pull a Sen's Fortress and become a total bastard.
"The Gutter totally messes with your head and it's the first prime example of where using torches becomes a necessity, rather than a strategic option."
That brings me neatly to The Gutter, which is Dark Souls 2's version of Blighttown. It's another poisonous, filth-ridden slum that's no where near as hard as its predecessor, but it's still headache-worthy. Get that Poison Res stat up before entering.
This place totally messes with your head and it's the first prime example of where using torches becomes a necessity, rather than a strategic option. You arrive at a flimsy, wooden tower made out of rotten planks and almost immediately fans will recognise The Gutter to be a place of poison and misery. It feels like Blighttown, thanks to its lethal drops, sneaky tricks and slow pace. My best advice here is to light as many pedestals as you can, unless you like falling to your death. Enemies here range from fleshy dog-things and diseased Hollows, which are actually pretty simple to defeat.
Your biggest threat here are statues that spit acid if you walk over their line of sight. They inflicted poison on me after just two or three hits, forcing me to use Poison Moss to heal myself each time. Thankfully the statues can be smashed with just one hit and I'd advise taking them all out before passing them by, just to be safe. You'll eventually snake your way around the walkways and rope bridges before descending to The Gutter's floor, and the next bonfire. It sits on the edge of another area called Black Gulch which houses plenty of acid-spitting totems and a fog gate. There's a disgusting boss inside comprised of many human bodies. I can't beat it yet. Shit got real.
I can deal with its big melee attacks, but the boss area is full of fire traps which burn through my health and armour way too fast when I'm trying to concentrate on blocking and counter-attacking. I'll need to boost my Fire Res before taking him on again, so I'll make him the focus of my fourth journal entry. As luck would have it, I found another anti-petrification item that I used on the stone woman I mentioned earlier. This opened up a third main path that led to a new area called Shaded Woods. This place is a little bigger than Heide's Tower and the Cathedral of Blue, confirming that the game was starting to open up again.
The Shaded Woods are pretty straight-forward, with small, poisonous trolls that are easily dispatched. But eventually you'll hit the second bonfire which is housed within a range of moss-covered ruins. It's surrounded by lion warriors wielding big axes who are quite simple on their own, but get them in a pack and your poise can get smashed easily. There's also these spooky, possessed vases that cackle and scream when you get close. Stand by them for too long and you'll be cursed, which chips a wedge off your max health. That's really not fun.
I also found a chap down in a dungeon who can teach me Dark Souls 2's new Hex spells, but it appears he's not letting me learn them yet. There's also a big scorpion man in a sand-filled ruin I killed, but I don't think I was supposed to. On death he shouted "Why?" followed by a subtitle at the bottom of my screen. Something tells me he was actually a vendor and I've just gone and murdered the poor bastard. I really hope that's not the case though. Either way, I fought my way to the next fog gate to fight Scorpioness Najka, who I believe to be his sister.
I'll let you know how the fight went down in part four.
Disclosure: To assist in writing this article, Namco Bandai sent Dave a copy of Dark Souls 2 on PS3.