I'm growing older all the time. It's getting to the point where it's embarrassing.
I think Dark Souls is a work of art that belongs in a museum. The Royal Ontario Museum disagrees, but I think I'm starting to wear them down.
When I was in grade 5 I went to school as Robin for Halloween. The costume was basically a pair of green lady tights and a tunic that had to be Velcroed at the crotch like a baby's onesie. My self esteem never fully recovered.
I believe Alan Wake was criminally under-appreciated. It's unclear if this notion stems from a legitimate love of the game, or my loyalty to any piece of media that is going to include tracks from Nick Cave, Poe, and Depeche Mode.
Some of my stuff has been front-paged. I'm super proud!
I love jolly cooperation. It's a big part of why I keep coming back to Dark Souls. I've spent entire evenings with my summon sign down in a tough place like Sen's Fortress or the New Londo ruins, lending my ghostly hand in aid against the forces of evil. It's addictive to me. Of course I enjoy the act of helping others and getting to repeat some of the game's amazing boss fights, but I also just really love seeing what kind of characters other players come up with. It's always amazing when you pop into someone else's game and see some half-human-half-dragon hybrid wearing a dainty skirt and shouting monsters to death.
But recently I've noticed a disturbing trend. In one of my favourite places to co-op, Anor Londo (home of everyone's favourite boss duo Biggie Smalls), I've seen player after player skulking through the cathedral clutching the Drake Sword.
The Drake Sword? Really?
- The giant hammer is nasty, but what hurts most are the blows to your self esteem.
The Drake Sword is the worst kept "secret" in Dark Souls. A sort of bonus weapon you can acquire near the beginning of the game by (I shit you not) painstakingly shooting a dragon in the tail about 50 times with a bow and arrow.
If you get the Drake Sword at the first opportunity you can, it's amazing, a huge jump in power. Enemies you had to hack and chop away at with your Longsword or Bandit Knife can be dismissed with a single swipe of it's scaly blade.
The problem is the Drake Sword doesn't grow with your character. It does its 200 damage no matter how many points you plop into your strength or dexterity stats (OK fine, a small caveat – it can be upgraded with the use of very rare Dragon Scales, but lets not get bogged down in neck-bearding ).
But of course, the enemies keep getting tougher and tougher.
By the time you get to Anor Londo, you'll barely be able to scrape an enemy with it. Coincidentally, this is the area of the game where many players chuck DkS into the bargain bin for the next poor sucker to find.
The problem is actually two-fold. Not only does the sword lose its luster when the going gets tough, but since you've been able to crutch on it's power early on, you might not have picked up on some of the skills and tricks you need to survive.
The frustration of failing despite using the "cheater gear" can crush a player's spirit. And it's all the more tragic because it's a completely false impression. The Drake Sword has it's time in the sun, but ultimately you need to swap it out. It isn't a super weapon at all, just oddly overpowered for the part of the game you can get it at.
- Make friends with this guy.
The truth of the matter is that the Drake Sword really isn't all that. With a little upgrading, and a few points in the right stats, even the humble Longsword (junky starting gear for the Warrior class) can rival it. And I don't mean eventually, you can get this going on at nearly the same point of the game - and for less grindy work!
One of the best parts of DkS is the mystery of it. From Software never spells anything out for the player, leaving the next step, the best tactics, and even the story of the game all for the players to figure out for themselves. I love it. But if I had to say the lack of explanation hurts the game in one place, it's the stat screen. Everyone would have benefited with some clarification on this confusing ass jumble of numbers.
See most weapons have a value called "Scaling" on one or more stats, marked with a letter grade. What that means is that you will get a small amount of bonus damage for every point you have in those stats when using that weapon. The higher the grade, the bigger the bonus. Taking the Longsword as our example, looking at the equipment screen you can see it has a C ranking synergy with Str and Dex, where the Drake Sword has nothing.
But that's not all, you can also upgrade the base damage of the Longsword at the nearby blacksmith (or with your own smithbox if you make the investment) with an item called titanite. Now titanite can be bought at the blacksmith for 800 souls a pop, but it also drops fairly frequently from most of the enemies in the Undead Burg area, so you are bound to pick up a few for free just running around.
You can upgrade any basic weapon to +5 at the start of the game (and even further a little later) for 200 souls a level. Even in a worst case scenario where you have to buy all 10 titanite shards, you're looking at a mere 9000 soul investment to tink up your weapon. A number of souls you can easily make by looping the surrounding area twice, or by Jolly' Co-Oping ONE person with the gargoyle boss.
My most recent character was able to do 155 damage using a +5 Longsword with a VERY modest 13 str and 20 dex. Even though the basic damage is only 120, the added bonuses from str and dex scaling gave it more than a 30 point boost.
With a tiny bit of effort you can have a weapon that is only a little bit behind the Drake Sword at the same point in the game that will in fact grow with you and get even better. And you didn't even need to spend twenty minutes flinging arrows at a dragon to get it! You earned the souls to upgrade the weapon and your stats ACTUALLY PLAYING the game.
- Tell me this doesn't look like more fun than pestering the Hellkite Dragon.
Once you understand how upgrading works, the world becomes your oyster. Many weapons become totally viable and you can pick and choose based on your personal fighting style or vanity as you please.
As you get more embers and materials for the blacksmiths to work with, you can upgrade your weapons with elemental or magical effects. The flashiest versions like Lighting damage strip the weapon of any stat scaling in favour of raw damage, and a lot of players opt for that route since it's undoubtedly effective. But don't throw the baby out with the bath water just yet. There are still advantages to working the basic upgrading path and the more esoteric upgrade options.
Pick up Richard's Rapier. Who cares if it has so-so base damage, when you take it to +14 it has A-Ranked scaling on dex! Pump up that dex, and while you're at it toss a MagicWeaponbuff on it to multiply that damage even further. Have fun poking Smough to death in his Buddha belly while looking like hella royalty.
Or how bout the Large Club. It's... well it's a huge chunk of wood. Pretty humble. But if you take it all the way to +5 Occult, it gets an A ranking on Faith, allowing your little worshipper (perhaps already heavily invested in the faith stat just for the miracles) to swing around a God killing heretical tree trunk that never runs out of buff.
It is a wild system if you're willing to give it some thought and creativity. Lighting weapons are a great option, but there's a lot more out there; Certainly a lot more than the boring ass Drake Sword.
- Once you know how to upgrade your weapons and armor, you can make any set viable. Go ahead and make your own character your way!
Which brings us back to the original point of this blog and my personal question. What is the deal with the Drake Sword anyway? Why did From Soft put it in the game and give it to players to early on? Why can you get this piece of super-powered gear at the start of the game, that only leaves you high and dry feeling like a chump a few hours later?
Well, there are two interpretations I can see.
Charitably, you could say that From Software knew they were making a ball-buster of a game. DkS didn't get its controller tossing reputation for nothing after all. Maybe From Software took a look at play testers stuck early on, or just decided to be merciful, and wanted to put in something that would give struggling players a boost till they found their sea legs. Balanced so that it's initially a big lifesaver, but eventually needs to be discarded – hopefully at a point where the player understands how the game works.
But well. These guys made Dark Souls. I don't think mercy is a big part of their vocabulary.
A more cynical person may look at the design of the Drake Sword and think it's a trap. A weapon designed to encourage laziness and overconfidence in the uninitiated. A weapon that is paced juuust right to fail the player once they've made it past a threshold where the thought of backtracking is almost unbearable.
See, Anor Londo (where the Drake Sword really starts crapping out on you) is accessed through magical means after a gruelling trek through Sen's Fortress. Nobody, and I mean nobody, relishes the thought of taking another trip through the Funhouse (torture castle) and whatever they've completed of Anor Londo to get back to the blacksmith and try and figure out a new weapon. In fact, many players might not even know you can backtrack at that point. I imagine most would rather just roll up a new character (or break the disc in two and burn the shatter remains).
Is this a fair interpretation of From Software's intentions? Would they really troll players like that? I don't know. On one hand it implies a deep level of maliciousness on their part, but on the other hand they made the Tomb of the Giants.
- Hope you love skeletons, darkness, and despair!
Maliciousness is at the core of the game. Ever get cursed in the sewers? Not fun. In fact, if anything the game isn't as mean as they originally intended. Post launch patches have significantly decreased the difficulty of the game and have added some player-friendly quality of life improvements.
You can look at some of the dark ideas that got dropped or never really panned out to see just how wicked From Software can really get. Did you know that the Black Knights were originally envisioned to be wandering around? Just randomly strolling areas and occasionally surprising (ambushing) players with a visit (six-foot sword cleaved through brains to balls). They're tough enough when they stay put in easily avoidable areas.
Or how bout the Gravelord covenant that allows members to put a hex on other players games, adding horribly over powered black phantom enemies to the game. Unless your a die-hard player, it's probably never happened to you because the system for it is broken and unreliable. THANK GOD.
I've been hexed twice and I don't mind telling you that it made the game damn near unplayable for me. Trapped in a cursed version of the Painted World (the one area in the game you can't escape from without beating) torn to pieces by demon-powered Wheel Skeletons; I learned the true meaning of despair in that dark pit. Imagine if the system worked and you got Gravelord infected all the time.
Still, even taking into account the developers sadistic tendencies, designing the Drake Sword as an intentional trap would be a pretty dick move and not really like the other ways they delight in tormenting their fans. It's hard to say whether they planed it like that, or if it was just a horribly back-firing olive branch. The ONE TIME they tried to be nice and it ended up becoming a time bomb in the unsuspecting players inventory. In fact, I like that idea the best. The minds behind From Software are just such a wellspring of cruelty that even when they try to be kind they just end up causing suffering.
Whatever the reason, it probably doesn't matter to all the poor Undeads I saw struggling through every single inch of Anor Londo. They've fallen into the Drake Sword trap and the only escape is learning how the upgrading system really works. Hopefully they'll figure it out before their spirits break completely (which is likely to be around the time they meet the Four Kings).