I have discovered a weapon that encapsulates Dark Souls. It’s a door. Or more accurately, a pair of doors, which I can shut fast to hide behind, or rush forward and open dramatically as if I’m about to burst into a medley of showtunes. It represents the series perfectly: a mix of shivering cowardice and slapstick violence. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I must earn the door first.
It should be no surprise that it doesn’t start well. I’ve completed Dark Souls 3, but, after getting stuck on the boss of Archdragon Peak, I haven’t played it for months. When I fire the game up, a warning tells me that I quit without saving last time – a certain sign of a Dark Souls hissy fit. The good news is that I can’t remember what I’ve lost, so I continue to the Ringed City DLC without worrying about squandered souls. The DLC is available to anyone who’s defeated all the Lords of Cinder, so actually getting to it is unusually easy for a Miyazaki game. I head to the Kiln of the First Flame, shudder at how long I spent trying to beat the last boss, and take the secret bonfire to the new area.
I land in The Dreg Heap. It sounds horrid, but I soon learn to love those dregs. A layer of soft ash covers most of the world, which means I can survive long falls. It makes for an unusual, tumbling twist on the standard Dark Souls environments. I meet a friendly hag at the start of my journey, who alludes to an adventurer in a suit of armour – possibly someone who intends to kill me – and I happily stride into the new area, kicking ash before me like a cheerful young buck striding through autumn leaves. Except the ash is probably people. This is going to be easy.
I die immediately, and realise I’m about 30 levels too low for this area. But then, people have completed Dark Souls using everything from racing wheels to toy trumpets, so I decide I’ll get by on brio and perseverance alone. I am, after all, Crom, King of Ash, He Who Went To Archdragon Peak Then Came Home Because It Was Hard. The grunts at the Dreg Heap pack a meaty punch, but go down quite easily. The bit that slows me down, however, is a portly sub boss who attacks me with his *** – with his literal *** – when I try to stab him. Two things dawn on me: firstly, he’s not a sub boss – many of the enemies here are this hard; and secondly, he’s guarding a dead end. Bah.
I track back and try the other way, which turns out to be a devastating fall through the window of a cathedral that has toppled onto its side. It’s beautiful and horrible, and a great way of telling me this DLC is not like other Dark Souls. I shouldn’t be looking for doors and ladders – I should be looking for the right kind of fall.
I’m feeling pretty confident now, which is exactly what happens in Dark Souls before you meet the thing that ruins everything. Sure enough, around the next corner is a rotting angel thing with the ability to one-shot me using beams of light that seem to know where I’m running. I decide that fleeing is the best option. Thankfully, I find a new bonfire and relax, safe in the knowledge there’s probably only one omnipotent, insta-kill angel in this area. (Since this was written, update 1.32 has nerfed the insta-kill angels, proving I was justified in biting the Y Button off my controller.)
By the time I reach the area with three – three! – death angels, my patience is ragged. It feels cheaper than other Miyazaki games, which is exactly the sort of pitiful whining I scoff at when I see it on Twitter. The truth is that I’m too low a level, and not good enough. I spend at least an hour running in circles, cowering behind buildings and sprinting across poison swamps. At one point I open my inventory while in cover, and miss the fact that one of the angels is cursing me with pixie dust. Thankfully, unlike the first Dark Souls, the effects aren’t permanent.
It seems hopeless. The further I get, the harder it becomes. I try a combination of different armour to up my magic resistance – part poison-resistant Archdeacon, part rotund knight – and I end up looking like an infantry Weeble. Worse still, it doesn’t help. I’m close to giving up when I try another route. I notice a tempting, twisted tree root beneath a cliff face, which could lead to somewhere useful. After a few failed attempts, I hit the jump and find a hidden area, complete with a fleshy, human-shaped node that controls one of the angels. Smashing it to pieces feels amazing. One angel down, and I’m full of swagger. Better still, I find another bonfire, hidden suspiciously close to the first one. The only way I can go is down.
I land in a boss fight against two giant demons. It’s bad, but not too bad – they’re easy to damage, and most of my deaths are from my own mistakes. Still, I’m grumbling about the cheapness of another boss battle with two enemies. With Ornstein and Smough it was an event; this feels like repetition. I eventually take out one of the demons and take my time with the remaining one. I’m feeling pretty confident, so I throw in a few jumping attacks, and allow myself a brassy taunt as the final demon goes down.
There’s a problem, though. This article isn’t over. And nor is my boss fight. The demons I’ve just killed are an infernal amuse-bouche. The real boss is a flying, fiery Demon Prince, who downs me in two hits.
By now, I’m feeling pretty grumpy. It reminds me of the relentless thuggery of Xbox slice-’em-up Ninja Gaiden – also known as belligerence disguised as challenge – rather than the measured, cerebral test of Dark Souls. Again, I can hear myself whining like a deflating balloon full of farts, but there’s a small voice in my head whispering, “maybe I’m done with Dark Souls.” It’s time to take a break, by which I mean go and kill the things I’m not afraid of.
I stroll around the level like a spurned teenager kicking around at a bus stop, and discover something I missed earlier. There’s a tower that topples over when you pass underneath it – I didn’t see it because I was cowering, heroically – and it forms a bridge that leads to another area. There I meet Lapp, the adventurer mentioned earlier by the friendly hag. He’s a cheerful sort, and I especially like him because he isn’t trying to kill me. We chat for a bit, then I carry on exploring. Lapp appears again at the second bonfire. He asks me to retrieve a ring for him and I get the sneaking sense Lapp might be summonable for the fight with the Demon Prince. Bolstered by the joy of making a new buddy, I take a proper look around. Now free from the threat of angelic insta-death (in one area, at least), I’m free to explore.
Just when I think I couldn’t get any happier, I discover my amazing door weapon. It’s too heavy for me to use, but by God I love it. Knock knock; who’s there? Actual death. Brilliant. I head to the pre-boss bonfire, use an Ember, and sure enough, Lapp the Amnesiac is there to be summoned. He looks like an absolute tank, with a mighty halberd, shining armour and impressive shield. Together, we get ready to clip some demonic wings. We plummet into the boss fight together, like a knightly version of Bad Boys 2, and make short work of the first two demons. Lapp might be a mess under the visor, but right now, I love him.
The Demon Prince arises, and… is still really hard. Too hard, in fact. We stick close to him, but he hardly takes any damage. Just one of his fiery blasts is enough to kill me. Even with Lapp, I’m not ready for this. I resolve to step away, finally finish Archdragon Peak, and come back when I’m ready. It’s not been a total waste of my time because I’ve managed to find a shield that looks like it leads to a medieval theme pub, and I’ve made a new friend. I just hope he remembers me when I come back.
This article originally appeared in Xbox: The Official Magazine. For more great Xbox coverage, you can subscribe here.