“I got a bad feeling about this.” – Han Solo.
* Note: Spoilers ahead regarding some of the characters, locations, enemies, and events of Dark Souls.
You’re standing in a cave. Lying asleep on the ground before you is a huge male bear, the massive beast lying on his back, snoring. Covered in thick, dark fur, with claws and teeth that are long and sharp, the bear is one of nature’s killing machines.
In your hands is a wet towel. You look down at it, then at the sleeping bear. Then you quickly spin the towel around and flick it outwards with all the force you can manage, snapping the towel against the bear’s testicles.
The bear wakes with a start. At first, his expression shows confusion, surprise, and pain. Then his eyes focus on you, his teeth clamp together in a snarl, and a furious, murderous frown creases his brow as he glares at you.
As the bear rises to its full height, towering over you, his eyes never leaving yours as he lets out a loud roar, you begin to feel a terrible sinking feeling in your stomach, and one simple truth passes through your mind: I brought this on myself.
This was the situation I found myself in as I took on Dark Souls at Soul Level 1. Whatever crushing defeats and punishing challenges awaited me, however many seemingly undefeatable enemies and brutal deaths… I brought this on myself.
Developed by From Software and released in late 2011, action-RPG Dark Souls is the spiritual successor to From’s 2009 PlayStation 3 masterpiece Demon’s Souls, both games sharing a dark fantasy design, precise combat, a brilliant online game mechanic, a huge amount of depth in terms of both story and gameplay, and a difficulty level that is punishing but also fair, being a product of superb game design rather than anything arbitrary or cheap.
Many gamers thrive on challenge and eagerly seek it out in games that offer it, especially nowadays when so many high-profile video games are so desperate to constantly hold the player’s hand and offer a simple and non-threatening experience, afraid to actually demand any skill from the player. Challenge is something that Dark Souls has in spades, however.
I’ve been a huge fan of the Souls games since finally taking the plunge on Demon’s Souls not long before the release of Dark Souls, and while I’ve played countless excellent video games in my life to date, not many of those have captured my imagination to the extent that the Souls games have. They’re almost up there with Commodore 64 classic Samantha Fox Strip Poker.
Dark Souls – and Demon’s Souls before it – certainly attracts many gamers seeking a challenge, players who might complete the game a number of times and become skilled enough to breeze through it, and so who then set challenges for themselves in an attempt to bring back some of that initial difficulty and tension to a game they’ve become very familiar with.
One such challenge that has appeared amongst the Dark Souls community is the Soul Level 1 run – a playthrough in which you must choose the fire-wielding pyromancer as your starting class (there are ten classes to choose from in total, such as knight, sorcerer, etc.), as this is the only class to actually begin with a Soul Level of 1, and then complete the game without increasing your Soul Level (levelling-up) even once. So no levelling up to Soul Level 100, 50, or even 2 – barring non-permanent stat-boosting equipment and magic, the fundamental stats your character possesses when you begin the game will still be the same at the end of the game.
The weapons you wield, the armour you wear, and the majority of the magic you use are all tied into your stats – if you don’t have high enough strength for a particular weapon then you won’t be able to use it properly, if you wear heavy armour but have low endurance then you will move slower – so in a Soul Level 1 run, you are obviously very limited in terms of what resources are available to you. Given these restrictions and the low levels of health and stamina that will have to see you through the entire game, the Soul Level 1 run is a suitable challenge for Dark Souls players – apart from those super-hardcore individuals who can complete the game in seven minutes with their eyes closed and their hands tied behind their back, while on fire – looking to test their skills.
Thinking to myself, “Hmm, I haven’t thrown a DualShock controller through a window in rage for a while,” and happy to give myself an excuse to play through Dark Souls again, I decided to set myself this challenge, along with the added rule that my playthrough would be totally solo, meaning absolutely no assistance from summoned NPCs or other online players.
And so, Old Greg the pyromancer was born and my Soul Level 1 playthrough began. Oh, Greg – if you only knew then the pain that was to come…
The game opens in the Undead Asylum, a location that teaches you the basics of combat then gives you a taste of things to come by throwing your first boss at you in the shape of a giant demon. During my first attempt at this boss, I found my movement speed too slow and soon died. As a solution to this problem, I took off all of my clothes except for my hood, decreasing my defence but increasing my movement speed. Clearly distracted / aroused by my state of undress, this time the Asylum Demon fell, and I was then heading out into the game world proper.
Being so limited in terms of weapons I could effectively use led to me quickly adopting a Reinforced Club as my melee weapon and a Light Crossbow as a longer-range attack option, each one a weapon I’d never really bothered with before but which I would come to rely upon for the rest of my playthrough, my crossbow in particular, and especially when fighting bosses. (Not to dismiss the purity of bludgeoning enemies with a club with nails hammered into the end, of course).
As for my magic-based offensive options, at Soul Level 1 nearly all sorceries and miracles require you to possess higher stats to use them. However, another school of magic in Dark Souls is the fire-focused art of pyromancy, which as well as being fundamentally powerful in its own right, comes with the huge bonus of not requiring any particular stats for its use.
And so, even at Soul Level 1, you can use any pyromancy in the game and also fully upgrade your Pyromancy Flame, the means by which you cast pyromancies. So if filling my enemies with crossbow bolts and bludgeoning them with a spiked club wasn’t enough, I could set fire to them as well. You know, just to be sure. Because if watching countless slasher movies over the years has taught me one thing, it’s that you make sure the bastard is dead before you walk away.
So I had a fairly basic but decent offensive set-up early on. However, one thing I didn’t anticipate was my enemies using the force of gravity against me. Firstly, in the Undead Parish, I was invaded by another player who proceeded to push me off a ledge and onto the tusks of the giant armoured boar waiting below. Then later, another invader manipulated gravity in a crude but effective manner by dropping from a ledge and burying a lightning-powered axe in my skull. Finally, my misguided attack on one of the game’s dangerous Black Knights saw me flee from his position at the top of his tower to the ground below, only to be surprised as he suddenly landed on my head, having stepped off the edge of his tower above. I was startled, and a sword slash later, I was dead: “The Black Knight always triumphs!”
Deciding I didn’t have enough pissed-off things trying to kill me already, I attacked the NPC named Knight Lautrec, a man whose malicious intentions are no doubt constantly given away by his utterly sinister voice, to see what loot I would receive from his corpse. That led to several deaths for me, and my being unable to use a nearby bonfire – the respawn points of Dark Souls – for a while.
Later, I returned to Lautrec after strengthening my Reinforced Club and Light Crossbow – strengthening weapons being a feature that is thankfully still available to a Soul Level 1 player – and managed to kill him after a fairly long and tense fight. Killing him granted me his Ring of Favour and Protection, an item that increases the player’s health, stamina, and equipment burden but which breaks if ever removed. The temptation for a boost was too much, and like my chosen weapons, I would end up using the ring throughout the majority of my Soul Level 1 run.
Apart from some less-than-glorious deaths, including four separate instances of rolling off the same ledge and to my doom while attempting to utilise a shortcut, and even though it was still early days for Old Greg’s quest, things on the whole were looking up, particularly in terms of bosses and mini-bosses:
I killed the spell-casting Moonlight Butterfly on my first attempt; the pair of Belfry Gargoyles gave me some trouble but only until I relied on my Light Crossbow; and after two brutal pummellings from the heavily armoured knight known as Havel the Rock, who can easily one-hit-kill low-level players with the Dragon’s Tooth he wields, I backstabbed him into oblivion. For my efforts I received Havel’s Ring, which further increased my equipment burden, allowing me to reach the highest possible movement speed – very handy at Soul Level 1, when you can’t withstand much in the way of enemy attacks. Even the Capra Demon, an early boss I was dreading taking on at Soul Level 1, was a relative breeze – I killed that goat-headed bastard and his two dogs on my second attempt.
Down in the Depths – a dank lair of poisonous rats, hulking butchers, and basilisks capable of cursing you and thus reducing your maximum health – I was invaded by the NPC named Kirk (Knight of Thorns, not Captain James T.), whose spiked armour I fancied claiming for myself, although this can only be achieved by performing certain actions later in the game to trigger his several reappearances, this being the case for several of the game’s NPCs. For now, I temporarily defeated Kirk and settled for his Spiked Shield and Barbed Straight Sword – weapons which, like Kirk himself, are covered in spikes. The man probably doesn’t get many hugs.
Soon afterwards, and once again with the help of my trusty Light Crossbow, I cleared the Depths with my defeat of the area boss, the massive and monstrous Gaping Dragon. But before that I rescued the NPC named Laurentius, a fellow pyromancer and one of my favourite characters in the game simply due to him being a down-to-earth and genuinely friendly guy in a land of gods, monsters, demons, and death.
Being an experienced pyromancer, Laurentius is one of the few NPCs who can upgrade my Pyromancy Flame, so considering the usefulness of pyromancy at Soul Level 1, he’s a very important character for my current run. Also, in my previous playthrough of the game, I gave him information which inadvertently led to him going hollow (losing his mind) and then dying at my hands when he attacked me. So I figure I owe him one and should keep him alive. Although, rather unsurprisingly given the morally grey world that Dark Souls so often presents, I need to lie to him in order to do so.
Wanting to upgrade my ragged pyromancer’s outfit for something a little sharper (and ideally something that would let me better withstand an axe to the face), but limited in terms of armour weight, in the infested swamp known as Blighttown I found the lightweight but sturdy Crimson Set and put on the mask and robes to slightly increase my defensive stats. Searching Blighttown also led to the discovery of Power Within, a pyromancy that temporarily increases attack power while simultaneously draining health – a risky trade-off but a potentially very useful one.
Rocking my stylish new threads and ready for action, I defeated Blighttown boss Quelaag (a looker from the waist-up, an arachnid monstrosity from the waist-down) on my second attempt and then decided to deliberately get myself infected with the pleasant-sounding Parasite Egg infection, just because it was something I hadn’t done before and wanted to see how it looked. After having my head mutated into a grotesque, lumpy collection of egg-sacks, I decided that “Not good” was the answer, funnily enough.
One quick cure later and my egg-head was gone and I was looting more corpses for clothes, this time an outfit belonging to the dead sister of a giant, tentacled, lava-spewing demon named Ceaseless Discharge – and one I stole right from under his nose, causing his grief to suddenly turn to rage, and Old Greg to suddenly turn to paste under the weight of one of his tentacle slams. I decided to return later to put the grieving Ceaseless Discharge out of his misery, which I had no doubt worsened considerably with my callous disregard for his sister’s remains. Here’s to being a hero!
As with the Capra Demon, one particular location I was dreading taking on was Sen’s Fortress, a place filled with deadly traps, powerful enemies, and certain-death falls. But also as with the Capra Demon, in the end I actually managed better than I expected, especially after further upgrading my Reinforced Club and Light Crossbow to take on the serpent-men and other enemies who inhabit the fortress.
And although the boss of Sen’s Fortress, the gigantic and hard-hitting Iron Golem, gave me trouble for a little while, once I’d figured out the complicated tactic of “rolling between his legs and throwing fireballs up at his iron sack”, I took him down.
So yeah, at this point I was feeling pretty damn good about my Soul Level 1 playthrough. Despite my initial concerns, I was making constant progress and had already overcome a number of obstacles I thought I’d have real problems with. I should have never doubted my own awesomeness.
Or that’s what I thought at the time, anyway.
Because all that was before Anor Londo.
Before Ornstein and Smough.
And before all the deaths.
As Shakespeare once wrote: “Shit was about to get real.”
Alex De-Gruchy is a writer and editor of both fiction and non-fiction whose work has covered mediums such as comic books, prose, and video games. Marvel at his occasional nonsense on Twitter: @AlexDeGruchy