* Note: Spoilers ahead regarding some of the characters, locations, enemies, and events of Dark Souls.
[This is part 2 of a 2 part series. Part 1 is available here]
It’s not a particularly large number, is it. It’s no thirty-three, for instance. Or four-billion-and-seven. But thirty-two can be plenty, depending on the circumstances.
“Ornstein and Smough. Soul Level 1. 32 attempts. FUCKING DONE. HAVE THAT, YOU PAIR OF GOLDEN BASTARDS.”
The above was a text message I sent early on a Sunday morning to a friend and fellow Dark Souls player after finally defeating the boss duo of Dragon Slayer Ornstein and Executioner Smough – on my thirty-second attempt. Yes, I counted.
But let’s backtrack slightly.
The city of Anor Londo – home of the golden bastards mentioned above – is the most majestic and arguably the most visually impressive location in Dark Souls, but it’s also home to some very dangerous enemies. So at Soul Level 1, it was with the expectation of frequent deaths that I entered the “city of the Gods”, and I was already pretty certain that the Ornstein and Smough fight was probably going to be my toughest obstacle yet.
Early on in Anor Londo is a gateway that leads to the bleak and cold Painted World of Ariamis, and it was here I spent some time before taking on the rest of Anor Londo, being run over by skeletons fused to spiked wooden wheels, being pecked to death by crow-headed demons, killing an invading NPC whose bulbous custard-yellow headgear is taller than his body, murdering a half-dragon hybrid after she offered me the chance to leave in peace – you know, the usual.
But soon it was back to Anor Londo, and after fighting my way through a number of enemies including dangerous silver knights, and creating a Reinforced Club infused with the powerful element of lightning – a club that would stay with me for the rest of my playthrough – it was finally time to face Ornstein and Smough. Joy.
Ornstein and Smough are each dangerous in their own way, Ornstein being the smaller but swifter – and no less deadly – of the two, while the lumbering Smough may be slower but can hit like a train with his giant hammer. Oh, and just in case taking on both bosses simultaneously wasn’t enough, From Software implemented the following feature: killing either Ornstein or Smough not only refills the health bar of the surviving boss but also supercharges them, making them even more deadly. Thanks for that, From.
My first eight attempts at Ornstein and Smough were hit-and-miss, a mixture of near-victories and rapid, crushing defeats. This was a trend that would continue. Eight deaths later and feeling the red mist descend, I decided to take a stroll elsewhere and then return to the fight later.
In an effort to improve my chances, I bought some new pyromancy spells from Quelana, a more powerful pyromancer than my old pal Laurentius, and who can increase the fundamental strength of my pyromancy attacks – a service which I gladly took her up on. After a trip to the skeleton-filled Catacombs to test out my new pyromancy skills on Pinwheel, one of the easiest bosses in the game and one who quickly fell to my great balls of fire, I decided to take another shot at Ornstein and Smough.
Another eight attempts led to another eight deaths and more crossbow bolts purchased from blacksmith / merchant Andre of Astora. I swear, this man will be putting his kids through university with what I’ve spent on his unlimited supply of crossbow bolts.
Taking another break from Ornstein and Smough, I visited Darkroot Basin and killed a giant hydra and then freed Dusk of Oolacile, a character integral to the events of the game’s Artorias of the Abyss additional content. But more on that later.
I then visited New Londo Ruins, the dark and flooded city haunted by murderous ghosts. I reached the point where I needed to drain the city to explore its depths, but I could only do so with a certain key obtained from Ingward, an innocent NPC. I remembered that the easy option was to kill him for it.
Easy option it was, then.
I felt guilty about deciding to blast the unsuspecting Ingward with fireballs, but not enough to bother turning on my laptop and checking a wiki to find out how else I could get the key I needed.
Ingward’s terrible, violent death turned out to be more or less in vain anyway, as I didn’t venture far into the drained ruins before being hacked up by skull-faced Darkwraiths, so I decided to leave for now and instead returned to the Undead Asylum, the opening location of the game.
Nearly a dozen deaths at the hands of asylum boss Stray Demon made me miss being killed by Ornstein and Smough, so back to Anor Londo I went, knowing that I was running out of options and that soon I would either have to defeat the boss duo or quit my SL1 playthrough.
After another quick detour to a different section of Anor Londo which saw me take out my growing anger on teleporting, gender-confused boss Gwyndolin – sadly without Aerosmith’s Dude (Looks Like A Lady) playing in the background – it was time to face Ornstein and Smough again.
Back to the Stray Demon. More deaths… until finally, success.
Unable to eat the heart of my fallen enemy to gain his courage, but spurred on anyway, I returned to Ornstein and Smough. And eventually, after several more deaths – one of which saw me stabbed in the back through the fog gate behind me by an enemy who was outside the actual boss room – I did it. I finally beat the bastards.
Admittedly our final battle didn’t end in particularly glorious fashion, as when he was down to around a quarter of his health, I inadvertently made the supercharged Ornstein stand in the same position behind the base of a broken column, spamming the same long-range attack which I was able to easily dodge while returning fire with my crossbow until his health ran out.
So yeah, a partly cheap way to end the titanic struggle between myself and the boss duo. But after thirty-two attempts, you can bet your sweet cheeks I was going to take it.
After using the souls I earned from defeating Ornstein and Smough to finish upgrading my Pyromancy Flame, I pushed onward with a smile on my lips and a song in my heart and a club with nails sticking out of it in my hand.
Continuing my boss-murdering rampage, I returned to the grieving – and furious – Ceaseless Discharge and put him out of his misery before heading to Darkroot Garden and taking on Sif, a giant wolf armed with a sword in its mouth. When Sif was nearly dead it started limping, and I may have paused for half a second before putting the final crossbow bolt in it – evidence perhaps that a flicker of compassion remains in my cold, dead heart?
The next boss fight I struggled with was the Four Kings, although at least in this battle you’re able to fight your multiple opponents one at a time if you’re fast enough. This was the fight that finally led me to disregard my long-serving Ring of Favour and Protection and try out some different rings instead, although a more helpful item was a new piece of headgear named the Crown of Dusk, its plus point being its innate ability to boost the power of my pyromancy, its minus point being its ridiculous design that made it look like I had Captain America’s little head-wings on my own head.
After finally defeating the Four Kings I joined the Darkwraith covenant and increased my rank within it to receive the bad-ass Darkwraith armour which, like my coveted Knight of Thorns armour, would be too heavy to be of much practical use in my Soul Level 1 playthrough, but which I still wanted for the New Game Plus playthrough I would probably attempt in the future.
Speaking of the Knight of Thorns, I triggered his second appearance and defeated him once again – one more invasion and his spiked armour would be mine. For now, however, due to my limited endurance, I continued to have to rely on light pieces of armour such as the Antiquated Gloves, which added a little defence while being made of patterned white silk. But I’m still all-man, dammit!
Still with one eye on a potential New Game Plus playthrough in the future, and with hands already stained with the blood of the innocent, I decided to murder fan-favourite NPC Knight Solaire for his sword, armour, and talisman. Rest assured, he died for a good cause. Well, good for me. Not good for him, obviously.
My Lightning Reinforced Club – almost fully upgraded by this point – continued to prove its worth, most notably in my battle with the giant Centipede Demon. I tried numerous times to keep my distance from the demon and defeat it with my Light Crossbow while simultaneously trying to avoid its attacks and the pools of lava that cover most of the floor of its arena, but this proved futile.
It got to the point where I said “Screw it” and decided to take on the Centipede Demon with my Lightning Reinforced Club, fully expecting to die quickly. To my surprise, however, I actually killed the demon in my first attempt with the club, battering the hell out of its ankles as it tried to crush me. We each delivered a killing blow simultaneously, and although this made my heart sink as I feared my victory wouldn’t count, it turned out that it did, which made my nipples explode with delight.
Soon afterwards, in the fiery depths of the ancient city of Lost Izalith, I encountered and defeated Kirk for the final time and received his armour. My slaying of more innocent NPCs then continued, this time when I burned to death female knight Sieglinde as she stood grieving over the recently deceased body of her father, just to see if she’d drop anything useful. She didn’t, so her death was a needless one. Never mind.
Next I got the Bed of Chaos – the only truly annoying boss fight in the game and barely an actual fight at all – out of the way, and then I set my sights on another boss, the traitorous dragon Seath the Scaleless. Reaching his lair was an effort in itself, as I had to fight powerful crystal golems on dangerous terrain and navigate invisible walkways above a long, fatal drop – an instance where messages left by other online players are particularly useful as they help you identify solid ground.
Soon enough, however, I was merrily bludgeoning Seath with my club while dressed in curse-resistance gear – a useful countermeasure against the curse-inflicting Seath – that made me look like Liberace’s more flamboyant undead brother. More so now than ever, victory came at the expense of dignity.
The fact that the underground, pitch-black Tomb of the Giants is described in-game as a “light-devouring domain of death” should give you an idea of the kind of fun place it is. Although navigating it this time was a walk in the park compared to my first playthrough, when I carefully journeyed to the bottom only to find my path blocked by an impenetrable barrier because I hadn’t first triggered its removal elsewhere. This led to me having to fight and struggle all the way back up through the darkness and lethal giant skeletons until I finally emerged into daylight once more.
The boss named Gravelord Nito waited for me deep within the Tomb of the Giants, and frankly he seemed more interested in killing me than in discussing my suggestion that he start a black metal band named “Gravelord”, so I had no choice but to burn him into oblivion.
Now, after every enemy I had defeated and every challenge I had overcome, all that stood between me and the completion of my Soul Level 1 playthrough was the final boss: Gwyn, Lord of Cinder.
Oh, and all of the extra locations, enemies, and bosses that were added in the Artorias of the Abyss expansion pack, which I hadn’t visited in this playthrough yet.
So off I went, travelling through time, into the past and a fresh world of hurt.
The additional content certainly doesn’t waste any time, throwing a boss fight at you right away, although this is then followed by something slightly more unexpected: a giant, talking mushroom named Elizabeth. Fair enough.
In fact, three of the four included boss fights are the real highlights of the relatively short expansion: the famed Knight Artorias, now corrupted by the malevolent Abyss; Manus, the monstrous Father of the Abyss; and Kalameet, the Black Dragon. Artorias turned out to be my toughest fight since the Four Kings, but it was still a fight that I eventually won after attempting several different tactics. (Although admittedly, the frustration caused by my numerous battles with Artorias did lead to me murdering more NPCs – including the marvellously named “Marvellous Chester” – for their gear).
But it was the remaining two bosses, Manus and Kalameet, who finally ground me down enough that I conceded defeat to them after numerous attempts: Manus due to his speed, aggression, devastating dark magic attacks, and large amount of health; and Kalameet due to his range, fire-breath attacks, and the small fact that he’s a huge, immensely powerful dragon.
I didn’t like to do it, but given that Manus and Kalameet are optional bosses – and, after having already spent dozens of hours on this Soul Level 1 playthrough, it would be nice to actually finish it sometime this decade – in the end I walked away.
Not that my greed and bloodlust had been sated, as proven by the NPC massacre that followed, most of the victims dropping items that wouldn’t be of use to me until a New Game Plus playthrough. Still, the lives of these men and women were a small price to pay for me having more cool toys to play with later.
With a long trail of the dead behind me, all that was left to do now was enter the Kiln of the First Flame and face final boss Gwyn, although several of Gwyn’s black knights lay between me and him. After patiently fighting my way through most of these formidable opponents, I was within sight of the final fog gate when a black knight leapt high into the air and buried a large axe in my head. After that, keen to finally complete my playthrough, I decided to sprint and dodge past all of the knights instead.
Compared to Ornstein and Smough, the Four Kings, Knight Artorias, Manus, and Kalameet, Gwyn was frankly a pushover, and I killed him on only my second attempt by focusing mainly on my powerful pyromancy attacks. It was still a fairly tense battle, but slightly anticlimactic given everything else I had been through to reach this point. Although on the whole, considering the time I had put into this playthrough, by now I was ready for it to end, so Gwyn’s defeat engendered as much a feeling of relief as of accomplishment.
With Gwyn’s death, I put on the cool spiked armour I had worked hard to take from the Knight of Thorns, and then chose the “Dark Lord” ending, one of two that the game offers. My choice seemed fitting given the amount of NPCs I had previously murdered, although the truth is that even though the Dark Lord ending might seem like the “evil” option, neither of Dark Souls’ endings is a clearly “good” one – each could be argued to be the right choice given the circumstances, depending on what you believe about the game world and the characters who inhabit it.
So there you go. Dark Souls at Soul Level 1. Job done.
Although my giving up on Manus and Kalameet annoys me a little, on the whole I’m really pleased at how my SL1 playthrough went, as when I began it I never expected to actually complete the game. It was the toughest video game challenge I’ve faced in a while, almost as tough as resisting the urge to shave my head and grow a beard after I played Max Payne 3.
Even though I was already a huge fan of Dark Souls before I began this playthrough, the experience has only increased my admiration for it, as a Soul Level 1 playthrough really reinforces just how tight and refined the game design is, especially in regards to the combat system, which is one of the finest I’ve ever experienced in a game, and the difficulty level.
As such, I’d definitely recommend a Soul Level 1 playthrough to any Dark Souls player who has yet to try it. The game will punish you more severely than ever, yes, but it will teach you more than ever at the same time – to endure, to learn, to improve, and to overcome. It can help to make you a more skilled and confident player, and can also help you get more out of the game as a whole.
So what’s next for this conquering, battle-hardened hero after having overcome everything (alright, apart from two DLC bosses) that a Soul Level 1 run of Dark Souls had to throw at me? A Soul Level 1 playthrough of Demon’s Souls, of course.
To quote one of the many online player messages of From’s original Souls game: “The true Demon’s Souls starts here.”
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. His upcoming projects include a graphic novel from Markosia Enterprises, a comic series from Monkeybrain, and the video game Crystal Arena. Marvel at his occasional nonsense on Twitter: @AlexDeGruchy