Thursday, 27 August 2015

Dark Souls: Journey Into Darkness

Sometimes in Dark Souls, things just click into place. On this such occasion, I had vanquished two long-term foes. My progress, once stymied by demons and death, could proceed again. As usual, the game would put far darker foes in my future.

First to be swept aside was the Gaping Demon, the fang-mouthed abomination that lay at the base of the Depths. I sought others to defeat it, and helpful people who had passed this point before gave good advice. The pattern of its attacks are not so hard to predict, once you know what to look for, and so I was able to slowly chip at its health and finally triumph.

Being a phantom is rather fun
In celebration, I utilised the White Soapstone, and was summoned as a helpful phantom to assist others in defeating the beast. Helping others succeed where I had struggled was immensely satisfying. If this was not enough of a reward, I also received thousands of souls and some Humanity.

The best thing
This put me in a good position to tackle the Catacombs again, suitably levelled up and with some upgrades to my weapons I now had a Divine +3 broadsword, perfect for getting through this deadly area. I swiftly made my way back down the the bottom, where the spinning wheel-riding skeletons lurked. After summoning Paladin Leeroy, I managed to sneak past them and head to the boss area. With the NPC follower, the fight was brutal and short. The power of summoning again shows it's worth.
Down in the Catacombs, about to face Pinwheel
The demise of Pinwheel gave me yet more souls, and I was now of a level where I could face Blighttown. It is unfortunately one of the most terrible areas in the game. Dark, filled with poisonous monsters and awkward ledges, it strikes fear into most who visit. The danger is compounded by frustrations beyond the creatures within the game. Flying bugs find their way to attack you through the floor, your characters movements are hindered by the uneven and sometimes moving surfaces.

Horrible dark treacherous ledges and ladders
Even after making your way past the rotten wooden platforms and down to the base of the structure, the nightmare is not over. At the base, the map opens up into a large poisonous swamp. This vile and watery pit is host to yet more deadly foes, and with the poison slowly burning through your veins, any mistake and your next move can be your last.

Descending to the swamp
Exploring Blighttown helps reduce the fear of it though, and the poison-dart wielding snipers don't respawn, so I should have an easier go of it each new attempt. I managed to make it all the way to the Firekeeper soul at the base before succumbing to death, and my next attempt was more fruitful.

Looking out at the swamp from near the entrance to Queelags
I found my way to the bonfire at the base of Blighttown, located in what appeared to be a large storm drain. The tunnel behind me lead to a circular chamber, with no way to ascend. Above was surely the Depths, but I had descended even further still. In the distance a strange webbed lair drew me in, this was Queelag's Domain, and I would have to kill her to ring the second bell.

Covered in eggs? Horrifying.
Queelag is a fusion of demonic spider and witch. Either would be a formidable opponent, but together this arachnid-human nightmare forms a challenge that requires careful tactics. Her attacks are fire-based, including the spider vomiting lava across the floor. The best option is to run, and make quick strikes (much like the Gaping Demon), but she scuttles across the area so fast you may spend all of your time evading and none of it attacking.

The final blow has been struck!
On my third attempt, I turned human to try and get some assistance. I was invaded on the way by Maneater Mildred, a red phantom. She fell easily, but was available to summon for the Queelag fight. She provided an excellent distraction for Queelag, who spend her time concentrating on only one of us, allowing the other to strike. Several times I nearly succumbed to the attacks, but was finally victorious.
Queelags sister? I killed the guy nearby by accident, didn't realise you could talk with him. May have missed some interesting stuff there.
Beneath Queelag's domain lay the second bell, and once it was rung a gate opened in the distance. This was the one that the rotund knight was waiting by (near the Undead Parish blacksmith). It leads to Anor Londo, where I should be able to find the Lordvessel (as I found out by talking to the rather strange Kingseeker Frampt, at Firelink Shrine).

So much lava, so many demons in the distance (I saw at least one Capra and several Taurus)
Also beneath Queelag's was a hellish domain, a lava filled chamber full of demons and no doubt I would have to venture into it. Not today though, today was for celebrating victory and for reinforcing my weapons and armour before the next expedition.

This goofy guy is Kingseeker Frampt. He eats stuff and gives you souls. This game is weird.

Saturday, 15 August 2015

The Swindle: Procedural Pilfering

The Swindle Title Screen
The Swindle is a steampunk sidescrolling steal-em-up, with the objective of hacking your way into the police computer system to destroy Basilisk, an AI that could prevent burglary forever! On your way to ridding the world of such a troublesome thief-catcher you'll need to amass enough cash to buy the required upgrades you'll need for your audacious attempt. Also, you have only got 100 days. Clock is ticking...
Your mission, if you want to accept it...
I'm glad I waited a while before writing this mini-review, because several changes have been made to the game since release. Originally, the game was super-hard, unbelievably so. Upgrades were expensive, cash was hard to come by, and the amount of security on each level increased rapidly. By comparison, the game today is still very challenging but feels far more fair. Now when I die I can blame the errors I've made rather than the harsh difficulty curve.

Created by Dan Marshall, also of Ben There, Dan That (great adventure game)
Even so, you will die often. Your characters are fragile, and a single hit or long drop is enough to lose a heist. Losing a character isn't the end though, it just loses you whatever you'd gathered on that heist and also the multiplier you'd accrued. You are the mastermind, your thieves are mere pawns in your game. Each successful heist gains you a multiplier (success means getting almost all of the cash on a level), and that multiplier leads to a bonus on your cash at the end of each level. Accumulating a high multiplier is vital to getting all the upgrades you want.

Mission selection
The immediate comparison is something like Spelunky, as both have a similar initial feel and procedurally generated levels. They diverge pretty quickly though, as the nature of the games become quite different even early on. The Swindle might initially feel the same, but the reality is that you must generally try a much slower pace, take time to consider your options before heading in because while death is not permanent (for your mission anyway, even if your thieves can die), the time limit of 100 days (and 100 levels) becomes quite limiting if you have many unsuccessful heists.

The golden-brown Slums district
Your equipment and upgrades carry over onto your replacement burglars, so setbacks should feel minimal. However, each loss can make you lose focus and quickly lose several thieves and several days without gaining any money. So sometimes it's best to just leave a level with a lesser amount of cash, rather than risking everything to gain a few more pounds.

Heist Successful!
So far I've only made it to the third area (New Belgravia), so the latter stages of the game are a mystery. Each area provides different challenges, different robotic guards, traps, locked doors and such, so there's always new things to learn and new things to overcome. The cash rewards go up exponentially with new areas though, so you must make a choice between easier levels (and a better chance of increasing that multiplier), or harder levels with more computers and more cash (but harder security).
The blue-tinted Warehouse District
So far so good, and while I'm not sure I'll ever complete it (I never managed Spelunky), I am enjoying being a master thief. Well, perhaps not a master yet, but give me time.

Upgrade menu

Dark Souls: Caught at a Crossroads

Once again, it is exploiting the game that brings reward rather than any feeling that I'm getting appreciably better at it. I really enjoy the fights against the lesser enemies, even some of the mini-bosses, but a lot of the more difficult mini-bosses and bosses seem to be beyond my skills.

Exploiting the Undead Dragon's lack of ranged attack
Sometimes, as I found with the Capra Demon and some others, the game makes things unfathomably difficult unless you're using some sort of cheap tactic or exploit to defeat them. Case in point, the Valley of Drakes was far beyond my ability as a melee character. Loaded up with poison arrows though, I could pick the Drakes off one at a time and clear the area.

Shortcut ahead, and not before time!
After that, the Undead Dragon mini-boss was easy prey as I could stay out of range of his attacks but slowly kill him with the bow. It was at this point that I really wished I'd made a dexterity focused character, as the damage scaling with the longbow is very impressive.

Frustration ahead
Beyond the Drakes was my way back to Firelink Shrine, but it was locked (no master key for me), so I had to venture into Blighttown. The key I required was easy to get, and I made sure to go and rest at this point (and spend my souls). Unfortunately my attempts to get further into Blighttown were stymied by flying enemies that caused Toxic buildup. The narrow ledges and flying enemies meant that I could barely even target them, let alone hit them, and so I quickly succumbed.

Strange things in the distance
I decided to brave the Depths again after this, knowing how to take things slowly and avoid the pits that lead to Basilisks. I easily made my way to the fog gate, and entered to meet the Gaping Dragon. This huge dragon is basically a giant mouth, filled with sharp teeth, with a penchant for swinging it's tail around and spewing out destructive ooze.

A nice, big, open area beyond a fog gate? What could possibly go wrong...
Needless to say, I didn't exactly last long against this beast. I tried to turn it, catch it on the sides and back, but I couldn't make enough of an impact to kill it. It has a particularly nasty attack if you get too close, where it can grab you and drop you in it's maw. Once thoroughly chewed, you get spat back out, but I lacked the health to survive.

Ah, it's just a little crocodile or something down in the sewers.
Next I decided to upgrade my Broadsword +5 into a Divine Broadsword, and took to the Catacombs. A divine weapon is required only because the Necromancers lurking there will reanimate any defeated skeletons repeatedly. I didn't find the Catacombs too difficult, aside from the numerous annoying traps, once I figured out the best way to kill the skeletons. They really are only an issue in numbers, or if there are exploding skulls nearby (floating ghostly skulls that drift about and explode if in range of the player, no way to target or destroy them).

Oh no, it's actually a creature from your nightmares
My problem arose when I found myself down at the bottom, in a little valley. It's filled with a new enemy, skeletons with a spiked wheel as a shield. They'll attack you by rolling at you in the wheel, and can hit multiple times. Trying to defeat several of these at once is far too difficult for me, and so I tried using the phantom (Paladin Leeroy) to help. Unfortunately I got a little cocky and got myself killed trying to attack a group of these skeletons, trying to make sure my summon didn't die before I could even meet the boss. Now almost 7000 souls lie at the bottom of that valley, so I feel I must try again.

No way to open this door here, but a nearby bonfire also has a lever
My other options are limited, and I really feel like this is a poor part of the game. Limited opportunities to grind for new spells, equipment or levels (I need 7406 souls for next level!). I feel stuck, and the way forward is not clear at all.

Door opened, time to enter the Catacombs properly
While ambling around and trying to find something else to do, I decided to attack the Hellkite Dragon, which is perched upon the bridge near Undead Parish. I managed to defeat the Black Knight atop a tower overlooking the bridge, and saw an excellent sniping opportunity. Unfortunately upon returning the dragon had disappeared, and despite going back to the bridge to make sure it was still there, it still couldn't be seen from the top of that tower.

Some stunning scenery here, and a very twisty structure down to the bottom
I tried to kill it from below the bridge, but after reducing it's health by more than half it starts to heal itself. I didn't have enough arrows to see if it will do this indefinitely, but it certainly did it four times. I will have to come back when I have some more damaging arrows, a better bow or something else. Back to the drawing board.

Time for a rest? I think not...

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Dark Souls: A Dance With Drakes

Some of the locations in Dark Souls are full of wonderful architecture, huge sprawling ruins all interconnected and filled with nasty surprises. Undead Burg and Undead Parish are such locations, as is Firelink Shrine. These interlinking areas are full of twisty passages and interesting nooks and crannies, but they also have large, looming structures that seem almost within reach (and of course many of them do become reachable later in the game).

New Londo Ruins
That's why it's so disappointing to find those badly-made sections, such as Lower Undead Burg. It's almost like it's from a different game, or a bad fan-creation. A small, mostly linear section, few enemies and not much in the way of challenge. It contains a boss (Capra Demon), and scarce few other things. Thankfully after you've defeated the Capra Demon you only have to pass through it briefly to reach other areas.

Valley of Drakes
By contrast, a similarly small area is the Valley of Drakes. This area can be reached early with the Master Key, but I had to make my way through Darkroot Garden/Basin. This small area contains several Drakes and a mini-boss, and a few items. But the location is incredible, a bridge between two gigantic gates that tower over you. It feels imposing, and the danger of the drakes certainly adds to that.
A small bridge over a large chasm, and in the distance the gate to New Londo
One of those imposing gates is destroyed, a pile of rubble pours from where the door used to be. On the other side, New Londo sits, flooded and dark, filled with ghosts. I ventured there many times, drawn in by the flickering blue torches. Each time I got slightly further, but each time I fell to the spectral blades of my phantom foes.

This was as far as I got in New Londo, just around the corner are lots of ghosts.
My next challenge lay in The Depths, the classic sewer level, but not without both grandeur and frustrations. At first The Depths is merely just a series of tunnels, all browns and dull lighting, with rats and other diseased denizens in your path. It becomes something more as it opens up into larger chambers, a giant rat that first you see from safety through iron bars, and later a vast room with grand pillars. This final room is secured by a fog gate, and I dared not trespass.

Heading into The Depths
My fear in losing the souls I had accrued by traversing the fog turned into foolishness quickly thereafter. I found myself further deep in the Depths of the sewers, and spied some frog-like creatures in the distance. The first couple fell easily, so I pressed forward. The next room contained three in close proximity, and I fell into the trap.

A giant rat in the sewers
These monsters are Basilisks, and their curse kills quickly leaving a stone statue behind. My own health was halved by that attack, and my subsequent returns to recapture my souls only increased the error and frustration. Thankfully the game is not as vindictive as it used to be, earlier versions would stack the curse, cutting it in half again and again, and you could quickly be left with a terminally short health bar.
I also met this weirdo, a merchant in the sewers.
I decided to head to the New Londo Ruins after this defeat, as I heard there was a ring there that could counter curses, and while I was cursed I could attack the ghosts. I really enjoyed exploring that creepy, flooded city. It is a masterpiece of visual design, so many things hidden in far off corners and a real sense of dread as you progress through it. The dim light helps a lot, as does the quiet, sombre sound design.

Unfortunately the traps of the ghost placement are too much to bear, after finding a shortcut to get myself past a large amount of foes, I find yet another choke-point which leaves me hacked to pieces by ghosts who are able to attack through walls or from unassailable positions. I would have to return later.
I shall call you: "Sack Head", and then I shall kill you.
What little souls I managed to recover I invested in Pyromancy, from a nice chap I rescued from a barrel in the Depths. He was being kept by a gruesome fellow in a sack mask, for later consumption. I find Pyromancy to be of limited use at the moment, but perhaps it will be more useful later. Also recovered were another Fire Keeper Soul, which allowed me to upgrade my Estus to plus 2 (the previous one was from the Undead Parish). Finally, I managed to find a Large Ember, which allows the Blacksmith at Undead Parish to upgrade weapons past +5 and also to make Raw weapons (not sure they're worth it, it changes the stats of the weapon in some ways).

Darkroot garden, lots of green, deadly trees and Mothra up there hanging out by the ruins
My next port of call was to defeat the lightning-slinging demon beneath the Blacksmith, and head into Darkroot Garden. This was a lovely area, full of interesting bits, although I'm not a fan of the endless use of green. Some of the area is very bland, but there is a great forest near a boss area that is very atmospheric, which occasional ruins, secret passages and huge stone warriors. The boss itself is a Mothra-like thing, which shoots various magical attacks that are very difficult to block or dodge (the boss area is a narrow bridge). Needless to say, I died a couple of times here.

A handy bonfire behind a breakable wall, next to a locked door which I swore I took a picture of but somehow a lot of my screenshots have gone missing. I will see the magically locked door again, but not any time soon I think.
In another direction, you have Darkroot Basin. This leads to the Valley of Drakes (more on that later), but also leads towards what appeared to be a Hydra. I couldn't approach any further without being killed by it's attacks, but there were some crystal creatures that weren't too hard to kill if you got them on their own. There's also a tower here (locked), which I think leads back up to Undead Burg but unfortunately I don't have the key.

Mothra, on my second atttempt to kill it (my remains are in the distance).
In the forests I also found some Elite Knight Armour, which was a handy upgrade for my original Knight armour (still using the Gargoyle Helm though, and found another lizard bug thing, so I could upgrade it a bit more). So now I am kitted out with +3 Elite Knight Armour, the Drake Sword, a +2 longbow, a +3 crossbow, a +5 broadsword and a variety of other things that I'm holding onto for some reason.
Everyone in Dark Souls laughs like a maniac. This one sells poison arrows though, so she's okay with me.
Next time: I gather together all of my souls to buy over a hundred poison arrows. My task? to kill all of the Drakes in the Valley, very slowly. (I already attempted this once, and didn't have enough arrows, when I came back the drakes had respawned!). This route should bypass the Depths though, and see me get far closer to ringing that second bell.

The poison plan proceeds perfectly (until I run out of arrows)

Saturday, 25 July 2015

Dark Souls: The Gargoyle Situation

I have made such progress since last time I posted, and perhaps even have enough for two posts but I'll try and be concise and keep it short. Last time, I was suffering from the ill-effects of poisoning and a few cheap deaths. It can be easy to get frustrated in Dark Souls, but once you overcome that obstacle it is a relief bordering on elation.
Beneath Firelink Shrine lies this spooky old ruin
Before the infamous rats, there's a shortcut back to Undead Burg. From there, it's a trivial matter to reach the Firelink Shrine again (enemies that were once tough, are now walkovers). So I could stock up on 10 estus and use that as a launchpad back past those rats. That way, even if I got poisoned, I could heal myself enough to progress on and hopefully make it to the next bonfire.

Which contains this imprisoned blacksmith (he doesn't want to leave)
My plan worked very well, and I didn't even get poisoned this time (typical). After this point, I could deal with the next section (thankfully the iron bull was a mini-boss, so didn't respawn). After defeating a couple of spear-using hollow soldiers, and avoiding a lot of crossbow bolts, I was stuck in front of a gate. The church, and the first bell, were ahead. I had no choice but to turn back and take the stairs down, and see if there was another way through.

upgrading my weapon
This section was relatively easy, filled with barely armed and non-armoured hollows. Their only advantage was surprise, which is little bother to a heavily armed and armoured knight. After a small progress down, there were several ladders up, and I found myself above the previous open area. I do enjoy how the different areas link up around each other, and that future paths often cross older ones. It does give a real sense of progress and scale.

Ruins in the distance... and ghosts?
Here to greet me was a new type of enemy, the Balder Knight. These are quicker, better armed and better armoured than the Hollow Soldiers I'd faced previously. They have quite a few tricks up their sleeves, even if looking at them all I can think of is General Grevious from Star Wars Episode II. Thankfully, there's not too many of them, so I can deal with them one by one.

The grand church, front entrance
The narrow walkways don't work well for me, with my broadsword that has a big arc of a swing, but the area does open up after a precarious little walkway. Greeting me on the other side a three Hollows, but at this point they cause no fear. To the left lies the church, but handy writing tells me a bonfire and a blacksmith are near (and boy, how do I need them!).

Wonderful view outside the church side entrance
A narrow path leads to a crumbling old tower, and descending the stairway reveals a bonfire. The floor below contains the blacksmith, and I waste no time using the titanite shards I've collected to upgrade my weapon (over the course of this section and repeated visits, I upgrade my broadsword to +5 and get a few other upgrades). The blacksmith is a friendly chap, and I also buy a repair box.

A great blacksmith, who also sells Titanite shards
After resting at the bonfire (safety first!), I take a look around. Another character sits by a gate nearby, forlorn that it won't open. There are warnings about dangers written on the floor, but this fellow seems mellow enough to me. He is covered in rather a lot of armour though, and I doubt he is a slow as he looks. There's nothing I can do to help him now though, so I retreat back to the blacksmith where there's a passage leading further down.

A huge imposing gate, but where does it lead?
This was a mistake, and I lose almost half my health thanks to a lightning bolt. Some strange an huge creature is guarding this path, and I am in no condition to face it just yet! Instead, I head to the church. Inside are several challenges, firstly there's a huge armoured bloke who I have to get outside in order to dodge his blows. He goes down easily enough though, so I move onto the next. Up the stairs is a wizard of some sort, alongside a horde of hollow that quickly crowd and overpower me.

A fat-looking knight, with a helm that looks like an onion
After recovering at the bonfire, I venture forth again and this time snipe at the wizard with my crossbow (avoiding his shots as best I can), and then tackle the hollows separately. Further upstairs is a prisoner, who offers me a reward for helping him. I let him out (what else would I do?), and make my way downstairs to the helpfully signed shortcut to the Firelink Shrine.

The altar in the church
His reward is a sun medal, which is probably useful later but seems rather minor for rescuing him. Near where he sits is the firekeeper, and since I picked up a firekeepers soul at the church I can use this to reinforce my estus flask (it now heals me more per use). Further down beneath the firelink shrine is a lift to the Old Lordran Ruins, which is a very spooky place but also has a blacksmith. Less useful now I have the one near the church though.

The wizard. Much like Conan, I hate magic (unless I'm using it)
All that remains is to ring the bell, which means taking on two gargoyles. My first attempt resulted in a quick death thanks to my lack of dodging. My second attempt was better, since I buffed my weapon with lightning (found in Undead Burg). My third attempt went even better and I almost killed them both (and got the Gargoyle Axe). I ran out of the buff though, and knew it would be too hard to do it on my own.
Lautrec, he seems suspicious. But doesn't everyone here?

Thankfully I could try summoning help from Solaire and others, so I thought I'd give that a try. I used up some humanity reversing my hollow status, and made my way back to the church. All was going perfectly well until I noticed the fog over the doors. It felt a lot like that part in The Matrix, just after Neo has Deja Vu and the windows are blocked up. I knew I was about to be invaded.

I did it! Praise the sun!
This is absolutely my least favourite part of the game so far. I had got everything ready for a run at the boss, and now I was having to deal with some joker who wanted to kill me. Initially the fight went well, and I got in a solid hit. Unfortunately for me, his weapon was massively overpowered and in two hits I was dead. In frustration I gave up for a while.

The tower, and the bell ahead
The following day I tried again, hoping that this time I could get through without invasion. I managed it, and summoned both Solaire and Lautrec. This time it was a walk in the park, and the frustration of previous attempts was replaced with the joy that I could progress further in the game. After ringing the bell, I could also speak with a strange man called Oswald.

Half-way there now... right?
With my newfound souls, I upgraded a few stats and some armour, and then decided to visit a few places and see if I was powerful enough to proceed anywhere. In Undead Burg I killed an armoured knight and claimed a ring, but my other attempts in the graveyard and elsewhere were in vain. Instead I opened the door to the Lower Undead Burg, and had a wander through there (and found the shortcut back to Undead Burg).
Oswald the pardoner, another odd fellow
So I feel like I have accomplished much, and yet at the same time accomplished so little. I am still based around the same few bonfires that I was before, there are still enemies I've seen and have yet to be able to conquer. I feel like I am a world away from killing that Drake, for example. So I hope my progress through Lower Undead Burg (which looks terrible compared to previous areas, it really looks like shoddy work in terms of level design) will grant me a bit more progress and a lot more power.