Dark Souls is one of those games that you definitely need a guide for. Why? You will die in From Software's Dark Souls. Repeatedly. Probably, more often than not, with very little fanfare. The big bosses will take you down, sure. So will the basic grunts though, the sort of small-time lackeys that you'd use in most other games to cleanse the palette between big fights.
There is no palette-cleansing in Dark Souls. You literally can't even pause the game. You just die, and hopefully learn a lesson in death that will carry you a little bit further... before you die again. That's why I've been called upon to put together this little getting started guide; follow the tips below and you can look forward to as many as 10 fewer deaths in the space of a given play session. That's math, people. Trust it.
Patience Is Your Only Virtue
Combat in Dark Souls is relatively simple at its most basic level. You can block and you can swing. There are heavy and light swings, and timing-based parries -- with extra-damaging counterattacks when executed correctly -- in addition to basic blocks, but it all boils down to the basic melee combat approach of attacking and defending.
Variety comes from the creatures you fight and the need to learn their patterns. Some have unblockable attacks that you'll want to dodge away from. Others telegraph whatever they're about to do, leaving a window open for you to deal out some damage. It seems so simple to say it, but this is so very important in Dark Souls: observe your enemies and how they move, and never press an attack unless you're fairly confident of what the result will be.
A good basic rule of thumb to observe: if you're not blocking more than you're attacking, then you're doing it wrong. Watch your green stamina bar; as long as there's some juice in it, your standard block will ward off most attacks to the front, though not to the sides and rear. If your stamina disappears, back away and try not to block, attack or roll. The less you do, the more quickly the meter will refill.
Fire Is Life
Bonfires are new to Dark Souls, essentially serving as checkpoint saves that you respawn at when you die. Whichever bonfire you rested at last is the one you'll respawn at. Bonfires also serve a number of other useful purposes: all of your health is restored as are all of your health-restoring Estus Flasks. You can also eventually purchase items from merchants that allow you to repair and upgrade your weapons and armor.
The most important thing to keep in mind with bonfires: they can be upgraded. Souls are your standard currency in Dark Souls, but not the only one. There's also Humanity, which can be "spent" at a bonfire to "reverse hollowing," in effect turning your undead character human for as long as it takes you to die again.
There are a number of advantages to being human, such as more frequent item drops and the ability to take advantage of the game's online multiplayer features. Most importantly, however: once you're human, you can spend a second Humanity at the bonfire of your choice to "Kindle" it. This effectively upgrades the potency of that particular fire, granting you a refill of up to 10 Estus flasks every time you rest there, instead of the usual five.
The downside of the bonfire is that any enemies you've defeated since your last rest will respawn once you rest again.
Grinding Your Way To The Top
The enemy respawns that come whenever you settle in at a bonfire may seem like a negative, but it's actually a big help. Dark Souls is NEVER easy, but it does become more manageable as your character levels up. Bonfires are thus instrumental tools that you can use to grind through areas filled with weaker enemies (relatively speaking) and then repeat the process.
The Souls you earn from downed enemies can be spent on gear from merchants, weapon/armor upgrades and leveling up. To improve your character, sit down at a bonfire and choose Level Up from the menu that appears. You then buy individual points for your different stats, based on which you'd like to improve. The cost of these stat boosts go up for each point purchased, no matter which stat you buy it for. Your character level also goes up one for each point you purchase.
There's a big difference in being able to reach one of the game's bosses and being able to defeat it. Expect to spend a great deal of time grinding your way to the next boss door... and then grinding some more as you power yourself up enough to maybe stand a chance. Grinding of course leads to resource management, bringing us to...
You Know You Got Soul
Souls and Humanity. You'll want to amass as much of both as you can. There's a catch though: every time you die, any collected Souls or Humanity spill out onto the ground. You have one shot to get them back: fight your way to wherever it was that you died on your next spawn and you can recover everything.
Once you understand this basic concept, strategizing your resource management becomes a matter of common sense. Try to plan out how you'll spend your souls next, what you're saving up for. If there's something you want to spend 20,000 Souls on, stick to a familiar area and just farm for as long as you can stand it... then farm some more until you're done. Better that than venturing off in the direction of more lucrative encounters... only to lose everything when you inevitably die.
If death seems imminent and you've got a large collection of currency amassed, immediately turn around and make your back to your bonfire as quickly as you can. Resistance should be minimal if you've been killing baddies every step of the way. And even if whatever put you close to death gives chase and eventually cuts you down, every step you take toward your bonfire is one less you have to take to recover your goodies when you re-spawn.
SPOILER TIP: Getting The Drake Sword
Okay, here's a tip for players who desperately want to have some kind of edge in the early part of the game. It'll be 8-10 hours before you reach this point, but it's all relative when you're talking about a game that threatens to consume roughly 10 times that number of hours. Read on for a spoiler-y trick you can perform to get yourself a powerful weapon in the early game. Note that you'll need a short bow and a sizable collection of arrows; pick up 100, just to be on the safe side.
After you defeat the Taurus Demon boss in the Undead Burg, you'll eventually find yourself looking down a long, elevated stone pathway that leads to the Undead Parish, an adjacent area. There's a new bonfire just inside the gate of the distant building that serves as the entrance to the Parish, but there's a small problem. As you venture onto the walkway, a red dragon appears and roosts itself just above the gate.
You'll have to get around the dragon to proceed, but why not get a super-powerful weapon first? Run straight down the walkway until you reach the small alcoves in the middle (where a bunch of skeletons are waiting to kill you... until the dragon fire fries them). The alcove on the right has a set of stairs that takes you down to an area beneath the walkway.
Step out into this area and look out over the right side, facing the Parish. You should see the dragon's long, red tail swaying slowing back and forth. What you'll want to do is take your bow -- you can buy one from the merchant near the Undead Burg bonfire -- and shoot the dragon's tail, aiming for the fattest bit that you can. Not because you have to; it's just easier.
Every time you land a shot, the beast will fly over to you, land for a moment, and then return to its roost. Keeping shooting that tail. It'll take a fair bit of time, but once you've landed 30 or 40 shots, a message will pop up informing you that you've received the Drake Sword. Nothing can make this game easy, but you'll find that enemies go down a great deal more quickly when you attack with your new toy.
Adam Rosenberg is a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn, NY and living at the whims of his lovable chow, Loki. You can find his work plastered all over the Internet, or just follow him on Twitter @geminibros for daily doses of his crazed, nonsensical ramblings.