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Life after death: The joy of returning to Dark Souls

Unfinished sympathy.

Few games leave you with as much unfinished business as Dark Souls. A single playthrough is only ever a paltry slice out of an array of delicious possibilities, and you can never walk away with the sense of contented closure that most games would. Sure, you may have defeated Gywn, Lord Of Cinder and seen the end credits, but there's always the lingering knowledge that there is so much more to come, or that you could have done things completely differently.

It didn't help at all that my initial playthrough concluded before the DLC was even announced. If I'd known that I'd have the run through half my game again in order to even access any of the extra stuff, I might have been mindful to hold off 'finishing' it. But it was too damned late. I either had to start over from scratch, or man up and get cracking on New Game Plus. Obviously, I took the latter option. The sheer amount of time invested into my character was too much to walk away from. The crazy amount of grinding to ascend specific weapons, and to boost my stats to even the odds a little - there was no way I was letting that go. I had to keep going. I needed to gain some semblance of closure.

But to return to Lordran for a second playthrough required a special set of circumstances. I knew that I'd need a clear run of a few days - maybe a week. Anyone with a job, kids and any kind of social life and parallel interest knows that finding the right kind of window for a proper Soulsfest is tricky. Almost exactly two years after Dark Souls' debut, I was back in.

With all that accumulated knowledge, my confidence was high. So much of your failure in Dark Souls is the simple fear of the unknown; of blundering into areas that you're not ready for, or fighting enemies with the wrong loadout, or not bothering to summon NPC and human help. This time, we'd rinse those bastards. For a while, this wasn't mere grandstanding bravado. Asylum Demon: easy. Taurus Demon: barely a scratch. Bell Gargoyle: first time. Capra Demon: no problem (stupid dogs aside). I'd barrelled through those early encounters in maybe one eighth of the time it took me first time. Look at me go.

Bring it.

Much of the improvement came down to the simple knowhow. The first time around, no guides even existed, as I was lucky/unlucky enough to be playing it in the days leading up to the release, haplessly blundering into danger, getting cursed by frogs, yanking out the power cord and corrupting my save after 40 hours of play. I certainly couldn't hop onto YouTube and watch how someone else did it, or scour the amazing wikis for alternative strategies, and vital tips on the best weapons, shields and armour.

The other thing I learned was how much difference it makes to summon other players to help you out. Before (and even back in the Demon's Souls days), I had an insane desire to lone wolf it hollow. My broken logic was that it felt weirdly dishonourable to rely on others to do all the heavy lifting, but one thing you eventually accept when you fight the likes of Ornstein and Smough (on New Game Plus) is that you need all the help you can get.

But even with my relative improvement and successes, my partner continuously ragged on me that I was pussying out; that I shouldn't be tanking it with heavy armour; that the Iron Flesh spell was essentially cheating; that parry and riposte was the way to go, and shield blocking was cowardly; that you should be backstabbing at every opportunity, and rolling around like a dervish.

I couldn't disagree that I was chickening out. That risk averse, safety-first plan has always been my Modus operandi in every Souls game, but the truth was I sucked. I could never quite get the shield bash timing right, and it was easier to accept that I would take a lot of damage. Havel's Armour set for the win.

The more I played Dark Souls, though, the more it occurred to me that it was just fine to play it my way. The game was designed to accommodate my lily-livered ways, and in fact provided a whole array of means to play it that way. It might not have been the sexiest, most flashy way to do it, and certainly a slow and inefficient method to some, but I somehow enjoyed my ridiculous cack-handedness. As I started to belatedly pick my way through the excellent DLC content, I would spend hours on end poring over forums, videos and guides about even better shield and armour options, and obscure ways to make myself even more of a damage sponge. I wanted to be able to get smashed around and just smash everything right back. This was my clunky way to power through Dark Souls, and I was bloody well sticking to it.

And no matter how satisfied you are with your build, there's always the sense that there's more to know - and that's without even getting into all the other ways you could be doing things. Every single boss strategy guide seems to list at least eight contrasting ways to succeed. It's bewildering, and yet says everything about the way the game has been designed. If you really do just want to rip all your clothes off and run defencelessly naked through the game, it's not as reckless as it seems. It's entirely viable, and so is everything else.

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An equally brilliant aspect of Dark Souls (and the rest of the Souls games) is that it won't let you just use the same gear the whole way through. Whether you want to or not, you have to learn the systems and everything's individual weaknesses. Because without that desire to understand and unpick what you're facing, you'll hit a wall every single time. For better or worse, the game will never once explain any of this to you, but that's where the community comes in, and few games have ever enjoyed such a collaborative effort to fill that breach. You might think that this is bullshit, and that From should tutorialise this, and you'd have a fair point, but the truth is that the process of experimenting, discovery and investigating the community chatter feels as much part of the Dark Souls experience as the game itself. Immersing yourself in its slightly crackpot systems is a nerdy voyage of discovery all on its own, and putting it into practice in the game - and getting results - is among the most satisfying gaming experiences I can recall.

All of this meant that Dark Souls got into my head like few other games ever have. I found myself processing it all the time, wandering around the interconnected game world in my head, having those same fights over and over again, and letting its understated lore subconsciously seep in. Going back in felt never felt stale, even if I was just idly grinding in Darkroot Garden and leading all those enemies on the merry dance into the abyss. Just the audio design on its own was enough to make me want to play it. That sense of place was otherworldy, in a way that loses hours in what feels like moments.

Part of Dark Soul's genius was simply the bonfire system. Being able to retreat and respawn everything (and topping up your Estus health flask supply in the process) was effectively a brilliant practice mode, where inching your way forward was the mark of your progress. It was repetition of the best kind, where you could feel yourself levelling up, learning the ropes and slowly losing the fear.

For several years now, Dark Souls has been my favourite game. It used to be a difficult decision to mull over, like it is every time someone asks what your favourite song or artist or album is. By in this case, it consumed me so utterly; it almost ruined video games for me forever. After that, most other games seemed trivial, shallow, and dare I say it, hollow. Only a handful of games have made any impression on me since, and two of those are also From titles (the other two are The Walking Dead Season 1 and The Last Of Us).

And even now, more than three years on from my first encounters with Dark Souls, that sense of closure still hasn't arrived. I feel drawn to exploring more of the PvP side that I neglected, or just spend some time helping out hapless warriors in need of a big old tank to rip Gaping Dragon a new one. The next time you're wandering through Lordran, hoping for a summon sign to show up outside a fog door, it might well be me. I'll try not to suck.