A General Guide to Survival in Dark Souls

I just beat Quelaag!
In honour of this momentous occasion, here’s a guide for general survival in Dark Souls. Oh, and Demon’s Souls; most of these points apply to both games.

Pay attention.

Most enemies are audible or visible before they attack you. They may not be obvious; the living pine trees blend in very well in the areas they’re encountered, for example, and sometimes enemies are around corners or on platforms above you and drop down. Enemies hiding directly around corners tend to be weak, or take a few moments to notice and attack, and why don’t you have that shield up anyway?
The game’s music only kicks in during boss battles and safe areas for a reason; you need to he able to hear when something’s walking up at you. And even then it can get confusing; part of the noise of my character jogging around in heavy armour sounds like a crossbow bolt hitting the ground near me.
It’s also distressingly easy to miss the status gauges until you’re afflicted, even though they’re placed just above the centre of the screen.
It’s the silent enemies that kill you; blowpipe-wielding toxic-inducing goblins.

Play cautiously.

I mean, do you expect to just be able to run in, take a sword to the face, and then be able to get up again? And ‘too good to be true’ situations, like a plainly-visible item surrounded by what are clearly only moss-covered clearly-defined stones, are… well, too good to be true. Enemies love lying in ambush for you, and the only cases of enemies moving on their own that I’ve encountered thus far are the mosquitos in the swamp, which just instantly aggro wherever you are and start moving in.
If you can hear something moving, it knows you’re there and it’s going to be trying to attack you. With one glitchy exception*, anything you see moving is going to be attacking you, too. Dark Souls is not a game where you’re expected to run straight in and win. You’re expected to attack enemies from behind, force them to miss you by dodging or blocking, and attack when they’re vulnerable. Enemies do it to you, after all.
In fact, on the subject of cautiousness, there’s a particular area in the game where the ground will unceremoniously crumble beneath you and dump you straight into a tough boss battle. But considering what happened the first time you were there, this makes complete sense.. and I avoided it anyway, reasoning that a hall with an open roof and ledges around the top is the perfect place for a sniper or two to sit, and that it’s probably safer to go around the edges of the room. Little did I know the trouble I’d… inadvertently dodged by not running straight in to the open area like an idiot. Didn’t even know it was there until I thought I’d cleared the area out and went to leave.
Whilst there are issues with enemy pathing in… certain areas, enemies on the whole are positioned and act sensibly. It’s much easier to kill an unaware opponent than one who knows exactly where you are. In short, if somewhere looks like the perfect spot for an ambush, it’s probably already in use.

* In the Undead Parish, one of the early skeletons, upon noticing you, occasionally just… turns around and runs straight through the portcullis to make a nuisance of itself later rather than sooner. I am not sure why. Funny, though, until you forget he’s over there and end up fighting both him and a knight at once.

Learn how to dodge by rolling, and other means.

Veterans of Monster Hunter should already know this; rolling will get you out of many bad situations. In Dark Souls you also have to deal with learning not to roll off cliffs, as an instant kill is usually worse than merely taking half your HP in damage, but the basics are the same; rolling helps you not take any damage at all, at a medium cost to stamina.
Sometimes it’s better to just recognise attacks and walk – or run – out of the way. You can also jump backwards by hitting O from a standing position.

Always carry a shield, and learn how to use it.

Yes, I know I told you to learn to roll. Some people will say that dodging attacks always trumps blocking attacks, and… I agree. Not getting hit in the first place is arguably better than getting hit and taking a hit to your stamina. But getting hit and taking a hit to your stamina, which regenerates, is certainly better than taking damage.
Some attacks can’t easily be dodged, due to having odd hitboxes or, say, taking up half of the arena. Rolling is also a bad idea in any area with a fatal drop: most of them. You can still get knocked around whilst carrying a shield, but there are plenty of easily-available shields with 100% physical defence. Upgrading a shield only realistically improves your Poise when using it, but this stops you from having your guard broken so frequently when soldiers kick at you or try to slam you with their shield.
That said, there are still attacks you’re not going to be able to block. Some enemies are strong enough to break your guard and kill you in a single direct hit. Like giant mushrooms.

You probably can’t block attacks involving weapons three times your size, and you probably can’t roll through lava without taking some damage.

Enough said. Some attacks really won’t let you dodge or block them, no matter what stats you have. Use some common sense, and learn the less hazardous things by experience.

Make use of anything else you pick up, too.

There’s no such thing as ‘too awesome to use’. You can get everything again, though granted some items are more difficult to replace or repair than others. I beat Taurus Demon with relatively little trouble by throwing 6 to 8 Firebombs of varying types at it. What’s worse; being poisoned, or using up that poison-cure item you have? When I first got poisoned, the status took four uses of the Heal miracle to fix. And the curing items are easy to get, past a certain point, though it’s still better not to get poisoned in the first place.
On a similar note, I always have at least two different means of attacking equipped so I can switch between them. After all, I have this nifty divine morningstar, and I also have a pyromancer’s flame and five slots to which I can attune stuff. That’s Physical/Magic/Divine/Bleeding damage on one thing, and !!damage!! on the other. Whilst this combination didn’t quite turn out to work on Quelaag at all well, I was still capable of dealing 52~ damage per hit with one of them.
I… eventually won.

Lock-on: when and when not to use it.

Lock-on is slightly altered from Demon’s Souls; you can’t personally switch targets any more. Generally the lock-on is intelligent enough to pick the closest target near the centre of the screen. Lock-on is invaluable for blocking or rolling around a single target, and somewhat helps accuracy with melee weapons too, but if you’re up too close to an enemy and kill it, will go slightly insane until you disengage or the enemy finishes dying. Lock-on is also practically-essential for using the magic (and firebombs) in a fight. You can manipulate the aim of those with the free camera, but you’re probably not going to be able to do that with precision in a fight.
Plus it just tends to drop impotently straight down to the ground whenever I attempt to throw fireballs or soul arrows like that, with my usual angle.

However, lock-on has a maximum range. If you’re using a longbow or a shortbow this maximum range is far inferior to the range of the bow. Well, for longbows, at least. If you hit L1 whilst wielding a bow, you go into first-person aiming mode instead. You can still walk around in this mode. Don’t walk off the side of the bridge due to getting the sticks mixed up. Or let things sneak up behind you.
Also, in certain boss battles with large, slower enemies, it’s less helpful as it points at one place on the body, whilst the boss may be able to take damage elsewhere, in a less risky fashion.

Kindle bonfires.

Five more Estus Flask uses go a very long way, and kindled bonfires are permanent; even if you die, they remain kindled, so the Humanity you burned in the process is never wasted, and can’t be lost when you die.
It’s worth it even if you go around in Hollowed form most of the time, like I do, though I do skip kindling inconsequential bonfires, like the one behind the drake at Undead Parish; the bonfires before and ahead of that one aren’t far, and by the time you manage or get around to killing the drake, you’re probably capable of easily reaching the further bonfire anyway.

Keep your fingers away from the weapon buttons around friendly NPCs.

Enough said. This game won’t screw you over quite so badly as Demon’s Souls can on this front, but if you had a sword in real life, you’d be really careful with it around yourself and other people, right?
I’d hope so, anyway. The people in this game quite sensibly take hitting them with a sword or catalyst as an attack with intent to kill, and they’re probably quite stronger than you, so just avoid that headache and don’t attack them unless you mean it and think you can take them.
Something else to be careful of: jumping on people from higher ledges. Goomba Stomps deal a very minor amount of damage in Dark Souls, but it’s still probably enough to piss them off.

Be nice and leave helpful messages. Read them, too.

If you’re playing online, leave a few useful messages around; you can extra Estus Flask uses and Humanity if people upvote your messages.
Similarly, pay attention to the messages people leave around. They will warn of imminent ambushes, problem areas, and hidden wonderful items. Also ‘gorgeous views’ and the sun, as if those needed highlighting. They may suggest tactics, or bolster your morale by mentioning there’s a bonfire nearby.
Or lead you straight off a cliff. Trolls are kind of obvious, though.

Don’t mourn lost souls.

You’re going to die. A thief is going to slit your throat or you’re going to get afflicted with the Bleeding ‘status’ or you’re going to walk off the ledge in Firelink Shrine right before the tree and the stairs and why do people keep doing that? Seriously. Do they want to get rid of their body? But that bonfire doesn’t need kindling…

 Anyway, you’re going to lose Souls and Humanity this way; you’re not going to lose any single piece of equipment you’re carrying, though. Whilst Souls and Humanity are reasonably important, you can gain them again, with reasonably-little fuss, but that set of armour you just picked up is going to be with you until the end of the game.
Souls and, to a lesser degree, Humanity are meant to be spent anyway; Souls on items and upgrades to character or equipment, and Humanity on maybe becoming human, and certainly kindling bonfires. They’re going to be expended, and unless you have a very good plan you probably shouldn’t be saving up for anything that costs more than it costs you to raise your stats. Generally, if you’re at or below the general soul level for an area, you’ll be able to get the required souls for another point in a stat without too much work or risk.

 


 

For those of you who pay attention to my comments elsewhere (all… one of you), I hope I added something new to this that wasn’t there.
For them and those who don’t, I hope this was helpful in some way.

…hm. I just remembered a few things. I admit to playing Etrian Odyssey and beating the bonus boss. Maybe I do have an unnatural thirst for difficult games, after all, and I recall something about the XBox360 version having slightly-worse graphics than the PS3 version due to issues involving fitting everything on one disc for that system. Maybe check out some videos from the PS3 version and see if you feel the same about it.