GET BACK TO WORK!
<- Previous update: Liberty is a Spook
- Visited the Great Hollow
- Explored New Londo Ruins
- Prepare for Sen's Fortress
As I brought up some time during the last update, Sen's Fortress is probably my favorite area of the game so far. That said, this update is going to be a little different than my usual updates, in that I'll be temporarily ditching the "narrative" structure that we're all used to in favor of a more structured, bullet-pointed analysis of the area, just so I can explain precisely why I liked this place so much.
Of course, there were still one or two things I thought could've been done a little
better, but overall, this place was a lot of fun, and it stood out to me a lot compared to other areas. Previously, I think my favorite area was the Depths, but Sen's Fortress has definitely taken the cake. So, let's go over why.
Design-wise, Sen's Fortress is perhaps not the most complex area in the game, but a big part of what made the dungeon work so well for me were all the thematic elements behind it. They really made it feel like the classic "over-the-hump" type dungeon that's a staple in so many adventure games.
There's a particular dungeon in Wind Waker called the Tower of the Gods, and I found myself constantly thinking back to it as I progressed through the fortress. That dungeon marked the halfway point of Link's adventure, and represents my favorite part of that game as well--but story-wise, it's not really a "true" dungeon in the traditional sense; rather, it serves a proving ground for the brave warrior to demonstrate his strength and wit before he takes up the mantle as the chosen hero. It's more like a test, trial, or final hurdle that the hero must go through before he begins his true journey. The challenge of the dungeon tends to be more cerebral than physical, often playing tricks with your mind, forcing you to face your greatest fears, among other types of psychological warfare.
There's just something about dungeons like this that I find inherently exciting, so I was delighted to discover that Sen's Fortress fits quite neatly into that mold. In this case, it's meant to be a final test of might before you arrive at the sacred city of Anor Londo--a city that has been built up a fuckload over the course of this playthrough, so the amount of tension and gravity surrounding the place was enormous, and I was pumped to surpass it.
2. Level design
The inside of Sen's Fortress is characterized by its traps. There's a whole lot of them, but none of them are necessarily "new" or innovative by gaming standards. Instead, they're all borrowed from old-school games like Castlevania and other action RPGs--which isn't a problem, because I think Dark Souls utilizes these old chestnusts in very strong, intelligent and effective ways.
Hanging from the ceiling are a bunch of steel cages designed for imprisonment. Some of them have items inside, and if you have the Cage Key, they can all be opened--which becomes super important towards the end of the dungeon, because one of them actually serves as an elevator to the room-before-the-boss room. Since I never ended up finding the bonfire for this place, so finding this shortcut was pivotal for me.
Now, here's an example of what I meant by "psychological warfare" earlier. Despite their appearance, practically none of the obstacles, traps, or enemies in this fortress are all that treacherous or difficult. It may seem that way at first, because of a few clever techniques used, but the main challenge hinges upon your own (in)ability to avoid each moving obstacle. When you see one of those giant swinging metal death blades for the first time, it instantly
puts you on the defensive--because, even though the blade is swinging in such a predictable pattern, you're still forced to play the game at a pace dictated by something other than yourself. Without taking control away from the player, the player's forward momentum has been hindered by this obstacle, and it's time to slow down and move carefully.
The punishment for not being careful and getting hit by one of the swinging traps, of course, is death--or, you could end up in a dank tar pit swarming with ravenous Titanite Demons. Neither is a desirable outcome.
Personally, I've been playing games like Castlevania all my life--a game that Dark Souls constantly pays homage to in a seemingly endless stream of ways. I bring this up because Castlevania had a similar ethos when it came to swinging traps, or difficult-to-avoid enemies. As a result, I pretty much breezed through all of the swinging deathtraps in Sen's Fotress--and even though I managed to never get hit by a single one, there was still a rush of adrenaline, that feeling of shit! shit! shit!
when I'm dashing through a set of sharp blades. Even if I have total confidence that I got the timing right, it was still intense, because the implications of fucking up were so strong.
I mean, you could probably argue how that's kind of
a cheap and easy way to create tension, but the beauty of the classic swinging deathtrap is that they place full responsibility on the player for not being able to clear them. If you allow yourself to be psyched out by the blades--Well, guess whose fault that is? Since they swing in such a simple and repetitive pattern, the challenge becomes your own ability to calm down and focus, rather than the obstacle itself.
And yeah, I realize that the same attitude can be found basically everywhere else in the game, too, but out of all the areas thus far, I think Sen's Fortress possesses the strongest example of the "tough, but fair" ethos in the game. It's done so
The second half of the fortress finds you running across the fortress's rooftops. Gameplay-wise, this part is much more straightfoward, so I don't have as much to say about it other than that it places more of an emphasis on fighting strong enemies than it does bombarding you with traps, which creates a nice balance between finesse-based and combat-based gameplay.
3. Enemies & Traps
The main mooks of this dungeon are the snake knights, to which this update is loosely named after. They fight dirty with their janky sword slashes, and occasionally use their big dumb snake head to gnaw at your face.
Once again, despite being one of the easiest enemies to deal with in the game, there are elements of their design that make them seem more difficult; challenging to the psyche alone. For starters, they're considerably larger than you, making them rather intimidating to face--especially if you're afraid of serpents. They also have a lot of poise, so they aren't phased at all by any of your puny weapons (unless you use a greatsword, or something, I guess).
Not to mention, they're fucking snakes
, which symbolize duplicity and primal fear. Maybe I'm looking too far into it, but the point is, they seem a lot tougher than they are. What makes them deceptively easy is their susceptibility to backstabs. Their attacks are so laggy that you can perfunctorily strafe behind them without breaking a sweat.
Apart from the snake knights, there are also cobra sorcerers who try to throw bolts of lightning at you from cozy sniping spots. Not much else to say about them--they're kinda dumb and weak, but they can
add a little bit more urgency to some deathtrap situations, because they force you to move even faster out of your comfort zone.
The other traps in the fortress are just silly fun. In a select few locations, there are these button-activated traps which, when activated, will start firing arrows at you--so, unless you're able to react in time, you'll be taking some random damage for seemingly no reason. Normally, I hate shit like this. In most games, once you've activated a tile trap, you know
to never step on that specific tile again. Puzzle solved. At that point, it ceases to be an obstacle, instead becoming just another useless thing to remember. It reduces the dungeon to some sort of half-baked memory game.
Thankfully, however, Sen's Fortress handles these traps a lot smarter than that. If you look carefully, you can see exactly where each of the buttons are. Avoiding them behooves you to be careful and observant, instead of mindlessly barging into unknown territory. My favorite part, though, is that you can actually use these traps against your enemies, as well. If you're crafty enough, you can coax an enemy over to the firing zone and press the button--if all three arrows hit, you score a free kill, without even having to lift a finger. Satisfying as fuck.
And then there's the chests. I couldn't help but notice that the fortress had a lot of treasure chests lying around--much more than I was used to seeing in this game. Naturally, this raised a red flag, especially given the deceitful nature of the fortress. And, lo and behold--my suspicions weren't unfounded; one of the chests ended up being a mimic.
To be honest, this is one of the few things I think they could've handled a bit better here. Fake chests are one of my favorite tropes in the RPG genre. You see them all the time, and they're often utilized in unique and interesting ways. The basic purpose of a mimic chest is to take advantage of the player's natural instinct to open up every
single chest that he sees, with no regard for caution or safety, and then--SNAP
--it fucking devours you instead. I love the concept, but I don't love the way Dark Souls does it.
Opening a mimic chest in this game will cause it to grab you instantly and deal some heavy
damage. If you didn't have max health upon opening the chest, that's pretty much a guaranteed, inescapable death. This would be absolutely fine, if not for one thing: The attack is unavoidable. That means, if you've never opened up a fake chest before, you're essentially guaranteed
to die, making it a beginner's
trap, and not a real trap.
I don't know, maybe I'm just salty because I totally died the first time I opened one.
But whatever, just try to hear me out, because my grievances don't end here.
From that point on, if you're ever worried about being attacked by a chest in the future, you can just fucking stab them to check without any risk. Let me ask you: What's the point of having mimics if I don't have to worry about the risk of getting eaten by one anymore? And apparently, there's even more ways to check if a chest is fake or not that I don't even know about. That just completely defeats the purpose, if you ask me.
Here's how the game should've handled it:
1. No hints. Fake chests should look identical to real chests in order to force the player into making a commitment.
2. Opening a fake chest should not result in unavoidable damage/death. There should be a split second to roll away.
3. Checking chests by attacking them is fine, but make it so you run the risk of destroying
regular chests, too.
I think it would be super fun to have every chest opening be an ordeal
. You shouldn't be able to attack a chest unless you run the risk of destroying a regular chest. Otherwise, it's too safe of an option.
When the fake chest reveals its true form, however, I think it has an awesome design. It sprouts these cartoonishly slender limbs, a big floppy tongue, and a silly-looking set of razor-sharp teeth--which are actually the severed fingers of all its victims. It attacks by smacking you around with its gangling arms and legs. It's kinda funny, because it seems so out-of-place with the rest of the game's enemies.
One of the key features of the fortress is the system of rolling boulders you find early on. These boulders are an enigma at first, but you'll eventually reach a mechanism that allows you to redirect the boulders in one of four distinct paths. Depending on the path you choose, different things will happen. They can be used to demolish walls leading to secret areas, for example. They can even bowl over unsuspecting enemies for comedic effect. Unfortunately, I don't remember if I tried out all four paths. That may explain why I never ended up finding the bonfire for this place.
Once you make it to the rooftops, it finally becomes apparent where the boulders are even coming from. A couple of giants standing atop watchtowers are deploying the boulders, presumably to obstruct your forward momentum. One of these giants starts bombarding you with wide-radius firebombs, prompting you to get moving immediately. When up close and personal, the giants--try as they might--don't put up too much of a fight. Their most dangerous attack involves them going berserk and delivering a wild flurry of attacks--but after that, they end up tuckering themselves out, giving you ample opportunity to land five or six hits in. Thankfully, they don't respawn upon death.
So, apart from a few balder knights, Titanite demons, and other enemies I've already encountered in the past, I think that covers all the traps and enemies I encountered. Not every face here was unfriendly, however...
Early on, I met back up with good ol' Siegmeyer. This was before I redirected the boulders, however, and he explained that he was too fat and slow to traverse them. Once I changed their direction, the onion disappeared.
Previously, I mentioned demolishing a wall and finding a secret path. Here, I met a sorcerer with a big hat called Logan. He was imprisoned in one of those steel cages hanging from the ceiling. I had the key to set him free, but I was hesitant--I still haven't forgotten about what Lautrec of Carim did back in the shrine. He seemed trustworthy enough, however--he claimed to be a powerful sorcerer capable of teaching me some cool shit.
Up on the rooftops, I met my third NPC--a rather whiny and downtrodden warrior, complaining about how difficult Sen's Fortress is, and warning me not to continue onward. Pssh, what a loser. He was nice enough to sell me some interesting weapons, however--he even sold Black Firebombs. I may have to upgrade soon, but they're WAY more expensive than my regular ones.
All right, here's all the notable shit I picked up:Lightning Spear
- My reward for killing the mimic. You may recall that I've expressed interest in imbuing my Winged Spear with lightning, because that would be cool as fuck--but now I don't even have to worry about it, I guess. Even at +10 strength, my Winged Spear wasn't as powerful, so I had no choice but to make the trade. That said, I don't plan on making this a permanent replacement (how could I?), but I did end up using the Lightning Spear for the remainder of the dungeon. I'll have think about how to upgrade my Winged Spear in the future.Covetous Gold Serpent Ring
- This thing increases my chance of picking up some sweet loot from enemies. I don't think it's worth the ring slot, however. I can only have two, after all. Maybe if I'm ever grinding against some weaker enemies, I can try it on, but yeah--I'm gonna stick with my usual stuff.Ring of Steel Protection
- Supposedly, this increases your defense, but I haven't noticed a great difference. Enemies seem to do the same amount of damage either way, so meh. At least I have it.Flame Stoneplate Ring
- This increases my fire resistance, and it's obviously designed to help you if you suck at dodging the giant's firebombs. I never needed it, but it's still kinda cool to have, I guess.Titanite Catch Pole
- One of the last things I did before taking on the boss was jump down the tar pit and kill every single Titanite Demon that was there. The first one I killed dropped his weapon--apparently, it's a pretty rare drop, so I'm quite happy about that. Other lesser weapons I found were a Scythe, a Shotel, and a Ricard's Rapier, which was dropped by a hostile NPC guarding a Rare Ring of Sacrifice and a Divine Blessing.
I'm really happy about that Lightning Spear and the Catch Pole. I doubt I'll end up using the latter, but picking up rare drops is always exciting. This game utilizes rare drops the right
way. Many RPGs will have exceedingly powerful items as rare drops, and it's frustrating to grind for them. This game's rare drops are non-essential to a point where you're not actively searching for them--so when an enemy drops a rare present, it's like, "Oh cool, a thing!"
6. The Boss
So, I kinda already knew beforehand who the boss was going to end up being. Right after I rung the second bell and opened up the fortress gate, I caught a glimpse of this large, towering figure on the other side of the fortress--and at that point, I knew everything was gonna lead up to him, boss or no boss.
So, after scraping by his traps, traipsing across all his rooftops, and slaying all his stupid giants, I crossed the white veil to take on my next adversary: The Iron Giant. Er... Golem.