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A Dark Souls II starter guide: Trust us, you’ll need the help

Check out our review of Dark Souls II.

The world of Dark Souls 2 is a dangerous place. Whether you’re a hardened vet who’s been honing your skills since Demon’s Souls or the hardest RPG you’ve played until now was Skyrim, you are going to want to throw your controller down in frustration at some point during Dark Souls II. So there’s nothing wrong with accepting a little bit of help getting started. 

If you’re new to the series then its many intricate systems can seem like an insurmountable obstacle at first. Even if you’re familiar with the basics, there are plenty of changes to the recipe this time around that will have you wondering at the identity of all the game’s new, subtle flavors. 

Without giving much away—discovery is half the fun in Dark Souls II, after all—these tips will help you get started on the right foot. Before it gets hacked off by demons, at least. 

Character study 

classes

You’re faced with some pretty massive decisions within the first few minutes. What you call your character is a matter of preference, but the rest of the choices presented to you by the crones in the hut can be confusing.

Choosing your class ultimately boils down to how much influence you want to have over what your character specializes in. Really any of the starting classes are fine, particularly if you know what type of offense you want to use (heavy weapons, fast weapons, spells, or miracles, generally speaking). But even if you don’t, you’ll still have plenty of control over your stats later, and you can even reset your stats back to the beginning with a certain item (a forgiving feature new in Dark Souls II). 

On the other hand, you can always choose the Deprived class. This is what many pros will do, for one simple reason: this class starts out at level 1. You see, for every level you gain, you get to choose one stat to increase by one point. With a character that starts at level 1 you can carefully allocate every single one of these points. That said, choosing  Deprived also makes the beginning of the game more difficult, so it’s really up to you. Choosing a Knight or a Sorcerer is perfectly okay as well (and Sorcerers tend to be the easiest for beginners, with their ranged magic attacks). Even the Explorer, with its abundance of items, can be a fun choice. 

appearanceHere’s what you need to know about stats: vigor determines your overall health; endurance is your stamina, important for combat; vitality governs your equip weight, which lets you use heavier weapons and armor; strength lets you wield slow, powerful weapons; dexterity is more for ranged and fast weapons; intelligence determines spell strength; faith does the same for miracles; attunement lets you carry more magic with you during gameplay; and adaptability controls resistances and some other minor factors. When it comes to improving them, go with what your class favors, but don’t forget about the importance of improving you vigor and endurance as well.

Choosing a starting “gift” is largely up to personal preference. The life ring is probably the most helpful in the longterm. There will be plenty of human effigies, healing wares, and homeward bones throughout the game, so no need to choose any of those now. The bonfire ascetic is a rare item, though you won’t have any need for it right away. The “petrified something” and “seed of a tree of giants” are mysteries; they’ll likely turn out to be useful at some point, but it’s not clear how. 

There are a ton of options and variables to choose from when designing your character’s appearance—far more than in the past Souls games, and more than in many RPGs in general. But naturally, it’s all cosmetic, and there’s no need to fret over it one way or another. If you want your character to look like Prince Charming, go for it—and if you want her to have blue hair and face tattoos, that’s easy too. None of it has any effect on gameplay, and your character will probably be covered up in robes and armor for most of the game anyway—not to mention the hours you’ll spend as an undead zombie with putrid green skin. You can even change your gender whenever you want by examining the coffin on the beach in the maze-like area after the first bonfire. 

The right tools

opening

Even if you’re used to playing RPGs, you’re going to need a completely different mindset when it comes to choosing your equipment in Dark Souls II. This isn’t the type of game where you can simply buy the most powerful weapons and armor from a merchant and call it a day. And it’s not like Skyrim, where you can basically use whatever items you prefer, although you can to some extent. 

In Dark Souls you needed to choose the right tools for your character, and that’s more true than ever in Dark Souls II. Every weapon you find has its own unique move set, strengths, and weaknesses, and to master the game you need to master your equipment. 

If you ever forget what a symbol in the menu means, press your controller’s “select” button to read explanations.

You’ll also be using very different items depending on your stats, since different items have different stat requirements. If your character has high strength, you can wield large swords, axes, clubs, and more that are slow but very strong. Characters with high dexterity tend to use faster weapons that don’t do as much damage with every hit, but that sometimes have other effects, like causing enemies to bleed and lose more health. A high intelligence stat probably means you’re a Sorcerer, and you’ll be wielding catalysts and staffs that let you cast spells. The other side of that coin is the Miracle Worker, a character with a high faith stat who uses talismans to cast miracles, often for healing purposes. 

If you can’t wield a weapon effectively check its specifications in the menu; it’s likely because it has a stat requirement that you don’t meet. Big axes need high strength, and so on. In addition, better weapons gain bonuses from your stats—you can see these in the menu too (the capital letters at the bottom on the equip screen, underneath the stat requirements). There are dozens and dozens of variations on each weapon type, and you’ll usually have a fighting chance as long as your stats match up with the weapons you’re using.

But that’s saying nothing of your armor… 

specs

The trick when choosing your equipment is to make sure your equip weight is below a certain percentage. You can view your equip weight on the equipment screen in the bottom right corner of the screen. If you ever forget what a symbol in the menu means, press your controller’s “select” button to read explanations. The heavier your equipment, the higher your equip weight is, and the slower you’ll move. While defense is important, the best strategy is to not get hit at all, and when it comes down to it you’ll be swapping armor around a lot to keep your equip weight down. So your armor, while important, is usually not what you’ll base your setup on. 

Most players—especially beginners—will want to use a shield in one hand as well. The shield you choose will depend on your stats and your combat style. If you don’t mind moving a bit more slowly, you can use a large shield that will block most damage. However smaller shields can be used to parry enemies’ attacks, an advanced combat technique that’s difficult to pull off, but rewarding. 

There are rings as well, that grant a huge variety of effects, from improving the rate at which you regenerate stamina to letting you fall longer distances without getting hurt, or even making it easier for you to connect with other players (more on that below). These are everywhere, and you’ll swap them out frequently, but one of the most important ones can be found early on in Heide’s Tower of Flame. Look for it in a chest after you lower a drawbridge; it’s called the Ring of Binding, and it limits how much your maximum health can decrease when you’re in “hollow” form, a state that occurs when you die and respawn. 

It’s a good idea to always carry multiple weapons with you, since they degrade quickly in combat.

Throughout the game you’ll come across equipment scattered around the environment, as well as merchants who will sell you weapons, shields, and armor. It’s a good idea to always carry multiple weapons with you, since they degrade quickly in combat. Their condition is healed when you rest at a bonfire, but if you let a weapon degrade to the point where it breaks, it will cost you handsomely to get it fixed at a blacksmith. Make sure you keep an eye on each weapon’s condition and swap in a new one when it nears its breaking point.

Blacksmiths can also upgrade your equipment, which gets quite complicated. At the beginning you won’t have to worry about it, though once you unlock the first blacksmith’s hut (buy the key from the merchant you find near the second bonfire in the forest) you might want to improve your favorites by a few levels. There’s certainly no harm in it. 

Whatever else you do, just make sure to get your estus flask, an essential healing tool. You’ll get it from the Emerald Herald in Majula, the sunlight-bathed village right after the first area. She’s the woman in the green cloak by the bonfire as you approach the monument on the cliff. You can also use your souls to level up when you speak with her.

Know your enemy 

combat

The Souls series’ combat is some of the most challenging and rewarding in any games, and Dark Souls II continues that tradition. Combat plays out in real time and you’ll often be trading blows with multiple enemies at once. When it comes down to it though, there are a few simple concepts to keep in mind. 

The most important thing to remember during combat is that your stamina bar, the green line under your health bar in the top left of the screen, is key. Almost everything you do, from swinging a sword to rolling on the ground, consumes stamina. Stamina always recharges after a short delay, but you can’t perform any combat actions for a second or two when it’s completely depleted. The secret of Dark Souls II combat is timing your actions to manage your stamina so that you’re never at your opponents’ mercy. 

When an enemy approaches you can click the right thumbstick to lock on, flicking it to switch between targets (if there are multiple). The left trigger uses what’s in your left hand, and the right triggers uses what’s in you’re right hand. If it’s a shield, say in your left hand, holding LB/L1 (Xbox 360/PlayStation 3, respectively) will raise it. Your shield absorbs most of the damage when enemies attack you. You can see exactly how much of each type of damage—physical, magical, fire, etc.—a shield will absorb on the equipment screen (again, if you get confused in the menus press “select” for explanations). 

shieldCatching a hit on your shield up depletes your stamina, and you’ll be stunned and lose some more health if an enemy’s attack gets your stamina bar all the way down. Stamina recharges more quickly when you lower your shield, so you won’t want to have it up all the time. The trigger on your shield hand changes function depending on the type of shield you’ve got equipped. A small, wrist-mounted buckler will parry enemy attacks; parries require near-perfect timing but they allow you to cause huge damage. A large shield, on the other hand, gives you a bash attack that you can perform by hitting the appropriate trigger.

With a melee weapon in-hand, the shoulder button activates a light attack and the trigger activates a heavy attack. If you flick the control stick forward as you press the shoulder button, you’ll break your enemy’s guard (if they have their shield up) and push them back; doing the same with the trigger initiates a powerful but risky jumping attack. In addition you can dodge around and backstep with the B/circle button. These maneuvers are useful for avoiding attacks and getting out of corners if you’re pinned by multiple foes. You can also gain an advantage by pressing the attack button right as your character comes out of the dodge animation, striking out before your enemy can get its guard up.

When you encounter something you haven’t seen before … study its movements and attack patterns.

Pressing Y/triangle to hold a weapon shifts one-handed weapons to a two-handed grip, increasing your damage but also increasing how much stamina each attack consumes. Doing this also prevents you from using a shield or other equipment in your off hand. Of course, the best offense in Dark Souls II is often the one your enemy doesn’t see coming. Approach foes from behind whenever you can and use a light attack with your right-hand weapon to initiate a powerful backstab. 

Those are the basics of melee combat. With that knowledge, you should be able to defeat most of the enemies in the game’s opening areas. But even the most skilled fighters will fail if they don’t know their enemies. When you encounter something you haven’t seen before, dodge around and hold your shield up to study its movements and attack patterns. Once you can recognize its attacks based on how it moves, it becomes much easier to defeat. 

It’s easier in some ways (especially for beginners) to use miracles, spells, or pyromancy (a different form of magic, based on fire) to attack because they enable you to strike at range. With the right catalyst, talisman, or pyromancy flame equipped, tap the attack button and watch your magic do its stuff. Keep your distance and don’t get killed. Also be sure to use an item or head back to the bonfire when you run out of spell castings.

No stone unturned 

levers

If you ever get stuck in Dark Souls II, it probably means you’ve forgotten about something. Chances are you found a key and forgot (or don’t know) where the door is, or you missed a path because you were running away from an enemy. It’s especially easy to miss some of the levers and switches that are scattered around, and they’re often essential to continue. 

The point is simple: explore everywhere. Every nook and cranny, even the ones that look empty and/or uninteresting (especially those). Dark Souls II is full of secrets, but if you always stay on the beaten path, you’ll never find any of them. 

That said, just because you can go somewhere doesn’t mean you should. If an area is too difficult for you then by all means choose another path. That’s one of the beautiful things about Dark Souls II: you’ll always have multiple areas to explore. If you’re having trouble in one area, then you’re probably not ready for it yet. Go explore another one, then come back when you’re at a higher level or have better equipment. The fact that you can fast-travel instantly from bonfire to bonfire—as long as you’ve discovered the bonfire already—makes it easy to jump around when you’re stuck. 

It’s dangerous to go alone

summon sign

Other people can be scary, but don’t be afraid to play online. Dark Souls II has only just been released, but if the online play turns out anything like its predecessor’s, then interactions with other players—good and bad—will be an essential part of the experience. 

You’ll get items like cracked red eye orbs, which let you invade other players’ games and try to kill them, and a white soapstone, which lets you leave a “summon sign” for other players to find and use to summon you to help them. Experiment with these! Use the human effigy item to turn into human form, then see where you can use the online items (you play online in “Hollowed” form). Get invaded. Help someone defeat a boss. Join one of the game’s covenants, another variable that will affect who you play with and how you interact with them. 

You can also read messages from other players when you’re online (and leave them yourself), and touch the blood stains you see on the ground to see how other players died. 

Some final tips 

emerald herald

Here are some quick tips that will set you on the right path in the early portion of the game:

  • Get the estus flask from the woman in green in Majula
  • Remember that enemies respawn when you rest at a bonfire
  • You can slide down ladders (and climb quickly) by holding B/circle and a direction
  • Always keep an eye out for levers and other environmental interactions
  • Choose the shield with the best physical damage reduction
  • In the forest, near the second bonfire, climb down the scaffolding and venture down a tunnel through a door on your left to find a great fire sword
  • Always acquire the item “Pharros’ Lockstone” when you can. You can use them on the faces in walls and floors to access hidden areas. An early one grants you the useful chloranthy ring, which makes your stamina regenerate more quickly
  • Speak with every character until they start to repeat themselves; they’ll often give you things
  • Get the ring of binding in Heide’s Tower of Flame, in a chest after the drawbridge
  • Chests can sometimes turn into monsters. Hit them before you open them, but don’t hit them too hard, or they’ll be crushed along with whatever’s inside them. When you do open a chest, hold up your shield as soon as you can, because some contain traps
  • Conserve your torches—you’ll want them later on
  • Always look up and below you; enemies hide everywhere
  • Buy the cat ring in Majula and you can jump down the hole in the center of the village earlier than you’d otherwise be able to. There are several challenging new areas down there
  • Have fun!