A Dark Souls II starter guide — trust us, you’ll need the help

The world of Dark Souls II is a dangerous place. Whether you’re a hardened vet who’s been honing your skills since the original Demon’s Souls for PlayStation 3 or if the hardest RPG you’ve played until now is Skyrim, you are probably 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, 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 about 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.

Here are some tips and tricks for getting started with Dark Souls II.

Vanilla or Scholar of the First Sin

Before even getting into the game itself, you should be aware of which version of Dark Souls II you have. There are two: The vanilla version from 2014 and the updated edition called Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin. These are two different SKUs, meaning they’re separate from one another. Scholar of the First Sin is not just an update, but an entirely new game. It offers a slew of differences from the original, including enemy placement and numerous quality-of-life changes.

Here are just some of the differences offered in the new version:

  • New character, the Scholar of the First Sin.
  • Ability to make enemies respawn by joining the Company of Champions covenant.
  • Control the number of souls collected with the Agape Ring, allowing you to keep your soul level for matchmaking purposes.
  • Different enemy placement.
  • New item locations.
  • Improved visuals/frame rate.
  • Quality-of-life improvements.
  • Summon additional players.

The main thing to take into account is that both games share the same DNA. Mechanically, they’re the same, featuring the same areas, enemies, and level progression system. If you’re playing in 2020, it’s likely you have Scholar of the First Sin, so for the purposes of this guide, we will be referring to that version since it’s newer.

Character study

You’re faced with some pretty massive decisions within the first few minutes of the game. 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. Unlike the original Dark Souls, you must play for a minute or two before actually getting to create your character. Once you enter the building ahead of the very start, you’ll be greeted by a few creepy-looking old ladies.

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 that’s 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. 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.

Here’s what you need to know about stats:

  • Vigor: Your overall health.
  • Endurance: Your stamina, important for combat and nearly every type of movement, from attacking to running.
  • Vitality: This governs your equip weight, which lets you carry heavier weapons and armor.
  • Strength: Lets you wield slow, powerful weapons.
  • Dexterity: Allows you to use ranged and fast weapons.
  • Intelligence: Determines spell strength.
  • Faith: Your miracle strength.
  • Attunement: Lets you carry more spells, hexes, miracles, or pyromancies.
  • 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 your vigor and endurance as well. Depending on the build you’re going with, you should prioritize some stats over others. For example, if you’re making a sorcerer build, you’ll absolutely want to go out of your way to ensure you’ve got plenty of attunement slots and high intelligence. Likewise, if you’re going for a heavy swordsman build, you shouldn’t worry about faith or intelligence as much. Or, maybe you’re going for an all-around build that has a little bit of everything. Have a plan for what kind of build you want, and level up the stats that correspond to it.

Choosing a starting “gift” is largely up to personal preference. The Life Ring is probably the most helpful in the long-term. 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 is still mysterious, even six years after launch, but we do know you can trade it with Dyna & Tillo for a random, rare item. The Seed of a Tree of Giants will make enemies attack invaders, so if you plan on playing online, this might be a good choice. If you’re new, though, it’s probably best to stick with the Life Ring since it gives you a slight health boost.

There are a ton of options and variables to choose from when designing your character’s appearance — far more than in the Souls games before it, 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 them 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.

Remember, if you realize the stats you’ve been working toward aren’t what you intended, you can always “re-spec” your character by offering a Soul Vessel to Strowen in the hut at starting area Things Betwixt. Doing so will allow you to redistribute your attributes, so if you realized you’ve messed up your build or want to go with a new one entirely, you can.

To level up, speak with Emerald Herald, who can usually be found around the bonfire at Mejula. She’ll also allow you to upgrade your Estus Flask (more on that below), which are your permanent healing items. Get used to coming back to Mejula to level up after every boss or after you’ve accumulated a healthy amount of souls.

The right tools

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. There are a lot of factors to consider when determining what kind of gear to use. Some players — and we aren’t joking — like to run around the game in their underwear because of the speed boost that comes with not wearing anything. Other players will do the exact opposite and wear heavy gear to increase defense. At the end of the day, it comes down to how you’d like to play.

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. Remember to correlate your gear to the build you’re going for. One of our characters had a general strength and sorcerer build, so we opted to find the best catalyst (used to cast spells) and heavy swords possible.

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 other weapons that are slow but very strong. Characters with high dexterity tend to use faster weapons that don’t do as much damage with each hit but that sometimes have other effects, like causing enemies to bleed and lose more health gradually. Having a high-intelligence stat probably means you’re a sorcerer, and you’ll be wielding catalysts and staves 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, while powerful spells require high intelligence, and so on. You can check the stat requirements of a particular weapon or piece of gear by hovering over it from within the Equipment menu. Here, you’ll see numbers next to symbols (the flexing arm is strength, the hand is dexterity, the skull is intelligence, and the star is faith), indicating the requirement to effectively use that piece of gear.

In addition, better weapons gain bonuses from your stats — and you can see these in the menu, too (the capital letters at the bottom on the equip screen, underneath the stat requirements). This is called scaling. The better the letter (S being the highest and E being the lowest), the more of an impact the stat will have on that weapon. For example, a weapon that has an S in strength scaling means your strength will have a major impact on how well the weapon performs. There’s actually a formula set to determine just how much of an impact a stat will have on a certain weapon, but for now, just remember that the better the letter, the more that stat will impact the piece of gear.

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…

The trick when choosing your gear (aside from ensuring you have the appropriate stats) 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. 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 (which is easier said than done, of course), 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 should 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 enemy attacks, an advanced combat technique that’s difficult to pull off but rewarding if done properly. When starting out, it’s recommended to use a shield that blocks 100% of physical attacks. There are shields that do the same for different elements, such as magic, fire, lightning, and so on. Later on in the game, you’ll likely have a slew of shields to choose from, and you’ll want to swap them out depending on the enemies or bosses you’re going up against. By default, though, stick with something like the Drangleic Shield, which offers 100% physical resistance. This means if an enemy strikes you while you’re blocking with the shield, you’ll take zero damage from a physical attack, as long as you have stamina when the strike connects.

There are rings as well, which 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 online (more on that below). These are everywhere, and you’ll swap them out frequently. One of the most important ones can be found early on in Heide’s Tower of Flame. Look for it in a chest close to the Dragonrider boss — 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. Keep in mind that the location of the Ring of Binding is different across vanilla and Scholar of the First Sin.

The importance of rings cannot be overstated. Always take a look at the effects of a ring after you pick it up because it might just be the thing that gives you an edge during a difficult segment.

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.  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. This is especially true when you’ve been playing for a while without resting at a bonfire. Fortunately, you can use Repair Powder to fix your weapons on the spot — a useful tactic if it’s been a while since the last time you’ve rested at a bonfire.

Blacksmiths can also upgrade your equipment, which gets quite complicated. To upgrade, you’ll need various amounts of upgrade material called Titanite, and you can check to see how much you need at a blacksmith. Depending on the weapon or piece of gear, you’ll be able to upgrade from +5 to +10. With each subsequent gear level, it takes more rare types of Titanite to upgrade. For example, Titanite shards are the most common, and Titanite slabs are the least common — so, a +1 weapon will likely only require a couple of Titanite Shards, while a +10 weapon will require the whole slab. You’ll need to pay the blacksmith in souls and have the necessary type of Titanite to increase a weapon’s level. The higher the level, the more effective the gear will be.

Whatever else you do, just make sure to get your Estus Flask — an essential healing tool that replenishes when you rest at a bonfire. 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. Keep in mind that you can find Estus Flask upgrades throughout the world, which grant you more uses and increase the amount of health replenished with each Flask. There are upward of 12 total Estus Flask upgrades you can find around the world on your first playthrough, meaning that you have the potential of obtaining 12 uses of your Flask before resting at a bonfire. Remember to use Estus Flask Shards to increase the number of uses and the Sublime Bone Dust to increase the amount of health gained from each use.

The other thing to know about Estus Flasks is that you are extremely vulnerable while drinking from it. This means you should never take a drink in the middle of combat, as you’ll likely get hit. You should also be aware that it doesn’t instantaneously heal you. Instead, it gradually fills your health over a short period of time. For this reason, players will opt to use Lifegems, which are limited-use healing items that work a lot faster than Estus Flasks do. The downside is that they’re limited, but using them can save your life during the heat of battle.

Know your enemy

The Souls series’ combat is some of the most challenging and rewarding in all of the video 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. You should study the attack patterns and animations of your enemies in order to gauge when to strike. The key to overcoming this game (and all of the Souls games) is to strike as soon as your enemy is finished attacking. Each enemy has a few different moves, so wait for them to finish attacking, then jump in, get a few strikes in, back away, and repeat.

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’s combat is timing your actions to manage your stamina so that you’re never at your opponents’ mercy. Sometimes, you can get away with simply backing away instead of rolling, for example. This will preserve your stamina.

Another major factor is the lock-on system. When an enemy approaches, you can click the right thumbstick to lock on, flicking it to switch between targets (if there are multiple). You can certainly play without locking on, but you’ll be at a huge disadvantage if you choose to do that. Make sure you lock onto every enemy you come across, with very few exceptions. This will ensure that you’re always focused on the enemy you intend to strike.

The left trigger uses what’s in your left hand, and the right trigger uses what’s in you’re right hand. If you’ve got a shield in your left hand, holding LB/L1 (Xbox One/PlayStation 4, 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.

Deflecting an attack with your shield 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 functions 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 tough spots 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 an enemy 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, so it’s a high risk/high reward maneuver. 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.

The video above shows many of these mechanics in action. You’ll notice how we start by locking onto the enemy and then back away (instead of rolling away, as rolling depletes stamina) to avoid the attack. We started to inch forward but corrected our movement since the enemy was still attacking. When the enemy was finished with that particular flurry of attacks, that’s when we strike. We landed a couple of hits and then realized the enemy was about to attack, so we opted to roll away (while being cautious of the cliff beside us) to quickly avoid getting hit. Then, the enemy’s buddies came in to help, so we isolated the three in order to defeat them.

When we finally took down one enemy, we circled around to the back of the second one in order to execute a deadly backstab, which you can see does high amounts of damage. As soon as the animation was over, we stitched to two-handing the weapon to deal more damage and finished the enemy off with a massive heavy attack. Since we knew the attack would deal the finishing blow, there was no need to have a shield up, which freed our other hand up to dish out a two-handed attack. The clip isn’t the most exciting or impressive example of combat, but it does show you many of the basic tactics you’ll need to know.

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 an enemy’s 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) because they enable you to strike at range — avoiding many instances of being hit by the enemy with melee attacks. 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. Remember, certain rings or pieces of clothing can improve the effectiveness with magic. For instance, the Hexer’s Hood grants you more spell uses, while the Clear Bluestone Ring shortens casting time.

How being Hollowed works

In Dark Souls II, the hollowed/human system is different and actually makes things harder than in the first game. The biggest change is that your total health depletes by 5% each time you die, up to 50% of the maximum total. Your visual appearance will also change as you continue to die. The only way to mitigate this is with a Human Effigy, which will fill your health back to its maximum and allow you to summon other players. Human Effigies are consumable items that can be found throughout the world, sold by NPCs, or dropped when you defeat a Red Phantom player who invades you.

When you first start, we advise not to use your Human Effigies until you know you can get through a boss or tough area. The reason is that these items are super rare at first, and you don’t want to waste being human only to die and have to use another Human Effigy. Learn the area, learn the game, and then, when you’re ready, consume a Human Effigy to return to your human form.

You can only summon other players while in Human form, but you can be summoned while Hollow. Oftentimes, you should at least figure out how a boss works by yourself before opting to summon another player. This ensures that you’re not wasting Human Effigies. At the start of the game, get used to not having much health since you’ll likely be in hollowed form for most of the preliminary areas.

No stone unturned

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 in order 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 all of them.

That said, just because you can go somewhere doesn’t mean you should. If an area is too difficult for you, 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 in that area already — makes it easy to jump around when you’re stuck.

There are so many things to look out for, like keys, switches, levers, and even invisible walls that lead to secret paths. These are called illusory walls and are often indicated by notes on the ground left by other players. You’ll also want to be careful when opening doors, as some of them are traps. The developers at FromSoftware are trolls sometimes, so it’s always best to be cautious when going to a new area.

It’s dangerous to go alone

Other people can be scary, but don’t be afraid to play online. Even though Dark Souls II has been out for quite some time, you can still find other players to help you out. Do keep in mind that you must be within a certain Soul Memory (your cumulative total souls acquired, even after death) range of the person you want to play with. The range changes depending on many factors like the covenant you’re in or even certain items that make it easier to join a friend. You can check your Soul Memory by heading into the Player Status screen. Here, you’ll find pretty much everything you’ll need to know about your character, including the Soul Memory located in the top-right.

As you play, 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, or summon someone to help you out. Joining one of the game’s covenants is another variable that will impact 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 bloodstains you see on the ground to see how other players died.

You can de-spawn enemies

One of the more controversial and unique aspects of Dark Souls II is the fact that you can de-spawn enemies. Up to this point, every Souls game has featured infinitely spawning enemies (with a few exceptions here and there). Infinitely spawning enemies means that each area is never truly safe, forcing you to be on your toes at all times. In Dark Souls II, this is not the case. If you defeat the same enemy around 12 to 15 times, they will eventually de-spawn, even after you’ve rested at a bonfire.

Because of this, you can essentially clear out the entire game to make it easier for you. You can literally go through, taking out each enemy one by one. Doing so is a long process, but it can be useful if you’re stuck. Plus, you’ll gain a lot of souls this way. If you’re having trouble and are getting bombarded by enemies, try isolating one or two at a time, then take them out, rest at the closest bonfire, and repeat until they de-spawn.

The nice thing is that you can get the enemies to come back if you want to add a challenge. By using a Bonfire Ascetic at a bonfire, the enemies will respawn and will be in their NG+ form. Each Bonfire Ascetic you use will increase the enemies by one NG+ level. So, if you use three Bonfire Ascetics, you’ll be facing the NG+ 3 version of an enemy, meaning they will be tougher but will reward you with more souls upon defeat. This also respawns bosses, so make sure you’re aware of that before using this item. You can use this tactic to farm souls, which might be something you’ll want to do during the later portion of the game.

Some final tips

These quick tips that set you on the right path in the early portion of the game:

  • Get the Estus Flask from Emerald Herald in Majula.
  • Remember that enemies respawn any time you rest at a bonfire unless you kill them about a dozen or so times.
  • Holding B/circle and a direction allows you to climb ladders quickly or slide down them.
  • Always keep an eye out for levers and other environmental interactions.
  • You usually want the shield with the best physical damage reduction. But this isn’t true when facing enemies that don’t deal physical damage, in which case you’ll need to swap it out for something more fitting.
  • Acquire the Pharros’ Lockstone items any time you’re able to. You can use them to access hidden areas by using them on the faces in walls and floors. 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.
  • Don’t attack NPCs, or they’ll be aggressive toward you. Then you won’t be able to speak with them until the next playthrough or until you repay your sins, which costs a lot of souls.
  • Get the Ring of Binding in Heide’s Tower of Flame, near the Dragonrider boss.
  • Chests can sometimes turn into monsters, so hit them before you open them. Don’t hit them too hard, though, or you’ll crush them and whatever’s inside. Some also contain traps, so hold up your shield as soon as you open one.
  • Conserve your torches — they’ll be useful later on.
  • Remember to look above and below you — enemies hide everywhere.
  • The Cat Ring in Majula lets you 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.
  • Practice makes perfect.

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