There's a space of dead air in the Undead Parish. The walkway from the Blacksmith's bonfire into the Parish itself never felt entirely right. But I trudged along regardless, attempting to find a summon sign to fight the Belfry Gargoyles. However, what I got was the opposite. A message popped up at the bottom of my screen. "Dark Spirit Karel_88 has invaded". The Dark Souls I knew was gone. The predictability of the enemies was gone. I was up against another human; A complete wildcard. Needless to say, I was blindsided and killed in an instant.
PvP in Dark Souls is just as obtuse as the rest of the game, with the player having to complete bosses in a certain order to join a covenant or obtain a hard to find item. Knowing what an achievement it is to even be able to invade other players in Dark Souls makes it even more terrifying when faced against someone who has gone to all that trouble just to get to you. On the opposite end of this are the people who actively seek out invasions, to fight another player for bragging rights and glory.
Mastery of the game is required before even considering going into the PvP scene of Dark Souls. An arcane knowledge of the game will help you figure out how to build your character in the best way possible for attack, manoeuvrability and defence, what covenants can get you the most useful skills, and much, much more. The PvP community has several "standards" for play; unofficial rules enforced by community experience and etiquette. A soul level around 100-125. Bowing before battle and no healing using estus flasks. The lack of voice communication in Dark Souls means that all communication between the duellists is done via the use of gestures, and a few carvings that simply say things like "hello" and "I'm sorry", making this strict code of honour between players even more unusual.
There's clearly something deeper at work in Dark Souls PvP. Players have a mutual respect for each other, finely honing their meticulously crafted character builds for tens of hours before they even face another Chosen Undead. As well as forging a fair playing field, the rituals of battle are symbolic gestures of appreciation of all the hard work required to even get to a single duel. Setting up a duel is no easy feat, either. Various fight clubs are organised via forums, Reddit and other forms of social media. Outside of organised fights, there are also "hotspots" primed with people just wanting casual invasions- Darkroot Garden, Undead Burg and Oolacile Township just to name a few. However, once you're locked into battle, Dark Souls turns into a completely different game.
The wealth of character builds and complexity possible within Dark Souls' makes facing up against an opponent a fairly complex affair. You could be up against a Mage using incredibly powerful Oolacile magic one second, then facing off against a knock-off Smough cosplay the next. Whilst online, performing parries can be tricky, but incredibly rewarding. An advanced tip is the use of "Dead angles", not locking onto the player, attacking, then locking on and using the angle you've attacked at to hit around a player's shield. The system is hard to get your head around, but dead angles are unblockable, and often used in builds that use Greatswords or Scythes, thanks to their large horizontal attack range.
Lag is a major player when it comes to PvP. Dodges rely on invincibility frames, and understanding the timing of your opponent's attack. When the guarantee of a solid hit is ruined by lag, players have to consider other strategies. Backstabbing is one of the most common techniques used in Dark Souls PvP. It can be done with almost any weapon and does devastating damage. This strategy is so popular that notable Dark Souls Youtuber OroboroTheNinja created an iconic build just to combat it. I asked him about this now legendary set-up.
"It completely changed the meta by having this build to completely counter the most popular strategy in the game, backstab fishing. Back when I was one of the only players using it, many players completely disregarded the Falchion, calling it ‘the most worthless weapon in the game’. It ended up becoming [part of] one of the most powerful and popular builds in Dark Souls."
OroboroTheNinja's resounding success is due to the particular swiftness of the Falchion's attacks. Even in situations which cause heavy lag, he can still move quickly to counter attacks and do massive damage using the "Darkmoon Blade" weapon buff. On the other side of this is OnlyAfro's famous Giantdad build. A now infamous video shows off a high poise, high health, heavy-hitting hammer of a character wielding a Chaos Zweihander, meaning that once an enemy is stunlocked, it is almost impossible to break free. However, OnlyAfro hasn't always had it so easy, I asked him about his most memorable invasion.
"I got invaded when I was low level by a walking tank. It was right before the Belfry Gargoyles. This phantom invaded me wearing nothing but full Havels [a notorious set of heavy armour] and Iron Flesh [a magical buff which increases resilience at the expense of speed]. He walked slowly towards me wielding nothing but a giant axe, I remember how terrified I was that this walking wall was taking little damage from me. I was killed but wasn't even upset. It's that kind of experience that drew me into the Souls games, I'm glad to be a part of it."
There are plenty of other aspects of Dark Souls PvP, beyond even the expansive area of ‘standard’ duels at Soul level 125. Daring low Soul level invasions, troll invasions and many, many more. Years later, the game still remains fresh, and has a strong, vibrant PvP scene. I ask OroboroTheNinja what makes Dark Souls PvP still so appealing.
"That feeling when you get invaded for the first time and there is another player in your world with the intent of killing you is just something you can't get out of any other game. Every single invasion feels unique and dynamic."
There's no denying that PvP in Dark Souls feels like an art in itself. Preparing your character. Being summoned. Duelling. It feels like performing an arcane ritual practiced for centuries, and is always incredibly rewarding. The scene remains strong on communities such as Youtube and Twitch, where people like OnlyAfro and OroboroTheNinja share their exploits online. Despite the release of Dark Souls 2 and other, similar games. None of them have come close to gaining the following that the original Dark Souls has.
The game has a way of drawing people together, despite (or perhaps, in a round-about way, because of) its incredibly obtuse nature. PvP is more than just a gothic Bushido Blade. For some it's a full time job, for others it's a lighthearted but regular pastime. But however you play it, Dark Souls will always find some way to worm itself inside your mind. From PvP, to lore, to mastery of the entire game, darkness penetrates through all.