Over three years since the release of the "vanilla" game, two years following its Scholar of the First Sin repackaging, and over 500 hours of play, Dark Souls 2 keeps pulling me back for more. It's my favorite of the "SoulsBorne" franchise, warts and all, thanks to a vast supply of items and gear that lead to nearly limitless character builds.
The difficulty of the SoulsBorne series has been blown way out of proportion. Patience and caution, rather than a big sword and a magic wand, are one needs to succeed. Those with true skill like to think outside the hit box and spec characters in unconventional ways. A year or so ago, I ran an archer build that relied solely on arrows to deal damage. Many guides recommend keeping a melee weapon handy for when enemies invade your archer's personal space. Not I. The appeal of the run lay in choosing a weapon class and sticking with it.
The Handmaid's Ladle poses an even greater challenge. Don't let its florid name fool you. The Handmaid's Ladle is exactly what you would expect: a spoon. A spoon with abysmally low base damage, but a spoon that, when honed in a certain way, can be as effective as (almost) any ordinary blade.
Venturing through bleak fantasy worlds armed only with a kitchen utensil—and not one of the sharp ones—is a lonely affair, so I thought I'd chronicle my adventures in written and video diaries so others with more sense can live vicariously through my expedition. However, I am by no means an elite player. Rather than stream my run from beginning to end and give the Internet masses ample and well-deserved reason to ridicule me, I opted to play the game on PS4 and curate highlights from my experience. I've peppered this and future chapters with video links. You can check video descriptions for the highlights of what I was trying to accomplish at that stage, while these written articles will go into more detail.
I'm about six hours into my character so far. In that relatively short span of time, I've experienced the lowest lows and highest highs of my 1200+ hours playing SoulsBorne games so far. You don't know true excitement until you've chopped down a giant, angry tree boss using a broken spoon. Any SoulsBorne fan can relate to the rush you get when you finally defeat a boss or mob of enemies that have stood in your path for hours you could have spent doing more productive things in real life.
More than the rush, though, I've come to appreciate the insight into Dark Souls 2's game systems that playing such a pitiful character has afforded me. Without further ado, here's your first spoonful of my Dark Souls 2 playthrough.
A ladle-only run is a soup made up of a select few ingredients. Two of the most essential are the Handmaid's Ladle itself, and an Old Mundane Stone.
Let's talk about the Old Mundane Stone first. Unlike other damage types such as magic and lightning, which are more straightforward, mundane scales with your lowest stat. To wring every last drop of scaling out of mundane, it behooves you to keep your stats more or less even, with one trailing just behind the others. The tradeoff is that you won't be able to specialize in any one stat, so your health, endurance, adaptability, and other key attributes will be dangerously low, especially during the early- and mid-game stages.
The irony of mundane damage is there's very little "mundane" about it. Far from being commonplace, as one might think, mundane stones are rare. Unlike most upgrade materials, you find mundane ore lying around the game world, and enemies that drop them give up the goods infrequently at best. Only one vendor sells them, but not until late in the game. If I was to play a character predicated on using a ladle, I needed to find one sooner rather than later.
There's one way to get mundane stone early, if the random number generation (RNG) gods see fit to smile upon you. At the crow's nest in Things Betwixt, the starting zone, you can drop items in a crow's nest to trade for better items in return. Where previous Souls games offered fixed rewards—trading X always gets you Y—Dark Souls 2's trades are randomly determined based on the type of item you offer. Trading a small smooth and silky stone might get you a single life gem, or you might luck out and get a titanite slab.
According to the Dark Souls 2 Wiki, the crows exchange upgrade ore for regular-sized smooth and silky stones. There are three such stones in Things Betwixt, but only on New Game Plus (NG+) or higher. The quickest way to get them is to roll a new and choose a Bonfire Ascetic as your starting gift. Burning a Bonfire Ascetic advances an area by one difficulty level. After naming my avatar and selecting a class—Deprived, which starts at level 1—I burned my Bonfire Ascetic in Things Betwixt and crawled through a small cave near the waterfall outside the firekeepers' cavern, where the three stones are found. From there, I went to the crow's nest and crossed my fingers as I put down my offerings one at a time.
Dark Souls 2's random number generation wasn't content to let me start off on the right foot so easily. None of my three stones yielded a mundane stone. At this point, the character was worthless. I could have continued playing, looking for one as I went, but the ladle's abysmal damage would have made progress tedious at best. It was quicker and easier to scrap the character and try again.
And again. My second character struck out, too. The third character had better luck, receiving a mundane rock upon exchanging the second of his three silky stones. Between creating and deleting characters, this step took less than 15 minutes. Not bad.
It was at this point that Dark Souls 2 reminded me that optimism in these games is a weakness.
Let's talk about the Handmaid's Ladle. It's given to you by Millibeth, a handmaid (obviously) who watches over the elderly firekeepers. Of course, Millibeth won't just hand over her ladle, apparently the only spoon in the world. This is Dark Souls. Every inch of ground is earned, not given.
Millibeth will part with her spoon on one condition: Kill the two ogres haunting the shore of Things Betwixt. That shore is walled off behind a petrified zombie, which can only be unfrozen using a Fragrant Branch of Yore. The first branch most players come across in their playthrough is sold by an old crone in the Forest of Fallen Giants for 12,000 souls. Having just started the game, I was about 11,800 souls short.
The quickest way to earn souls in Dark Souls 2 is to kill bosses. Easier said than done. Remember, my goal is to beat the game using only a ladle. Most speedrunners permit the use of fists, but the hands of a level-1 character aren't exactly lethal weapons.
Here's where Dark Souls 2's incredible flexibility comes into play. Heide's Tower of Flame is one of two early areas players can access after leaving Things Betwixt. Dragonrider, one of the area's bosses, can be killed without laying so much as a finger on him. You fight him in a ring-shaped arena raised high above the sea, kind of like the rings in old 3D fighting games like Virtua Fighter. On the way to Dragonrider, there are two levers you can pull to enclose his arena, making it more difficult for you or the boss to accidentally fall to your deaths mid-battle.
Killing Dragonrider without touching him entails ignoring those levers and acting as bait. He lumbers toward you as soon as you step through his fog gate. When he gets close, he rears back and thrusts his lance as his opening salvo. The trick is to wait until he cocks his arm back to thrust. As he does this, you sidle around him so that he automatically rotates, tracking your movement. When he thrusts, you roll out of the way and he lunges off the platform and plummets to the rocks below.
Ideally. Speedrunners use this exploit all the time, but I'd never tried it before. Three was the magic number once again. I didn't mind, though. Learning the intricacies of exploits is a side of gaming I've never indulged in. Pulling off this admittedly simple trick made me feel cunning and smug, and deepened my appreciation for Dark Souls 2's open-endedness.
Once again, the third time was the charm. Several thousand souls richer courtesy of Dragonrider's bumbling, I traveled to the Forest of Fallen Giants and reached the second bonfire where the old crone makes camp. Twelve thousand bucks seems steep for a gnarled old twig, but I paid it and returned to Things Betwixt.
Normally, the area beyond the petrified zombie doesn't pose a problem. My case was different. I'd burned a Bonfire Ascetic, advancing the zone to NG+ and making the enemies much tougher. On the bright side, I didn't plan to do much fighting. As with Dragonrider, my plan was to lure the beasts up a tight, winding path and bait them into rolling off a fallen tree that serves as a narrow bridge spanning a pit.
This was the most tedious and frustrating part of the run so far. The ogres weren't so bad. They're big, slow, and easy to lure. The problem was a zombified soldier who hung out on the path near the makeshift bridge. He crowded us, standing between me and the ogres, who weren't able to get close enough to begin the attack sequence that ended with them rolling to one side and tumbling off the tree.
I tried beating up the soldier. No good. Punching him with my fists did about as much damage as a leaf throwing itself against a mountain. Elite players such as Lobos—my favorite SoulsBorne streamer—have little trouble with this part, but the gulf of skill separating me from Lobos is about as wide and deep as the gulf separating Dark Souls 2's No-Man's Wharf and Lost Bastille zones, which I presume is nontrivial seeing as you have to take a ship to get from one to the other. I resorted to luring the zombie onto the bridge first, baiting him into taking a swing, then dancing around him and punching him until he staggered off the bridge.
Bear in mind that I had to go through this rigmarole with my zombie pal every time I slipped up and respawned at the bonfire to try again. How many times? The video proof of my success stemmed from my Nth attempt. On the bright side, these two ogres stay dead after you've killed them, unlike the majority of Dark Souls beasties. Rather than get greedy and try to lure both off at once—although I wouldn't have objected had it happened—I took it slow, getting one to roll off and then working on the second.
At long, long last, the ogres had taken dives. Accompanied by great fanfare—the cheers of my wife, who to my amazement was still present and invested in the run after over an hour of watching me pathetically bait two tubby giants into rolling off a tree—I entered the cabin and accepted the Handmaid's Ladle, the Excalibur to my decrepit, rotting-husk of an Arthur.
Although parts of this process were monotonous, I found myself more engaged than bored or frustrated. I went into my bow-only character with a firm game plan. Scrimp and save souls to buy arrows. Run past enemies, saving arrows for bosses. Upgrade my starting equipment, the Short Bow, no higher than +6 in order to save rarer ore for better bows found later on.
That was challenging, but at least I had my chosen weapon right from the get go. Alternating on the fly between improvisation and putting exploits I'd never tried into effect was exhilarating. This is yet another reason why I carry a torch for Dark Souls 2. Its systems are tough yet flexible, encouraging players to tackle its formidable challenges in their way.
The real ladle-only run starts here. Er. Well. In part two.
Header image courtesy of "SharpTone" on DeviantArt.