The difficulty of FromSoftware's "SoulsBorne" games gets blown out of proportion. They're challenging, sure, but even new players can hone their skills and triumph over the likes of Ornstein and Smough, Darklurker, the Nameless King, Ludwig the Accursed, and Old King Allant. All you need is a little patience.
That said, have you ever tried to cut down a giant, angry tree with a spoon? I have.
This diary chronicles my attempt to play through Dark Souls 2: Scholar of the First Sin using only the Handmaid's Ladle. Miss an earlier entry? Get caught up here.
Across five SoulsBorne games, Dark Souls 2's the Last Giant is the easiest first boss that players encounter. He's ponderous, predictable, and susceptible to most types of damage. As if that weren't enough, you're bound to come across a few resins that add elemental damage to your weapon if you search the Forest of Fallen Giants, the boss's domain. With or without resins, you'll be yelling "Timber!" in no time.
Unless you're going up against The Last Giant with a broken spoon.
The Handmaid's Ladle is a deceptively powerful weapon once you apply mundane to it. Until then, and even after, you have to work around its flaws. Pitifully low durability tops the list. After 20 hits, give or take a couple, the ladle will break. Fighting with a shattered spoon isn't a problem if your weapon is mundane. The infusion ignores damage and scales with your lowest stat. Without mundane, a broken Handmaid's Ladle deals zero damage.
I discovered this when my ladle snapped less than 30 seconds into my fight against The Last Giant. Equipping a different weapon was out of the question: I had embarked on a ladle-only run. Trembling in a corner, I used a Homeward Bone to teleport out of the boss room. As my screen faded, Last Giant watched without moving. He was probably shocked. Can you blame him? I was probably the first person to flee his lair.
Repairing the ladle was out of the question: I had no souls, and since I couldn't deal damage, I couldn't farm enemies to gain souls and pay the blacksmith, Lenigrast, to repair my weapon. As a matter of fact, I couldn't afford the 1000 souls to buy the key to his forge so I could let him in and get him back to work. (Side note: What kind of blacksmith can't pick a lock?)
I had two choices. Scrap the character and start over, or reallocate my stats. Starting over was a bad idea. It had taken three tries to get a mundane stone by trading with the crows in Things Betwixt and about an hour to get my hands on a ladle. To reallocate my stats, I would need to find Cale the Cartographer in Forest of Fallen Giants and get the key to the locked mansion in Majula, where a Soul Vessel—an item that lets you reconfigure your character—can be found.
Or I could just run over to Lenigrast and have him unlock the mansion's front do… Oh.
Far from feeling discouraged, I was energized. The appeal of a challenge run goes beyond picking a ridiculous weapon and killing bosses with it. Challenge runs are about meeting an obstacle, devising a plan to neutralize it, putting that plan into action, and reveling in your genius when you succeed. That exultation is arguably more rewarding than finally slaying a tough boss after countless tries. (And I know a little something about that.)
My plan unfolded thusly. First, I went back into the forest and found Cale in his hidey-hole, crawling around in the dirt on his hands and knees. After mashing X to skip through his spiel, he handed over his key. Back in town, I plundered the mansion and left with a Soul Vessel in hand and a skeleton hot on my heels.
I could have killed him, except, well, you know. Spoons.
Returning to Things Betwixt, I handed over my Soul Vessel to the cackling old firekeepers. Rather than keep my stats even across the board, which I'd need to deal mundane damage, I dumped four into Attunement, raising it to 10 to give myself a single spell slot, and put the rest in Intelligence to use a single, important spell.
The next leg of my trip took me to No-Man's Wharf, one of my favorite areas in the game. I normally love running around killing off pirates and setting sail across the smooth, glassy surface of its dark waters, but I wasn't there to sightsee. I needed to talk to Carhillion of the Fold, an NPC who sells magic spells if you've got at least 10 INT. Completing our transaction took a few tries. I knew the area well enough to run straight through and find him sitting at the end of a pier. So did the enemy horde that gave chase each and every time. Getting fed up with the riff-raff, I summoned an AI-controlled phantom to distract the enemies while I chatted with the wizard and bought Magic Weapon, a buff that adds magic damage to any melee weapon.
Look, in my book, "ladle-only" extends to companions, but only for boss fights. No way would I summon a phantom to help kill a boss. I just needed him to buy me some time, and he did. No harm, no foul. (I vowed not to make summoning phantoms in levels a regular habit, even if I had no designs on taking them into a boss fight. I've stuck to that promise so far.)
There's a reason I was so keen to defeat The Last Giant. For one thing, bosses grant lots of souls, and I was flat broke. For another, the game opens up considerably once you bring him down. You get a key that leads to the second boss of Forest Fallen Giants, and beyond him, The Lost Bastille, where I would find another blacksmith—one not locked out of his own forge, I mean—and infuse my ordinary spoon with extraordinary damage.
The third reason, really, was that that damn tree embarrassed me. I ran away! No one runs from Last Giant! Outside his fog gate once again, I cast Magic Weapon on my ladle and reentered his arena determined to do my best impression of Paul Bunyan sans axe.
And I did. Four hours later.
Here's the thing about sprinkling magical damage all over a broken spoon: It's still a broken spoon. Every light attack chipped off fewer than 10 hit points. I switched to heavy attacks, upgrading my damage per hit to a whopping 15 to 22 HP. Heavy attacks are slower, so I got in fewer licks, but the damage evened out.
The problem, I came to realize, was that I didn't know this enemy at all. As hit points flaked away from Last Giant's life bar, it occurred to me that I'd spent maybe 30 minutes of the 1200 hours of spent playing SoulsBorne games battling this boss. He's relatively simple, so I never bothered to learn more than the bare minimum of strategy: run around his ankles like a little dog and hack away at his legs while he stomps.
It's a viable tactic even when running a challenge build like this one, but I'd invested all of my levels into Attunement and Intelligence. My character wasn't a glass cannon. He was a wet sheet of paper. Invariably, the Last Giant stomped on me. With only five Estus Flasks (recovered by racing through levels and grabbing Estus Shards followed by teleporting to safety or getting pummeled in a corner), zero life gems, and no souls with which to buy more, deciding when to heal took on huge significance. Too early, and I'd left without flasks for later in the fight.
Small breakthroughs occurred as the hours wore on. I checked my inventory and discovered I'd picked up three medium-sized life gems somewhere. I don't often use life gems during boss fights because they restore life slowly; I like to pop gems during levels and save flasks for major encounters. At that point, I was happy to have an edge, albeit a temporary one. Unlike flasks, gems can't be restored. Desiring more, I pushed a couple of enemies off ledges and exchanged the paltry souls they gave me for all 10 of the life gems sold by an old crone in the forest.
Those 13 gems became the most important, most precious commodities in my meager inventory. Plunging back into battle against the Last Giant, I changed tactics, swigging Estus first and only deigning to pop life gems if I thought I had a real chance at victory.
My penny-pinching was for naught. Over a series of near wins, I ran through all 13 gems. I was left with the bare essentials. Estus Flasks, a broken spoon, and Magic Weapon. And then I realized that that was as it should be. Dark Souls is perhaps the quintessential example of the "man against self" conflict. The Last Giant wasn't my enemy. My dependence on weapons like dual maces and on items like life gems had dulled my instincts.
I'd become dependent on crutches. There were players out there who had pulled off fists-only was. A spoon wasn't much, but it would be enough. It had to be.
Over the next few attempts, I didn't attempt to cut down the Last Giant. I watched him. After some experimentation, I found an even better weak spot than baiting him into stomping around like a toddler throwing a tantrum. During the first phase of his fight, if you hug the side of his left foot, he'll bend down and try to backhand you with his right hand. To evade his strike, all you have to do is walk—not run, not roll, just walk—behind him and then quickly return to his toes. You'll have just enough time to get in two heavy strikes or three quick ones before the boss bends down and swats at you again, and you won't have wasted stamina rolling, letting you conserve energy for attacks.
Eventually, I baited him flawlessly, not needing to heal until he began his second attack phase at 50% life remaining—tearing off his left arm and wielding it like a club. This phase was trickier. The bend-down-and-backhand move was purged from his arsenal. I had to find a new way, a safe way, to bait him.
The next two dozen or so attempts were more painful than the first few dozen. I'd get impatient and reckless during the first phase. I'd spent so long on the first phase that I found it difficult to adapt to his second set of moves. By the time I'd caught on, I'd died and had to try again. Recklessness is the number one cause of death in SoulsBorne games. I had to muster every last scrap of patience and hold on to them with a death grip.
I steered clear of his stomps and tried to goad him into swinging his makeshift club at me. As soon as he wound up to swing, I'd scurry between his legs, take a swing or two at the closest one, then work my way behind him. He would sense me behind him and begin to stomp. That was my signal to get clear—the shockwaves from his tantrums deal damage, making his stomps twice as risky to instigate—then wait for him to turn around. When I did, I'd make a nuisance of myself until he swung again. Rinse and repeat.
PlayStation 4 records video segments to a maximum of 15 minutes. My final and successful run at that damn tree ate up nearly all of that. At last, I heard the telltale SLICE. The Last Giant jerked, then toppled. I gasped loudly. My wife bolted upright on the couch from where she'd been lounging, probably fighting the urge to nod off (not that I blame her). A surge of euphoria lifted me out of my chair and to my feet. I pumped my fists and let out a barbaric yawp.
At last, I heard the telltale SLICE. The Last Giant jerked, then toppled. I gasped loudly. My wife bolted upright on the couch from where she'd been lounging, probably fighting the urge to nod off (not that I blame her). A surge of euphoria lifted me out of my chair and to my feet. I pumped my fists and let out a barbaric yawp.
As much as I love these games, and Dark Souls 2 in particular, they had become routine by 2014 when Dark Souls 2 was released. Not routine in a bad way. Just a known quantity, albeit one that I loved. The jubilation I'd experienced from previous runs in each game was meted out over a series of small victories: locating the weapon I wanted to use for the playthrough, discovering a secret passageway I'd somehow missed before.
This rush had a different source. It took me nine hours to complete the first level of Demon's Souls when I brought the game home on the day it released in 2009. If I could hop in a time machine and relive any gaming memory, it would be that one. Every death had been a learning experience, every inch of progress a discovery.
Bringing down the Last Giant with a broken spoon was gratifying in a similar way. My usual bag of tricks was unavailable to me. To succeed, I had to learn and appreciate the nuances of a boss I had dismissed hundreds of hours earlier.
That newly-in-love feeling had been at its most potent and addictive back in 2009. Future entries had better mechanics, items, worlds, and lore than Demon's Souls. Nonetheless, they had all felt familiar in ways great and small. All it took to rekindle (if you'll permit me a pun) my passion for the series was for arguably the easiest first boss in the franchise to become a threat again.