After playing Dark Souls 3 and finally earning that platinum trophy (F*** putting rings into new game+ cycles that you can’t get unless you go into NG++) I had a hankering to play a superior game - the original Dark Souls.
I have played Dark Souls through the final boss seven or eight times at this point. So when I went to start up the game for another run, I wanted to do something different. I’ve already played as a sorcerer, a sunbro and a melee oriented character, so finding a new build was going to be difficult. So I decided to try something I’d always wanted to do but hadn’t tried - the level one challenge.
I can’t express how happy I am that I did this. I have never fallen in love with a video game quite like I have with Dark Souls, and replaying the game at level one brought back all the experiences that made me love the game the first time I played it.
For those who don’t know about the challenge, it is exactly like it sounds. You play the entirety of the game without leveling up a single time. Also, there is only one starting class that starts you at level 1 - a pyromancer.
Now I didn’t go all out like a lot of really good players have. I allowed myself to use all the pyromancy and upgrade all my shit however I wanted to. I am not nearly good enough at the game to not abuse the system any way that I can.
The challenge is designed to bring a little bit of difficulty back to most of the bosses and make the game feel new again. The biggest draw to a Souls game is that feeling of beating the odds. The feeling of destroying that demon after learning how to dodge every move and making it look like a fool as you cut its tail off before finishing the job.
Anyone who has played Dark Souls games will tell you that once you learn a boss, it becomes infinitely easier to defeat it on subsequent playthroughs. Even the most difficult boss can be felled in a few attempts when you know the moveset, how to properly level and what weapons to use.
My level one run brought back that feeling of accomplishment that I haven’t felt since my first journey to Lordran. Instead of running through the game with my +15 Claymore and all the magic, I was forced to rely more on my actual skill and learn boss patterns instead of either tanking my way through, or cheesing with magic.
By not leveling, the amount of sorceries and the number of weapons you can use are drastically cut down. You mostly get the base level sorceries plus pyromancy (which has no stat requirements) and it completely rules out any miracles. For weapons, there are only a handful (and looking online for the best ones basically gives you a choice of two) that can be used.
The challenge also forces you to figure out enemies strengths and weaknesses. You bring a Fire +5 reinforced club to fight Queelag, good luck. You want to fight Ornstein with a Lightning weapon? Knock yourself out. Pairing weapons against bosses is key to survival.
This challenge made me have to really learn the bosses. Not all of them, as some are just as easy at level one as they are at level 100. But for some of the more memorable bosses, it brings back that feeling of something new. It forces you out of your comfort zone, like you are fighting them for the first time.
For one quick example, I had never had any trouble with Ornstein and Smough. Many point to this as the hardest boss in the game. I probably died a total of three times to this boss over all my previous playthroughs. During this run it took me a fair many more attempts to fell the beasts. I didn’t have access to my preferred easy method of using Homing Soul Mass to decimate Ornstein before trapping Smough against a broken pillar and filling his oversized belly with Soul Spears.
When I finally beat the bastards after 20 or so attempts, after dying with one hit left to go three times, I jumped out of my chair and yelled at the TV. I told those sons of bitches that my level one challenge couldn’t be stopped. It felt great. It was a feeling I haven’t had since my first go at Bloodborne and my very first run of Dark Souls before that.
I got the same feeling from two other bosses, both in the DLC. The first is Artorias. I had trouble with Artorias even with my high level characters and my jacked up magic. So when I stepped into that arena I was expecting trouble.
Even with my Ascended +5 Pyromancy Flame with Great Fireball and Great Combustion ready to go, he kicked my ass. Turns out all the bosses in the DLC have a MASSIVE defense boost to all magic, fire and lightning defense. So many hours of learning every little move of Artorias later, I finally took him down with my Lightning Battle Axe +5. After feeling sad for about 3 seconds (because I love Artorias and if you know Dark Souls lore you’ll understand) I yelled at him just like I did O&S.
Then I got to Kalameet, a boss I had only ever beaten once in all my playthroughs. I never got his tail weapon either because I am not that good at this game.
After about 2 hours of quick deaths and learning that I cannot cheese him by quickly climbing back up the ladder to attempt plunging attacks, I finally took off his tail. The total damage to the health bar was about 15%, but hey I did get that amazing sword that I couldn’t use because, you know, I’m level one, before I died.
Two days, and many more tail cuts later, I walked out of that boss arena victorious. Kalameet had fallen to my Axe and I had only four bosses left to kill.
I knew that Sif and Gwyn wouldn’t cause me too much trouble, but I was a little worried about the Four Kings of New Londo and I was REALLY worried about Manus, Father of the Abyss.
Manus was up first, seeing as I wanted to beat the DLC so I could get the special cutscene with Sif during his boss fight (if you are a fan of Souls and haven’t seen that, I suggest you check it out). I knew I would struggle with this fight, but not nearly to the point that I did.
A few cheap deaths, a whole lot of Sif being completely useless (yes I summoned Sif for this fight and fuck you it still counts) later, I had a strategy. I would use both the Dusk Crown and the Bellowing Dragoncrest Ring to up my fire damage by like 60% or so. Then I would burn the bastard with Great Combustion and hope to luck out with Fire Tempest to finish him off.
Finally, 86 deaths and many days later, Manus finally fell to my very high risk strategy.
Sif fell quickly, and I cried a little as I always do, and then the Four Kings gave me a slight speed bump before the end. They were not nearly as hard as I thought they would be, turns out that Dusk Crown/Bellowing Dragoncrest Ring combo was the best thing Manus did for me.
I took down Gwyn on my first try, because he isn’t too bad if you know his moves and have a good fire blocking shield. Also he is somehow still weak to fire despite the fact that he literally gave himself to the First Flame, so that helped quite a bit.
My journey was over, and as the New Game+ cycle began I felt an overwhelming feeling of love for this game. The level one challenge has just cemented Dark Souls as my favorite game of all time, and it proved that even after your first playthrough, you can still enjoy the game in wholly new ways.
If you are anything like me, and you love the Souls games but feel like they haven’t quite scratched that itch in a while, I highly suggest trying this challenge. It isn’t that hard. I never thought I would actually be able to finish it. But here I am, every single boss (including all optional bosses) have been vanquished, and my playtime sits just a shade above 40 hours (only 4 or so hours more than my last playthrough where I finished the game at level 98).
The game doesn’t require you to be perfect, even at level one. I made plenty of mistakes. Most of the time I lived to continue on. I will reiterate my point that I am not very good at Dark Souls. I only beat the game because I am persistent. I refuse to let the game beat me.
So if you want a good challenge, you should boot Dark Souls up and give the level one challenge a try. If I can do it, you can too.