Video Game Rage – Ash Lake

I posted a Dark Souls review on Wednesday for Zero Lives Left. If you haven’t read it yet, you should definitely do that. Also furthermore, there will be spoilers for Dark Souls in this VGR post. Normally, I don’t care about spoilers as much or I’d beat around the bush and avoid them, but for this post it’s unavoidable. I also care about the spoilers because Dark Souls is a game that needs to be experienced; at least in my opinion. So you’ve been warned, if you want to play the game I suggest just playing it then coming back to read this. Otherwise, continue on, let’s get this going!

This Video Game Rage I am going to talk a bit about some of my favourite locations that you visit in Dark Souls. The game has a great game world and every area is fricking awesome. Some are better than others, yes, and those are my personal favourites that I am going to discuss here. I’ll include some photos, any that I can find that really show the area off, but if I can’t I’ll try and describe them as best I can. Of course, the best way to get the level’s experience is to the go and play the game. Do it. Dark Souls is good. Damn good.

I also have to say that I had to, painfully, cut down my list from 7 to 5. Big shout outs to the two honourable mentions, Anor Londo and the Painted World. Both of them are beautiful and breathtaking to look at, but I’m an atmosphere guy and these following winners all trump those areas in atmosphere. Let’s get this going!

Anor Londo is BEAUTIFUL.

5) Tomb of Giants

The first big winner has a name that in and of itself is terrifying. The Tomb of Giants– an ominous, overwhelming name that would fill any adventurer with despair. Seriously, if someone said ‘Hey John, go into the Tomb of Giants and kill the Lord who reigns over it’ you’d be struck with fear and cowardice. And if you say you wouldn’t be you’d be lying. No? Still not scared, I guess I’ll add that the Tomb of Giants is a domain that sucks away all light and turns it into darkness. That’s right, you won’t be able to see a foot in front of you unless you have a torch with you, all while the skeletons of giants and dogs will be attempting to rip you apart. Welcome to Dark Souls, mutha-fucka.

The first time you enter the Tomb is absolutely drenched with foreboding vibes. You just beat a boss and you climb out of a ladder from a giant coffin, you see your path before you quickly fade into darkness. You walk, slowly towards the abyss only to see in the distance… two white beady eyes looking at you. Suddenly they charge– a giant skeleton attacks, knocking you off the cliff to your death… time to do some backtracking.

A beautiful fan-art depicting the mood of the Tomb of Giants.

There are a few methods to get light within the Tomb of Giants. One is with a Sunlight Maggot helm, which is a helmet you wear which shines off a permanent light to your surroundings. The other is the Skull Lantern, which is a lantern you equip to your hand that you have to use to lift up and light the area as you move. The first time I went through I used the lantern, every time after I used the helmet. I’d actually recommend to anyone on their first time through to use the lantern if you get it in a drop. Yes, it’s 100 times harder and more stressful to use the lantern, but the mindset that using the lantern will place you in makes the Tomb of Giants that much better.

Really the reason why the Tomb of Giants is so high on my list is because of the lantern. My first time through I used that to guide my way (as I didn’t have the helmet) and it made the area one of the most intense gaming experiences of my life. It was so tense– every step I took I was worried about falling off or getting bombarded by an enemy I missed in the darkness. The fact that I had to purposefully switch out my lantern for my shield and fight my enemies in the darkness was amazing. For one of the few times in my gaming life I felt like an actual adventurer. I was in the Tomb of Giants. I was in Dark Souls. It was amazing.

4) Sen’s Fortress

So you climbed all the way up the Undead Parish and rang the first Bell of Awakening. You went down through The Depths to Queelag’s Domain to ring the second Bell… what’s next? Fanfare? Rewards? Virgins? No. You get to continue on your quest filled with death and pain and head to Sen’s Fortress: the proving grounds of Anor Londo. While yes, the name Sen’s Fortress doesn’t sound as scary as the Tomb of Giants, but it’s no less of a pushover. I’d actually be quite confident to say that your first time through Sen’s Fortress is going to be absolute hell. Seriously, every area you visit will present you a roadblock, but Sen’s Fortress is the first one that has nothing to do with enemies or monsters trying to fight you.

May I present to you the notion of swinging blades of DOOM. Yes, Sen’s Fortress entire purpose is a giant fortress built  and stuffed to the brim with booby traps all made to murder the hell out of anyone that comes through it. It’s a nice change of pace from the previous locations you’ve been to which are all undead infested hell-holes, now you get to deal with a stronghold that has been designed and built by some kind of masochist. These are just some of the big threats: swinging blades, pressure plates shooting darts, trap elevators and giant Indiana Jones style rolling boulders.

The big thing that exists for Sen’s is the sense of mystery around it. You can get to the fortress early on in the game, right when you get to the Undead Parish for the first time pretty much. However at that point you can’t get in it, you can just see the giant fortress looming over you with its gates closed up. Next to it is an NPC who is also waiting for the doors to open. When you ring both of the Bells of Awakening the gate keeping giant wakes up and opens up Sen’s Fortress for you. Huzzah! You step in, ready to take on this new area, and you are greeted by two serpent men who charge. They’re scary, yes, but they’re humanoid, you can take them– suddenly you step down on a pressure plate and three arrows shoot into you, killing you. That is Sen’s Fortress.

Sen’s Fortress is old fashioned booby trap dungeon crawling. You could essentially make a build with your character that is Indiana Jones– yes, there is a whip! Your first time through Sen’s is a treacherous journey filled with lots of trial and error. Finally, when you get on top and you think you’re free of Sen’s traps… a giant throws a giant bomb on you. I’m not even lying. Every part of this fortress wants you dead. When you make it through the first time every trip thereafter is easier than the last. You know its tricks, but your first time through will always be the unique experience.

3) Kiln of the First Flame

I just want to get it out of the way again that there are spoilers here. I’m repeating that here because this is the final area of the game, this is what your entire adventure in Dark Souls is leading up to, and when you enter this area it’s truly an awesome experience. I won’t mind if you just scroll right on down to Blighttown; seriously, avoid this one if you haven’t gotten here in the game yet.

Ahem.

So we just need a bit of perspective on this whole thing. You have went along and faced all the challenges Lordran placed before you. You just finished up killing a bunch of different powerful beings, lords and dukes and placed their souls all in the Lordvessel and now… the Kiln of the First Flame opens up and you have to head down to the last challenge you have in this game. What you’ll do with that challenge rests entirely up to the faction you’ve aligned with, but heading down those stairs you know exactly what you have to do. You have to kill Gwyn, Lord of Cinder, once known as the Lord of Sunlight. He has spent years burning inside of the Kiln, and it’s pretty much a guarantee he won’t be happy to see you.

Watch that video, watch as much as you like, it’s a player’s journey into the Kiln. The Kiln starts off the atmosphere strong with your descent down the stairs, you can see it in the video. The world is an off-putting white and there are apparitions of Gwyn’s black knights walking all around you. The first time I saw one of the ghosts walking towards me I freaked. Not because the enemy itself scares me, but because the situation was terrifying. I was walking into this area not knowing what to expect, then I saw one black knight, and another, and another, and then suddenly one walks a foot away from me. When I realized that they weren’t lethal, let alone real I understood exactly what this area would be like. I continued down the stairs and stepped into the Kiln…

When I first saw the Kiln, the destroyed kingdom covered in ash and burned to hell and back it reminded me of a certain something: an atom bomb. Seriously, just look at the Kiln with that perspective. At the centre of it burns a fire so powerful that it keeps the Gods alive, something terrible must have happened here to make it look like this. The only enemies you encounter are the black knights, the elite mooks that have always been a threat when they’ve been around, and there are quite a few of them and they are ever relentless. When you fight through them all you reach your final battle… a beautifully ruthless battle against a desperate fallen Lord who’s terrified of change. (Thank you TV Tropes for that description of him!) [Citing Sources]

2) Blighttown

With a name like Blighttown you know it’s going to be a depressing place. The game, up to this point, leaked out endless amounts of hopelessness, but when you see your descent into Blighttown you realize just how much shittier this world is going to get. I mean the fact that you just traversed The Depths and now the entrance to your next area looks even more bleak and abysmal? That’s saying something about Blighttown. Everywhere I read on the internet Blighttown is generally regarded as the worst area in Dark Souls. This is due to many things– difficulty, frame rate, annoying enemies, dangerous platforming and walkways to cross– all fair reasons, but I would like to profess my love for Blighttown.

There are a few areas in video games I would say that I enjoy spending time just walking around in. Blighttown and the number one area on this list are two places from that list. Now if you’ve actually experienced Blighttown, you’re probably wondering just how in the hell that is possible. Yes, it is filled with precarious bridges to cross, and, yes, the enemies are all obnoxious and annoying– but the depressed shanty-town vibe that it gives off is the selling feature to me. Then when you reach the bottom of your climb you wind up in a poisonous swamp. The creatures are ugly and relentless and the poisonous water stretches out all around you. You have to plan your movements carefully, avoiding the poison and the endless mosquitoes, around your destinations. On one side, Queelag’s Domain towers in the distance– on the other, seemingly nothing unless you hack away a few invisible walls to reveal the Great Hollow, a place where you can climb down deeper into the world of Lordran.

Something, to me, that makes Blighttown so much more interesting than most other areas I’ve been through in video games. If you enter from The Depths at least, you’ll have to climb down to get to your destination. Climbing up is extremely common in gaming, but very rarely will you find a time that you have to climb down into an abyss to get to your goal. It starts on a hand built wooden walkways that sway back and forth as you cross them, as you get further down the footing starts to become dirt and stone. Soon, you find yourself knee deep in water, gazing up at the monstrosity you just climbed down. This is a dangerous place, one wrong step will send you falling stories to your death. Not to mention that monsters come out of everywhere, because this is a maze of wooden walkways it’s very likely for a ghoul to suddenly land on your from above or appear behind you from a corner you just turned. When you reach the bottom and you’re looking up at Blighttown, you can’t help feel very accomplished for what it took to get down there.

Another thing going for Blighttown is that it’s the first area in Dark Souls that really piles on the ‘Dark Souls Mood‘ all over you. Yes, Lower Undead Burg was the first time in the game that the fear of the world probably hit you. And yes, The Depths was a pretty terrifying place in its own right, but, for some inexplicable reason, Blighttown combines the fear of those two places and throws in a big whopping dose of hopelessness at you too. It’s when you’ll start realizing just how far gone this world is gone into the dark, it’ll be overwhelming. This is the moment where you’ll feel your worst, all because of this place’s fantastic atmosphere. I mean when you start your journey you’re above ground, you’ve seen the sun. Before this you were in Lower Undead Burg and The Depths, two places lacking their own sunlight– by the time you get to Blighttown you’ll be begging for the sun and this place will ensure you don’t get it any time soon.

1) Ash Lake

Finally, nearly 2500 words later we reach my favourite location of Dark Souls. This area of it is a real treat and you can go through all of your playthroughs without even knowing it existed. That’s all due to the fact that it’s tucked away in a place that’s tucked away in a place that is covered by two invisible walls. Essentially… it’s really easy to miss. However, if you take the time and effort to find The Great Hollow and make its treacherous descent down towards Ash Lake you’ll be greeted by one of the most beautiful and thought provoking locations in video gaming. Yes, I legitimately believe Ash Lake is that good.

Let’s put this in perspective:

You just made your way down through Blighttown, a depressing and bleak landscape in which death is inevitable. You wade through the poisonous swamp to find yourself in an ancient tree. Climbing down the branches rooted inside, you jump carefully in order to ensure that you don’t fall to your death. When you make it to the bottom, fighting through the Basilisks and Mushroom Men that inhabit the tree, you step out onto the sandy beach of Ash Lake. A soothing choir-like tune begins to play and the blue expanse before you shows hundreds of trees, like the Great Hollow, dotting the horizon seemingly holding up the earth. The beach stretches towards more giant trees and in the water near you is a deadly Black Hydra.

The feeling that I got when I stepped out of the Great Hollow onto the sand of Ash Lake was revolutionary. The first thought in my head was ‘this is my creative safe haven.’ I knew then that this is where I needed to go to get any sort of inspiration. The atmosphere and mood that this place creates is unique, the fact that it can immediately fill me with a feeling of safety, mystery and creative positivity is a great thing. There has been no world in video gaming that has done anything close to what Ash Lake did to me.

Now what’s actually in Ash Lake isn’t really anything worth mentioning content wise, but, to me, that is a detraction from the quality of the place. There are a few enemies besides the Hydra– a few Basilisks, Clams and Mushroom Men– and none of them propose any sort of challenge if you’re careful. I firmly believe that the enemies are not the reason for Ash Lake. This location, this mystery that is the king mystery of Lordran, exists entirely for the covenant that resides within it and for lore. The covenant is the Dragon covenant and the Everlasting Dragon oversees it. The Everlasting Dragon himself is a great piece of lore and mystery in and of itself.

The feeling of discovery is what pushes Ash Lake to the easy top of my favourite location in a game where I essentially loved the art direction of EVERY area. The feeling of immersion I have while walking along the beaches of the lake is extraordinary. There were times that I would boot up my Xbox and just warp to Ash Lake for the soul purpose of walking around and enjoying it. It’s like taking a vacation in the world of Dark Souls. I found a place I was safe, I found a place that just felt like home to me in the game that roots itself in melancholy. If you read my review, you could say that ‘I found the beauty in the shit.’

Now that this type up to end all type ups is done, I want to recommend Dark Souls again. It’s amazing. I’ll be looking into Dark Souls some more in a VGR in the future. I’ll be looking at bosses, enemies and the like. It’ll probably be another ranking too. Anyways, thanks for reading if you read all that. Now stop reading this and go play Dark Souls.

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