The first act of Dark Souls has seen me escape from the Undead Asylum, marvel at the vertical level design of Undead Burg, and seek help from NPCs and friends as I plunge into the increasing darkness of the Depths and Blighttown. Now, the imposing portcullis at the entrance to Sen’s Fortress has opened, and I’ve got to battle through it in order to reach the glittering city of Anor Londo, a place high above and protected by a ring of sheer cliffs.
When I return to Firelink Shrine from Blighttown (arriving via a cleverly hidden elevator), I find that the world has taken note of my activities. A bug-eyed serpent called Kingseeker Frampt has appeared in a nearby chapel, and a cleric who was waiting for his travelling companions has disappeared. So has Knight Lautrec, a fellow dressed in gold armour who I’d freed from a cell in the Undead Church – he’s nowhere to be found now, but he’s murdered the firekeeper who’d been sealed in her own cell beneath the bonfire. Speaking of which: the bonfire, my first real tether to this gloomy world, is cold and dead. Bugger.
I decide to make a quick trip into Darkroot Garden before tackling Sen’s Fortress. After dealing with the titanite demon living in Andre the Blacksmith’s basement, I head out into Darkroot through a back door and find myself in yet another location that looks and feels completely different to anything else I’ve travelled through up to this point.
This is the first area in Dark Souls where you can truly feel the game’s age. Darkroot Garden lacks the palpable sense of place I found in Undead Burg or even Blighttown – it’s a series of corridors and open areas covered in muddy textures that don’t clearly convey anything. Are these moss-covered rocks? Is this grass or leafy detritus? What I see in Darkroot Garden is level geometry – there’s not enough set-dressing to maintain suspension of disbelief.
Still, it’s worth the trip. I pick up the versatile partizan spear, which is guarded by a two-headed tree snake, and a set of elite knight armour that I find near a napping stone sentinel deep in the forest.
The area boss, the Moonlight Butterfly, gives Dark Souls another chance to tip its tarnished cap in the direction of 2D side-scrollers: the butterfly descends from above as I cross a long stone bridge and, as with the Taurus Demon, my movement is largely restricted to a single axis. Having plundered as much as I can in Darkroot, it’s time to face the music and tackle Sen’s notoriously tricky gauntlet of fun and games.
this is the first real hint that there's some deliberate cruelty involved in Dark Souls' design
As Frampt has warned me, the fortress is a “deadly house of traps,” but that’s rather underselling the sheer number of death-dealing devices this ‘Sen’ has stuffed into their Lordran vacation rental. A hidden plate at the entrance triggers an arrow trap, which in turn alerts two hulking snakemen to my presence – these slashing serpents will eagerly charge out from the gloom to welcome you with their swords if the arrows haven’t already ventilated you.
Moving beyond the foyer, I arrive at the first of several catwalks. There are no railings, and the swinging axe blades are a tad inconvenient, sure, but they provide quick access to the basement, which is crawling with titanite demons and partially flooded with tar, slowing your movement to a crawl. The owners have also thoughtfully installed a Fireball Island-style boulder system, presumably for added security.
In an interview for the Famitsu book Dark Souls Design Works, director Hidetaka Miyazaki said the idea unpinning Sen’s Fortress was to create a “trap road” on the approach to Anor Londo, and while that idea was present from the start of the design phase, it took the team quite a while to create a rough map of the area. The goal was for players to feel a real sense of “I made it” when they finally arrived in Anor Londo, and I’d say they pulled that off. But to do it, they had to make Sen’s Fortress a real trial.
What makes Sen's Fortress so exacting is that there's no bonfire midway through
As the designers discuss in the interview, there are signposts for almost all of Sen’s many traps. “We almost tried hard to make them obvious and create things that screamed ‘trap,'” says art designer Masanori Waragai, who oversaw the design of both Sen’s Fortress and Anor Londo. Miyazaki himself thought to make the steps look worn down and rounded in the stairways where boulders will roll down to crush you, as a way to warn players – perhaps it’s not something they’ll notice the first time, but they might spot the difference when they next encounter this trap.
What really makes Sen’s Fortress so exacting, though, is that you’ve got to successfully navigate it in one shot – there’s no bonfire midway through where you can regain your composure and bank some souls. The bonfire is one of the Souls series’ best ideas, and its most copied.
The threat of losing all the souls you’ve accumulated, all the progress you’ve made since the last time you rested, creates an escalating tension with each step forward. In Sen’s Fortress, a misstep will send you all the way back to the start of the maze, and that gets increasingly nerve-wracking the further you progress. As you near the rooftop those catwalks turn into tightropes in your mind – whatever you do, don’t look down.
It’s not like Dark Souls has been reluctant to dial up the friction before this point, but things take a bit of a turn at Sen’s Fortress – it’s the first time the game has felt deliberately mean. There’s a chest tucked away in an alcove you can use to avoid a crushing boulder, except when you go to lift the lid up the chest opens wide and gulps you down, killing you in a single hit. It’s such a traumatic event that I make sure to hit every single chest I come across afterwards. Then there’s an unreachable spellcaster who can knock you off the final catwalk before you emerge topside.
Worst of all, it’s possible to miss the bonfire that saves your progress through the fortress – it’s on a balcony one level below the rooftop, and you have to peer over the edge just to see it at all. If you don’t, chances are pretty good you’ll wind up getting hit by a massive firebomb, hurled by one of the giants stationed atop the structure.
The final step on this pilgrimage to Anor Londo involves defeating the Iron Golem, a massive, slow-moving automaton with an axe and an impressive throwing arm. This leg of the journey has revealed two important things about Dark Souls. First, while it’s a remarkably unified vision so far in its level design and approach, the fact that separate design teams worked on each area is becoming more obvious.
The second is that the notion that Dark Souls would insist on a ‘firm but fair’ approach is probably mistaken. Sen’s Fortress is the first real hint that there’s some deliberate cruelty involved – and I’ve been warned by friends and colleagues that this will be proven conclusively in Anor Londo.