This mod gives Dark Souls the randomness of a roguelike

Image via Flickr user Marcelus_SK

Image via Flickr user Marcelus_SK (Image credit: Marcelus_SK)

 I’ve been scouring the world of Dark Souls for hours, now, in search of a single item. I’ve braved the toxic swamps of Blighttown and journeyed to the shores of the Ash Lake at the very bottom of the world. I’ve slayed wyrms, dragons, trolls, and score of my fellow Undead. So far, nothing. But it’s not a massive sword or some rare armor I'm looking for. It's just a damn key. An ordinary key to an ordinary basement, and even though I've played hundreds of hours of Dark Souls over the past five years, this time is different. This time the key isn't where it used to be, and that's what makes it all exciting again.

Five years after it hit Steam, there's a new mod for Dark Souls called Item Randomizer that does exactly what it says: it puts all the shimmering pieces of loot hiding around Lordran in a bag and shakes it up. But it doesn’t just mix up the gleaming broadswords and bulky ore; with the all-important keys in play, the crumbling world of Lordran becomes a maze again, with you scrambling to contrive a new path through as you would in a roguelike.

Modder HotPocketRemix got the idea for the Item Randomizer from a post on the Dark Souls subreddit. They were already playing around with the item values for another project, so it wasn’t much of a reach to jumble them all up. The appeal for long-time fans is simple: in a game as exacting as Dark Souls, where failure always lurks around the next corner, players tend to stick with the same spear, shield, or scroll for the entire adventure, or even across playthroughs. That won't work anymore.

In particular, HPR cites a few fan-favorite weapons—including the hefty greatsword Zweihander and the reap-tastic Great Scythe—that players can easily obtain within minutes of arriving in Lordran, provided they know what stones to unturn. With such formidable equipment available so early in the game, the legendary challenge offered by the series fades to a sizzle, and with it, much of the spark that keeps players coming back.

Thanks to the Randomizer, though, you can no longer rely on your old tricks to carry the day. That Great Scythe is now a Soul of a Fallen Undead, worth a paltry handful of Souls.

The crumbling world of Lordran becomes a maze again, with you scrambling to contrive a new path through.

It's still early days for the mod, which HPR posted as a beta on the subreddit last month, but it's already surprisingly robust. It includes individual unique 'seeds' that allow players to share the same scattered item-set in different games; a generated 'cheat-sheet' that reveals the location of every item, presumably for when you’re absolutely stumped; and, most intriguing of all, a set of distinct difficulty settings that determine how punishing the gear distribution will be, as well as whether or not key items—like the Basement Key that so vexed me—will be scrambled along with everything else.

Since I fancy myself a seasoned Soulsman, I decided to go with the penultimate difficulty, Deprived, which the mod describes as "challenging." (I was too intimidated to try the hardest, Hollow, which advertises itself as "suited only to experienced speedrunners.") To further commit to the experience, I decided to eschew the default equipment of my starting class, limiting myself to only what I could find on corpses or enemy drops. 

These constraints, however artificial, made Dark Souls mysterious and dangerous again. I faced the twin gargoyles that guard the first Bell of Awakening in a state far beyond my comfort zone, shieldless and nearly naked, save a mace that I belted about with two hands like a madman. I found myself falling to their dual assault—one paralyzing me with flame, the other splatting my Undead against the tiled church roof—again and again. It was exhilarating and humiliating. Surely the higher-geared sword-swinging and demon-bashing of Bloodborne and Dark Souls 3 hadn’t left me this out of practice.

It wasn't until I finally beat the gargoyles that I started to realize how deeply the Item Randomizer would change my approach to Dark Souls. In my many playthroughs, I had always taken essentially the same route: first the gargoyles, then down through the basement, then to the Depths, then to Blighttown, where the second Bell awaits. Without that key, I was forced to take the other route through Blighttown, through the Valley of the Drakes, where lightning-spitting dragons blackened my hide all the way to the fetid swamp. Worse still, the nearest bonfire lay in the middle of the filth; any errant smashings at the hands of smelly trolls or spry lizardmen resulted in a long run back through the valley of the damned dragons.

It didn’t quite feel like I was playing a different game, but as an experience, it had a flavor distinct from my previous runs. To hear HPR tell it, that’s exactly the emotion they wanted the mod to evoke. 

"Obviously, no matter how good a game, people get burnt out on it, especially when it doesn’t change much, like, say, a roguelike would,” HPR says. “So, giving players an excuse to experience Dark Souls again, with some small amount of new discovery, is really why it’s been so well-received."

As he looks to future iterations of the mod, HPR sees a mountain of work ahead. The list of requests is near-endless, and they run the gamut from "probable" (randomizing your starting inventory, or quest rewards) to "totally unfeasible" (randomized enemies or bosses). Though someone might eventually pull off such technically challenging goals, for this developer, it’s all about making the Item Randomizer as robust as it can possibly be—within reason. As far as the next version, HPR says the number-one priority is making the actual installation easier on the user.

The current install process, outlined in this reddit thread, includes unpacking some game files and changing parameters by hand. "Using a hex-editor to modify an executable isn’t exactly something you do every day," HPR says. Thankfully, another redditor made a video walkthrough to hold your hand while you perform .exe surgery.

For now, with the mod so early along, it’s hard to know what’s possible. But with a base this durable, fans wait with baited breath for what might come next. "There’s always unexpected problems, so who knows?" says HPR. "Maybe one of the ‘easy’ suggestions will turn out to be very time-consuming. I’m lucky to be in touch with people in the community who are much faster and more knowledgeable at playing the game, so I can lean on that." And while HPR is mum on when the second version of the mod might be coming out, considering its popularity already and the volume of feedback, you can bet it’ll be worth checking out.