Dark Souls 3 Review

From Software’s run of sequels and spiritual successors has remained largely happy with gentle iteration since the company struck gold with cult hit Demon’s Souls in 2009. Even Bloodborne, with its departure from High Fantasy to Victorian Cosmic Horror and emphasis on fast-paced, shield-less action, remained a recognisable face of the From family. Dark Souls 3 marks a familiar return to the formula that made From’s name while paying respects to its predecessors, but does so with more brains and heart than that concept might have yielded in less skilled hands.

Dark Souls 3 is set thousands of years after the original Dark Souls, where the protagonist canonically “linked the fire”, extending the life of the dying magical flame whose passing marked the land’s fall from grace. There have been many cycles of the fire failing since then, and each time a hero has risen to link it again.  In the land that now calls itself Lothric, you are the Ashen One, an undead with the potential to link the fire, rejuvenating the world anew. Instead of having the ability to regain your humanity for power and special abilities, like in previous Dark Souls games, you can now become kindled by empowering yourself with a fragment of the flame’s grace.

Dark Souls 3 is, well, Dark Souls. In terms of core gameplay mechanics and loop, it’s largely identical to previous instalments. Swings of your weapon, casting spells, and dodge-rolls temporarily deplete a rapidly-refilling stamina bar at the cost of your character’s exertion. You carry a limited number of healing items, Estus Flasks, that replenish when you rest at bonfires that double up as checkpoints and fast-travel portals. Defeating enemies that you come across in the world awards you with Souls, a currency for merchants as well as levelling up. Should you die (you will), you have one chance to return to the spot of your death to reclaim your hard-earned Souls; dying before touching your bloodstain means you’ll lose those souls forever.

You’ll need those Souls, too, because Dark Souls 3 retains the character progression system from previous Souls games. Levelling up requires almost as much active strategy as your foes, since you select which specific character attributes to boost. It’s a delicate balancing act: do you you boost your strength for more damage, endurance for more stamina, or vigour for a blip of extra HP? As ever, Dark Souls is a min-maxer’s paradise, and people with a predilection for stats and optimisation will revel in selecting the most efficient paths to potency in battle.

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And that battle is good. From’s combat systems rely on a formula of forethought, observation, and calculated reaction, and it all takes place in a world that’s designed with a keen sense of occupation for the player. There’s a real sense of weight and presence as you tried beaten paths and engage each foe, and (aside from the occasional glitch), hit-boxes nail the connection between weapon and enemy, as well as hostile attacks on your person.

The only exception to this is when you dodge-roll. Rolling triggers player-character invincibility for some frames of the animation, which means that if you time the action effectively, you can roll through attacks without taking damage. This mechanic works for both offensive and defensive approaches, and you’ll often find it’s better to roll towards enemies through their attacks to better exploit their weaknesses. It’s not a new feature to Dark Souls 3, but it’s worth mentioning because enemies are designed to prompt you to exploit different nooks and crannies of the combat and traversal systems that the game has on offer.

Another feature that returns, albeit from way back in Demon’s Souls, is the Focus meter, which is for all intents and purposes a mana bar. Spells are no longer limited to a defined number of uses; each incantation costs a certain amount of Focus Points (FP), which you can replenish with Ashen Estus flasks. You always hold the same amount of Estus Flasks, but you can decide on the proportion of your flasks that will be Ashen or vanilla healing varieties. I really love playing with the trade-off between healing and casting potential.

Focus points still have a use if you’re melee only, though. Each weapon now has access to Weapon Arts, which range from alternative light and heavy attacks to buffs and charge attacks. These skills drain your FP and they’re sometimes really useful for getting you out of tight situations, so Ashen Estus flasks aren’t to be sniffed at if you’ve favoured brawn in your character build.

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Every weapon feels different too, and most feel viable for the right character build; it’s up to individuals where they want to sacrifice reach, speed, or power. Dark Souls 3’s inventory and equipment menus might feel like a handful for new players, but for experienced Souls players they’ve never been cleaner or faster to navigate. Each weapon features different stat requirements and scaling, and it’s a relative breeze to work out the specifics of each tool at your disposal, right down to just how many points of damage your dexterity stat adds to your katana. That said, though, newcomers would do well to take a look at the game manual when first working out the game’s menus; to trained eyes they’re intuitive, but there’s a lot of information onscreen for the uninitiated.

The rhythms of conflict are ingrained in you from the get-go as you ration your actions against your stamina pool and feel out the best way to deal with each enemy and each situation.  An important part of Dark Souls 3’s gameplay is that From doesn’t necessarily distinguish exploration and combat; they merge and twist them together in a way that makes the world feel alive and deadly, rather than a gauntlet scattered with enemies, that tests your wits and application of all available techniques.

Of course, the most frequent test comes in the form of the myriad enemies you’ll come across in your journey through Lothric. True to its lineage, Dark Souls 3’s world features some truly devious denizens; even the weakest enemies are capable of overpowering you if you allow yourself to be surrounded or taken by surprise. You’re forced to really look at enemies, their attack patterns and animations, dancing on the fringe of their range until you’re certain of how you should best exploit their weaknesses.

It’s almost impossible to talk about Dark Souls without mentioning difficulty nowadays. Even the series’ PR campaigns have revolved around its challenge. The game is certainly hard; it doesn’t suffer fools, punishing the unwary with swift death. That said, when you’ve learned to play the game on its own terms, it’s really not as difficult as some might make it out to be. Where rashness is discouraged, patience and preparation are rewarded, and if you’re just finding an area or encounter too difficult, you can always summon help. There’s even a covenant that summons someone to guard you should an invading player trespass upon your world.

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That’s not to say that Dark Souls 3 doesn’t have a number of tricks up its sleeve to make you lose composure. I won’t spoil anything, but let’s just say that not all enemies, or environments for that matter, are how they initially appear. Expect to be surprised. But even the most ridiculous, initially-overwhelming hurdles can be overcome with patience and a little bit of practice. No matter how much the game pounds your senses to disorient you occasionally.

Speaking of senses, Dark Souls 3 is an audiovisual delight. A graphical upgrade that’s accompanied the generation hop since Dark Souls 2 has been put to good use. The particle effects that embellish your character when kindled crackle and burn, adding a flourish of colour to highlight your power. Architecture and nature alike seethe with wild, lost grandeur. Character models from friends to foes to bosses are dripping with the classic From Software touch; it’s delightful to see that even in the fifth instalment of this spiritual series, From still hasn’t lost the ability to evoke that trademark disturbed awe. I’m appreciative of varied enemy designs, and Dark Souls 3 offers a fine menagerie of horrors to face off against, from mad villagers to hulking demons and creeping abominations.

Environments are great, too, offering a grand diversity of locales to traverse. There’s a Dark Souls 1-esque feeling to Lothric as a world, which is sure to please those that favoured its tangled, deep world design over Dark Souls 2’s more linear layout. There’s not quite that sense of complex interconnectedness here, but it’s still a joy to stumble across clever intersections and shortcuts between areas.

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While you work through Dark Souls 3, it’s increasingly apparent that the game is very aware of its ancestry. I’d go as far as to say it’s almost a kind of “remix album” of the Souls series: in places artistic assets are outright lifted from previous games, although there’s always a clever twist or subversion to proceedings. There’s a consistent sense of dilapidation to Lothric’s locations. Not in the same sense of magnificent decay that’s the hallmark of the series, but a more muted, tired kind of erosion that speaks volumes about the context of your quest: you’re fighting to save a world that’s endured perhaps countless apocalypses, only to always fall into the same horrors again and again. This worn-out world maybe doesn’t have another cycle left in it. Maybe the magic that has sustained the world for so long isn’t the force it once was. I really liked that about Dark Souls 3. It’s not afraid to hint at these massive, terrible themes, using old assets ingeniously as it does so. The major caveat to my endorsement of this approach is that you simply can’t get the most out the the experience if you haven’t played at the very least the first Dark Souls, otherwise those revelations of reference and subversion are lost.

As fond as I am of From Software’s very particular brand of game, Dark Souls 3 does suffer from many of the issues that have always plagued the series. Chief of all is the issue of communication. From the stuffed menus that I mentioned earlier to intricacies of side-quest requirements, Dark Souls 3 continues the series trend of esotericism. For instance, a vital NPC- a sorcery vendor (important to me since I went for a sorcery/dexterity character build)- disappeared permanently midway through my game, seemingly at random. After a quick google, I found that this was because I’d neglected to give him a magic scroll before beating a specific number of bosses. This isn’t something that I was made aware of at all until it was too late, and it’s forced me to re-spec my character to account for the fact that I have no-one to teach me high-end sorceries now.

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The other main problems that plague Dark Souls 3 are of the technical variety. I find that one of the most interesting parts of Souls games is the online elements, from messages to invaders to jolly co-operation. Unfortunately, each time I boot up Dark Souls 3 I might sit through minutes and minutes of failed server calibrations. The fix that I found to somehow work was to set up an active download before signing into the game. I’ve never had those issues with previous instalments of the series, so I’m confused about how From have set up the system differently this time. The silver lining is that when you’re in the game, Dark Souls 3’s online elements are largely reliable, and there’s now a password-mediated matchmaking system that helps you pair up with friends more easily.

Some people have reported frequent crashes, especially in the PC version of the game. I’ve only encountered one hard crash myself on the Xbox One, although occasionally I’m stuck on endless loading screens for ages before resetting the game. This tends to happen in conjunction with server hiccups, like when a summon attempt fails for some reason. Otherwise, I had a fairly plain- sailing experience, although it’s worth noting that there are some prevalent issues being reported in the community to look out for.

Dark Souls 3 is a game that knows and smartly leverages its lineage to great and intelligent effect. It’s a solid, broad improvement upon its predecessors in the mechanical department that’s got the brains to take an already expansive, absorbing lore in fascinating directions. While it doesn’t have the impact of the original Dark Souls, Dark Souls 3 is every bit as fascinating-a puzzle to uncover, explore, and conquer.

Victory Over the Hardcore: The Valuable Proper Use of Difficulty in Games

Punishing difficulty has been a part of games since the heyday of arcades, often a method of eking out more money from consumers to keep plugging at their favourite games without starting over. Then games consoles were introduced to homes, a luxury expensive for many, meaning games had to last to feel like a worthwhile product. Difficulty was the easiest way to make games feel longer with data storage at the time limiting the scope of the game. Making games difficult was the easiest way to keep people playing for longer for better product satisfaction.

Nowadays, many people have no problem polishing off most major video game releases, especially with their tailorable difficulty options. Games known for being difficult are kind of lumped together in a niche under the umbrella term of “hardcore”. Dark Souls, ARMA, Super Meat Boy, Ikaruga, and Darkest Dungeon are all games which thrive on their hardcore status, each requiring a mixture of skill, precision, strategy, and determination to prevail.

Going into a difficult game gives you a kind of mentality; you steel yourself, and start to adopt the way you look at the challenges the game throws at you: the environment, the enemies, your inventory. It draws you into the experience, and gives you an appreciation for the world. But it’s very, very important to maintain the fine balance between a dangerous environment and unfair odds. This is part of why when difficulty feels forced, unfair, or artificial, it’s so frustrating; we want to immerse ourselves in a world, a character, and a purpose. When the world breaks character and obstructs our character’s purpose in the name of challenge, that immersion is broken and it’s difficult to placate an embittered player. Despite the positive uses for punishing difficulty, not all difficult games are good, and not all good games are difficult; it’s all about how the game makes use of its challenge.

Immersion-breaking difficulty is widely known as “artificial”, because the tasks the game throws at you aren’t intrinsically any more difficult; the system is stacked against you, and it feels like the game is breaking character to make itself harder. Imagine a section in which you need to dodge obstacles to progress, but the speed of the oncoming objects is such that you basically have to guess when to dodge, and in which direction. This is artificial challenge because you can’t overcome it with skill, only a mixture of luck and tenacity, and can be found in the final boss to Super Meat Boy- a game whose challenge is otherwise fair.

Late in some games, the challenge can feel artificial in cases where the developers just buff the enemies’ health while your damage tolerance and output remain the same. Not only does this stretch out late game encounters to potentially tiring lengths, it can also kill the sense of momentum of combat that the game has established which can be very jarring. Imagine learning over the course of an FPS that it takes about half a magazine of ammunition to kill a certain enemy class, but towards the late game they can suddenly soak up three-quarters to a whole magazine to do the same job. It’d throw you off-balance, reminding you that you’re in a game where NPCs’ stats can be buffed at the will of the designers.

This can be countered with adaptive difficulty systems, like in Skyrim where enclosed areas are scaled to your character as you enter them, populating them with higher-level enemy types as you grow in power yourself. This way, you can come across underpowered and overpowered enemies in the open world, but quests can tailor themselves to your character’s strength. I’m also a fan of games like Fallout 4 and Dragon’s Dogma, where open worlds have areas populated with enemies that might take out an under-levelled character with a single hit in the early game, but can be tackled or even crushed later on. This gives you a real sense of satisfaction when you return to an area you’ve feared for hours but can now breeze through. The difficulty of the original encounter sticks in your mind, and throws down a gauntlet to your avatar, and by extension you.

Another style of difficulty that lots of people find frustrating is a steep difficulty curve that means the player has to spend some time repetitively grinding to buff their stats enough to match or at the very least brute-force their way past a difficult boss (this is mostly concerning the JRPG genre, but can be applicable to RPGs in general). However this can be used to persuade a player to engage with the game world, seeking out side quests to gain levels and learn a little bit about the world as they go. I don’t mind this so much, but it understandably leaves a lot of people cold, especially if repetitively grinding enemies in the world is the only option. That can kill the pace of a good narrative- you’ve been doing okay up until now, so why throw up a wall as we reach the natural mini-climax of a section with a boss?

The impact of this can be lessened in a number of ways. The boss or section in question absolutely must be escapable for struggling players. Locking a player into a scenario for which they are under levelled is only going to make them scream as they throw themselves up against a brick wall again and again. When they decide that they’re not yet ready to beat the section, they need to be able to quickly and easily backtrack to a location ripe for the grind. When they get there, they should know, or be easily be able to find out, readily available options to get themselves levelled up to scratch. These options need to be varied, and ideally offer their own small narrative threads to satisfy the player’s need for narrative payoff while their main story progress is halted. Lastly, the combat (or whatever mechanics you’re using to grind XP) needs to be intrinsically enjoyable, or else being forced to go through it for a little while is going to grate; subpar battle systems might be ignored when you’re following a good story, but the lack of substantial narrative payoff can sully your experience when you’re only experiencing combat for a grind. Even non-gameplay factors need to be considered, like repetitive battle music or lengthy loading or transition times that can get on your player’s nerves.

Some games are challenging because of a poor design or an oversight from the developers. Poor control over your character’s movement, unclear jump distance and landing detection in platformers, and hitboxes that extend beyond your avatar’s bodily bounds are examples of poor game design that can make a game frustratingly difficult to play through. In the case of adventure games, puzzles may be unintuitive or require dreaded pixel hunting. This more often encourages recklessly clicking the screen rather than actually engaging with environmental details, which I can only assume is the intention.

While many games opt to provide multiple difficulty options for players, I’m personally a fan of games which simply are the difficulty that they are, for instance Dark Souls. This forces a developer to really look at how they teach a player the mechanics and rules of the game. There aren’t any menu options to reduce difficulty, so the player knows that there’s an alternative approach to adopt if they get stuck. And the game world feels more cohesive to me if I know I’m playing through the “true” version of the game, rather than one version of the game that’s arbitrarily harder or easier than another. I understand that developers want their game to be enjoyed by a range of consumers with different skill levels, but I admire those games that take risks to adhere to the vision of a world and how we should interact with it.

The Souls series is, to me, a paragon of how to make a game challenging without sacrificing fairness. The game world, NPCs, and player character all follow the rules of the game without deviation. You control your avatar with an absolute sense of space within the game world; swing your sword, and a small clip registers as a hit. Likewise with enemies’ attacks on your person. It’s this dedication to inch-perfect precision in both Souls’ design and expectation of its players that the game builds its unshakeable sense of place. Dangers can always be seen early enough if you’re cautious and keen-eyed, and even the most relentless of aggressors have weaknesses to exploit if you can keep a cool head and observe them. The game never breaks its own rules, so it feels fair when you die, and often you respawn with a good idea of what you did wrong.

Difficulty is not only useful for providing that all-important sensation of satisfaction, but also in helping us relate to our avatar and the world they inhabit. Our avatar’s epic tasks of heroism become ours when we work a little bit harder for them; we can relate to our avatar’s struggle because victories are hard-won for us, too. When it’s firm but fair, a challenging game raises the stakes and makes us more invested in the world, the characters, and the story being told. That’s not to say that games that are easy to complete don’t have their own form of difficulty; just try keeping everyone alive in your first run of Until Dawn, or getting 100% of the collectables in Yoshi’s Wooly World. Ask anyone about their early hours of Minecraft, and you’ll no doubt trigger a flood of tales about the improvised shelter in the terrifying first night, and fending off creepers from their delicate first hovel. But tying a game’s progression to a demanding challenge can do wonderful things for the immersive quality of a game, and handling that challenge should be one of the factors at the forefront of the developers’ mind when they design the experience.

Image credits- kotaku.com

Dark Souls and Bloodborne’s Magic Systems Differ To Suit Their Respective Worlds

Among world-building aspects that grab my imagination, a good magic system is always high on my list. I can remember the moments that I got into series like Fullmetal Alchemist, The Inheritance Cycle, and Harry Potter– they’re all series that have strong, interesting magic systems. Brandon Sanderson, writer of the Mistborn trilogy and living magic system machine, has described his personal rules for magic, starting with this wonderful article. He proposes that there are two main types of magic in fiction- hard magic and soft magic, a classification I think is tremendously useful.

Hard magic is more easily categorisable- it’s a magic system that’s very well-defined in-world, and should be well-understood by the audience. Fullmetal Alchemist uses hard magic in its alchemic transmutations- there are very clearly defined rules, such as equivalent exchange (a transmutation’s output equals the cost of the input, usually in terms of mass), and the need for transmutation circles, a kind of equation contained within a drawn circle to direct the outcome of the magic. Most games use this kind of magic, especially when the player character is a magic user. This is because the player has to understand the outcomes of magic, and produce consistent effects within the game. In other words, “press x to shoot a fireball”.

Soft magic, however, is of the more murky, less well-defined kind. Classic examples of soft magic are in Lord of the Rings, where the reader/audience doesn’t have a clear idea of what magic is capable of in the world. It’s hard to find examples in games where magic is completely soft, because there tends to be a clearly observable and repeatable consequence of magic when it happens. A close-an example as I can think of in games is the use of “tears” in Bioshock: Infinite. Plasmids and tonics are fairly well-defined: mutations lead to specific magic powers, fuelled by EVE/salts. Tears, however, make use of Elizabeth’s mysterious powers to pull objects from alternate dimensions into your world. We don’t really know the source of Elizabeth’s powers, or their extent, meaning they draw from a more arcane magic system than your other powers in the game. There is some predictability in the outcome of tear use, but by my estimations it’s closer to the soft end of the magic spectrum.

What I find interesting about this classification of magic is how it’s used to influence and enhance stories and worlds. A friend recently said to me that he liked Bloodborne, but they thought it was a shame that the magic was different to Dark Souls, in that it was a) less prevalent and b) less well-defined. And that made me realise that, while both games are linked spiritually as From Software games (especially mechanically), their different magic systems are reflective of their different worlds.

Dark Souls, occupying a somewhat conventional Western fantasy world (albiet Miyazaki’s twisted version of tropes therein), has a hard magic system. The mystical forces in the world are well established in fantasy: Gods, dragons, castles. The magic system has you casting spells using magic staves (or a holy trinket if it’s faith-based magic), and the spells by and large fantasy staples; fireballs, energy projectiles, barriers, and the like. These relatively simple-to-understand, easily defined spells are reflective of the high fantasy world they inhabit.

Bloodborne’s world, however, is less high fantasy and more Gothic and Lovecraft-esque cosmic horror. Rather than learning spells and casting them from a magic channeling weapon like in conventional fantasy, you’re using strange relics to channel your magic in less conventional ways, often affecting your physical abilities or attributes rather than blasting enemies with ranged spells. It’s tied to your quicksilver bullet reserve, which means it’s a kind of blood magic. It’s a far more arcane system, and reflects the world of Bloodborne far more effectively than if you were throwing about fireballs and bolts of lightning. You’re twisting your body through blood magic to better combat the evils of the night- a common theme in the game. This darker, murkier twist on magic is indicative of the mystical forces behind the curtain in Bloodborne. In Lovecraft’s work, the unknowable, the indescribable, and the incomprehensible are common and important aspects of the horror- the protagonists are faced with forces far beyond their ken, and the sheer, primal terror that awakens within them is the driving force of the fiction. Bloodborne owes much of its world and ideas to Lovecraft’s work, and the softer, less conventional magic system mirrors this more mysterious world.

Of course, almost no hard magic system is 100% hard, because the fiction should work to expand the audience’s idea of what magic can do; and no magic system is 100% soft, since once a consequence of magic is observed, you start to understand at least a part of its nature. However, I think that Dark Souls and Bloodborne’s respective approaches to magic mechanics are great examples of expressing the worlds the games respectively evoke.

The Two Main Groups of Action Combat Mechanics and Their Uses

Like any self respecting obsessive, I like to plonk stuff into categories. I’ve been thinking lately about action games, and how I think most fit into one of two main groups, which I like to call “Loose” and “Solid”. Most people will have a preference of one over another, myself included, but they both have their place.

First, we have the “Loose” action games. These are your more arcade-y hack-and-slashers: your Dynasty Warriors and Bayonettas and God of Wars. I call them “loose” because they interpret your button presses loosely; inputting X, X, Y or some other simple combo will have your character flipping and pirouetting through enemies in a ballet of violence.

“Solid” action games, however, are more precisely controlled. Your attacks are more reserved, slashing once per button press. This is the mechanic type used by Assassin’s Creed, Dark Souls, and Chivalry: Medieval Warfare. Controlling your character is more slash-by-slash, hit-by-hit. It’s often a more precise and grounded method of control, hence “Solid”.

Loose action games are more useful when you want a game to be easy to pick up, but hard to master. They tend to have a floaty, fast and furious tempo, and it’s often possible to get through with button mashing and a little bit of forethought. It’s a more immediately gratifying play style, because you can often hack your way through swathes of enemies in just a few seconds. However, for me the dissonance between input and action often leads to disconnection from the action, so the game has to grab my attention using other means to keep me engaged. Dynasty Warriors- style games don’t grab me enough with their story or objectives to make me care about playing them for much more than maybe an hour at a time, tops. God of War and Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, however, had strong enough stories and environments, as well as varied enough objectives, to keep me invested.

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Solid action games are more my cup of tea. I enjoy carefully parrying and side-stepping attacks, pressing the assault blow-by-blow when the enemy leaves an opening. It’s a much more effective way of letting me engage with my character, because I’m more intimately controlling their actions. As much as the parkour, world and mission design of the Assassin’s Creed series was greatly improved since the first game, I think Assassin’s Creed Uno has a really good combat system for creating engaging, difficult, thoughtful battles. As much as I like the kill chaining mechanics that the series introduced later on, the foundation of the combat has always been cerebral and effective.

My favourite game, Dark Souls, is a logical progression of this style of play. Your position, the arc of your weapon in space, and the positioning of enemies are all very precisely represented by the game’s engine. It really feels like you’re controlling a character in that space on screen, and the way that your attacks connect with enemies gives the world a very tangible presence, which I think is the most impressive hallmark of From Software’s Souls/Borne series.

I think the reason why the Arkham games’ combat style has become to ubiquitous of late is because it’s a balancing of the solid and loose aspects of action game combat. Combat retains the blow-by-blow nature of solid action games, while offering smart target lock-on and combo moves from loose action games. This leads to an interesting system in which you have the tactile solidity from one side, with the accessibility and spectacle from the other. Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor built on this foundation rather nicely with the addition of your wraith powers and bow, seamlessly adding a potent ranged option to the mix.

Perhaps, then, we need to add a third classification to the mix- games that fuse together elements from the two different camps. Like “Fusion”, that sounds cool. Of course, this means that the title lied to you. Well, welcome to the real world, tiger.