Monday, May 23, 2016

Dark Souls 3 Doesn't Suck .... Or Does It?

After the colossal disappointment of Dark Souls II, it would be appropriate to say that I had pretty low expectations for Dark Souls III. Although, I suppose it would be more accurate to say that I simply had no expectations for Dark Souls III. Despite all of my criticism against Dark Souls II, I still found it a deeply engaging experience, and I enjoy the core gameplay of the Souls series enough that a single lukewarm experience wouldn't be enough to turn me off from future installments. With Dark Souls III, I wasn't going to expect some sort of grand, transcendent experience like the original Demon's Souls, or even the first Dark Souls -- instead, I was just going to play it and try to enjoy it like I would any other video game.

Reviewing Dark Souls III is a difficult task for me because I have two divergent opinions about it. On the one hand, it feels like the least rushed and most polished of the three Dark Souls games, but on the other hand, it also feels like it's lacking in content compared to either of the previous two games. Despite that, I've put twice as many hours into Dark Souls III than I put into either Dark Souls or Dark Souls II, with 135 hours spanning multiple characters and multiple playthroughs. It was so addicting that I'd sometimes play for eight hours straight without stepping away to eat lunch or dinner, or play until four in the morning when I had to be up at nine the next day. And yet, after all that time, I've found myself progressively more annoyed and disappointed. There's all this extra stuff I still want to do, in terms of builds and playstyles, but I just can't bring myself to keep playing anymore, unless the game gets some serious patches, because the flaws have become almost unbearable.

Before getting any further into this review, I want to point out that I've tried to make this review as spoiler-free as possible since the game is still relatively new. I mention a few minor things here and there, like the names of a few areas in the game, but they would mean nothing to you and so nothing is likely to be spoiled by reading this review. The review also assumes you have some familiarity with the Dark Souls series, or have read my previous articles on the series; this isn't a typical "consumer advice" review that gives an overview on what the game is and whether it's worth getting or not. Rather, it's a slightly more in-depth look at specific gameplay mechanisms, aimed at people who have already played the other games in the series and want to know how Dark Souls III compares to the others.

Story / Characters

I don't really care about the stories in these games, and apparently neither does From Software, so I'm not going to bother going into any detail deciphering the lore or nitpicking weird inconsistencies. As I mentioned in my Dark Souls II review, the only thing I really care about when it comes to these games is the overt story that happens to your character -- what's going on in the world as you play, and why you're doing the things that you're doing. In that aspect, From Software hits par for the course once again by not really giving you any explanation to go off of. Dark Souls III basically just rehashes the tired theme of the Age of Fire waning, and you have to go defeat four main bosses to link the flame and jumpstart a new Age of Fire, or else sever the connection and bring about an Age of Dark.

The unique twist this time around is that four of the five Lords of Cinder -- those responsible for linking the fire in the previous age -- have abandoned their thrones for whatever reason, and you have to get them back on their thrones so that you can link the fire yourself. It's kind of a cool concept that the main bosses in this game were once, essentially, the good guys, but have now turned their backs on their responsibilities, or in some cases, were reluctant to link the fire, or had nefarious motives for doing so. There are a lot of fun storylines one could explore with these ideas -- one of the main NPC questlines you can follow ends with a revelation that he had a close relationship with one of the Lords of Cinder -- but as you'd expect from a Souls game, they simply tease you with these interesting ideas, and then leave everything so vague and unresolved that the fanbase has to create the stories themselves, almost from scratch, considering how little they have to go on.

Talking with Hawkwood, the Sadfallen Warrior.

So you go through the tutorial area, beat the first boss, and wind up at the Nexus Firelink Shrine, where the Maiden in Black Emerald Herald Firekeeper sets you on your epic quest by saying "The Lords have left their thrones, and must be deliver'd to them. The mark of ash will guide thee to the land of the Lords. To Lothric, where the homes of the Lords converge." And you sit there wondering "Why did they leave their thrones? Why must I put them back on their thrones? How do I do this?" It turns out all this really involves is killing each of them, scooping their ashen remains into a dustbin, and emptying it on each of their thrones. It's kind of anticlimactic when you consider how much more they could've done with putting the Lords of Cinder back on their thrones, perhaps by going into their memories like you did with the giants in Dark Souls II, or by turning them into Firelink NPCs you could talk to.

Actually talking to them probably wouldn't feel that satisfying, though, since the NPC dialogue is so generally disappointing in this game. It's always surprising to me how consistently good the voice acting is in these games, considering how little emphasis there actually is on NPCs and the story, but the writing just leaves so much to be desired. The characters, especially those who inhabit the Firelink Shrine, all feel like lifeless robots spouting the same lines of dialogue throughout the entire game. After your initial meeting with the Firekeeper, choosing the "talk" option will always result in her "Ashen one, to be Unkindled is to be a vessel for souls" speech about bringing her souls to level-up, unless you do one of two very specific things to trigger an extra line or two of dialogue. Another NPC you can recruit to Firelink Shrine sends you on a quest early in the game to deliver a ring to a woman (which you quickly resolve), and then for the entire rest of the game, choosing the "talk" option will always result in him telling you to keep the ring.

Rescuing an NPC from a locked cell.

Most of the characters in the game are completely static, never changing, and never reacting to anything you do in the world. I made a point of going back to Firelink Shrine to talk to every NPC every time I advanced to a new area or defeated a boss, and found myself really annoyed how no one except the Crestfallen Warrior, Hawkwood, seemed to care about anything that was going on. You can trigger a few lines of new dialogue with some of the other characters here and there, usually by bringing them an item, but a lot of these lines tend to be totally inconsequential -- just them acknowledging it and saying thank you. If you want any kind of meaningful interaction with NPCs, then you have to pursue the five or six NPC side-quests, but good luck actually following any of them without a guide.

Per the usual, From Software have made a lot of the NPC questlines so obscure and illogical that you probably won't even be able to finish most of them on your first playthrough, unless you're rigorously following step-by-step guides to make sure you do everything exactly right, in the correct order, throughout the entire game. For one NPC, you have to have talked to them enough times in Firelink after gaining a few necessary items, kill a tough enemy that the game expects you to run away from, warp out to reset the level, return, be embered (ie, human form, as opposed to undead), backtrack through a totally pointless area you'd never have any reason to visit again, notice a summon sign on the ground, and stand directly on top of it, instead of just assuming that it's a sign left by another player [because it looks exactly the same] and disregarding it without getting close enough for the message to pop up telling you its from an NPC requesting your assistance.

Talking to an NPC in Firelink shrine.

You're meant to have another special encounter with another NPC in another area, but triggering their event requires you to explore up until a certain point in the level and then warp out entirely, to refresh the area, and then go to a specific spot before passing a certain point in another area of the level. There's a strict order of operations you have follow, or else the NPC just won't spawn at all; I missed it because I chose be thorough and explore everywhere possible before fighting the boss or leaving the area, and was punished for my diligence. In a similar fashion, I completely locked myself out of sorceries in my first playthrough because I waited too long to do something with an NPC, with no warning whatsoever that their services would stop suddenly, and killed a boss before giving another NPC a certain item. If I'd been planning to learn sorceries later on, I would've been completely screwed, all because I didn't have the psychic ability to know that certain characters would simply vanish after certain points in the game progression.

Ultimately, I like the idea of the characters existing independently of you, like they're all fellow inhabitants of Lothric just going about their business whether you're around or not, and that it's possible for you to miss things or fail questlines by not doing certain things or meeting certain requirements. It's definitely a more desirable approach than Dark Souls II's approach, which basically just amounted to summoning every NPC before every boss fight and instantly resolving their questlines. But the execution in Dark Souls III is pretty damn frustrating from a gameplay standpoint. It just sucks to miss out on content (sometimes gameplay-altering content) just because the quest mechanics don't make any kind of sense. I suppose you could argue that it's like that to promote replays via "new game plus mode" -- something goes wrong in your first playthrough, so you learn and do something differently the next time -- but you don't always know why things happened the way they did in the first place to be able to fix them a second time around, without more utterly clueless trial-and-error in a third or fourth playthrough.

Level Design / Exploration

The crappy level design was probably my number one complaint about Dark Souls II, so thankfully From Software have taken that criticism to heart and have vastly improved the level design in Dark Souls III. The levels are incredibly dense and intricate this time, with tons of branching paths, side routes, unlockable shortcuts, and hidden areas. One of the earlier levels in the game, the Undead Settlement, has two totally divergent paths to the boss chamber, meaning you could potentially miss half of the level if you go one way at the start and don't go back to explore the other path. An optional part of the level is behind a locked door, which requires you to get the key later in the level and then backtrack, which is made easier by a couple of shortcuts you unlock along the way. There's also a hidden area with a bonus boss fight and some good loot if you're observant enough and think to act outside the normal confines of the level design.

Everywhere you go, you're always given a choice about where to go. When you warp into the High Wall of Lothric, the very first area after the tutorial, you're immediately given a choice: go left, or right. If you go left, then do you go up, or down? Some of these apparent branches quickly terminate in a dead end, but most of them continue forward in the level and eventually link back up with the main route, often allowing you multiple ways to progress through the level. As a result, you can sometimes spend hours exploring a single level, if you're the type of gamer who likes to explore everywhere and do everything possible in an area before moving on. Most levels also feature a few really tough enemies thrown into the mix, the kind designed to really challenge you at a low level so that you put them off and come back to vanquish them later. That type of thing is great for letting you pick your own level of challenge -- do you tackle this tough obstacle now, or later -- and makes exploration feel that much more rewarding, because you're either going out of your way to access better rewards earlier on, or else you come back later when you're stronger, and feel like a badass for beating that one enemy that gave you such a tough time in the beginning.

A bonfire within sight of another bonfire. Why is this necessary?

Unfortunately, a few design elements from Dark Souls II made their way over to Dark Souls III, like the free, unlimited warping from bonfire to bonfire from the very beginning of the game, and the overabundance of bonfires around practically every corner. I really miss how the first Dark Souls forced you to get everywhere on foot for the first third of the game, because it made you become a lot more familiar with the level layouts, it made shortcuts feel that much more rewarding, and it added a lot of tension when you fell down a hole and got stuck somewhere in unfamiliar territory. Plus, it was just really cool having all the starting areas so tightly-wound around Firelink Shrine. Dark Souls III needs warping from the very beginning, but that's only because its levels spread so far out from Firelink that it would be way too hard to make it make it back any time you wanted to level up or do some shopping.

Like with Dark Souls II, the constant bonfires and free warping from the beginning of the game makes a lot of areas utterly pointless once you've been through them the first time. Transitions between areas are often devoid of any kind of meaningful structure; they're usually just a linear path with a handful of enemies, with another bonfire shortly ahead. In a lot of cases, you beat a boss and unlock a new bonfire, then walk a short distance fighting zero enemies and unlock another bonfire. Then you walk a little further, fighting perhaps a few basic enemies, and there's another bonfire. There's even one instance in the game with two bonfires within clear sight of one another, a mere hundred yards away with zero obstacles between them. All of these bonfires often defeats the point of shortcuts; instead of using the level to your advantage, following paths and finding efficient routes, you just warp to the latest bonfire and start there every time. There's also practically zero risk of ever losing your souls, because you're always just a short walk from a bonfire.

The linear progression through the game, starting with the Cemetery of Ash.

Also, whereas Demon's Souls and Dark Souls both gave you a lot of options in terms of what order you'd complete levels and thus how you'd progress through the game, Dark Souls III has a generally linear route from the opening tutorial to the final boss. See the chart above for an example of what I mean -- paths marked with a red X are blocked until you clear the first three Lords of Cinder. You have to go through a lot of the game in a very specific order, usually completing two or three areas in sequence before you get any options. Even then, it's usually only a choice of two different areas, one of which will terminate in a dead end once you finish it. This has an extreme consequence on replays and new game plus mode, because it means you basically have to go through the entire game in the same order every time you play it. In addition, the sequence-locked progression means a lot of special items are inaccessible until much later in the game; if you want to make a new character with an alternate build, you have to play through serious chunks of the game before you can get access to items and equipment critical for your new build.

If there's one thing Dark Souls II got right, it was that it made new game plus worth going through because of how much stuff it changed. It added a ton of completely unique weapons, rings, and armor sets, changed the enemy placements, upped the number of enemies in addition to just buffing their stats, added whole new enemies never seen before in the first playthrough, changed boss fights (one, in particular, ambushes you way before you expect to fight it normally), and so on. In Dark Souls III, new game plus mode is exactly the same as it was the first time around, except it's drastically easier because the enemies haven't been buffed enough to compensate for your own higher stats. The only changes in new game plus are a few upgraded versions of rings that were already in the first playthrough, none of which make a dramatic impact on the game unless you're an avid PVP'er looking for every little advantage you can get.

Everything you see is about 50% of the Profaned Capital.

Meanwhile, the latter half of the game feels a little empty and underdeveloped. The main goal of the game is to defeat the four Lords of Cinder so you can gain access to the Kiln of the First Flame and link the fire. The journey feels pretty satisfying until you beat the second Lord of Cinder, but once you reach that halfway point, the number of remaining areas drops significantly, and about half of the remaining areas are so short they're over before you even realize it. The Profaned Capital is particularly disappointing -- Yhorm the Giant is the last Lord of Cinder shown in the intro cinematic, so you go in there expecting this grand, climactic fight in the capital city. And then the area is just a single, short path to the boss chamber and a side-route that links back to a previous area. The Consumed King's Garden is basically two large rooms and the boss chamber, and the Untended Graves has almost nothing in it -- some basic enemies, a boss chamber, and a few black knights.

Finally, there's not a whole lot of aesthetic variety between areas; the bulk of the game seems to take place in castles/fortresses, cathedrals, and swamps, with the few stand-out areas just being rehashes of places we've already seen in previous games. Archdragon Peak is reminiscent of the Dragon Aerie from Dark Souls II; Irithyll Dungeon is a rehash of the Tower of Latria from Demon's Souls; the Catacombs of Carthus is a rehash of every catacomb from all of the previous Souls games; Smouldering Lake is Ash Lake and Lost Izalith from Dark Souls; Farron Keep is every poison swamp from every Souls game; Cathedral of the Deep is the Undead Parish from Dark Souls; The Grand Archives is the Duke's Archives from Dark Souls; and so on. I've not played Bloodborne, but I'm told the Undead Settlement is a lot like some of the levels from that game. This being the fourth game in the Souls series (fifth if you count Bloodborne) there's obviously going to be a lot of retreads and overlap, but it's just kind of disheartening to play through Dark Souls III and feel like you've already seen and done everything before.

Combat / Enemy Design

Much like the bland and uninspiring area aesthetics, the vast majority of enemies in Dark Souls III feel reminiscent of stuff we've already seen in the previous games. Very, very few enemies in the game offer any kind of new surprise that catches you off-guard, or instills a sense of dread or fear in you, or makes you extra cautious because of how weird and unfamiliar they are. The giant spider caught me by surprise the very first time just because it dropped in from out of nowhere (literally -- I looked up immediately before and it wasn't there), but then once I realized what it was, I shrugged it off and was like, "whatever, I've killed giant spiders before in these games." The first wretch you encounter is kind of creepy, but once you start fighting them they're not all that different from other enemies. The ninja skeletons that turn invisible while they roll made me panic a little the first time I fought one. The hand ogres were completely grotesque. Otherwise, it was just a handful of enemies here and there that intimidated me only because of how difficult they were.

Likewise, there aren't a lot of truly unique bosses, which is especially weird because of how much fewer there are this time around. Dark Souls had 22 bosses before DLC; Dark Souls II had 32 bosses before DLC; Dark Souls III has 19 bosses. I know I trashed Dark Souls II for having so many bosses that a lot of them felt pointless, but it at least had some interesting, memorable bosses with unique mechanics. Consider the Looking Glass Knight, who could summon NPCs or even other players to fight against you, or the Flexile Sentry, where the arena progressively filled with water until you were eventually slowed by it, or the Lost Sinner which you had to fight in almost complete darkness. In Dark Souls III, almost every boss is just a standard one-vs-one fight against large melee-fighting or magic-casting humanoids in a generic, empty arena. The most unique things we have going on in Dark Souls III are: a False Idol / Pinwheel clone, a constantly-respawning mob enemy where the boss soul keeps switching between enemies, and a one-versus-two where the second boss heals and resurrects the first.

Vordt, boss of the first full level after the tutorial.

On the bright side, From Software have at least realized that treating the Dark Souls combat system like Dynasty Warriors, where you mow down enemies by the dozens, like they did with Dark Souls II, does not work. Only seven of the 19 bosses in Dark Souls III feature multiple enemies, but only three of those pose any kind of real threat. For the most part, it's always a one-on-one where you just have to focus on the one enemy, watching its moves, learning its tells, and reacting accordingly. These fights are generally quite satisfying because success is more about playing intelligently than being able to dodge countless barrages from hordes of enemy attacks like in Dark Souls II. The levels themselves, likewise, are made more difficult by making individual enemies stronger and more aggressive, instead of just pasting more of them into the level. In most instances, you're only fighting two or three enemies at a time, which is enough to challenge you within the confines of the target-lock combat system, but not enough to overwhelm you.

Combat in Dark Souls III is a little faster than it's been in previous games, perhaps on par with or even a little bit faster than Demon's Souls, both in terms of its physical speed the level of enemy aggression. You move faster and attack faster, but so does everything else. As a result, combat now feels less like a game of wits and more like a game of reaction speeds. Mainly, it's because all of the enemies have become relentlessly hyper-aggressive; most enemies attack with fast, flailing 3-5 hit combos that tear you to shreds if you get hit at the start of it. If you try to rely on roll-dodging, then you have to perfectly time 3-5 rolls all in a row, and if you try to block it with a shield then you lose a lot of stamina, and might possibly get your guard broken. Either way, you're left very low on stamina to initiate a follow-up attack, and the enemies have such short recovery times that you'll only be able to get one or two hits in before they launch into another 3-5 hit combo. And if you try to run away, they'll chase you to the ends of the earth with faster run speeds than you.

In From Software's most brilliant trolling work to date, they seem to have figured out what players' natural reactions and tendencies to enemy attacks are, and have designed the enemy AI and attack patterns specifically to exploit your own instincts. When you see an enemy draw its sword over its head and start charging at you, you might wait a moment and then roll to the side, knowing he'll whiff and leave himself exposed for multiple counter-attacks; when you try that in this game, he'll keep charging and turn perfectly to keep up with your roll, unleashing a barrage of attacks on your smug ass while you get chain-stunned into submission. When a dog lunges at you, you might raise your shield, knowing it'll bounce off it and become stunned momentarily, allowing you to attack and kill him; when you try that in this game, it recovers instantly and backsteps, dodging your attack and launching into its own counter-attack that hits while you're stuck in your recovery animation.

Fighting a giant crab in the swamp.

Basically every area in the game has some type of enemies that are just tedious, over-powered, and borderline broken. Giant crabs are impossible to get behind and can attack from all angles, so there's no safe space anywhere around them. Pontiff knights perform seemingly infinite attack combos that close insane distances, so you have almost no time to recover stamina or chug an estus flask. Some of the ordinary hollow soldiers turn into giant blobs of black pus and flail about wildly, all the time. The large, heavily-armored cathedral knights have seemingly infinite poise and constant hyper armor, meaning they will never be staggered by any attack, even from a fully-charged R2 heavy attack from a +10 ultra greatsword. If you're using a light, fast weapon, then you have no choice but to roll dodge constantly (because they have seemingly infinite stamina and will just keep attacking constantly) and poke it once or twice every 5-10 seconds, and if you're using a big, slow weapon then you have no choice but to trade blows with it because it will always be able to attack you during your own attack animation.

It's particularly frustrating that enemies get poise, but you don't. For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, poise is a mechanism introduced in the first Dark Souls, which allowed users wearing heavy armor to absorb hits and take the damage without their actions being interrupted. Poise is an official statistic in Dark Souls III, with a value attributed to every piece of armor and your total poise shown in the statistics screen. There's even a ring whose only function is to increase poise. And yet poise does nothing at all, because it's turned off in the game files. Just like Demon's Souls, heavy armor is therefore completely useless, because it doesn't give you enough damage reduction/absorption to offset the weight penalty or vitality investment required to use it if you're not going to get poise. Poise is a prime example of why combat can feel so annoying and unfair at times, because the enemies aren't playing by the same rules you are. I like how the current system, without poise, puts a strong emphasis on positioning and timing because you'll get punished hard for making mistakes and getting hit, but it's way too easy for the big, slow weapons to get interrupted by faster weapons, even with hyper-armor (frames during large weapons' attacks when you can't be interrupted). 

Another thing that Dark Souls II got right was its implementation of dual-wielding, which let you equip a different weapon in each hand and use their full range of attacks. Additionally, if your strength and dexterity were 50% higher than your weapons required, you could "powerstance," which unlocked a new moveset that used the two weapons together. In Dark Souls III, when you equip a weapon to your off-hand, you only get access to basic light attacks and a crappy, useless block -- no rolling, running, jumping, or heavy attacks. Powerstancing, likewise, has been completely removed. In its place, we get a handful of weapons designated as twin weapons, which occupy one slot and are equipped to your right hand; you dual-wield them by two-handing the weapon. You can equip twin daggers, twin curved swords, twin straight swords, twin katanas, twin spears, twin hammers, and twin axes. Each set of twin weapons has its own unique moveset, but there's generally only one type of each twin weapon set, most of which you can't get until near the end of the game. The twin weapon sets are a lot of fun, but I really, really miss being able to combo any two weapons I wanted.

Killing a villager in the Undead Suburb Settlement.

The new addition in Dark Souls III is weapon arts, unique special abilities assigned to individual weapons, which you can trigger by pressing L2 while two-handing the weapon, or while using certain shields that enable one-handed weapon arts in exchange for not being able to parry or shield bash enemies. Each class of weapon generally has its own ability: katanas put you in a stance which can let you do a lunging quick-strike or a weapon parry; axes let you do a warcry which boosts your damage for a time; maces let you boost your poise for a time (the only instance of player poise actually doing something); curved swords let you do a spin slash; and so on. Unique weapons, including boss weapons, appropriately come with their own unique arts: the moonlight greatsword can fire magic projectiles; the winged knight halberd lets you chain spin attacks until your stamina is depleted; the wolf knight greatsword gives you a spinning jump attack; Wolnir's holy sword lets you cast wrath of the gods, an AOE knockback attack centered around yourself.

All of these weapon arts cost focus points to use, represented by a blue meter between your health and stamina bars. Essentially, it's a return of the mana bar from Demon's Souls, with weapon arts and magic spells drawing from the same energy pool. This is one of my favorite things about Dark Souls III, because I absolutely hated how Dark Souls I & II restricted magic by arbitrarily restricting the number of times you could cast a spell before resting at a bonfire. It felt incredibly cheap and artificial. In Dark Souls III, you get (in addition to your regular estus flask) an ashen estus flask, which replenishes focus points upon consumption. At the start of the game you can only have five total flasks, but you're free to choose your own ratio. If you're a melee fighter, you'll probably take more healing flasks, whereas a mage would stock up more heavily on mana flasks. Additionally, if you want to be a pure spellcaster, you can even level-up your attunement stat, which increases your pool of focus points and thus your total number of spell casts.

I love the new mana system, because it lets you decide for yourself how much you want to be able to cast your spells, and at what cost you're willing to trade for that ability, since putting a ton of points into attunement comes at the expense of putting those points into health or endurance, and carrying more mana flasks means you have fewer healing flasks if you get hit. As a melee fighter, it's also kind of nice to have to think about whether you want to dump some points into attunement so you can use your weapon arts more often. Unfortunately, the whole magic system is still really boring to me, because it still just amounts to hanging back, locking onto your target, and pressing R1 a few times to safely kill your target at range. Mages also seem to require much steeper investments before becoming viable, as compared to a melee character. On a level 43 character focusing almost entirely on faith, I didn't have enough health or stamina to be an effective melee fighter, and my faith wasn't high enough for my faith-scaling weapon and offensive miracles to do any kind of serious damage. Whereas a melee fighter can get their strength or dexterity up to 40 and be set for the entire game, mages don't start seeing reasonable returns on their faith or intelligence until they get up to 60, and by that point the game's almost over.

Online Components / Multiplayer

In stark contrast to Dark Souls II, where invasions were incredibly scarce outside of covenant-designated gank-zones because you could only get a limited quantity of cracked red eye orbs until later in the game, Dark Souls III gives you a few cracked eye orbs right at the start of the game, and quickly rewards you with a full, unlimited-use red eye orb. The White Soapstone, used for summoning friendly phantoms, can be purchased as soon as you get to Firelink Shrine. You're also able to join four of the seven covenants within the first three areas of the game, including the Warriors of Sunlight (friendly co-op) and the Mound-Makers (chaotic phantoms who can be either friendly or hostile) in the second area. You can become a member of the Way of Blue (Blue Sentinels are summoned to defend you if you get invaded) before clearing the first area, and you can join the Blue Sentinels immediately after clearing the second area. So, Dark Souls III does a good job of letting you get involved in the online pvp and co-op scene early on.

Sadly, it's not a complete and total improvement from Dark Souls II. I really liked how Dark Souls II let you be invaded after defeating the area boss, or in certain areas of the game even while hollowed. In Dark Souls III, you cannot be invaded, ever, while unkindled (ie, hollow), which means you can completely avoid invasions from the Watchdogs of Farron or the Aldrich Faithful, two covenants designed to defend their home turf like the Bell-Keepers of Dark Souls II. I really liked how hard it was to get through the bell towers in Dark Souls II, and so it's kind of lame in Dark Souls III that you can just opt out if it's too difficult for you. Likewise, being able to opt out means there's a smaller pool for watchdogs and faithfuls to invade, and since it's based on automatic summons (you equip the covenant items and stand around waiting to get summoned) you can potentially get stuck waiting around for a while, whereas invasions were constant and instantaneous in Dark Souls II.

Getting ganked by the Aldrich Faithful.

The Blue Sentinels and Darkmoon Blade covenants are just straight up broken. Both of these covenants are designed for you to be summoned to help a host running the Way of the Blue fight off invaders, but there's some sort of glitch or design flaw that prevents a lot of people from ever getting summoned. I sat around for an hour-and-a-half with the Blue Sentinels covenant item equipped, broken up into several 10 and 15 minute chunks, and never got summoned once. And yet, after sitting around for 10-15 minutes getting nothing, I could switch covenants and instantly invade somewhere as a red or purple phantom by using the red eye orb. Similarly, I could put down a sunbro sign and be summoned within minutes. People have figured out that it has something to do with your Steam account; by making an entirely new account, family sharing Dark Souls III to that account, and transferring your save files, players who were going hours without getting summoned were instantly being summoned left and right. It's almost as if the older your account is, the lower priority you are for being summoned. Which is pretty much bullshit if that's the case.

It's also really frustrating how the matchmaking system works for invasions. Invasions are prioritized based on how many phantoms a host has summoned; a host with two friendly phantoms is put higher on the priority list to be invaded than an embered host running around by himself. Therefore, as an invader, you're almost always put into 2v1 and 3v1 situations (or 4v1, if a blue shows up), often against teams set up specifically to gank invaders; they set up near a bonfire and just sit around waiting to be invaded, and if any of the phantoms die, the host hangs back and re-summons them. So, as an invader, you're basically always out-numbered, you have less health than the host, and half as many estus flasks. The only possible advantage you have is that mobs will attack the host and his phantoms, but even this can be turned against you if the host pops a Seed of the Giants (which are pretty easy to get), turning the enemies hostile to everyone, including invaders. Every single odd is stacked against you, and it's just not very fun to spend an entire evening invading into situations you're basically guaranteed to lose.

The most horrifying 2v1 ever: Debt and Responsibilities.

I also hate how nearly every single invasion becomes purely a matter of attrition, because of how easy it is to use estus flasks in the heat of a fight and how difficult it is to punish people for doing so. As both an invader and a host, I'm almost always able to roll away, chug a flask, and then dodge the next attack without any consequence; when I manage to land a few hits on someone and get their health low, they're almost always able to roll away and chug a flask while I'm stuck recovering from my own attack animation, or I'm too low on stamina from attacking to sprint and hit them while they're healing. I learned to carry undead hunter charms, which can be thrown to prevent another player from healing, but every time I do that, the other person just runs away until the effect wears off. In a 3v1 situation, which is basically every invasion, I'd get one person down and then get chain-stunned or interrupted by the other two while the person with low health runs off to heal. So basically, in an end-game situation where everyone has a maximum number of estus flasks, it's your seven flasks versus the 29 of the host and his two phantoms.

When you aren't getting ganked by 3v1 fights, you're usually invading a world just as the host triggers the boss fight, or hosts who disconnect immediately, which boot you out of the world as soon as you arrive. I got so tired of it that I just stopped completely, and vowed I would only PVP in 1v1 duels. That, of course, was a lot more fun, because you're on a completely even playing field when fighting another phantom in a designated fight club; winning is purely a matter of personal skill, not who has the most allies or the most estus flasks. But even then, the PVP suffers quite heavily from poor game balancing leading to over-powered tryhard metas. Estocs and straightswords are basically god-tier weapons that do good damage, have a fast rate of attack, catch people coming out of rolls easily, use a small amount of stamina, and have almost the same reach as an ultra greatsword. As an ultra greatsword user, my attacks do more damage, sure, but they use a lot more stamina, and are a lot slower and therefore easier to dodge and interrupt, even with hyper armor preventing interrupts on the second half of the animation.

Getting the host with a critical attack after guard-breaking him.

The meta is so brutally imbalanced that you can actually win duels while blindfolded, just by spamming the light attack button with the right weapons. And if you have a greatshield, especially with a weapon like an estoc that can attack from behind the shield, you're basically invincible. There is no counter for an estoc / greatshield user. Hell, if you two-hand a great shield, you can keep your guard up all the time and use the shield bash skill to attack. If you run into a player running these types of builds, you stand no chance of winning, and may as well quit to find someone else to fight. But with how little skill these builds take to use, combined with how effective they are, you run into them a lot, and it just gets tiring having the same uphill battles every single day.

Shoddy netcode and latency issues make PVP even more frustrating to deal with. All weapons in the game have slightly longer hitboxes than their actual model suggests, and in online fights the game registers your own hitboxes for getting hit based on where you were about a half-second prior, so it often looks like you're getting hit by attacks that were clearly out of range. If your opponent has a higher-than-usual ping from a poor internet connection or from being on the other side of the planet, then you run into extra problems with lag extending the range even further. I can't count the number of times I deliberately backed away from a jumping attack, only to watch my opponent's sword plunge into the ground three feet in front of me as I took full damage from the attack. I also ran into a bunch of issues where other players got stuck in a T-pose gliding around the place, so I couldn't tell when they were attacking, rolling, blocking, switching weapons, or anything.

In Conclusion

Typically with these games, I come to play the PVE campaign, and then stick around because of the online scene -- making alternate characters to help people through the game in jolly cooperation, or setting a character at a specific level with a specific build to invade and troll players in certain areas, or engaging in fight clubs on my main character at the end-game meta. With Dark Souls III, I found myself drawn into both the PVE and PVP aspects of the game, more so than any other game in the series -- maybe even more than my beloved Demon's Souls. And yet, when I ran through the campaign a second time on another character, and a third time in new game plus mode, I started to realize how disappointingly linear the progression through the game actually is, and how quickly the entire second half of the game goes by. The PVP scene was fun for a while, but I got tired of constantly getting ganked during invasions, and got tired of the imbalanced meta during duels. Maybe in a year, everything will be properly balanced, and some DLC will round out that underwhelming feeling of the second half, but until then, meh.

The most scenic area in the game, Irithyll Valley.

So how do I feel about Dark Souls III overall? Obviously, I must have liked it a lot to sink 135 hours into it across multiple characters and playthroughs. The whole time, I kept thinking to myself how much more I was enjoying Dark Souls III than I enjoyed Dark Souls II. Those two facts are probably all you need to know, really. But I should also warn you that Dark Souls III doesn't bring a whole lot of truly new stuff to the table; almost everything in the game, literally, is reminiscent of something From Software has already done in one of their previous games. A lot of things are straight rehashes, direct references to Demon's Souls and Dark Souls, as if From Software are pleading with their audience, "remember those two games you really liked? This game is just like them! Please like our game!"

Playing through Dark Souls III, I felt no grand sense of elation, no euphoria from discovering something new and unexpected, and barely any thrill of beating a tough challenge. The game is mechanically as good as the series has ever been -- better in a lot of ways, with lots of good quality-of-life improvements and streamlining, and just as difficult as you'd expect -- but it's become so routine by this point that I just don't get excited by it anymore. According to the designer, Hidetaka Miyazaki, Dark Souls III is supposed to be the last of the Souls series; if that's the case, then I think I'd be alright with that. Let's try something actually new for a change, and put it on a platform I can actually play, please. 


  1. I tend to play the Souls games as a tourist, so I was particularly disappointed to share your sense of familiarity with the game's world. It's all very beautiful and atmospheric and well made but also every area felt very much like A Thing I'd Seen in Souls Before. It gave me a sense that there was some creative exhaustion at From. A new direction would be welcome.

  2. I never got into this series. I think I tried DS1 long ago for a bit but realized it's a bad PC port and gave up after 30 minutes. I later saw a let's play of it and it was fun to watch the failures but seemed to me like a game that I might find more frustrating than fun. And I didn't particularly enjoy it's art style and found some equipment silly looking(but hey it's just me, didn't like the design).I was reading your reviews on these games and was wondering if you over played Severance: Blade Of Darkness. From wikipedia: "is a 2001 3D third-person PC action role-playing game with an accent on close-quarter, hand-to-hand combat. It was created by (now defunct) Spanish developer Rebel Act Studios and published by Codemasters... Each character starts on a different map, has different preferences and selection of weapons, and has different strengths and weaknesses in terms of power, agility, and defence and, most importantly, different sets of combos or moves..The game received "generally favorable reviews" according to video game review aggregator Metacritic (all hail the mighty metacritic!). It received high marks for its graphics, particularly the lighting effects of real-time shadows. Character animation was done via motion capture. This game is the first and only game that can perform water reflection wave effects only using Directx 7.0 hardware (Geforce 2 or Radeon 7500; perhaps even Nvidia Riva TNT is enough to perform water effects at the same quality level like in DirectX 8 or higher).However, the game failed to become popular, mainly due to bad marketing. Other reasons for the relatively low sales were the untimely publication (neither the code nor the storyline had been finalized) and the lack of gameplay difficulty levels - the game proved to be too difficult on "factory" defaults for many players. Nonetheless it did establish a large cult following that still exists today."
    So I just picked some relevant lines from wiki. I played it when it was relatively new, I was young and not that experienced and indeed the game can prove difficult on your first play, however in later playthroughs I breezed through it knowing each map inside out, and all enemy behaviour and enemy placement/traps inside-out. I wouldn't say it's as hard as demon or dark souls. It's not that kinda game with a ridiculous near impossible difficulty. I would label it in your 'great games you never played". Seems revolutionary for it's time in my opinion and I loved it's combat system. While I did replay it several times because I love it, I wouldn't say it has much replay value. Each of the 4 characters has it's different weapons and movements and each starting map is different but then the rest are all the same. Sometimes I wish there were vastly different campaigns for each character or at least have more than just the starting map be different. And I wish BOD2 will some day be born but the chance of it being done right with today's industry is slim.


    2. I've never played it. Sounds interesting, but I'm skeptical of spending collector's prices on the original disks for a game that may not even run on modern computers.

    3. Huh. Apparently it was removed from GoG. Well maybe they'll put it back up in the future. Or you could just download it from anywhere really :)

    4. I always recommend Severance: Blade of Darkness; along with Gothic is one of my favorite games of all time.

  3. Lol "Disappointment of Dark souls 2" Sorry but DS2 is the best in the series, and after many have been disappointed in 3, they are all going back to play 2. DS2 has loads of multiplayer going on at the moment. If you dislike Dark souls 2 you clearly didn't play it for more than 5 minutes. There's so much shit to do in it. And they fixed half the problems Dark Souls 1 had. Git Gud kid.

    1. If I "clearly" didn't play Dark Souls 2 for more than five minutes then you clearly didn't read any of my DS2 review. Dark Souls 2 had a lot of great ideas in it, and did in fact improve some of the weaker elements of DS1, but its issues (abhorrently linear, bland, and nonsensical level design, over-reliance on tedious and obnoxious mob enemy designs/placement, and broken mechanisms like soul memory) are just too big and so centrally-rooted in the gameplay that you just can't sweep them under the rug.

      It's also worth noting that I played the original release of Dark Souls 2, with minimal patches, which was a definitively and irrefutably worse product than what people were playing a mere year later, with the "remastered" Scholar of the First Sin Edition. The fact that From Soft felt the need to administer a complete overhaul of their game (changing enemy placements, redesigning enemy behavior, re-balancing items and covenants, fixing soul memory, more detailed and complex level design in the DLC, etc) is an indirect acknowledgment from the developer themselves that DS2 really wasn't as good as it could have or even should have been.

  4. Will you ever review Witcher 3?!? :) And what about the Fallout 4 bashing? I know you reviews probably take a month to write but...please. Atleast do Witcher 3. Thanks.

    Also, I picked up Risen 3 on your recommendation and HOLY CRAP it is amazing. NO idea how the fuck those professional reviewers couldn't see its qualities. I personally believe that it blows Skyrim out of the water in terms of exploration and quests. Yes it is a bit unpolished and rough but the fact that it allow you to explore the world and rewards you with appropriate loot, unlike the level scaled bullshit in Skyrim, is amazing. In Kali, in Pirates Den, in the quest where you have to bring this exotic plant to this alchemist who gives you a voodoo doll to reach the elevated cliff; I jumped over it from the above and it actually worked! Also in the citadel there was a broken stair and I used my voodoo doll to reach it and found a freaking Ancient Knowledge. GOD DAMN! It felt so amazing. I have not played much but the game is simply amazing. Never in any other game have I felt such and incentive to explore. Will pick up Gothic 2 soon!

    I also have a question, Is the STALKER series good? Is it like Fallout 3 (I hate that game)? How does the shooting feel? Is exploration rewarding? Looking forward to your answer.

    1. The reviewer has already done reviews for the STALKER series and has mentioned Fallout 3 in some of his articles about Fallout New Vegas vs Skyrim and the PC games being ruined by consoles.
      I recommend going through his articles and reviews as it is some of the well thought out, comprehensive viewpoint I've seen.

    2. STALKER offers a similar gameplay experience as the modern Fallout games, except with a much stronger emphasis on the shooting and survival-horror atmosphere. Intense tactical combat, highly immersive atmosphere, satisfying exploration, and rewarding progression. Shadow of Chernobyl and Call of Pripyat are some of my all-time favorite games, and I absolutely hated Fallout 3 (but loved New Vegas).

      Fallout 4 bashing is basically never going to happen because I'm not willing to give Bethesda $60 for the opportunity to play their likely crappy, mediocre game, based on how all their games have gotten progressively simpler and less enjoyable over time. Perhaps if it ever goes on a super deep discount and I have a ton of free time I'll play it, but I honestly just have zero interest in doing so.

      Gothic 2 is a fantastic game but has a highly idiosyncratic interface and control scheme, which turns a lot of people off at first. I highly recommend remapping the controls to something more sensible, and possibly ditching the mouse altogether and just playing on the keyboard. It's really difficult at the start, when your character completely sucks at everything, but once you invest some points in sword training and get the hang of the combat system it really picks up.

      As for Witcher 3, I'm about 30 hours into it right now. Can't promise a review any time soon because it's such a long game and I'm making very slow progress in it, but it will definitely be my next article.

    3. Youtube videos already prove the quality of Fallout 4 as a game.

    4. Well, Risen 3 is far away from the quality of Gothic. I must confess myself skeptical of their new game "Elex".

    5. I've lost a lot of faith in Piranha Bytes, ever since the Gothic 3 fiasco, but I'm hopeful that the new theme/setting of Elex will inspire them to step away from the Risen formula, which has always been a little bland -- never quite as good as Gothic and kind of disappointing in some cases. Considering that, for Risen 3, they just took the basic foundation of Risen 2 and tweaked a few things, I'm hoping they don't do that again with Elex and just give us Risen 4 with a post-apocalyptic sci-fi/fantasy skin.

  5. I don't think G3 was bad, even in it's unfinished state, and thankfully the unofficial patches help quite a bit. Far from bad. I enjoyed it a lot, and it's open world is better than what elder scrolls can pull. Feels very alive, and no load screens. Well, won't go in details, but the third game is still gothic to me.

    1. See, I played G3 before the community patches, when the game was just a broken, unfinished mess. That left me with a really bad first impression of the game and I never finished it. I played it again about two years later with the community patches, which fix the broken mechanics and bugs, but they don't fix the core gameplay, which felt decidedly un-Gothic to me.

      By "un-Gothic" I mean:
      (1) The MMO-style quests, where virtually every town is riddled with "Kill X number of unique versions of some basic enemy" or "Bring me X number of items," all for people you don't know and will never get to interact with again. Quests in G1 and G2 weren't really that sophisticated, but they had fun storylines or involved recurring characters that you knew and cared about. The box proudly claimed "over 500 quests" or whatever, but that's really not impressive when it's just content padding.

      (2) The combination of randomized loot and scripted loot progression. Virtually all of the game's loot is hidden in treasure chests, the contents of which are completely random in 90% of instances, and the other 10% are special chests that give you a special item based on how many special chests you'd opened previously, meaning the best loot will ALWAYS be restricted until end-game. I really miss how G1 and G2 put specific loot in specific areas that kind of told its own story, made it special, like finding a skeleton behind a hidden tree with a crossbow, and bunch of bolts, and some gold.

      (3) The really loose faction system. Part of what made G1 and G2 stand out for me was having to join one of three factions, which gave you access to unique weapons, armors, abilities, and side-quests, in addition to offering a unique perspective on the overall game. Gothic 3 never has you officially join a faction, at least not until significantly later in the game; you're basically just a lone wolf going around doing whatever for whoever the whole time, and the reputation system in the background doesn't really make you feel attached to specific factions.

      (4) Orcs as a talking, civilized society with an organized military structure. In G1 and G2, orcs were portrayed as a primitive tribal society that worshiped arcane gods. They wore loin cloths and simple gladiator-style armor, they spoke in some kind of weird guttural language, and used crude weaponry. In Gothic 3, they all speak English, they wear full-on actual human clothing and medieval armor, they sit at human tables and use ordinary human weapons, and like.... they're just not the same thing they were in the first game. Orcs were genuinely intimidating in the first game because of both their strength and the way they looked/sounded, but they're completely mundane in G3, especially with the combat mechanics making it infinitely easier to mow down an entire platoon than to fight off a few measly boars.

      All things considered, it's still more of a Gothic game than Arcania: Gothic 4 - A Gothic Story or whatever the follow-up game by Spellbound was called. But compared to other Piranha Bytes games it feels like a black sheep.

    2. Very good breakdown, as always. I really can't understand people who say they like Gothic 3 after patches; they only make it playable. All the core incoherent, "un-gothic" traits are still there. As a result I have a lot of trouble defending it over, say, Oblivion. More so because it is evident to me that PB was trying -and failed- to make a more elder scrolls game. I keep, anyway, checking the CSP mod.

  6. Haha yes I played without the community fixes as well, up to 2mil experience which was level 90 something. Fighting animals was stupid coz they stunlocked you spamming fast attacks, and human/orc AI couldn't do jack against them, and you also could abuse fast attacks. Thank god the patch fixed the ai. Second time I had the patches, and went mage, and ofc that is just as overpowered as in the previous titles :) . Melee combat is pretty silly :(