Dark Souls III

PC elitists now have yet another bragging point. Considering that Bloodborne ran smoothly at 30 frames per second on the PS4 (from my experience), and that Dark Souls III was supposedly built upon that same engine, I expected that the PS4 version would perform on par with (or maybe even better than) the PC version. I was wrong. Both console versions of Dark Souls III are capped at 30 fps, but their actual performance doesn't even meet that standard. This is a big problem considering that the game plays almost as fast as Bloodborne. Dropping a few crucial frames of enemy attack wind-ups can mean the difference between a successful dodge or parry, or losing a third of your health to a single attack. Bloodborne had the load screen issue that was that game's near-debilitating "known shippable"; and now Dark Souls III has its console framerate as being the major launch issue that must be fixed. At least Bloodborne's problem didn't impact actual gameplay...

Table of Content

A challenge to Souls fans

This is probably the hardest game in the lineup. In fact, it may even be too hard in some ways. Enemies are very aggressive and relentless, they are very fast and swift at attacking, and they are very good at tracking your movement during an attack. I feel like the game is sadly front-loaded with excessive difficulty. Oh, don't get me wrong! It's hard throughout, and there's still some definite mid-and-late-game peaks of difficulty. But this game easily has the highest barrier to entry of any game in the lineup.

Dark Souls III is very hard and very much front-loaded with difficulty.

It's one thing to provide a challenge, but the early levels of this game maybe cross the line into outright cruelty. If I weren't already invested in the series, I might not have even made it past the Lothric knights in the High Wall. Yeah sure, Demon's Souls had the Red Eye Knights, and Dark Souls had the Black Knights, and Bloodborne had the warewolves; but in those cases, those difficult enemies were blocking optional paths and items. This is why I can kind of tolerate the mutating tentacle monster on the rooftop that hits very hard, has a ton of HP, obscures half the screen, and causes an annoying framerate drop. Yeah, it's located in a critical path of the level, but it can be easily avoided and is basically just guarding a crystal lizard. The difficult Lothric knights, on the other hand, are placed in critical bottlenecks that must be passed as part of the necessary path of progression through the level, and they will shred new players to pieces! Heck, even that fat, winged knight going around in circles in the courtyard is easier than the Lothric Knights.

And then you get to the Undead Settlement, which is a maze full of ambushes and difficult enemies. Those fat evangelists and the large cleaver undead hit hard and have deceptively long reach and multi-hit combos. This is at a time when your HP and stamina are so low that you can't reliably block their attacks. Their long reach and relentless aggression means you can't back away either. So you're stuck having to stick to close range and roll through their attacks - a maneuver that can result in a quick death if you make but a single slip-up. I had a lot of trouble handling these enemies (as I was still getting used to the new timings for dodging and parrying, and the stamina requirements for blocking), and so I imagine that many rookies will likely be completely overwhelmed.

Dark Souls III - parry
Dangerous enemies have narrow windows for parrying their attacks, making it hard to practice this technique.

There's a higher skill floor than in previous titles, and the game demands a further degree of mastery of rolling, stamina management, i-frames, and weapon movesets that previous games simply didn't require. Bloodborne also toes with this line, but Dark Souls III seems to go a bit further. The problem here is that enemies become far too fast and deadly far too early in the game, and the player character remains slow and relatively weak. What's worse is that the game breaks with the original's insistence on fair difficulty by apparently completely failing to enforce the rules regarding stamina for enemies! This was also a problem in Dark Souls II, but it didn't bother me quite as much because those enemies had slower attacks that were generally easier to dodge.

There's no gradual ramping up of challenge for the player to learn things like roll and parry timings, and there aren't any large, slow enemies to practice these techniques against. Bloodborne had very fast enemies to go with its very fast combat, but the character was also equally fast. Bloodborne also had the Brick Trolls, whose telegraphed attacks gave plenty of opportunity to practice parrying in the very first level while still making progress. Dark Souls III simply doesn't have this. There's the undead spearmen that are easy to parry, but they're so slow and defensive that you'll likely just get bored waiting for them to attack and miss your opportunity to parry. Sure you could go back to the tutorial level to practice parrying, but then you're not making any progress. There's also a lot more instances early of mobs, including the presence of difficult casters (or even bosses) being among those mobs. Fortunately, the boss is very slow and lumbering, and the casters have good audio cues for when they're casting that help to make these mobs less frustrating to deal with.

The big, armored elephant in the room

Dark Souls III - hyper armor
Poise has been disabled for players, which means enemies will always stagger you, but you might not stagger them.

Perhaps the biggest contributor to the game's difficulty early on is the completely baffling way in which poise and defense work - which is that they don't. In addition to not being able to upgrade armor to improve its defenses, the poise stat appears to have been completely disabled for all players in the game's code for ... some reason. Poise was one of the best additions from Dark Souls 1, and its apparent removal completely baffles me. Is it bugged and they're planning on fixing and enabling it later via a patch? Is it planned to be part of DLC? "Hey, want poise back? Pay $15 for this DLC!" The value still shows up in the UI, and there's still rings and weapons that exclusively improve poise, so it definitely seems like FROM intends for poise to be in the game. The enemies seem to still have poise, so this situation seems completely unfair. This might be part of the reason why the start of the game feels so difficult, since those damned speedy Lothric Knights can hit through your attacks, but you can't hit through theirs!

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Dark Souls II - title

I've been trying to get myself hyped up for Dark Souls III by playing through the Scholar of the First Sin edition of Dark Souls II. I made myself a knight character as well as a sorcerer character. I hadn't played as a dedicated caster in the original release, so I made the sorcerer my primary character for Scholar.

So I put myself through the misery of trying to farm the Lizard Staff for my sorcerer character. This staff is one of the three or four best staves in the game (for Int-based sorcerers), but it's extremely rare. It is only dropped by the two Hollow Black Mages that accompany the Executioner's Chariot in the Undead Purgatory. So it's only even possible to acquire in this one, specific location in the game, and once you beat the boss, the mages don't respawn. So it's even harder than trying to farm the Sea Bow or other such items, because you can't simply go back to the area later and farm the enemies.

To make matters worse, I didn't realize that this staff could be acquired here, so I made the mistake of killing the boss early in the game (before I had equipment to raise my item discovery rate). So the only way for me to acquire this staff now would be to warp to the Undead Purgatory bonfire, use a Bonfire Ascetic to respawn the boss, fight may way back through the Huntsman's Copse, and hope to get the rare drop. I had to fight harder versions of the Purgatory Executioners. It was tough, but doable. I was able to lure them out one at a time and easily dispatch them. It's only if they ganged up on me that I had problems. But then I also had to get past the Red Phantom Tower Knight (who now respawns because of the Bonfire Ascetic). I died several times trying to run past them all, as the Tower Knight's weapon tracking was pretty spot-on. Eventually, I resorted to spell-sniping him from just outside his pursuit range. It was cheap, but I wasn't here to fight, I was here to farm a staff.

Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin - Lizard Staff
Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin - Sea Bow
The Lizard Staff and Sea Bow are among several items in Dark Souls II that are extremely rare drops.

Then I made it into the Executioner's Chariot boss fight, and I died. And then I died again. And again. This was getting tedious.

Bonfire Ascetics, Soul Memory, and grinding / farming in Dark Souls II

I hate grinding and farming in games. I really do. It's something that I really don't think games need to have anymore. It was something that worked fine when games were relatively short, and grinding or farming for obscure items and secrets was a challenge reserved for the most dedicated players. But Dark Souls II is already long enough without including grinding for hours for rare item drops. It's one thing to hide items behind secret bosses or particularly tough challenges, such that the item is a symbol for overcoming a challenge. It's a totally different thing to hide items behind random drops from enemies that appear literally in one spot in the entire game, and who despawn after beating them.

In Dark Souls II's case, there's even mechanical reasons why this sort of grinding or farming should not be in the game. And that reason is Soul Memory...

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Dark Souls title

While the player character in Dark Souls can be in a "hollow" state, the player never truly does go hollow. At least, not in the sense that NPCs and enemies have gone hollow. According to Dark Souls' mythology, the undead are condemned to repeatedly wander Lordran in search of a cure, being unable to permanently die. But for virtually all such undead, this quest is futile. An undead can temporarily stave off hallowing by absorbing souls or infusing themselves with the humanity of someone else. Eventually, an undead dies one too many times, or is worn down by the daily grind of collecting souls, and loses the will to go on. When this happens, that undead becomes hollow, loses his sanity and free will, and continues to wander the world as a mindless zombie attacking any un-hollowed that it encounters on sight.

It is unknown how many "Chosen Undead" are brought to Lordran, but the Crestfallen Warrior at Firelink tells us that many have come before you. Is it possible that all hollows in Lordran were at some point "Chosen Undead", tasked by Frampt to retrieve the Lordvessel and re-kindle the dying flame? Probably not. A great deal of the hollows that you encounter in the game were likely former residents of Lordran, and there was no need to select a "Chosen Undead" until Gwyn's power faded to a "cinder", and the fire began to die. This presumably took a very long time - a whole "age", to be precise.

Dark Souls - crestfallen warrior
The Crestfallen Warrior informs us that we are not the first "chosen undead",
and suspects that we won't be the last either.

Avoiding hollowness with purpose

Many undead adventurers wandered into Lordran (or were abducted and taken there), and they struggle to hold onto their precious humanity for as long as possible, fighting for their lives in the fear that they, too will go hollow. Some, like the Crestfallen Warrior, resign themselves to the inevitability of hollowness, and find a sense of purpose in warning other new arrivals that they, too, are doomed. Others pursue some seemingly impossible goal or objective in the hopes that the journey will provide them with the sense of purpose necessary to avoid (or at least delay) hollowing. And yet others have taken up crafts or vocations such as blacksmithing, vending, or guarding something in order to keep them focused and avoid hollowing. Keeping such a goal may help keep an undead partially lucid, but they also seem to begin to forget everything else, and only the knowledge of their quest or craft remains.

Going on "one final quest" seems to provide adventurers with enough focus to hold back hollowing.

But hollowing isn't just a thematic element reserved for non-player characters; hollowing is also a mechanic in the game that affects the player. Whenever the player character dies, you are reborn at the last bonfire in a hollowed state, unable to summon help from allies until you restore your humanity through the consumption of someone else's humanity. In Dark Souls II, hollowing further handicaps the player by cummulatively reducing your total health each time you die, and only restoring your humanity can refill your health meter. In both these cases, the player is not truly hollow; you are only in a state of partial hollowing.

It's unclear whether non-player characters are able to die and restore their humanity, or if deaths contribute to an irreversible progression towards hollowness. There are, after all, apparently hollowed NPCs such as the undead merchant in the Undead Burg and blacksmith Lenigrast in Majula who are sane enough to have kept their shops open. The presence of NPC summon signs hints at the possibility that they, too, are capable of restoring their own humanity through the same mechanisms that you can, but the game itself justifies this with ambiguous appeals to "time distortion" and parallel realities that obfuscates the matter - particularly where Solaire and Lautrec are concerned.

Dark Souls - summoned NPC
Summoned NPCs may recover humanity as you do, or they're from another time or dimension, or both.

Solaire's dialogue refers to "heroes centuries old phasing in and out.". Solaire may be using the words "world" and "time" interchangeably. This seems to be the game's justification for how summoning works: you may be literally summoning someone from a bygone era into your own time period. Anytime, you are summoned to someone else's world, you are also being transported to another time (past or future, depending on whether or not you finish the game). Solaire and Lautrec seem to somehow come from another time or dimension, but other characters definitely seem to exist within your world and time: Andre, the Crestfallen Warrior, Rhea and her companions, Big Hat Logan and his apprentice, and so on are all undead who have seen many other "Chosen Undead" come to Lordran seeking their destiny.

In any case, it's not until an undead "gives up" that the hollowing process becomes complete. What do we mean by "giving up"? For an NPC, it means that they gave up on life and went hollow, and the player typically ends up putting them down. For the player, it means that you stop playing the game. As long as you continue to play the game, then your character will continue to hold onto a sliver of humanity and maintain his or her sanity for a little while longer. When you put down your controller for the last time, you have condemned your character avatar to finally succumbing to hollowness, whether you recognize it or not...

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Bloodborne - the Old Hunters DLC

The DLC level for Bloodborne is considerably easier to access than the DLC of the first Dark Souls. You only have to beat a mid-game boss, and the items that you need to access the DLC are literally just handed to you next time you visit the Hunter's Dream. Unfortunately, if you don't read the pop-up text that tells you where to go to access the DLC level, then you might be in trouble, as there's no other indication in the game of where to go. Not eve in the item description of the trinket that grants access. In typical FROMSoft fashion, accessing the DLC is fairly obscure and un-intuitive. In fact, it's even more obscure than Dark Souls because it isn't something that the player is likely to accidentally stumble upon. It requires players to do something that they might actively avoid attempting to do because it's something that probably got them killed in the base game. Granted, there is one other situation in the base game in which you are teleported to an optional location by this same method, so it's not entirely unprecedented, but it still feels contrived. Look FROMSoft, if you have to explicitly tell the player where to go in a text prompt, rather than allowing the player to infer it based on textual or environmental clues, that's probably a sign that you made it too esoteric...

Bloodborne: the Old Hunters -
The DLC doesn't require players to jump through as many hoops as Artorias of the Abyss required,
but the actual entry-point into the DLC is even more obscure and counter-intuitive.

Once you're in the DLC's "Hunter's Nightmare" area, you'll be provided with a seemingly much more technical challenge than Dark Souls' Artorias of the Abyss DLC. While Artorias DLC threw a lot of magic-casting enemies at me that required me to cheese my way through the levels by using ranged weapons or mob-baiting tactics to cut down enemies one-by-one while staying out of range of the casters, Bloodborne's The Old Hunters DLC instead pits me in more one-on-one battles with fellow hunters that require more careful technique in order to vanquish. In fact, these encounters kind of subvert one of the common criticisms of the Souls games, which is that enemies are too easy to bait, and fighting one-on-one trivializes most fights. The mob monsters in the Hunter's Nightmare actually back away from you as if they're scared, and the other hunter enemies will actually kill those monsters for you, setting the stage for these one-on-one fights. I hope you've been practicing parrying, visceral attacks, and dashing towards enemies in the base game, because this DLC will test those skills. They aren't as obscenely difficult as the NPC hunters that you can find in the chapel of the Unseen Village or in the courtyard on the side of the Grand Cathedral (opposite the path to the Forbidden Woods), but they can easily destroy you if you overreach or get arrogant.

Or at least, most of the hunters aren't that difficult. There are a few notable hunters that posed quite a challenge. One pair of hostile church agents caused me quite a bit of trouble with the camera and target lock, since one was a ranged spell-caster, and the other was an in-your-face swordsman. These issues were exacerbated by the presence of environmental decorations that kept getting between my character and the camera, and thus blocking my view of the action. It always annoys me when game designers put challenges in the game that the mechanics are ill-equipped to deal with. It's something that Bloodborne and the Souls games rarely fell victim to (other than the occasional tight-roping and platforming), so it's really noticeable when it does happen.

This wheelchair enemy would sometimes wind up on the moving stairs and turn invisible.

There was also a recurring glitch in which a particular wheelchair enemy would sometimes fall onto a set of rotating stairs and would then become invisible. I'd be walking around, then suddenly BOOM! I'm blasted with gatling gun fire literally from nowhere! This resulted in two cheap deaths for me before I realized what was going on and remembered where it was.

Through the nightmares of hunters past

Another way that "The Old Hunters" is reminiscent of "Artorias of the Abyss" is that this DLC fills a similar role of further expanding upon backstory that is hinted at by the base game. Wheres Artorias literally took the player back in time to witness the legend of Artorias first-hand, "The Old Hunters" sends the player into a nightmarish limbo version of Yharnam populated by hunters and church members of ages past. The world is twisted and convoluted by the imperfect memory of the characters that inhabit it, and the result is another confusing trek through the maze of a barely-recognizable Yharnam.

Bloodborne: the Old Hunters - Hunter's Nightmare
The Hunter's Nightmare is a twisted and threatening re-interpretation of the familiar Yharnam.

But this time, the maze feels more organic. The opening level of Yharnam in Bloodborne really felt as though the developers wanted the player to at least have an idea of where to go, but just failed miserably at communicating any sense of direction to the player. For example, an NPC in original Yharnam told you to go "south", but there's no compass or signpost indicating which direction "south" is. In this nightmare Yharnam, I feel like direction is deliberately left ambiguous. The world itself feels like a surreal mystery that the player is supposed to unravel, and the first part of that mystery is answering the questions "Where am I?" and "What the heck is this place?" And the fact that Bloodborne already requires the player to go through portals and trek through nightmares makes the transition to the DLC area feel much less jarring and out-of-place than the journey to Oolacile felt, even though (as stated early) the entry-point is more esoteric than ever.

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Until Dawn - game title

Here is a game that somehow managed to slip under the radar for me. As a snob for strong narrative-based games, I was surprised that a project like Until Dawn managed to escape my attention until a couple weeks prior to its release. Once I heard about it though, I was immediately intrigued. I knew it wasn't going to be a proper survival horror game, but it looked to have a lot of potential to move the horror genre (and gaming in general) in interesting directions. I was doubly surprised when I went to go by the game a couple days after its release so that I could play it over the weekend, only for it to be sold out in the two stores that I went to. It's the first time in about ten years that I've had trouble finding a game on store shelves within a week of its release, but I doubt that I'll have to break my long-standing boycott for pre-orders. So I had to resort to ordering it off of Amazon Prime with 2-day delivery and play it the next weekend.

Suspend your disbelief - and your common sense

Don't be fooled into thinking that Until Dawn is something other than what it is. It is an interactive movie with branching story. It is not an open-ended survival game! Anyone familiar with Heavy Rain or the Telltale Games will have a good idea of how the game will play out. The things you do and the actions and dialogue available are very tightly scripted. You won't be making decisions on how the group splits up, who goes where, or even what any individual character might be doing at any given time. Large chunks of the game are just dialogue and cutscenes, stopping you every now and then to let you make one of two choices, or showing a button prompt on screen to keep the action going (and sometimes keep the character alive). There are even some action sequences that could have been playable, but which are strictly non-interactive cutscenes.

Until Dawn - can't light candles
How about lighting some friggin' candles instead of groping around in the dark?

The only time that the game opens up more is when you must explore rooms for clues or evidence. In these cases, you have complete control of character movement and can walk around mostly freely. But interactions are severely limited. You can only interact with the select few objects that the developers intended for you to interact with.

These limitations can be very frustrating because the game doesn't let you do some obvious, common sense things. Upon entering the lodge, I'd like to have been able to light the candles instead of having to wander around in the dark for the next few chapters. Later, when investigating something crashing through a window, I'd like to have been able to take the rifle I just found on the wall. And even later, after the rifle didn't have enough bullets to shoot the murderer, it would be nice to have been able to open up the revolver I just found to make sure that it's loaded and find out how many bullets are in the chamber. And the list of dumb oversights goes on...

Common sense precautions like taking a melee weapon or checking that your new gun is loaded are not possible.

These limitations are further exacerbated by the esoteric nature of some of the decisions. Since all decision are binary (usually consisting of a "helpful" / "safe" option or an "antagonistic" / "risky" option), it's often unclear exactly what the character will do, and the outcome often plays out in a non-interactive cutscene. The character may not say or do exactly what the option described, which might lead the player to think "that's not what I meant to do / say!", and sometimes a decision might railroad you into following through in a way that you don't want to.

Granted, the options need to be somewhat vague, and the consequences shouldn't be obvious. That would make the game too easy and dull. The game has to utilize some of the classic horror movie tropes in order for the narrative to work. After all, the characters don't have the foresight to know that they're in a horror movie game. I accept that there needs to be limitations on the precautions that the player can take, but the player also needs to feel like they have more agency.

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