Soulsborne series

On the Branch Gaming

In my recent time playing Dark Souls for On the Branch Gaming, we discussed several ideas for ways that the game could have been improved. I'm not sure if From Soft will be making any more Dark Souls or Bloodborne games (at least not anytime soon), but if they do, here's a list of some things that I'd like to see them improve. At the very least, we can consider this to be a retrospective, "How could they have done it better?" brainstorm, and any other developers who want to try their hand at a Souls-Borne-style game could maybe try these alternative designs out for their games.

This isn't a wishlist of changes that I'd like to see in specific games. I've already done those for each of the Souls games:

Some of these posts (and the ideas presented in them) haven't aged very well, but I do stand by most of the suggestions offered in the above posts. At the very least, they offer perspective on how my own perceptions of the games have evolved over time.

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More informative UI

The UI is something that could definitely use some work. Each game in the series made minor tweaks to the UI - sometimes improving the overall experience, other times seeming to regress to a clunkier interface. But there are some things that probably should have been present, if not in Demon's Souls, then at least by Dark Souls or Dark Souls II. Some of these things seem so obvious that it boggles my brain that nobody at FROMSoft thought of them. Or maybe they were always items near the bottom of the priority list, that the team simply ran out of time to ever implement.

Collection log

Something that persitently bothered me across all the Souls-Borne games was the intrusive item-pickup notification. That giant, black box sitting almost dead in the center of the screen, partially blocking your view of your character and his or her immediate surroundings, did not need to be there. If you pick up an item in the heat of battle, then having to press X to dismiss it could be just enough of a distraction to get you killed.

Dark Souls - item pick-up
While playing Dark Souls with On the Branch Gaming,
I was reminded how distracting the item-pickup notifications are.

Instead of this big notification box, I propose an alternative: put a smaller notification in the corner of the screen somewhere that vanished after a few seconds. Since we don't want to miss knowing what we just picked up, the game should also include an item-collection log in the menu. Heck, it wouldn't even need to be a separate screen, it could just be a sorting option in the existing menu: sort by recently-acquired...

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Dark Souls III: the Ringed City - title

FROM Soft has an erratic track record with how cryptic it can be to find the DLC in the Dark Souls and Bloodborne games. The first Dark Souls required an absolutely arcane process that you'd probably never discover if you didn't already know how to do it. Dark Souls II apparently had its three DLC planned form the beginning, as the vanilla game included shrines for accessing each DLC - at least one of which is in plain view and can't be missed. Bloodborne put a prompt on the screen telling you where to go, but accessing the DLC still required the player to counter-intuitively interact with a specific entity in the game world. And Dark Souls III's first DLC added a character that you could talk to who teleported you to the DLC.

So how would The Ringed City implement its entrance to the DLC? Would it require some arcane process of killing optional enemies in optional areas? Would a dialogue box just pop up to tell the player where to go? If you ask me, The Ringed City might have the laziest and most boring access point of them all. An extra bonfire just appears at one of two specific points, which teleports you to the new area. It makes the whole thing feel like a very detached afterthought.

Dark Souls III: the Ringed City - Ariandel bonfire
If you don't want to wait till the end of the game, you can access the DLC early by beating Ariandel.

If there's one common thread for the DLC, it's that it always requires the player to be teleported across space and/or time. Continuing that tradition is disappointing. I was really hoping for the DLC to be integrated into the actual game world -- that it would reveal some previously-blocked-off path in some obscure or interesting region of the map that would simply allow the player to walk to the DLC, thus revealing the game world to be much larger than originally believed. Like maybe defeating the Stray Demon gatekeeper above Farron could have opened the gate and revealed a path to the DLC. Or the Kiln of the First Flame could have a new path leading down into the Dreg Heap. Or you could descend into the chasm below the Profaned Capital. Something like that.

Maybe as a fun easter egg for fans, the access point could have been hidden behind a statue sitting behind Andre the Blacksmith in Firelink Shrine. But no, it's just an extra, out-of-place bonfire. Further, the fact that this expansion is an extension of the plot from Ariandel, and the very anti-climactic nature of Ariandel, makes it seem like Ariandel should have been the first act of this expansion, but was separated out into its own expansion for ... whatever reason...

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Dark Souls III: Ashes of Ariandel - title

FromSoft has a pretty amazing track record with the DLC expansions for its Dark Souls and Bloodborne games. Heck, the Crowns Trilogy expansions basically save Dark Souls II from being completely dismissable within the Souls library. Needless to say, expectations for a Dark Souls III expansion were pretty high. Maybe they were too high, as FromSoft sadly seems to have really misfired with Ashes of Ariandel.

Is this mid-game content, or end-game content?

My primary problem with this expansion is that it has wildly erratic difficulty. It breaks with the tradition of having a very obscure access point, and so it's very easy to access very early in the game. It's basically un-missable. There are no arcane hoops to jump through this time, nor is it so obscurely-hidden that From needed to include a dialogue box to tell you where to go. Instead, there's simply an NPC in an area of the game that is accessible fairly early in the game. Talk to this NPC, and he'll transport you to the Painted World of Ariandel.

Dark Souls III: Ashes of Ariandel - developer hint
The developers recommend facing "the depths of Lothric Castle" before playing the DLC.

Once you enter Ariandel, you'll find a pair of developer hints. One reads "Before one faces the painting, one should face the depths of Lothric Castle.", and another claims that only the mighty will survive. So clearly, this area is intended to be late-game content (as you're recommended to have already beaten Lothric Castle and/or Oceiros' Garden). But take a few steps into the DLC, and you'll find some pretty simple basic enemies. The followers of Farron are easily beatable by any mid-level character. Some of them can throw spears at you while hidden behind the blinding snow while you're dealing with their comrades in melee. I didn't have too much trouble dealing with this though, as the melee enemies can be easily kited away from the ranged ones.

The wolves are pretty weak and are only tough if the whole pack gangs up on your or if the camera wigs out while they are jumping around. A level 50 or 60 character would probably have little trouble with these enemies. To From's credit, these wolves are actually pretty fun to fight. They aren't nearly as obnoxious as the dogs that have driven me nuts in previous games.

Dark Souls III: Ashes of Ariandel - pack of wolves
Most of Ariandel's enemies are pretty easy for mid-game characters
as long as you don't let them swarm and overwhelm you...

But then there's the Millwood Knights and Corvian Knights, which feel like they require the player to be closer to the 80-100 range. Seriously, there's like a 40-level difference between the enemies that you'll encounter in this level, and that's pretty ridiculous. Some of the Millwood Knights guard some fancy optional weapons and an optional area, but the other Millwoods and the Corvian Knights are placed along the necessary paths of progress. You have to fight them. Or at least try to run past them.

The Corvian Knights are a particular pain in the ass...

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Dark Souls III

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What the hell does poise do?!!

In my review, I noted that poise seemed to have been turned off in the game's code. Well, FROM Soft has apparently stated that poise is working as intended. Really? How? What does it do? FROM was not forthcoming (so far) with any details on what the stat is supposed to actually do, other than to say that it is "more situational". Ok, whatever. So I guess it's up to the community to try to figure out how this stat apparently works, since it doesn't work in any way comparable to the previous games, nor does it seem to solve the problem that the original implementation of poise was intended to solve.

UPDATE Nov 16, 2016:
It looks like we've finally figured out what Poise does in Dark Souls III. It seems to only be activated when using large weapons that provide Hyper Armor.

I had previously believed that Poise functioned as an "escape method" from quick, stun-locking weapons (like daggers). My early interpretation of Poise was that a higher Poise value may allow the player to escape from a stun lock and be able to roll / counter-attack / parry after 3 hits rather than 5 or 6 consecutive hits. I even remember testing this hypothesis out and finding it to hold true. This would also apply to situations in which a player gets attacks from multiple enemies simultaneously (or in quick succession). Higher Poise would allow you to escape from the 3rd enemy's attack, rather than the 4th or 5th. But according to the Wiki, this doesn't seem to be the case. Am I wrong?

If it is true that Poise only affects Hyper Armor, then I'm still not happy with the mechanic, as it only applies to very specific builds, and might as well be a stat on the weapon rather than a feature of armor. But if it does also affect the ability to escape stun locks, then I guess I would be a little bit more satisfied.

Poise was originally intended to act as a counter to extremely fast weapons like daggers, rapiers, and so on, that could quickly hit and stagger an opponent and put them in a stun lock from which they couldn't escape (so long as the attacker still had stamina). It was also intended to give players with slower weapons an opportunity to tank their way through hits with such fast weapons. You'd still take damage, but assuming your attack with a stronger, slower weapon did more damage than your opponent's weaker, faster weapons, then the trade-off would still be in your favor. If you were going to use a very slow weapon, then it behooved you to also equip heavy armor and other poise-boosting equipment so that you could tank through opponents' hits. That doesn't seem to be the case anymore. A knight in full heavy armor should not get stun locked in a 10-hit combo from a dagger. It simply shouldn't happen. This is what poise was designed to prevent, and it's not doing its job. If an invader shows up in your world with an estoc, and you aren't an expert at parrying, then you might as well just offer up your head on the chopping block and get it over with.

Dark Souls III - dagger stun lock
Without poise, heavy armor is worthless, and daggers are incredibly overpowered against slower combatants.

Without poise in this form, heavy armor simply isn't worth its weight encumbrance, especially since you can't even upgrade it to increase its damage resistance. This was a problem in Demon's Souls, which didn't have poise. Heavy armors generally didn't reduce damage enough to be worthwhile, they prevented the player from effectively rolling, and they were so heavy that they prevented the player from being able to pick up all the loot in a level because that game also had an item burden. Rolling was the end-all-be-all of defense in Demon's Souls, and that was one of the game's greatest weaknesses. It was easy to overlook because the developers didn't know better at the time. But they do know better now. Was poise exploitable in Dark Souls? Sure. It was really exploitable in Dark Souls II due to its connection to hyper armor and the inclusion of farmable healing items. But whatever FROM Soft did to it in DSIII seems like a severe overreaction.

Once I learned that poise wasn't working the way I expected it to, I gave up on trying to engage a lot of enemies with my slow halberd. Instead, I started fighting the knights in Lothric Castle and the Grand Archives with my flame-infused barbed straight sword - which I also spent a bunch of titanite to fully upgrade. This speedier weapon allowed me to attack these knights as fast (or faster) than they could attack me, giving me enough of an edge to reliably beat them. The ones with the tower shields and lances still gave me trouble, but the swordsmen fell swiftly to my +10 Barbed Flame Sword. Even Yahtzee noted in his Zero Punctuation review the starting long sword seemed better than any of the numerous boss weapons that he found. I imagine that this is because he also had trouble with the lack of poise, but didn't quite figure out that poise wasn't working.

Dark Souls III - estoc
Lack of proper poise allows the estoc's reach and speed to make it a deadly PvP weapon.

So this leaves us with the question of "what, exactly, is poise intended to do?"...

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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...

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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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Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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