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

Table of Contents

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.

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...

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 : Scholar of the First Sin

Hot off of playing Bloodborne's The Old Hunters DLC, and with Dark Souls III just over the horizon, I thought I'd get myself hyped up by playing through the re-release of Dark Souls II, Scholar of the First Sin. This version of the game was a next-gen enhancement of the original game that was released on the PS3, XBox 360, and PC a year prior, and it includes improved graphics, faster frame rate, and more challenging enemy-placement. It's available on PS4, XBox One, and PC, and is treated as a completely different game as the original version. It's not a DLC or a patch update (though it does include all three of Dark Souls II's DLC content).

Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin - graphics comparison
Scholar of the First Sin looks much smoother in motion, with higher resolution and framerate.
Lighting and textures are (at best) only marginally improved from the last-gen release.

I was honestly expecting Scholar of the First Sin's graphics to be considerably better than they are. In fact, I honestly don't think the graphics are much better than the last-gen release; I think the only difference is that it displays at full 1080 resolution and plays at a high end of 60 frames per second. Colors are a little more vibrant, and the game doesn't look as washed-out, but models and environments don't seem any more complex, and textures are only maybe slightly more detailed. Unfortunately, darkness still isn't as dark as it needs to be to make the torch as necessary for exploration as it was apparently intended to be. In pre-release demos, darkness was implied to be a complete fade to black that rendered objects within the dark invisible. Simply adjusting the brightness of your TV wouldn't change that. In the released version, darkness doesn't go completely black, so objects are only hidden if your TV brightness is low - lower than the recommended brightness level of the game. Even then, the release game looks brighter, and Scholar of the First Sin does very little to change that.

Dark Souls II - preview footage graphics comparison
PREVIEW FOOTAGE showcased greater contrast between light and dark, and more detailed textures and geometry...

This graphical downgrade, the complete failure of FROM or Namco/Bandai to inform the public about it, and the resultant misleading marketing that repeatedly showed demos, screenshots, and footage that wasn't representative of the final product left a huge negative impression on a lot of players - especially those who pre-ordered it. That poor initial taste is probably a huge part of the reason why this game has gotten such a negative reception, even though that negative reception is mostly warranted. Scholar of the First Sin was an opportunity to wash that bad taste out of consumers' mouths and give us the game that was advertised, marketed, and pre-ordered. But Namco and FROM didn't bother.

Darkness is just rarely ever a meaningful component of the gameplay. Darkness may lower the range of target locks though, so even though I could plainly see enemies, I felt like I wasn't able to target lock them as readily as I could in the PS3 version. Even so, there's enough sconces laying around that you can light a sconce, extinguish your torch to fight, then re-light it at the sconce after all the enemies have been dispatched. It ends up just being some extra overhead if you care enough to bother with it, and not an essential element of gameplay.

Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin - graphics comparison
... FINAL PRODUCT shows low contrast between light and dark, frequent repeated textures, and simplified geometry.

Textures, character models, and world geometry don't look noticeably better. Many areas still have generally blander textures than what was presented in pre-release videos, and the textures noticeably repeat. World geometry also seems less detailed and intricate compared to pre-release videos, which takes away a lot of the personality that these preview areas exhibited. I was expecting Scholar of the First Sin to restore many of these superior textures and models from the previews, and I'm really disappointed that the game doesn't look better than it does.

Darker contrast in previews [LEFT] made real-time shadows more vibrant,
and creatures more threatening and mysterious than in the release build [RIGHT].

The improved textures also don't do much to help the game's generally bland art design. There aren't many visually-appealing locations in the game, as they are all just variations of run-down castles and forest paths. Most of them have pretty sparsely-decorated hallways with simple geometry that has little-to-no personality. There's nothing here that even approaches the ominousness of Demon's Souls' Latria, and the oppressive environments of Bloodborne make Dark Souls II almost serene by comparison. Again, Scholar of the First Sin does little-to-nothing to address this. No Man's Wharf probably remains my favorite location in this game, as it's one of the few locations that takes place in a fairly unique setting that actually utilizes light and dark for gameplay purposes.

So while the visual upgrade doesn't really add much to the game, the higher framerate definitely does make a noticeable difference. The PS4 doesn't seem to maintain a full 60-fps at all times, but it seems to always run better and smoother than the 20-30 fps of the PS3 version. Animations are much smoother, and ambient effects (such as foliage swaying in the wind) look much better. I admittedly had to spend some time re-adjusting to the game's speed. After coming back from the rapid pace of Bloodborne, this game almost seemed to be moving in slow motion, and the higher framerate probably contributed greatly to that sensation. That's not necessarily a bad thing; it's just a stylistic difference. Scholar of the First Sin plays smoothly (on the PS4), and it looks decent (even though it should have looked better)...

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Metal Gear Solid V: the Phantom Pain

Are you one of the poor suckers who paid $30-40 for Ground Zeroes and were ready for The Phantom Pain to make up for your disappointment with what was little more than a glorified (and over-priced) demo? I wasn't, because I got Ground Zeroes for free from my PSPlus subscription around the same time that Phantom Pain was released. I was obviously disappointed with the demo's short length, and I didn't bother doing any of the side missions. But since I didn't pay for it, I wasn't as enraged as some other players might have been.

I actually really liked what little gameplay Ground Zeroes had to offer. The Guantanamo Bay arena was well-designed and offered some good infiltration challenge that tested my Metal Gear capabilities. The A.I. was surprisingly competent and adaptive - not so much that I couldn't exploit them occasionally, but still good. The graphics, lighting, and weather effects all looked outstanding. It was a fun experience. Not "forty dollars fun", but pretty fun. At least part of the battle at Mother Base should have been playable, and I didn't like that large elements of the story were hidden away in collectible audio tapes, but whatever.

I got Ground Zeroes for free on PSPlus, instead of paying $30-40 MSRP for a glorified demo.

Ground Zeroes gave me flashbacks to the phenomenal classic Sons of Liberty demo that came packaged with Zone of the Enders on the PS2. At least that only cost me a $3 rental, and I got to play Zone of the Enders too. After Ground Zeroes, I was looking forward to getting my hands on the much bigger Phantom Pain, and was optimistic that it would provide an equally good experience that would be worth the purchase price. Phantom Pain is a very long, very complicated, and very uneven game. So buckle up, friend. This is going to be a long review.

Table of Contents

After having written a lengthy blog post about how open world, sandbox game design almost necessarily puts the game's narrative in a state of limbo, I was amazed to start up Metal Gear Solid V and see the very first mission took my criticisms to heart. Of course, the game had already been released by the time I had written that opinion piece, so I can't take credit for having influenced its development, but it was still refreshing and gratifying. Anyway, in the very first mission, Ocelot tells you that Miller has been captured by Soviets in Afghanistan, has been tortured for intel, and has three days - tops - to live. You must rescue him before that time.

Metal Gear Solid V - three days to rescue Miller
Ocelot gives the player three days to rescue Miller...

At first, I didn't put much stock in Ocelot's claim. After all, sandbox games are notorious for saying that something needs to be done ASAP, but they never have the balls to actually walk the walk and enforce that objective. Until now. When checking my map, I noticed something in the corner that I hadn't noticed in other sandbox games before: an "elapsed time" counter. The game was plainly tracking how long it was taking me to complete the primary mission objective. I treated this timer with a certain degree of skepticism. But sure enough, failure to rescue Miller within the allotted time actually results in a "Game Over"!

This is exactly how I feel that priority objectives in open world games should be handled: make it apparent to the player (through dialogue and/or explicit notification) that an objective is being timed or that it is otherwise a priority, and make sure that there are reasonable, perceivable consequences for failure to achieve that objective within the expected conditions. Then design some early-game quests or objectives such that the player is put in a position in which they can (or must) fail; thus, teaching the player that when the game says "do x or else", the game actually means it. I put down the controller and gave Hideo Kojima a standing ovation. But would this opening mission set a precedent that priority missions must actually be prioritized, and would that precedent stand throughout the rest of the game? Or was this just a one-off occurrence that would not be representative of the rest of the game? Regardless, a tone was plainly set for the rest of the game, and the stakes had been raised.

... Failure to rescue Miller within the allotted time results in his death and a Game Over.

Would this refreshing precedent carry over into the rest of the game? Well, sort of...

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