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.
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
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!
If providing an early-game challenge for the most hardcore was a design goal of this game, then a much better solution than disabling poise would be to take the approach that Dark Souls II took, which was the Company of Champions covenant that made the game more difficult. The biggest source of ease in the game is summoning help, and the Company of Champions disabled that and forced the player to solo the game (though you could abandon the covenant at any time if a particular section proved too difficult), while also making the enemies hit harder and take more damage. For me, that seems like a better solution than just making the game universally harder for everyone, and it's definitely a better solution than secretly disabling defensive stats! That's assuming, of course, that you actually tell the player what the hell the covenant does!
Fortunately, leveling is very cheap early in the game, and I quickly fell into a pattern of power-leveling my character's vigor to give myself an HP buffer against the massive damage that many enemies dish out (and which you can't avoid due to the lack of proper damage reduction and defense from armor). Grinding for levels really shouldn't feel like as much of a necessity as it is in this game. By a third of the way through the game, I already had a life bar that stretched halfway across the top of the screen - something that I had never had to do in the previous games. There was a lot of frustration in these early levels. Even after having cleared a large chunk of the game with one character, and then starting new games with new characters of different classes, I still had consistent issues with the same early enemies.
The rest of the game has peaks and valleys of difficulty.
This game's saving grace is that it fortunately doesn't show the brazen cruelty of random deaths that Dark Souls II exhibited. Sure, there's a lot of ambushes, slimes will drop on you from the rafters like deadly slimy turds, half the chests in the game are mimics, and enemies in Irithyll Dungeon cause damage to you on sight (is this FROM's idea of a "stealth level"?), but these are all things that you can see coming and avoid if you're paying attention and taking things slow. Dark Souls III won't be pulling the floor out from underneath you during platforming, or making powerful enemies burst through walls to insta-kill you simply for the LoLs, like Dark Souls II liked to do. Well, except for this one time that I beat a boss, and the game rewarded me by teleporting me to another room, where, if you don't immediately use a Homeward Bone, you're stuck in a second boss fight! That was pretty cruel.
Bosses themselves are quite exceptional. Almost all of them have multiple phases in which their attacks and behavior changes, and many have interesting gimmicks in their design. Those who played Bloodborne's The Old Hunters DLC will already be familiar with how this works. This gives each boss a feeling of uniqueness and helps to break up any sense of rote repetition from the fights. The bosses don't repeat the same three hit combos ad nauseum (as in Dark Souls II), and some even have longer five, seven, or nine hit combos! The fights are more intense and feel less like drawn-out grinds of repetitively-perfect execution. And some of these bosses have outright astonishing visual designs!
The biggest problem is that the poor execution of armor means that these bosses hit exceedingly hard. What's the point of a seven-swing combo if two hits are more than enough to drain the player's stamina, break their guard, and kill them twice over? With better defense from armor, virtually all these boss fights would become instant classics!
Banking on nostalgia
The Undead Settlement looks like it could have been a left-over level from Bloodborne.
Upon booting up Dark Souls III for the first time, I was surprised by how nostalgic the game made me feel. Not even to Dark Souls or Dark Souls II, but nostalgic to Demon's Souls and Bloodborne! The overall aesthetic looks much closer to Bloodborne, but with a much wider color palette. The general architecture, and the high level of detail in the environments and decorations really evoked the aesthetic design of Bloodborne, even if it is much brighter and more colorful. Whole levels (such as the Undead Settlement and Irithyll) look like they could have been pulled straight out of Bloodborne. The colors themselves, and the early environments even had me thinking more of Demon's Souls than of either of the first two Dark Souls games, and the interface that now re-introduces a blue mana bar only deepened the feeling that I was looking at a next-gen version of Demon's Souls.
The Firekeeper [LEFT] repeats lines almost verbatim from the Maiden in Black [RIGHT]
And this nostalgia carries on throughout the game. Oh sure, there'll be plenty of references to Dark Souls as the story progresses, but it was always the nods to Demon's Souls that caught my attention. The central hub location may share the name of Firelink Shrine from Dark Souls, but it looks and functions more like the Nexus from Demon's Souls, right down to the presence of merchants and a blacksmith, and the Firekeeper character repeating lines almost verbatim from Demon's Souls' Maiden in Black. The big difference is that the five markers in Firelink don't act as portals to the levels, but rather, they act as checklists of defeated bosses. There are whole levels later in the game that look like they are shortened versions of levels from Demon's Souls. There's even a few surprise mechanics that return from Demon's Souls, but I won't spoil them.
There's going to be some criticism that this game re-uses locations and characters from the original game. But that isn't necessarily a problem. There's possibly some Metal Gear Solid 2-style, post-modern meta-criticism of big-budget sequels and fan expectations going on here. Admittedly, Dark Souls II may have also been going for this sort of idea, but it seems more deliberate and thought-out this time around. The narrative setup is about literally re-enacting the first linking of the flame by defeating the four "heirs of cinder", and so any feelings of sameness or rote repetition may be deliberately designed to critique the "sequel-ness" and apparent lack of originality in certain aspects of design. Those powerful bosses have broken with tradition and, for some reason, don't want to participate in the re-enactment as they are expected to, and wanting to break out of the cycle becomes a recurring theme. That being said, the game never really commits to this, and the ending does feel disappointing and non-committal for a game that is supposedly wrapping up the series. Those post-modern criticisms of sequels become (at best) minor themes, rather than the central thrust of the game's meaning (as in Metal Gear Solid 2).
Andre the Blacksmith remains the only character in the entire lineup (that I'm aware of) with lip-syncing.
But at the same time, Dark Souls III also uses its familiarity to cleverly subvert some of this series' own tropes. It casts a light on the moral ambiguity of the supposedly "good" ending of the first game. It uses a vague sense of familiarity to play with the player's expectations for what's going to happen around the next corner. And at the same time that it rewards exploration with its open and explorative level designs, it also punishes that exploration with ambushes and traps. Even the process of hollowing (which has always been something to avoid in previous games) is now re-spun with an almost positive association!
I wanted to so badly to forgive the game for its apparent fan service and repetitive storyline. I'm fine with the name of the Firelink Shrine. I'm fine with revisiting Anor Londo and fighting more Silver Knights. And I was definitely fine with Irithyll Dungeon! But Dark Souls III just wouldn't let up with it. The covenants all feel like rote repetitions with nothing really new or creative. Recognizeable characters just keep showing up: either the exact same character that we've already seen (like Andre or Patches) without anything new or meaningful being added to their character, or characters that verbatim replicate existing characters (like Siegward and Yorshka) with no justification.
[Show Spoilers] [Hide Spoilers]
But the final insult is that the game doesn't use it's apparent message regarding sequel-fatigue as a spring-board to do something brave or risky. It just continues to follow the Dark Souls 1 formula for its endings, and doesn't bother to shake up our pre-conceived notions that the Age of Fire is something that's actually desirable, and that the Age of Dark might not actually be better. It could have actually moved us beyond this slowly degrading spiral of entropy, showed us what the Age of Dark is; and it could have proven - what many lore enthusiasts believed all along - that Darkstalker Kaathe was right, Gwyn and Frampt were misguided, and that linking the fire was the bad ending.
Both of the main endings just put us right back where we were at the end of the equivalent endings of the first game.
Ending the fire is an option for the ending, but it doesn't seem to be the primary option. It's not as hidden as the Age of Dark ending was in the first game, but the information about it is still hidden behind an optional area, locked behind an illusory wall. This game doesn't really build up to it; it's just sort of thrust upon you at the very end of the game if you complete this optional area and find a secret item. It also serves only to put us at the same place as the equivalent ending of the first Dark Souls, so it doesn't really move the story or world further.
The default "Link the Fire" ending just completely defeats the purpose and meaning of the first game - even moreso than Dark Souls II does. It shows that the Age of Fire can be perpetually re-kindled. It puts the entire series into a state of limbo, despite the whole first game being about how everything must come to an end. Linking the flame in that game did not save the world; it only delayed the inevitable. At least, that seemed to be the intent of the narrative. Not anymore.
In either case, there's no resolution to the curse of the undead, and no actual sense of closure.
End of Spoilers
Iterating on the first Dark Souls, instead of Dark Souls II
Besides the heavy nostalgia factor, there's a few things that I feel are gameplay regressions; though, most of them do come with nice wrinkles to the mechanic that make them more palatable. Going back to having ten items in your quick inventory brings back the problem of having too many items to cycle through. They offset this slightly by allowing you to hold the button to immediately jump back to the first item (usually my estus flask), which helps considerably.
One of my favorite improvements from Bloodborne was having to stagger an opponent with a charged heavy attack before being able to initiate a backstab. It made you have to commit to attempting a backstab rather than accidentally stumbling into one (which I thought benefited PvP tremendously). Well, that's gone in Dark Souls III, and we're back to being able to backstab by simply attacking an enemy from behind. However, it is now possible to parry an enemy from behind, which means that a perceptive player can still turn the tides on an enemy attempting to get behind and backstab you.
Dual-wielding is now only available with specific, applicable weapons that come in a single set.
The one thing that I really miss though is the dual-wielding mechanics from Dark Souls II. Certain weapons in Dark Souls III come as a single item with a pair of weapons (it replaces holding the weapon two-handed), but you don't have all the nifty combinations that Dark Souls II provided. The dual-weapon fighting mechanics themselves haven't really been improved much. I never liked dual-wielding in any of the previous games, and I'm not likely to buy into it this time either. The big problem is the sheer lack of defensive options. You can't block at all, and even parrying is restricted to just a couple dual-wielded weapons. I feel like these restrictions shouldn't be necessary. There's no reason why you can't hold both the shoulder buttons to cross your weapons and block an attack, and I'm sure that a parry mechanic could still have been added.
The reason for the removal of dual-wielding mechanics is that the game now includes a new "weapon art" feature that is tied to the L2 button. This does give specific weapons a greater sense of utility and more specific roles, while also making individual weapons slightly more versatile. It also gives some weapons higher potential for damage output (but at the cost of spending some valuable MP). Having a mana cost for powerful weapons attacks gives some relevance to the Attunement stat for non-magic classes. There are some really cool weapons that make excellent use of this feature (such as the Abyss Watchers sword and dagger combo, and some of the weapons that double as spell catalysts). I noted that Bloodborne reminded me slightly of Devil May Cry with the combination of gothic environments, trenchoats, and guns. Well now Dark Souls III also has sword attacks that can throw enemies into the air.
Weapon arts cost mana and offer some variation in weapon utility.
I'm very ambivalent towards this feature though. Some of these skills are fun to play around with (such as skills that can provide buffs - as long as they aren't poise - or other passive effects), but many just provide variations of attacks that are already available, and which could have been triggered just as easily by having the player hold an attack button rather than having to dedicate an entire button to toggling this function. The stance attacks of many swords is a good example: instead of holding L2 to enter stance, why not just map the stance attacks to holding R1 or R2 respectively? The spinning attacks of halberds and dual scimitars, the special effects of some shields (by holding L2), and so on could have operated much the same way. This would have allowed weapons and shields to maintain the use of L1 or L2 for blocking or parrying.
Weapon movesets in general seem to be much closer to what was offered in Demon's Souls and Dark Souls 1, rather than iterating upon Dark Souls II. Greatswords - for example - have vertical slashes instead of the wide, horizontal arcs. On a more personal, subjective note, my favorite weapon from Dark Souls II has been tweaked in a way that saddened me: the halberd now behaves more similarly to how it worked in Demon's Souls and Dark Souls 1. You can't poke from behind your shield, meaning it no longer functions as a top-heavy spear. It still has decent thrusting attacks, so it's better than the halberd in Demon's Souls, but it lacks that multi-role versatility that I loved about it in Dark Souls II.
The torch requires some more active participation in order to illuminate a greater area.
The torch also returns to operating similarly to how it worked in earlier games, but with one other nuance to the mechanic: you can hold L1 to raise the torch while walking. This is a subtle change that I actually really like. It makes exploring a dark dungeon feel slightly more active (even though you're just holding a button). Raising the torch illuminates a larger area, which can help you to identify traps or dangers that might otherwise be obscured (such as slimes waiting to drop down on you from the ceiling).
Sadly, the game's lighting engine remains the same as Bloodborne's, and it doesn't have the exceptional real-time shadows that Dark Souls II had. Dark levels are generally darker than levels in Dark Souls II, which makes the torch feel more useful. This, combined with the removal of the stupid timer means that you can use the torch whenever you need it without having to worry about losing access to it later down the road. Because of this, I actually use the torch while exploring, even though you can still adjust the brightness of the display (or your monitor) such that you can see perfectly fine without the torch.
I was more comfortable using the torch in this game, which comes in handy for identifying traps and ambushes.
Dark Souls II isn't completely ignored and undone though. There's a dead tree giant outside of Firelink Shrine, a giant appears as a boss, and some equipment (such as the Mirrah straight sword or Faraam Armor) make reference to Dark Souls II. They also decided to retain one of the most annoying additions from Dark Souls II: enemies that throw themselves at you and then explode. But, once again, they're improved in this game. Unlike the mummies in the Lost Bastille, the exploding zombies in Cathedral of the Deep don't have an obnoxious shock wave that knocks you down just long enough for another one to throw itself at you and kill you. These ones are actually avoidable, and can even be manipulated into blowing up other enemies!
One significant interface improvement from Scholar of the First Sin has sadly been removed: the travel menu no longer highlights the most active multiplayer or PvP hotspots for your current characters' level. And since matchmaking is now determined by a combination of character level and equipment rating, it's less intuitive to guess where an appropriate multiplayer region would be. This is especially after you get to the point where you can buy titanite from vendors, which opens the floodgates on weapon upgrading.
Levels feel like full levels again!
Level design is also a noticeable step up from Dark Souls II. The world is much more linear and lacks the connectedness of the first Dark Souls, but it also doesn't feel as lackadaisical or meandering as Dark Souls II. The geography feels continuous and seamless and doesn't need to abstract its large distances and break any illusion that we're traveling across a vast continent like in Dark Souls II. Instead, the events of the game are all very localized in a compact area, just like the designs in Dark Souls 1 and Bloodborne. The levels are generally longer and loaded with optional paths, shortcuts, and secrets that reward exploration (even at the same time that it punishes you with ambushes, traps, and deadly enemies guarding those secrets). After reaching the second bonfire in the High Wall of Lothric, I worried that this game would maintain Dark Souls II's annoyingly close bonfires that would make it feel like checkpoints were always just a hop, skip, and jump away from each other. It happens occasionally (Lothric and the Road of Sacrifices being the biggest offenders), but in general the level design is solid.
You can still warp to any bonfire that you've lit, right from the start of the game. So unfortunately, there's very little reason to ever have to trek back through an area that you've already cleared, which means that you have to go out of your way to allocate time to go back and try to find secrets hidden in the world. This is really the only negative aspect of the level design though. It's mitigated somewhat by the fact that you occasionally run into dead ends and have to warp back to earlier levels to look for other paths that you may have previously skipped.
Levels are large and overflowing with organic details that help to set a mood and tell the world's story.
The design philosophy of having large, vertical levels with overlapping paths and shortcuts between them has returned. Even when bonfires are close together, they're placed in hub-like locations where shortcuts converge, so that the shortcuts that you unlock still feel useful and relevant. We're back to having a sense of forward progress from exploring the levels and learning these shortcuts, rather than having to rely on de-spawning enemies to allow players to progress beyond chokepoints that you otherwise cannot navigate around. It almost makes Dark Souls II look even more embarrassing in retrospect. The levels don't quite get as long or confusing to navigate as Bloodborne's levels do (with a couple exceptions), and so this game isn't quite as grueling. But that seems almost necessary considering how brutal the individual enemies are. The levels themselves are also highly detailed and very organic. They aren't just the sterile castles of Dark Souls II. Environmental cues in many areas can help to inform the history of those areas just as effectively as item descriptions an dialogue.
In-level Estus Soup helps pace some larger levels.
Some levels also have new Estus soups that you can drink to restore your HP without having to expend an Estus Flask. This allows the designers to better control the pacing of some of their longer and more linear levels by offering the strategic option to restore your HP once at a specific location rather than offering a full bonfire checkpoint. You can only use it once though, so you can't constantly run back to the soup every time an enemy hits you. There's also certain enemies that have a chance of recovering one or two of your Estus charges when you defeat them, and killing invaders also seems to refill some Estus.
Extending estus to also restore magic is a great change as well, since it eliminates the exploits of farming healing items, while also encouraging casters to play more like casters. You can still create a warmage-like character that uses a melee weapon and casts spells, but you'll have fewer estus available to recover your health if you have to allocate some to recovering your mana. Mana being the fuel for weapon arts extends this system to the special abilities of traditional melee builds as well, as you have to decide on a trade off between how much damage you want to be able to absorb versus how much you want to be able to use your advanced skills.
The central hub of Firelink Shrine is also brought back up to snuff since Dark Souls II and Bloodborne. It blows Bloodborne's Hunter's Nightmare out of the water by the inclusion of NPC vendors, quest-givers, and so on. Each time you visit after clearing a major milestone (such as meeting a new NPC or completing a boss), there will be new things to do in the shrine. Characters will come and go, acting with their own motivations that seem to be independent of the player's, just like in the first Dark Souls. They have actual arcs, unlike the boring NPCs that show up in Majula in Dark Souls II. You can engage in several character quests through the shrine, and fortunately, it's compact enough that you don't feel like you're wasting time running up and down flights of stairs like you would in Demon's Souls' Nexus.
Unfortunately, the NPCs rarely have new things to say, and I really wish that FROM would put some kind of more obvious indication when an NPC has something new to say. They could show different body language when they have new dialogue, or the "talk" command could be grayed out when they don't have anything new to say. Something; anything! But in general, the Shrine feels more like an actual place that is relevant to the game, rather than just a pair of load screens between leveling up. Multiple NPC questlines are also tied together in a complicated web, so that failing to fulfill part of one NPC's questline can have an impact on others' questlines as well. This makes it very easy to break the questlines of a few NPCs with very little to indicate what you'd done wrong. The ability to teleport exacerbates this issue by eliminating the necessity to backtrack and making it easier to miss certain NPC appearances.
Firelink Shrine looks and feels more like the Nexus of Demon's Souls,
and is more alive with characters, vendors, and quests to pursue.
All these design elements and mechanics trending back towards Demon's Souls and Dark Souls 1 combine to make it feel as though Dark Souls III is the real Dark Souls II, and Dark Souls II feels more and more like a different game entirely. It also makes this game feel more like a game for Souls fans rather than the mass-appeal, AAA-blockbuster that it was marketed as. And that's a good thing! It means that the game isn't making compromises to appeal to a mass market, even though it does feel very rote and unoriginal, and it makes some efforts to make itself (and some of its design elements) more accessible.
Covenants, for example, are more accessible. It's even easier to swap between covenants on a whim now. There's a dedicated inventory slot for your covenant (similar to the covenant rune in Bloodborne), so you can hot-swap covenants at literally any time. I complained about willy-nilly swapping of covenants in DSII and Scholar of the First Sin, but now you don't even have to go back to the hub or covenant NPC in order to swap; you just have to open your inventory. This isn't a "covenant" because a "covenant" requires a commitment! Hopefully this means that more players will experiment with different covenants, but it also means that your covenant choice is less ingrained in the character, the player has even less investment in it, and it's just not a very fulfilling endeavor. This convenience hurts (or outright kills) the sense of role-play that I felt was very strong in both Demon's Souls (via character and world tendencies) and Dark Souls (via covenants), and it eliminates some of my desire to build multiple characters in parallel, or to make specialty builds to try PvP or co-op in specific areas. It seems like a system that was engineered for power-gamers who want to be able to level-up every covenant simultaneously with a single character. It's more of a Bethesda-style approach to RPG design, and I'm not a big fan of it.
There are a couple of my own suggestions that have been realized in the game. Years ago, prior to the release of Dark Souls II, I had proposed that game should take equipment rating into account for PvP matchmaking. After the release of Dark Souls II, I had suggested the idea of adding some early-game tutorial and access for the PvP systems in order to encourage more players to utilize it. I'm pleased to report that FROM took both of those suggestions and implemented them in Dark Souls III.
The early game is dominated by purple and gold summon signs,
and I got a lot of play against Watchdogs of Farron in the brief time I spent in their swamp.
I'm less pleased to report that it still doesn't work as I'd hoped - at least not yet. These issues could end up resolving themselves over time, but right now, the pool of summonable help is pretty large. This creates a substantial burden of entry for potential invaders and limits the usefulness of the Way of White and Blue Sentinels. Nobody needs to bother with the protection from the Way of White if they can find a dozen summon signs scattered around every bonfire. And the demand for Blue Sentinels seems to be far smaller than the potential supply, since people who do get invaded probably already have two summoned phantoms with them already. Instead, the early game is dominated by Sunlight Warriors and Mound-Makers. So Goodly Knight Garth (my primary first-playthrough character), who I dedicated to the Blue Sentinels for the majority of my first playthrough, was never summoned to defend an invaded host even once! I saw plenty of Blue Sentinels showing up to help my potential victims whenever I invaded with my other characters (so I know it works!), but poor Garth never got to be one of them. Perhaps I leveled him too fast (thanks to the high difficulty of the start of the game)? I feel that the early availability of the Sunlight Warriors and Mound-Builders does end up hurting the Way of White and Blue Sentinels.
A character appears at the beginning
of the game to begin the PvP questline.
And while we're on the topic: honestly, why is the Sunlight Warriors covenant still even here?! Its presence in Dark Souls II (in a far away land, hundreds of years later, in which all the lore of Lordran and Anor Londo had been forgotten) felt like unnecessary pandering. Being back in the same place where the first game took place makes this covenant feel less out-of-place than in Dark Souls II, but it still feels like unnecessary pandering here as well.
Just can't seem to get PvP right
At least there's plenty of early PvP access. As per my own suggestion, an NPC shows up in Firelink right at the start of the game and offers some free Cracked Red Eye Orbs. You can even select a Cracked Red Eye Orb as one of your starting burial gifts. So every player will have early access to some PvP. Obtaining the full Red Eye Orb is also achievable very early and isn't that difficult. It isn't hidden behind a secret covenant, behind any hard bosses, more than halfway through the game. Succeed on one invasion, and you'll be given a key that takes you directly to relatively easy enemy that drops the Red Eye Orb. This is all doable before beating the first boss after the tutorial! Just make sure you don't squander your first five Cracked Red Eye Orbs, or else you'll be stuck having to farm them from enemies later in the game, since Leonhard doesn't sell more. Early access is only one part of a three-part suggestion though, and unfortunately, Dark Souls III doesn't quite hit the other two parts.
Despite the early access, the game still doesn't really explain the mechanics or benefits of invasion. The character that gives you the Red Eye Orbs gives only vague cryptic hints about "pillaging embers" and "briefly heightening your strength" - not exactly much to go on. It is better than the previous games though, which generally just let you pick up a Cracked Red Eye Orb with no pomp or ceremony or explanation at all. But There's no real tutorial or any kind of a scripted invasion against an NPC to help you learn how the mechanic works.
PvP invsions have a utilitarian function, but it's far harder, less rewarding, and more punitive than co-op.
But that wouldn't matter so much if the game offered worthwhile rewards for successful invasion, and this is kind of a mixed bag. Both successful co-op and successful invasions award the victorious phantom with renewed Lord of Cinder status, an extra ember, and some souls. That's all well and good. The problem is that the deck is now thoroughly stacked against invaders. Being able to equip yourself with better gear was really the only Ace-in-the-Hole that invaders had. I'm glad that's gone, but without it, it really became necessary for some of the other invasion or covenant systems to change. The Blue Sentinels and other anti-invader covenants are designed to offset the overwhelming power that invaders usually had in Demon's Souls and Dark Souls, and to give the host some back-up against that +5 Lightning Spear. But those other systems didn't change. Invaders are almost always stuck in a 2-on-1 or a 3-on-1 match, and so you're only real chance is to either be very good (which I am not), or to trick the host into aggro-ing some enemies to distract him. On top of that, invader phantoms can still fight against and damage each other (while summoned co-op phantoms and the host cannot damage each other), meaning that even though the invader can be mobbed by two, three, or four players, the invaders cannot mob the player without potentially accidentally killing each other. Maybe this will balance itself out a little bit better as time progresses and the game isn't overloaded with phantom cooperators.
But even then, the overall balance of risk versus reward is still highly in favor of co-op rather than invasion. Dying as a co-operating phantom results in no penalties. You just respawn in your own world right where you left off. I don't even think you lose the souls that you collected as a phantom. On the other hand, if you die as an invading phantom, it counts as an actual death! You lose your souls, and a bloodstain appears in your world at the location in which you died in the invadee's world. At least you don't seem to lose your Lord of Cinder status. And since invaders don't kill enemies in the host's world, you don't get much in the way of souls. So co-op still has more reward and less penalty, which makes the decision between co-op and PvP pretty one-sided.
It's madness, I tell you!
There is an additional avenue for PvP in the form of the new Mound-Builders covenant, and it's a fun and interesting new wrinkle in the mechanic; albeight a somewhat under-developed one. You can lay down a purple summon sign to be summoned as a "Mad Phantom". Doing so makes everything in the host's world hostile to you, and you can farm souls from enemies in that host's world (thus, directly helping the host). However, your end objective is to kill the host or one phantom (which can be either another co-op phantom, or another invading phantom). But if the host enters a boss gate, you can't follow him; you'll just be kicked back out to your own world. So the purple Mad Phantoms act as sort-of wild card players: they can help the host clear a stage or defend them against invaders, or they can attack the host or summoned ally phantoms.
Purple "Mad Phantoms" can either help or hinder a host, but mostly, they end up hindering.
It can be fun to mess with the hosts in this fashion. You can help them clear areas, wait for them to consume all or most of their estus, then turn on them and stab them in the back. What you do is entirely up to your own whim, but in most cases, a purple phantom will have to eventually turn on the host, since there's rarely another hostile phantom for them to attack. I think a better system might have been for the purple phantom's objective to have been randomized at the time that they enter the host's world. You could be instructed to kill the host or a phantom, or to defeat an invader, or to kill some quota of enemies, or to help them clear the boss. This would help give the mad phantom some direction, and would make their end goal less obvious to the host, thus creating a more palpable sense of tension: "Are they here to kill us? Or to help us?" Right now, the answer is almost always "To kill us." Overall though, this is a fun new addition that enables some opportunities for PvP chaos without as many of the downsides to an outright invasion, so it serves a worthwhile role.
These purple phantoms, along with the ability of red phantoms to disguise themselves as white phantoms, sews distrust and paranoia among even co-operating players. Sometimes, when I'm summoned - even as a white phantom - I'll notice the host swing his weapon at me and any other allies he summons, apparently just to make sure that we're genuinely on his side. This is something that works great within the atmosphere of Dark Souls.
Of course, there's also still the usual issues with competitive multiplayer that have always been problems to one degree or another. I've noticed a lot of lag, flawed hitboxes, phantom weapon ranges, and so on when in PvP. I don't notice them so much when I'm playing single-player (or even when doing co-op). This is annoying because Dark Souls II (especially Scholar of the First Sin) and Bloodborne both seemed to have very stable online PvP from my experience, so I'm not sure what happened with this game. I'm also frustrated by the apparent inability of my character to ever land a backstab against an invaded host or their phantom allies, even when I manage to walk right up behind them without them noticing. These sorts of things can really hurt the experience, especially with the stakes that PvP usually entails. Perhaps this is why dying as an invader is punished? Perhaps the developers thought that it was unfair for the host to be in a position to lose souls and embers due to a lag stab or phantom hitbox, but for the invader to lose nothing upon dying? If so, I can kind of see that point, but isn't that what the counter-PvP covenants are supposed to be for?
Lag stabs, shoddy hitboxes, and phantom ranges are all back to plague PvP.
Well, the answer to that is that there aren't really any anti-PvP covenants this time around. The Blades of Darkmoon function identically to the Blue Sentinels except that they get extra rewards for killing Aldrich Faithful. The sin system from Dark Souls 1 wasn't imported; instead, this game uses a sin system modeled after Dark Souls II, in which you only get sin for killing NPCs. Frequent player-murderers don't get sin, and so the Darkmoons can't specifically target and invade them, which means they won't wander into a hostile invader-slayer in their own world to punish them for killing other players and retard their progress in an act of karmic revenge. Maybe this is something that's going to be added in DLC expansions? In the meantime, the Darkmoons feel completely unnecessary, and the lack of a true anti-invader covenant feels like a gaping hole in the multiplayer design. But then again, invading already feels punitive enough, so maybe having an avenging covenant isn't as necessary as I might think.
And sadly, there's still no option for local PvP sparring on the same console. I wasn't expecting it, but it would be a nice feature to have. After all, how else are my girlfriend and I supposed to decide who gets to play the single-player? Or who has to do the dishes tonight?
Doesn't quite right the ship after Dark Souls II
My biggest disappointment (aside from the poise fiasco that hopefully gets fixed) is with PvP, which FROM just can't seem to get right. Both Bloodborne and Dark Souls II seemed to have very stable PvP play, and Bloodborne's PvP always (to me) felt very fair and balanced. when I was given those Cracked Red Eye Orbs at the beginning of Dark Souls III, I was really excited to try out a dedicated PvP character. But the PvP mechanics, balance, and stability are just such huge steps back from Bloodborne and DSII , and so far it's been just a miserable experience. I don't pretend to be a very good PvP player, but I'd like to think that I'm not a terrible one. I was hoping that this game would take steps to encourage more players to try PvP and get better, but it seems that despite providing early access, this game still wants to restrict PvP to only the most elite players. And that's disappointing.
That being said, when multiple invaders or purple phantoms show up, and the host's overwhelming numbers advantage is removed, multiplayer sessions are fast, unpredictable, and absolutely fun! I just hope that as time goes on, those sorts of encounters become more common than the 3-v-1 invader-ganking that seems to be the current norm (in stark contrast to the host-twinking that used to be the series' norm).
Dark Souls III rights some of the wrongs of Dark Souls II. It also shows less creativity than Dark Souls II, and even manages to get some things even worse. It provides a deep, robust mechanic set within a large, organic world. It hits all the standards of game design that we've come to expect from a quality FROM Software product, even though it doesn't really exceed them. It's greatest failing is that it sends the series off in a nostalgic and repetitive way.
It is very punishing, however. If you couldn't handle Bloodborne, then this game might not be for you either. Even people who have played previous games might find themselves throwing in the towel on this one. In that sense, it feels like a game that was made for the most dedicated fans, and it revels in that. If you want to accept the challenge, then this is a great game that is well worth your time. Otherwise, you'll probably leave your blood-splattered, poise-deprived corpse laying on the High Wall of Lothric, and will turn away.
Are you ready for more jolly cooperation? You're gonna need it!