I'm something like seven and a half hours deep into Dark Souls III, and that's a series record for me (including Bloodborne, though I was having a ball with that, for the record). For a few evenings now I've tried to put a finger, or three, on exactly what it is about FromSoftware's third (and apparently final) chapter of its Dark Souls adventures – and every time I do, I arrive at as many doubts as I do aspects of obvious appeal. So, I thought I'd write some down, both for the bragging "git gud" crowd of already-finished-it sorts lording it on Twitter, and people just like myself, who constantly want to get back to business in Dark Souls III without really grasping why.
The world is beautiful, terrifying, enormous – but never intimidating
Something that put me off previous Souls games, their legendary difficulty aside, was the scale of their game worlds. I don't have the time I once did to spend days and days exploring every possible corner of just a single hub amongst a multitude of them; and yet with Dark Souls III, I'm happily poking around, unlocking new pathways and spending an extra 30 minutes here and there making sure I've swept up all the collectibles I can. And I think that's because, basically, that platinum-grade hardship that FromSoft's series has long worn as a badge of honour (cum incredibly high barrier of entry) simply isn't there this time around.
I'm not saying that Dark Souls III is easy. I haven't been counting my deaths across my playthrough so far, but it's comfortably somewhere between 20 and 30. It's rare, though, that the hollow grunt-level enemies, the ones simply roaming the environment, ready to be harvested for souls, get the better of me. And that's something that was so common in Dark Souls and its first sequel that I didn't feel the lure of pressing beyond what I felt was an unfair fight.
Okay, so those bucket-carrying fucks in the Undead Settlement were a little cheap the first time I got ganged up on by a trio of them, and there's this one absolute bastard of a spindly-limbed demon-looking thing in the swamp of Farron Keep that keeps getting too friendly with my skull, but otherwise. It's really just the bosses that provide the obstacles, the walls that you either butt your head against until you're numbed to the whole experience, or smash right through with an almighty swing of a blacksmith-sharpened giant cleaver.
Intimidation, then, isn't a factor – and that's keeping me keen, whereas before the weight of death after death after death was simply too heavy for me to carry on. I'm, I guess, enjoying this one.
I'm compelled to press onwards – but the story is totally over my head
It's the world of Dark Souls III that's ensuring my engagement, right now – that thrill of seeing what the next area has in store, how one "zone" gives way to the very different next and yet everything's (sort of) connected, like a fucked-up Crystal Maze; and the beauty of a horizon-filling vista (the game has many, and every one gives cause for pause – a dangerous thing to do when anything out here can, and absolutely wants to, kill you).
The lore? Still lost on me. I've done my basic research: this particular fantasy land used to be the realm of dragons, until men – or beings very much like men – came along and started fucking with their scaly masters, overthrowing them and riding rollicking power trips until everything began turning to shit. Dark Souls III begins with an intro sequence depicting some Lords of Cinder who've got up and buggered off from where they should be, and it's up to me to, y'know, fix that. By murdering them, presumably. I've not reached one of them, yet.
I don't doubt that when I do, plot-centric aspects of this descent into the dark will begin to have a little light cast upon them. But right now, playing Dark Souls III in pursuit of narrative motivation is like swinging my arms wildly in a massive, windowless empty room with all the lights out, grasping at sweet fuck all where the occasional bit of hand-holding would really be appreciated. Loading screens offer shrouded pointers, but the amount of text in this game – in this series – is just ridiculous. If I wanted to read about the game, I'd do that (it's not like hundreds of guides are available). But what I want is for its core storyline to make itself evident without the need to unravel eight separate, simultaneous mysteries and tying the threads of what might be the point of it all together in my head. My head that is currently doing all it can to not send panic signals to my fingers and thumbs and not get crowded to my death by all these harpie things.
But, yeah, I get it, and am told it frequently: the point is that the point only becomes the point if you're good enough to reach the point where the point becomes the point. Or something to that effect. "The joy" is in the working it all out for yourself. Except, I'm lazy, and a man of little free time, so just a tad more obvious summarising wouldn't go amiss. It'd definitely make me feel like my actions were all for something, even at this early stage.
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The combat is faster than I remember from previous games, but the camera can be a dick
I've seen the reviews. Hell, I played Dark Souls III at the preview stage, and saw for myself how its combat is somewhere between the slow-and-steady, shield-raised caution of Dark Souls II and the swift-and-nimble stabs and parries of Bloodborne, FromSoft's PS4-exclusive teeth-grinder of 2015. I know it's quicker now than it was, and I welcome that. But there's a problem. That camera.
Perhaps it's just me. Perhaps I've been unlucky. But in a few boss encounters now, I've completely lose my sense of positioning as the shifting of the huge enemy before me has spun the camera around and left my warrior-class dude (called Dave the C*nt, thanks for asking) between a rock and a hard place – or, more usually, a wall and some absolute fucker with massive grabbing hands and acid sweat. Yeah, I'm talking about that tree with the testicles, in particular, once you drop down beneath the square where you first take it on. What a dick the camera becomes once you're down there. I know there's another arm in the picture now, a milky-white sneak ready to squeeze the life out of me, but I cannot see it. Or me, for that matter. Dead.
I know people who'd put the pad down, there and then. Pad down, and walk away. Into the next room, through it, into the kitchen, kettle on, smartphone out, and head to the Cex website. How much is this worth at trade-in? Thirty-two quid? Tempting. And I've been there. But a couple of dunked biscuits later, the moment's passed, and the anger's abated. It's my fault, obviously. Not the game's. Not the camera's. I just need to stand somewhere different. I should be more forceful, more attacking, and just slash at the rotten old tree's ballsacks without caring about its freakish limb of woe. Go again. Fuck. At least the identity-crises Crystal Sage is a piece of piss by comparison.
(Quick aside: someone, how do I turn off being summoned into other games? That is a right pain in the arse of progress. It's probably incredibly obviously but IDK. Thanks! (Hey me again. Don't worry, I worked it out, thanks.))
I'm totally loaded with gear but I'm rarely certain what any of it does
I have shards and bones and branches coming out of my arse at the moment, but beyond a few obvious uses – there are the titanite pick-ups that make your axe sharper, and that's A Good Thing – I'm just carrying shite without much of an idea why. Every so often I'll speak to an NPC and an option will appear to give them something. They seem to like that. A spear-chucking giant was one such being. Can't recall what it is I gave the tower-lurking titan, but after doing so, we're best pals and he's stopped killing me with humungous shafts of wood.
What doesn't help is the complexity of the game's menus. Holy fucking fuck me sideways with someone else's fucking bargepole – is that quite enough fucks for effect? I'm not sure, so delete or add however many you feel are appropriate. Sorry: last year's The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt was a big RPG with baffling menus and an entire encyclopaedia of possible spells and oils and other concoctions to knock up using whatever the hero of the story, Geralt, took from the land. A lot of it was lost on me, but the basics were at least clear. It was always obvious what a new potion would do, and how a freshly smithed sword would perform against that old piece of steel you'd been swinging for the past four in-game hours.
In Dark Souls III, I've found myself accidentally lessening the lethality of my weaponry because of the avalanche of stats you're confronted with upon attempting any form of upgrading. What was before a powerful, fire-infused axe that could strike down weaker enemies in a single blow, is now a run-of-the-mill version that necessitates a couple of hits to fell the lowliest of hollows. Bugger.
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The horror of you against all of this is tempered by an alarming abundance of NPCs
I keep making friends. And there's something about that which bothers me. Here I am, the one "unkindled", the risen warrior charged with restoring order to this place by ticking off the naughty thrones-vacating lords of whatever it is (we've been over the story being over me, already). But there are bloody loads of other knights and adventurers out here, flapping their banners and offering me help, albeit mostly from the notably prone position of being sat on their arses. Can't they go after this gigantic Yhorm fellow? Can I just pop my feet up at Firelink and play dominos with my level-up pal the Keeper?
Guess not, then. Back to it I suppose. I say that, affected with scorn, but I want to get back into it. And credit to FromSoft for sparking that feeling, one of fascination and determination, within me. However it is that they managed it. I'm certain I'm not alone in finding Dark Souls III to be a surprisingly welcoming experience. Of course, everything could change come my ninth and tenth hours. I've heard talk of bosses getting increasingly cheap, of adopting one-hit-kill tactics when they're up against the wall. All the same, it'd be a nice change seeing them against it, rather than me, flapping helplessly, pointlessly slamming the circle button until the inevitable screen appears.
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