Game review: Dark Souls III for PS4

Well…so by now, y’all should know why I chose to pick up this game. But if not, here’s the recap: after beating several games on their hardest modes and not feeling challenged, Dark Souls III was supposed to be a huge knock to my ego because it’s just so, so hard. But you know what? It isn’t nearly as hard as I’d been led to believe. I’ll tell you something else. I think it’s a mistake to talk up the difficulty as a selling point. It’s an overrated ideal, and it doesn’t do the game justice. Having played this and mostly loved it, I’m going to buy the PS4 port of Dark Souls II and Bloodborne because I want more of this kind of fantastic gameplay. That will of course come after I’ve played through this game a few more times to see the other classes and endings. It is not without flaws, some of which might be sticking points for more casual players, but I’ll get to those after the gushing and the rambling. (And it will be rambling because I’m writing this at 7 AM after an all-night session to beat the last two bosses.)

I should mention that I’m coming into this series as a relative newcomer. I know the past games from watching speed runs on the Games Done Quick events and from watching Let’s Plays on YouTube. I know some of the lore from commentary offered in both of those venues. But I have never played any of them myself, and once I committed myself to buy this game, I flat out ignored all the previews and streams of the preview copies because I wanted to go into this and be totally surprised by it. In that regard, mission accomplished. Every ambush and trap was totally a shock to me the first time they happened, and some of them helped prove that yes, my butthole pucker function still works well.

Ahem, let’s move on.

Where to begin? Well how about that character creator? I spent a few hours just pondering what class to play. I knew someone somewhere would roll their eyes if I chose a sorcerer or a cleric, so I went with an assassin. I took no extra items, wanting to make this first run really challenging. Then I spent another few hours playing with the face and body of my character, and I was pleased by the variety of the body types and races I could make my character. I didn’t like the default lean-faced lass, so I made her a bit on the ugly side, with a big nose and an overbite. I had a lot of fun just making my character look perfectly imperfect.

So then I got in the game, and this is what my first few hours were like:
Okay, so how do I–?
But what button–?
What? I didn’t even–
I just want to know how to–
But I–
Oh, for the love of–
Would you at least let me–

This went on and on because the manual (side note: bless From Software for even having a manual at all in this day and age.) doesn’t adequately begin to explain the controls. It’s a whole different “language” this game speaks, and the learning curve is initially pretty steep. But–and this is the point I want to stress–you have unlimited lives and there’s not much in the way of a penalty for death other than to lose whatever souls you’ve gathered in your travels. It’s not so bad as the old school NES games where death at any point meant starting over with few or no continues. This is not a Contra or a Ninja Gaiden. It’s much more forgiving than you’ve been led to believe.

Having said that, the controls do take some getting used to, and I had to go online just to learn how to use a bow or crossbow in first-person perspective. They aren’t in the manual, and it’s almost impossible to sort out without help. (First select the crossbow or bow, then press the triangle button to use a two-handed stance. Then the left shoulder button will get you into first-person mode, while the right shoulder and trigger can be used to shoot two different types of arrows or bolts. It’s actually very intuitive once someone explains it in plain English.)

(Oh, and I had to play in offline mode. I know, a big part of the game is in the other players invading or being summoned to give assistance, but I don’t have a PS Plus account, so I can’t get online.)

The first boss gave me fits trying to sort out how to deal with him until I dropped my shield and just went at him with my sword in a two-handed grip. Suddenly, I was doing much better damage with each strike, and when he fell, my reaction was kind of ambivalent, like, “Huh, well that was a thing, I guess.”

I know some people grind and build up health so they can tank damage, but during those early levels, I just kept investing in stamina. I discovered a dragon sitting atop a castle turret, and every enemy he killed gave me souls. So all I had to do was stand close enough to antagonize him and boom, I was hitting the free souls jackpot. (Hell yeah, I abused that spot for extra levels.)

By the time I got to the next boss, I had so much stamina that it was easy to take him down by getting behind him and thrusting my sword like a lusty footballer with his first cheerleader. I killed him on my first attempt. I couldn’t believe it. I hadn’t upgraded strength or life or dexterity, just stamina. So for a few areas, this became my obsessive dump stat. It worked, and I beat several bosses in just a few attempts, usually within two or three, and sometimes even on the first try. I was feeling like a total badass.

Eventually, of course, this stopped working because I picked up a bigger weapon. That required grinding for strength, for dexterity, and to improve my equipment load. This led to two days of dull grinding, but I kept thinking, “Oh, man, this sword is so going to be worth it.”

I started picking up the story in bits and pieces, and here’s how I would sum it up: every few years, this crappy world starts to decay because the fires lit by the gods fade in power. To keep those fires lit requires a hero to go fight everything and then sacrifice themselves in a smoldering fire. This time around, the previous heroes have decided to cop a walk, and this has led to a breakdown in the system. So the powers that be resurrected a few fighters who weren’t worthy of sacrifice to drag the real heroes kicking and screaming back to their doom.

It’s a real charming world, no? No.

Around this time, I started spending more time just stopping to admire the view. Even the dankest swamps are gorgeous, and the amount of detail in each area is simply stunning. I sometimes ended up getting killed because I was staring at some pretty thing off in the distance, never seeing the creepy crawly that was sneaking up behind me.

Each new area also led to quite a few deaths to the minions because I didn’t know how to handle them. Thing is, it never felt hard or unfair. It’s just…it is what it is, a learning curve that can be easily overcome with a little patience.

Something the game has down pat is the scary atmosphere. It’s not just the details on the “Hollows.” (they’re zombies, but these days it’s passe to call them that.) Around every corner there might be something waiting to drop on me or jump out from a side alcove. And yet, even expecting it, I lost count of the number of times I almost dropped my controller when an ambush was sprung. In one room in a cathedral the place was so damned quiet that I said, “This is a trap.” Exactly two seconds later, I yelped “Oh, shit!” because a giant spider monster dropped down on top of me. This was one of the few times the ambush didn’t work because my hands spasming in fear actually resulted in me dodge rolling out from under the beastie before he could attack. This led to some nervous laughter, followed by another yelped expletive when said beastie started spewing venom at me.

And still, I was whacking bosses in only a few attempts. “This is a hard game?” I thought. In truth, most of the boss’ patterns are surprisingly simple to exploit, and in roughly 70% of the boss fights, what made the fights harder wasn’t finding the pattern. No, it was dealing with the wonky camera.

And here I pause to bitch. You see, the one thing that I truly dislike about this game is the camera. Some genius decided that the enemy lock and camera center button should be one and the same. This means that nine times out of ten, instead of locking onto the enemy I see running at me, the camera jumps to one side or the other. Even if I do manage to get a lock on, the game randomly decides to shut it off, and even against minor minions, this can prove fatal. This isn’t even considering the problems involved in moving too close to a wall or pillar, where the camera will just go crazy and decide to focus on some random object rather than my character or the enemy. Again, with minions this can sometimes be fatal. Against a boss, it’s a death sentence every single time. If there’s any one thing that might put people off of this game, it’s that shitty, shitty camera.

“Oh, Zoe, that’s always been the case with Dark Souls games.” That’s actually a problem, then. I mean, they’ve made two Demon’s Souls games, and Bloodborne, and two other Dark Souls games, and they STILL can’t figure out how a camera works? How is that a selling point?

I also have to mention that the combat is kind of wonky. Sometimes my sword is in the general area of an enemy and it counts as an attack, while other times it doesn’t. I’ve seen a thrust completely miss the enemy and still result in a shower of blood. I’ve seen my sword slide cleanly through both legs of a boss and still not count as an attack. I’ve seen enemy archers shoot through buildings. Not walls, whole fucking buildings. I’ve seen enemies big and small walk through walls.

And there’s lag, and it comes in two flavors. One is audio lag, which isn’t so bad. I might have an enemy stab me, and three to four seconds later, I hear the sound effect of them stabbing me. I might kill an enemy and see them fall, but many seconds later, I’ll hear the sound of them hitting the floor. This is annoying, but not really a problem.

The other lag is controller input lag, and this was almost always fatal. It’s not consistent when it happens, so sometimes in an area, I might press the dodge button and it works fine. Seconds later I’ll repeat the same action have nothing happen. I press it again and again with no effect. Then I’ll get stabbed, and THEN my character will do two or three dodge rolls, usually lining me up perfectly to be stabbed again. This is so very, VERY annoying.

This is not a perfect game, is what I’m saying. Nothing I experienced was a deal breaker, but at times it was annoying to die not because I screwed up but because nothing I pressed registered on screen until one second after it was supposed to happen.

I experimented with spells for a bit, having sorcery as an option for my assassin. But I mostly relied on the bow when I needed a ranged attack because I had to get WAY too close to enemies to make the camera lock work, and that’s the only way the magic spells function. (Which makes them pretty fucking useless, in my opinion.)

Near the end of the game, I realized I MIGHT need to improve my health situation if I was going to stand a chance against the final bosses. I found a perfect grinding spot in Dragon-Kin Mausoleum where a serpent wizard was summoning knights who dropped 4,000 souls each. So I racked up a million souls in only a few hours, and this was the only time grinding didn’t bother me. It’s because each fight was unique. One knight might fall for an easy feint and get hacked apart in a few quick sword strokes. But another knight might be really smart and make me earn those souls by dodging my attacks and punishing me for the tiniest mistakes.

But at last, I had my million souls. And there’s no trophy for that. Really? It certainly seemed worthy of a trophy to me. Anywho, just out of curiosity, I went back to the same room to fight the same knights, and despite having 500 more health points, their attacks still took the same amount of health off my bar.

Buh-wha-what? This makes no sense. I have 1,000 health points, and one strike takes my bar down to half. But if I add 500 points, shouldn’t the same strike remove a smaller section from the bar? It’s still the same enemy doing the same amount of damage. So what gives? I dunno, and it makes the grinding feel extra useless.

This also leads me to another complaint, that leveling up in most stats, even stat dumping, feels mostly useless. Take the equipment load, for instance. The idea is that if you carry too much stuff, you’ll “fat roll” and make it much easier for enemies to hit you. Okay, fair enough. The problem is, in reducing my load, I never saw any improvement in my movement speed. Does reduction of weight improve running speed? No, not really. Does it reduce stamina usage? No, not really. Even after I’d gotten my load down to a svelte 17.9%, dodge rolling still felt the same as when I’d carried a 29% load. Which is why I eventually said “fuck it” and went back to my starting outfit.

The same goes for strength and dexterity. The numbers on my stats kept going up, but facing the same enemies, I was still doing the same amount of damage. The only thing that changed this was upgrading my weapons. Which make no sense to me. What’s the point of grinding if every upgrade fails to give a sense of progress?

I should also mention weapons. I used the starting sword for maybe the first third of the game before discovering the Transposing Kiln and making a lovely Hollowslayer Greatsword. I found lots of other swords in the course of my journey, but I kept going back to that Hollowslayer sword because no matter how much I upgraded the others, their damage never compared. Additionally, the supposedly bigger and badder swords carried penalties to my stamina and equipment load, even after grinding to levels that should have made them easier to handle.

So anyway, I beat the game using only a sword, no shield, and no armor. My starting outfit was the best clothing I found throughout the whole game. That seems kind of fucked up, doesn’t it? “Here’s this black cloth outfit. It’s vastly superior to chain mail and full plate armor.”

I reiterate: Buh-wha-what?

I beat the last boss, and you might expect I chose the “link the fire” ending. Newp. I chose to end the cycle. Maybe in future runs, I’ll choose the “good ending.” But the thing is, I’m not feeling that this is a good ending. It’s like, “Every few generations, we sacrifice someone to the flames to make sure this shitty world keeps going.” But clearly, this isn’t making a better world. So I can empathize with Lothric and Lorian and the other lords of cinder who’ve gone “fuck it” and toddled off to watch the world not burn for once. My only problem with this ending is, if I wanted to let the whole process fail, why did I even have to fight? I should have just been given the option to let entropy take its course.

Or maybe I’m over thinking it. I don’t know.

What I do know is that after a week and a half of non-stop playing, my hands are swollen and red, looking like I’ve been punching a wall for a few hours. This is dangerously addicting shit, y’all. And yeah, it’s got flaws and problems. Many times the bosses have the camera as an added partner in making the process difficult.

But is this the hardest game I’ve ever played? No, not even close. Do I think more people should be trying it out? Yes, absolutely. I think From Software ought to de-emphasize the difficulty and focus on those lovely, engrossing visuals and the gorgeous soundtrack. They ought to be telling people about how much fun it is to explore and find new enemies, because even the lowest minions can be surprising at first. By promoting this game as “brutally hard” they are limiting their audience, and that’s a damn shame because with the exception of a few late level bosses, I didn’t find this nearly as hard as I’d dreaded. It’s not quite a cake walk or a run through Peggle, but it’s not so hard that I ever thought about giving up, either. In fact, the only reason I wouldn’t recommend this game to someone is if they only wanted to play casual puzzle games. (And if you do, that is perfectly okay. You have fun how you like and don’t let anyone make you feel bad for your preferences, yeah?)

In conclusion, I’ll give Dark Souls III 4 stars and would recommend it to just about everyone. It’s fun, it’s gorgeous, and it’s not nearly as hard as the fanboys might lead you to believe. What was supposed to be a knock to my ego is instead an open invitation to pick up more game from From Software, and I look forward to seeing what else they’ve got in store for me.