Welcome back to the second installment of the Versus Series, which will be pitting Dark Souls and Dark Souls III head-to-head to determine the superior Souls experience. Unlike the first entry in this series, today’s competition is more difficult to point to a clear winner. To make a proper comparison, I started both games with the Thief class before pivoting to magic casting. I did this to get access to the Bandit’s Knife, a dagger that does bleeding damage and is so fast that it can get in three attacks before most enemies and players have a chance to react. As for using magic, I mostly didn’t until well into the mid-game runs, when I finally got access to the real heavy hitting pew-pew. That’s the sweet spot where the saying “magic casting is Dark Souls on Easy Mode” actually becomes true. Before that, playing as a magic caster is like asking for a handicap in both PVE and PVP.
Before I start, I’ll answer the inevitable question: Why did I not include Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin? The simple answer is, I just don’t like it as much as the first and third entries. I’ve racked up over 600 hours playing it on PC and PS4, so I’m not saying I hate it. It’s just that I’ve logged thousands of hours in the first and third entries, and I just keep coming back for more. That claim isn’t hyperbole, either. My Steam copy of Dark Souls Remastered has 922 hours logged. Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition has 451, and that’s not including my time on the Xbox 360 version. My PC version of Dark Souls III has 1,117 hours logged, and I played almost as many hours on PS4. By comparison, Dark Souls II has only 347 hours on Steam, and maybe half that for the PS4. Again, I don’t hate it. I just don’t love it the way I do the first and third games.
I’m sure I’ve mentioned before that I played the series in reverse order, being initially intimidated by all the discourse about how hard FromSoftware’s games are. I avoided Dark Souls and the second entry because I didn’t feel like being abused for being a mediocre gamer, but I was convinced to try the third thanks to a video by James Stephanie Sterling. In it, they argued that the games weren’t as hard as the hype made them out to be, and what’s more they were incredibly fun and rewarding. So I bought the game the day after that, going into it blind just to see who was right.
My first playthrough, I didn’t even understand how embers worked, or how I could summon help for boss fights. I didn’t know I could farm embers, so I treated them like the rarest loot and hoarded the few I had for boss fights that I just needed a little more health to survive and win. I didn’t get invaded because most of the time, I was walking around in useless ash mode. Even so, the setting and monsters grabbed hold of me. The NPCs were interesting, and the vast array of ways to play were intimidating, but also intriguing.
Later on, I started learning how to break the game, and being embered, I engaged with the PVP, finding it almost as much fun as the PVE. I made builds according to the metas, went to the designated arenas, and even hosted a few fight clubs myself. In every way, it was an experience that kept giving new reasons to return, and that was before the DLC came out and dropped a ton of new toys to play with. (And easily one of the most fantastic fights with a dragon I’ve seen in any game, EVER.)
Because I enjoyed it so much, I got Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin, played it and found the core game and DLC content fun enough that I got the Xbox 360 version of Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition. Since I had gone backwards in the series, a weird thing happened: I felt the first game was easier. I could parry most enemies like a boss, even though I struggled to do so in the later games. Most bosses seemed slow, and their tells were projected so early that I had plenty of time to react. Some boss fights were cheap, like the first two real bosses fighting in narrow arenas with no room for mistakes, and the second demon even bringing along a pair of cheap-ass dogs because just being in a tiny hallway wasn’t trollish enough for From.
By the second playthrough, I’d taken to heart a lesson I uncovered from speed-runners, and I embraced the cheese. I don’t fight the Capra Demon and his evil dogs. I use a bow to aim over his fog gate and throw fire bombs until he and his mutts are burned to a crisp. I don’t fight the Taurus Demon on his terms. I run around him and climb the tower to plunge attack him to death. Embrace the cheese. The cheese is your friend.
From that point on, every run I play in the first or third game was meant to test out different ideas, sometimes even played side by side to see how certain weapons and builds evolved over the years. I came to appreciate why there are so many strength builds, even if it’s not my preferred playstyle. I tried just about every flavor of dex builds, every magic class, and even some odd hybrid builds. Through it all, I’ve never gotten tired of playing. There’s always some random thing that happens and makes me yell, “What? I’ve never seen that before!”
It’s obvious that I love both games by now, I think, so which is the winner? The answer is still complicated and comes down to what I’m in the mood for. Sometimes I want the more old-school approach that Dark Souls offers, but other times, I want all the bells and whistle that Dark Souls III added.
But this is a contest, and there has to be a winner and a lo-hoo-hoo-ser, right? So, by a slim margin I have to give the W to Dark Souls III, and I will explain why. Trust me, better graphics isn’t anywhere on that list.
For starters, Dark Souls III is fairer. I’ve heard veteran fans say the original is best because “the enemies follow the same rules as you do,” and that’s simply not true. My character can barely hop a curb with a running head start, while the lowest enemies can leap twenty meters up a flight of stairs and around a corner to hit my character. They can do damage through a shield or block an attack at their back by also holding up their shield. I could go on, but the point is, enemies in Dark Souls III really do seem to adhere more firmly to the same rules that my character has to live by. (Though there is a certain doggo that has Instant Transmission the moment you look away from him, but he’s the exception rather than the norm.)
There are a lot of small quality of life improvements that make the journey less irksome. The wight limits are less restrictive before characters start “fat rolling,” for starters. Characters can carry three weapons for each hand, and four rings instead of two. There’s even more granular improvement, like the Ring of Favor and Protection not breaking just because you need to swap rings for one boss fight or another. None of this was a deal breaker for me playing the first game, but cumulatively, they help make Dark Souls III a better gaming experience.
Next is the FP system or the Attunement stat. Formerly just the “magic user stat,” Dark Souls III offers every build a reason to invest in FP. How? Special Attacks. Even the purest strength build meathead using a great sword will notice that they have a nifty surprise attack available that uses FP. If they ignore attunement, they might get four or five special attacks between visits to the bonfire. OR, they might get smart and invest a few points in the skill and give themselves more chances to surprise the in-game enemies and invading players.
This applies to every build and every weapon. Just when some invader thinks they’re in your head, you whip out a special attack, and suddenly they’re shook like a pastor at a tax audit. FP is the power to turn any weapon into a guessing game, and suddenly attunement isn’t just for mages and clerics. That’s a massive improvement.
In fact, I mentioned at the beginning how for this experiment, I was using the Bandit’s Knife as my main weapon. Well in Dark Souls III its special trick as a slide step that has invincibility frames. This means you can dodge just about anything (there are exceptions, usually anything that’s swing has a wide, WIDE arc) and end up on the flank or rear of an enemy, boss, or player. You might say, “Yeah, but it’s just a toothpick. How useful is that?” Well, in this run, I put down Dragonslayer Armor on my first try, with no phantoms summoned, or even an ember for extra health. Let me put that in perspective. The first time I played, I had the Hollowslayer Greatsword, easily one of the best swords in the game, and I needed forty attempts to beat that suit of magical armor. By using the slide step and FP, I felled that same giant in two minutes. I beat Lothric and Lorian in almost the same amount of time. I needed sixty attempts to understand their teleporting gimmicks on my first game, and I wrecked them both before Lorian even had a chance to attack after being resurrected by Lothric for the second time. One toothpick, two minutes. FP isn’t just a gimmick, folks. It’s a genuine game changer.
While I’m on the FP bandwagon, it’s time to mention blue estus flasks, AKA: “NO, I’LL DECIDE WHEN I’M DONE CASTING SPELLS!” See, in the first two games, magic users had a limit on spell casting. One scroll might offer 16 casts of magic missiles (Soul Arrows, but you old school RPG nerds know the real name), so to get more, you had to find someone else to sell another scroll, or wait until New Game+ to get more casts. Even if you have more scrolls, you need more Attunement slots to get those extra casts. But in Dark Souls III, you can just allot your “Sunny D” into “Blue Mountain Dew,” and suddenly your 16 magic missiles become 32 or 48, or 64. Now that invader who showed up with only healing potions and a giant sword isn’t guaranteed victory just because you’re a squishy mage. They have to work to earn that win, because you are a GAWD of Pew-Pew.
Of course, the same is now true for all classes. Melee fighters can sip a little blue juice to keep dishing out the pain, and bow users can add more oomph to all their arrows. Hell, users of the Dragonslayer Greatbow can add a puncturing effect to their arrows so it shoots through two Sun-Bros, the game host and a purple invader before lodging in the ass end of the next region. FP just makes every weapon that much more awesome.
I’d be remiss in mentioning the terrible gimmick bosses of the original Dark Souls being a point against them. On every run, I spend hours thinking about the end-game run, asking myself which assholes I want to get out of the way first.
Is it The Witch of Izalith, a boss so bad that if you die (and you will, often) FromSoftware let you go back into the fight without restarting the previous phases?
Or is it Seath the Scaleless, who requires that your character die the first time they meet, AND THEN traverse a maze-like library to find an exit, AND THEN navigate a garden of invisible platform bullshit, AND THEN fight or avoid a room full of man-eating oysters, AND THEN require either perfect skills or a ring swap and a full load of humanity to overcome his curse-breath nonsense?
Or is it the Four Kings, running on a timer before each new king arrives, so there could be five or even six of the useless motherfuckers by the end of the fight?
And who could forget Nito, Lord of Death? FromSoftware didn’t think it was fair to leave Nito alone with only his ability to send an underground torpedo anywhere in the room even if he can’t see your character, his giant sword, and his toxic farts of death. No, he needed an army of constantly reviving skeleton warriors to protect him from the squishy stupid player.
Read that over. If you haven’t played Dark Souls, you’re thinking, Man, that’s a lot of bullshit. And if you have played, you’re thinking, Okay, yeah, that was all bullshit. Lothic and Lorian teleporting as they please are a freakin’ cakewalk compared to the four lord souls needed to reach Gwynn, who ends up being pathetic compared to his closest buds.
The final point in favor of Dark Souls III is generosity. Let’s say you’re a total noob and don’t know what weapon you prefer. In the first game, this can quickly become a penalty because you need to know the exact right region and enemies to farm to build up other options. But in Dark Souls III, you can farm enough titanite shards to sample several weapons and decide what’s right for you before climbing the upgrade tree to murder perfection.
There is one teeny tiny caveat to this praise, because the original Dark Souls has New Londo Ruins. It’s a shithole populated at first by ghosts who can’t be harmed without using a spell item called Transient Curse, or by actually being cursed. (You lose half your health while cursed, and all it takes is one ghostly gangbang to explain why that option sucks.) Once the town has been drained of flood waters, the lower regions is filled with Darkwraiths ready to fill your butt with giant blades. But if you can kill these bony bastards, they drop Titanite Chunks and Titanite Slabs. Which means you can upgrade all your weapon to The Ultimate Killing Level with just a bit of patience. Okay, a lot of patience, as Titanite Slabs drop at about the same rate as Steam Sales you actually care about.
Closing out this contest, I can honestly say that anyone who does not agree with me, and who decides to stick to their favorite souls game is not wrong. ANY entry in the Soulsborne series is worth your time and attention, and if you like any of these games over the other, well, you do you. But for me, the first game in the series that I played is still the best. It’s full of quality-of-life improvements, improved storytelling, and expanded options for all kinds of players. So, if you haven’t yet experimented with any FromSoftware paraphernalia, let me suggest going in reverse order like I did. You’ll find that previous entries have their charms, but the true souls king delivers the same experience while also trimming away the worst salutes to old-school D&D.
Oh, and one final aside…can someone please explain to me why FromSoftware hates Clerics so much? I’ve tried to make a fun Cleric build in all three games, and every time, I get to the end of the run with wimps who do less magic damage than Sorcerers or Pyromancers, and less physical damage than pure strength or dexterity builds. Worst of all, they don’t even get their attack spells until mid-game. I’m not buying “the Cleric is meant to be a support role,” because most of the time, I’m playing it as a single player game with a side order of online PVP. I’m not supporting anyone, and as a Cleric, I almost need support from literally any other class or build.
Seriously, FromSoftware, show us on the doll where the Bad Clerics touched you, okay?