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Dark Souls 3 is the latest entry in the famously grueling and difficult video game series. We at Gearburn have had a chance to review the game, but since none of my co-workers are Dark Souls 3 enthusiasts, the task lay with me.
Boy, was I in for some interesting times.
Let’s get something straight: I’m not a Dark Souls person. I’ve played around an hour of Demon’s Souls, but apart from that, I’ve never played any other titles in the series before this. I’m what you’d call a newbie, or “n00b” for the “l33t.”
Over the next few days, I’ll be keeping a review diary with entries around my journey through the world of Dark Souls. There will be a lot of frustration, a lot of swearing, some blood, some sweat, and more tears than I care to admit.
Strap yourself in for the read of a lifetime, or, you know, just buy the game if you really want it. There will, of course, be spoilers.
Day #1: the installation
The game required a 1.2GB update, which meant I couldn’t play. The game is so difficult you can’t even start it.
Day #2: the quest begins
Finally, the game is ready for play. After some loading, I was treated to a gorgeous intro movie that made no sense whatsoever. I’ve made a note to wiki its meaning at a later time.
I decided to name my elderly, greying Warrior, Bjorn Lightfoot. After the process, Bjorn rose from his grave within a spooky cemetery, which was accompanied by a few framerate drops, but nothing we couldn’t overcome.
Bjorn and I came across our first enemy, an undead ghoul of sorts who lashed out and gave the warrior a few solid swipes. With a slow flick of his old arms, Bjorn dispatched of the fiend, while looking a little worse for ware. We were soon vanquishing other foes at a faster, steadier rate, though still taking damage.
We staggered towards our first bonfire. Safety at last.
I was feeling good thus far. Sure, we’d taken a few hits, given some back, used an estus health potion or three, and I was slowly coming to grips with the controller’s unconventional layout. It’s not an easy thing to learn due to how different it is from other action RPGs.
At one point he turned into a huge rat/snake hybrid and ate me
And then, at precisely five minutes and 44 seconds into my game, I was killed, unceremoniously. The ghoulish being stood over me, swaying from side to side, not caring that he took my immortal soul. I restarted at the bonfire several feet away and proceeded to take my revenge upon this foe of mine. I wasn’t upset about the death; I expected it. Why? I was practising parrying, which is a skill I may never master.
After a few more kills, finding some secret bombs and a few souls, I came across the first boss. This is where things took a turn for the worse. Now, apparently this burly knight has a name within the Dark Souls lore, but I prefer to call him Cock Bastard, or CB for short. Many a foul word escaped my mouth as I fought CB both valiantly and foolishly in my quest to defeat the first boss of Dark Souls 3.
I tried over and over again. I hit, I rolled, I was impaled upon CB’s halberd with the flick of his wrist. I would die over, and over, and over again. At one point he turned into a huge rat/snake hybrid and ate me. I mean really, who in the hell eats a person?
By the 35th death, and around 45 minutes into the game, I realised my character had a few fire bombs. Ha, I thought, I could throw a few of these incendiary contraptions and be on my merry way.
Once again I faced my tormenter. I threw one, two, five bombs and depleted my inventory. CB stood there, some health taken away, but not flinching at all. He shrugged off my attacks, impaled me, and gave not a shit about my actions.
I’d had enough. I couldn’t do it anymore. I had recited every single swear word in my vocabulary; every word, as foul as it may be, from early childhood, to recent times as a journalist. They flowed out of me like syrup, thick and heavy. I know Oxford will soon contact me to add a few of them to the dictionary, but that was a thought for another day. It was time to kill CB. Drastic times called for drastic measures. That bastard.
I restarted the game, but this time created a Pyromancer — a class adept at fire. If I couldn’t brute-force CB, then I’d use other tactics. This character had almost no thought put into him, but I did name him Fliggity Fumble, the Wizard Grumble, because, in the world of Dark Souls, anything bizarre and strange is normal.
Fliggity and I cut through the hordes of undead ghouls, swinging our small axe, collecting souls, and brute forcing through their cold, dead bodies.
Finally, CB was in sight. This time, I was prepared. This time, I wasn’t going to die. This time, I wasn’t going to be another soul in the crowd.
I put my controller down, sighed, and took in the moment. It was glorious
As CB stood, I readied my first bomb and threw it, then the second, and finally the fifth. His health was lowering. Again, I had another set of bombs and repeated the process. More success. By now CB had transformed into the bizarre snake/rat hybrid of bastardised monstrosity. His attacks grew more violent, but I wasn’t going to be dissuaded from taking his soul.
Fliggity ducked and dodged, ran with arms flailing, and rolled in every conceivable direction. We did everything to survive. Another hit from CB, and another, and another. Our health was depleting fast and we only had a few more hits to go.
I used every tactic I’d learned from the previous 35 or so deaths. And then, I used my character’s fireballs. I threw a few, rolled away, and repeated the process. Every burn taking off a fraction more health.
And finally, at that point, I thought all hope was lost and the bonfire would embrace me once more, but CB went down like a tonne of proverbial bricks. The bastard was dead.
I put my controller down, sighed, and took in the moment. It was glorious.
Afterwards, I headed through a large set of doors and out of CB’s keep. I had only just completed the training area.
Day #3 and #4: all along the watchtower
Upon booting Dark Souls 3, it crashed my Xbox One and forced it to perform a hard reset. When it was back up and running, the game crashed the console a second time. Even the Xbox One didn’t want to play this rage-inducing product. It knew what was coming and tried to warn me. Oh, how I wish I’d listened to that hunk of silicone and metallics.
After finally defeating the game’s initial boss, Cock Bastard (or CB), my character, Fliggity Fumble, and I ascended the broken, sometimes hidden steps of our next destination. An old, gothic building stood at the top of a short hill. It towered over all around it, casting a deathly shadow, and a stern reminder that all of the beauty in this world was just a facade for what monstrosities lay in wait.
And then we discovered a safe place, the Firelink Shrine; a haven to all those who traverse through the world of Dark Souls 3. There were characters here, some willing to help, and others mumbling in depressive dialogue, giving way to some narrative in their own way. I now knew what my goal was in this world: to gather several old farts who’d wandered off. They were to sit upon their thrones once more, which would somehow stop the bad things from happening? I don’t really know, because the story isn’t given in full. I just knew I needed to defeat bosses and try not to die or break any of my controllers.
I now knew what my goal was in this world: to gather several old farts who’d wandered off
Fliggity and I purchased some supplies, increased a few of his skills, and decided it was time to venture forward unto the new world. We sat at the bonfire and magically teleported to a place full of two day’s worth of grinding. Bonfires, the Uber of the Dark Souls world.
An old, decaying castle and city stood beautifully in the dim light. It’s walls and turrets stretched on for as far as the eyes could see, or the Xbox One could render. The textures and lighting are gorgeous and all I wanted to do was explore every nook and cranny to see what detail the developers had put into the game. And that is when I noticed something interesting about Dark Souls 3; something that has been quietly adding to its design aesthetics.
There is no music. No ambience to give this place life, or death. Sure, the Firelink Shrine and boss battles have their own theme songs, but not the rest of the game. It’s eerie, and creepy, and I began to adore it. This lack of sound, with the exception of some waiting creatures, somehow made the game that much better. It made me appreciate the art direction more.
Our destination presented us with two paths, a left and a right. We could choose either way, but both would lead to almost certain death, because Dark Souls. I opted to guide Fliggity to the left as he strutted down a few stairs in his new armour. There knelt people, old and almost malnourished in appearance, praying or weeping over other of their kind, who were hung up in morbid display. With a flick of my axe I took some of these poor (Dark?) souls, because in the grander scheme of things I needed the XP.
Hey, they’d just respawn when I next died or sat down at a bonfire. Dark Souls is a morbid, gothic version of Groundhog Day.
A few steps later and Fliggity was slain. A ghoul shouted at him, summoned a friend, and both of them stabbed the poor avatar to death with swords and knives. It was most embarrassing to say the least, having someone shout at you in public.
Fliggity respawned, following the same steps as before, and once again dying on that walkway. By now my swearing had intensified. The words “fuck,” and “arse,” were followed by many other, stronger phrases which I dare not write in this publication.
Dark Souls is a morbid, gothic version of Groundhog Day
After several deaths we pushed on, flailing Fliggity’s axe to and fro, which at least resulted in a few decent shots. Even though the haphazard battles had taken away much of Fliggity’s life, we at least made it towards the end of that walkway. What I saw at the end of it made me jump out of my seat.
There lay a dragon; a ginormous, scaly beast. I pushed the controller’s left stick gently and my avatar moved with trepidation. After a moment, I realised the dragon was dead. It wasn’t long until we died once more from falling down a hole, and then from a ghoul hiding behind some crates, like a maniac Jack-in-a-box.
What stopped me dead in my tracks, in more ways than one, was yet another dragon, much larger in size and this time alive. It guarded the way forward and incinerated anyone that came near it, foes and all.
This is where I discovered a bug, or an intentional glitch. Every time the dragon slew an enemy, as long it was in within my vicinity, I would gain experience from it. I decided to grind and gain as many souls as possible to level up and this trick helped a lot. It may not last forever, but it at least helped.
The dragon, however, was an impossible beast to kill. The moment we got near enough to it, it’s flame would burn Fliggity beyond recognition, turning him into the crispiest of bacon slices. This happened a few times, because I don’t easily learn my lessons. Yes, it was possible to sneak past via another route, but by now pride had gotten the better of me. This dragon, this monstrosity, this Scaly Git would not defeat me like the rest of Dark Souls 3.
Upon Fliggity’s next death, this time, I lead him down the right path, fighting off dog creatures and ghouls with lances. Of course, this resulted in several more deaths, but we pushed on, determined to see what lay ahead. Finally, we made it, only to discover one of the ghouls could turn into a big, black and red, oozing marshmallow thing with increased attacked. I promptly turned Fliggity around, ran in the other direction while shouting out loud, “Nope! Nope! Nope! Nope!” My fiancée burst out laughing at the sound of this.
I slaughtered all who stood in Fliggity’s way in order to confront the Staypuff Marshmallow man. After many screams and dripping blood (mostly from me) I did, finally, and was the reward? A bow. For the first time in this game, Fliggity could take pot shots from a distance. This gave me an idea.
I pushed Fliggity to try and explore any more of the area, but it was filled with low-resolution textures. I guess the developers didn’t put any effort into anything beyond the set path. It’s a shame, because it’s an odd sight in such a stunning video game.
Steadily, I guided Fliggity past the praying letches, past the peek-a-boo ghoul, down the stumbling ladder, and finally to the dragon. I felt almost guilty for taking long-range potshots at the thing until it died, well, at least it got annoyed enough to fly away. My pride was re-seated and we ventured onto the next bonfire, but not before a knight clad in armour rushed in, stabbing Fliggity with his sword. That’s Dark Souls, though; it gives you an ounce of gratification before piling on as much difficulty and dickery as possible. Asshole.
Even after a few days of play, Dark Souls 3 was starting to grow on me. There were instances during the day when I’d look forward to playing it, thinking of ways to get better at the game, which is what you’re really supposed to do. However, there were still some problems with the title, which I’d discover in the coming days.
Finally, after hours of grinding and slicing through the madness, we’d made it past the city’s entrance. Tomorrow’s adventure would be full of more swearing as I once more uttered the words: “Cock Bastard.”
Day #5 and #6: the broken boss
The bonfire was a welcoming sight after the past few days. In the real world, I’d decided to take a day off from Dark Souls. While I started to enjoy the journey in some strange way, it was still a stressful title and not something I enjoyed playing after a long day at work.
I also decided that if Fliggity were real, he’d surely feel worse for wear, ready to give in and sit at this fire for all eternity. After purchasing some new items and allocating skill points, we ventured on, feeling stronger and invincible.
The next area was an interesting, frustrating, and even annoying one. Of course, it was. We left the bonfire and explored one of two paths, the one that lead us the deepest. There we stumbled upon a prisoner confined to his cell. He asked if we’d deliver a letter for him, just a simple piece of paper to someone beyond the castle walls. Fliggity and I agreed.
I opted to lead Fliggity through the path we should have travelled. We sprinted across rooftops, slaying more of those creatures who prayed to their dead, gaining their souls along the way.
And then I heard it. Something in the distance was making loud, imposing footsteps as it walked. For now, it would have to but I knew we’d face this booming thing soon enough.
After carefully climbing down a ladder to face another fork in the road, Fliggity and I opted to take the safer route. There’s a bit of irony in anything you call ‘safe’ in Dark Souls. A knight, fully clad in armour patrolled the area. His duties included making sure no one entered his domain and impaling us upon his sword. This last fact I found out the hard way.
We tried once again to take out the metal monstrosity and failed once again, losing all of our souls in the process. By now this wasn’t about beating the game. No. No lowly knight was going to take away the pride I’d only just received back only a few hours ago.
The game can be taxing if you’re not used to that kind of gameplay
I trained Fliggity on the praying souls, taking their lives as I wondered how on earth one played on a slanted tile roof. It was glorious in a macabre Texas Chainsaw Massacre kind of way. If this were a horror movie, those peons would be teenagers smoking pot in the woods.
Eventually, Fliggity was strong enough to thrust his own sword right through the knight, slashing his 1s to 0s and 0s to 1s. Even though my avatar started off as a Pyromancer, a master of magic, he was becoming adept at melee combat.
But then, of course, Dark Souls 3 took us down a peg to show us who really was the boss in this gothic, digital world of horrors. It wasn’t long before we beat that area as well, but the fatigue was setting in once more. The game can be taxing
There wasn’t much we could do, but take this challenge head on. There and then I did something which I thought would be the most foolish action we could ever do. I lobbed a bomb at this guardian and like that he ran at us. I must confess that I may have screamed a little. The creature’s incredible speed caught me off-guard.
I forced Fliggity to lock on, dodge every attack if possible, lob more bombs, and attack when we could. He fell down with a thumb and left behind a soul as our spoils of war. It would be dead for ever, these types of sub-bosses never stay down.
Locking on, rolling, and throwing bombs was a strategy that I’d grown accustomed to. It had saved me on more than one occasion and was invaluable by now. It wouldn’t always last long.
After some more trekking and dispatching of enemies not important enough to detail here, I eventually found the boss. This ginormous dog-looking ice creature brandishing a club. It stood between Fliggity and I and the outside world. We’d need to take it out so that we got out. That prisoner’s letter depended on us.
The beast charged at us, looking to rip Fliggity into shreds, but I maneuvered him enough to roll out of the way. And then attacked the beast’s hind legs. That took off some health, but he was having none of it. He moved around once more, attacked, and cornered us. A few more slashes and we were down for the count, respawning at the bonfire before the roof ghouls.
Again, I leg Fliggity through all of the horrors that this place held and this time sneaking past the bulbous fountain boss. That wasn’t hard as it had gotten stuck in the very object it patrolled. Just standing there in mid air, wonder what life was as it peered into the watery vessel and wondering if it’ll have an enchiladas or quesadilla for lunch.
The dog boss made quick work of us. Over and over and over again. It was time for another grinding session because Fliggity needed more health in order to survive this beast.
And then, it happened. After almost giving up hope, we took out the Cujo. This enormous creature somehow got stuck in a corner and kept attacking a wall, while I attacked its back legs. Even though it was over, the victory felt hollow enough. We defeated the boss because there was a glitch. Come on Dark Souls, you can do better than that.
At least this section was now over. The next area would be where my journey comes to an end.
Day #7 and #8: an of so mighty tree
This new area, a small town, was cut off from the previous castle; it’s bridge collapsed leaving those seeking a better life stranded on its edge. Their corpses mummified in the day’s dim light. Though one still lived, whom I took pity upon and welcomed him into my service. From there Fliggity and I stepped through the town’s not-so-welcoming gates to begin our quest though this haunted land reeking with those on the edge of humanity.
We ventured through dilapidated houses where Fliggity was promptly impaled by a Dark Souls hillbilly and his pitchfork. I could almost hear him squeal in delight and call back to the others, “I gots a big’un, mahw.”
I lead Fliggity through the same path, making sure to avoid this straw hat-wearing fiend and impaling him on my own sword. It was a delight that only Dark Souls can give you.
We came across a tree alight with the bones of some poor souls. It was surrounded by more hillbillies mulling around, looking lost and forgotten, while a fat, balbu preacher knelt and prayed and rattled off incomprehensible words.
The stupidity of these being was such as to stand next to explode barrels. We soon showed them the errors of their ways by flinging a bomb. Boom it went as some unlucky few were thrown from this plane of existence.
Fliggity withdrew his bow as we took potshots at those left behind. This is where the game once more started to show how the AI needed more tweaking. Arrows would pierce the undead skin of these townsfolk, they’d see where it came from, run towards Fliggity and stand under his ledge. After a moment they’d forget about him and saunter off, leaving them open once more to attack. For a game the prides itself on how difficult the AI can be, it easily shows its faults in enemy scripting. At least I knew the Achilles heel of all fiends within this world: wooden ledges slightly higher than their heads.
We went back inside of the house because falling off of the ledge would result in taking damage. In the world of Dark Souls, you’ll need to conserve your character’s health as much as possible in order to survive its horrors. Some small and thin, almost malnourished creatures popped up and they attacked with ferocious speed. A flaw appeared once more where the camera can become stuck in odd areas, impairing my vision of the player. This leads to unfair deaths as you struggle to navigate your character through corridors or rooms with lots of objects.
This is where the game once more started to show how the AI needed more tweaking
At one point, I decided this part of the game, for now, was impassable after being killed by a monster running at us, holding a horizontal blade in its hands and just generally showing us who’s boss. Fliggity never saw it coming.
After dodging spears, speaking to a lovely BFG, and being murdered over and over again, I came across a large courtyard. Several undead beings cloaked in black prayed towards a large, unnatural-looking tree. As I approached, Tree Beard’s angry cousin sprang to life and started furiously attacking me — as furiously as a tree can attack.
After some initial swipes, the floor gave way and we tumbled down into the darkest pit made of bone and flesh and rock. The Magic Faraway Tree once more began its attack, but after many dangerous endeavors, Fliggity was now stronger, more powerful, and able to deal out more damage than he could take. In no time had we removed life from this tree-like thing. It was over and it was also the first boss that we’d managed to defeat in one take.
And that, for now, is where the story ends. Fliggity and I have talked it over, and while we’ll one day venture back into the world of Dark Souls, for now, at least, we’ve decided to see other games.
Dark Souls 3 has been a fun, albeit frustrating experience. I slowly began to learn how to adapt to the game’s mechanics and leave behind notions of rushing into battle. After all, this wasn’t Skyrim or Diablo, where beefing up is the key to success. This is a game that requires a lot of time and patience in order to master, in order to succeed, and in order to be great. Unfortunately, I don’t have that kind of patience, but I can appreciate the game for what it is.
I will come back to Dark Souls 3 in the coming months once my temper subsides. Perhaps even turn this into an even longer-form review, but that is something only time will tell.
Release Date: 11 April 2016 (South Africa)
Developer: From Software
Publisher: Bandai Namco
Genre: Action role-playing
Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One (review platform)
Industry average score: 86/100
Verdict: Dark Souls 3 is a difficult but ultimately rewarding romp through a fantastic, gothic landscape, even with a few niggles. It’s not for everyone, but those who put in the time will truly enjoy this epic adventure.