Hi, I’m Kevin Pape and I returned Bloodborne within 24 hours of buying it. Before that, I dropped Demon’s Souls within an hour of its disc spinning in my drive. I couldn’t wrap my brain around these games. I’ve been a gamer since my hands were big enough to fit around a controller. I’ve seen challenge. I’ve defeated empires. I dethroned kings. I punched gods in the dick. But FromSoftware’s games were another beast altogether. They felt like someone shipped the game and forget to include every difficulty beneath “Make the Pain Fucking Stop.”
But with Dark Souls III something clicked. I didn’t just beat the game; I devoured it. I felt like I learned a new language and I’ve been preaching my new tongue to potential converts ever since.
In lieu of a deeper analysis or, uh, one of my famed “Month Later Reviews,” I decided to sit down with my gaming brother in arms, Brandon “The Ashen Bro” Forman – a veteran that faced the same “Why is this fucking game hurting me?” dilemma before becoming a conquering hero – and discuss FromSoftware’s latest and greatest abuse.
Kevin: Branchado – can I call you Branchado? Because I’m gonna – what playthrough are you on in Dark Souls III?
Brandon: I’m about to finish my first round of New Game+. Which among the fanbase is considered NG +1. Currently have a little over one million souls.
Kevin: Goddamn. But that’s par for the course as you level. Starting out, I’d grit my teeth every time I’d die and lose maybe 2000 souls. I thought that was the worst. I was so so wrong.
Brandon: Absolutely. Now don’t get me wrong, one million souls is still going to hurt like hell if I lose them. Souls are precious until you get to the point of diminishing returns on all of your stats, but that takes some time. It is nice though that certain enemies on this run drop 32,000 souls a pop.
Kevin: We’ve talked about the coveted “clicking point” before – where the learning curve stops relentlessly beating you into the ground and you actually start to feel almost adept at the punishment these games dole out. I remember my first experience with a “Soulslike” was… fucking discouraging. I played the very first Demon’s Souls. I think the first enemy popped out of a corner and mollywhopped me. I put that shit down. Fast.
My time with Bloodborne was more or less the same (though I did give it a valiant effort before placing my controller snugly through the drywall). You’ve played most of the Souls series and Platinumed Bloodborne – which I don’t believe and there’s just no earthly way to prove it happened – what is it that gets someone to that clicking point? What did it for you?
Brandon: This is where the quality of these games come into play and why their mechanics, atmosphere, and overall package are so important. If this series was any less phenomenal, people would simply drop the game before that clicking point. That’s not to say that the challenge is not a great aspect by itself. However, that feeling of accomplishment is not what entices people to come back at the introduction of the game.
It’s the promise of “What am I missing out on?” From beautiful artistic design, a haunting score, and a combat system that just feels right, you can’t help but feel you are missing out on something special if you give up on a game from this series. Bloodborne was notoriously punishing for first time players as you could not even level up until making it past hordes of enemies and fighting the first boss and inevitably losing on your first try (as all do to their first Souls series boss).
Kevin: You nailed that very same tickle that bugged the ever living shit out of me: “What am I missing out on?” The art design was stupidly superb in Bloodborne. It irked me that Fromsoftware would bar this rich, macabre world behind such frustratingly tedious mechanics. A game that wants you to fail? What the fuck is that? But once you start to dance its dance, when you figure out the precise combat, how leveling works, how shortcuts let you bypass bullshit encounters you’re not ready for, how dying isn’t punishment but a learning tool that lets you map your environment… it just clicks. Hence “the clicking point.”
Brandon: It’s a beautiful thing when you ask those who gave up on this series where in the game they gave up. The answer almost always comes down to either the first boss or the first horde. They didn’t let the clicking point happen.
Kevin: Dark Souls III has these crazy statistics that echo just that. People wouldn’t even make it to the first bonfire! The first boss would educate them that modern gaming had made them soft and they’d give up. But the same numbers show that if players got past the first boss, they would typically plow through to completion. These are the converted. The Ashen Ones that heeded the call of flame and so on and so forth.
I remember feeling the same pangs of regret fighting that boss. I thought, “Shit. I spent $60 on a game I can’t even play.” But all the game asks is that you pay your dues. It demands Patience and Perseverance. After that, you really are on track to becoming a balled fist of destruction. I remember watching streams of dudes dicing up bosses like it was no sweat. I thought such feats demanded Adderall laced Red Bulls to accomplish. After one run through (think I left my Ashen Bro at around LvL. 114), I’m doing the same shit – slapping bosses around like they owe me money (and they do; they owe me souls).
Brandon: One thing I absolutely love about this series is what it rewards. This game rewards perseverance. When can you truly say that the base version of a game rewarded you on your own merits? Look at Destiny for example. The game didn’t keep you coming back based on your achievements. They hit you with the same psychology that brings people back to the slot machines: “Let me just fight this raid one more time to see what loot I get.” Something about that just seems so filthy. Meanwhile, the positive feelings you pick up from this game are simply from playing a well made game and stepping up to the challenge it presents you.
Brandon: So we covered what this series is most known for; the difficulty. Tell me, as someone new to the series, how you liked its other unique quality: minimalist storytelling.
Kevin: Now you know I like me some good world building. Video games, first and foremost, are a visual medium. Dark Souls takes this approach of Show, Don’t Tell to a subtle extreme. You really have to venture off the beaten path to find shreds of the story. I can see how if someone just pummeled through, hacking and rolling, they’d leave with the impression that the game had absolutely no narrative. But there is a lore. More often than not, it conveys that through the world you’re traversing. It’s easy to miss, especially when you have serpent men chasing your ass around.
The NPC’s have some say, too. Yeah, I wish some more conventional storytelling made it through (the endings are basically these confusing half-minute cutscenes that force you to raze a forum to figure out) but there’s something appreciable about what the dev did. It’s like looking at a painting – it isn’t about understanding the whole picture, it’s more about your takeaway.
Brandon: Pretty much my feelings exactly. I also have to give mention to all of the weapons and items in this game. Every single one comes with a description that gives you a little bit more of the lore.
Kevin: All right. So here’s something that’s sort of on the divisive side for me. The multiplayer.
Brandon: Oh, Herbman, that’s not divisive in the slightest. Everyone hates the wonkiness of the summoning. A more streamlined approach to co-op and matchmaking would be appropriate. This is one of the few situations where they take their dedication to the atmosphere of the game too far. A good old fashioned matchmaking screen would have been great.
I will always be a defender of the Note system though. Love it.
Kevin: The notes are great… if not always helpful. You get this rudimentary system of phrases and keywords, and so far, I usually see a clutter of ones referencing anal sex in really dumb, roundabout ways.
Brandon: “Try tongue but hole.”
Kevin: But, yes, those restrictions just make multiplayer a headache. I get they wanted to make summoning a finite resource but come the fuck on. Need help? You have to be Embered to summon. Either pay a soul toll for an Ember or beat a boss. Bought all the Embers from your creepy Fire Shire lady? Bust out your White Sign Soapstone and have a stranger summon you, beat that boss, get Embered and… on and on and on.
And having to enter a unique passcode so you can play with a friend? What? It doesn’t even guarantee we’ll hit paydirt, either. You and I have spent an inordinate amount of time placing and replacing our summon signs just to match. The whole system seems temperamental. “Maybe you can join a friend’s game. Maybe not. Maybe fuck you.”
Brandon: A system that could use refining for sure. My other negative that I feel I must mention is how useless magic seems to be if you are purely playing solo. I have seen some players who were absolutely fantastic team players as magic users, but it seems incredibly unrewarding to play as a magic user by yourself.
Kevin: My roommate went on a fireball spree. Yet, every time I saw him take on a boss, he would be using the sword/shield combo. Personally, I don’t like mage builds. I’m a practical man. Buddy, if you want lumber, you don’t burn a tree down. You don’t throw lighting at it. You cut it down.
Brandon: But what if you want a roast?
Kevin: You throw lightning at a cow.
Brandon: How do you feel about the stat system and the options the game presents you? I think up to a certain point they enable a player to craft a whatever build that suits them.
Kevin: It’s a bit overwhelming. It’s like pouring through spreadsheets. It helped me to just focus on what I wanted, and that in itself took some doing because you need to figure out what the hell it is when you’re dumping souls into Dexterity versus Strength and such. The menu system as a whole suffers from the same problem that forced CD Projekt Red to patch The Witcher 3’s menus – it’s all too cluttered.
I think for the D&D set, it’s a wet dream. For me, I would’ve preferred something closer to how Diablo 3 handled stats and items. Those menus were sublime.
Brandon: One thing this series can definitely claim, for good and bad, is it never holds your hand. From Demon’s until now the menus have largely remained the same. Again I give credit to the studio. In a day and age where companies are constantly changing their games on the fly to try and appease every demographic, Dark Souls III knows its fans and knows those who stayed loyal. You either love them for who they are or you get the hell out.
Kevin: As a veteran… I don’t know, Souls-er, where does DSIII rank for you in the pantheon of Soulslikes?
Brandon: When compared to the rest of the series I would have to say it goes Dark Souls III > Bloodborne > Demon’s Souls > Dark Souls > Dark Souls 2.
I absolutely adore this game and this series. Besides the summoning system, I feel the other issues are purely nitpicking on my part. Dark Souls III is an amazing game that was a tribute to those fans who have stayed with the series. I feel it was also a great welcoming point for those wanting to try the series for the first time with a gameplay speed that was a mix of Bloodborne and a traditional Souls game.
Kevin: I never thought I’d break into this series. I felt like a kid in a candy store except every first piece of candy I’d swallow would give me crippling diarrhea. Only a masochist would eat that kind of candy (or someone with both a sweet tooth and severe blockage problems). But… I really admire the design. There’s nothing sweeter than going on these epic no-death streaks, where I’m exploring the lavish environment and felling my foes. Then, the game humbles your cockiness; reminds you to keep playing smarter, no matter how buffed out you become.
It’s this surprisingly old school ebb and flow where memorizing pathways are just as important as learning enemy patterns. With how most games are today, I forgot what that kind of challenge was like. Modern gaming’s idea of “difficult” is lowering your damage output and increasing the bad guy’s health. Dark Souls ain’t that. For all the hub-bub about its notorious difficulty, its actually a fairer fight than the bullet sponge assholes we run into today.
As a newbie, I agree completely – Dark Souls III is the best gateway drug to get you hooked on this series.