It’s been about a year since the latest Dark Souls game came out. For various reasons I had not spent enough time with the game until now to have a chance of saying anything interesting about it. But I’ve recently spent more time with the title and now with the announcement of the second round of DLC I guess I should take my personal shot at the game. As always, many spoilers, but what do you care, you’ve already played it.
The Big Picture
Answer: It’s Good.
Dark Souls 3 is the latest (and last?) iteration of the Souls series which started out with Demon’s and moved through Dark Souls 1 and 2. Dark Souls is of course the cult/popular favorite in this series, having been the breakthrough title that led to the rest (Dark Souls 2, Bloodborne, and now Dark Souls 3). I can talk about that game forever, but I mostly already have, over and over and over and over again.
As is well known, many Dark Souls dorks don’t like Dark Souls 2 all that much. The main gripes have to do with slower and clunkier combat (especially with how parries, or more specifically, the counter attack after the parries, work). On the one hand, I guess I fall into this category. On the other hand, I played through the game three times and got all the trophies, so who am I to complain.
All of that said, Dark Souls 3 is something of a return to the style DS1. You don’t have to level your rolling anymore. Ripostes and backstabs are fast and deadly looking again rather than being a five step dance with the person you are hitting. The combat overall takes many cues from Bloodborne, with more grouped enemies and faster bosses who sometimes gank you. The areas are appropriately huge when you go through the maze the first time, and nicely compact and easy to navigate once you know the maps. Finally, there are many callbacks to the earlier episodes which are either nostalgic fan service or a nice way to tie up the timeline into a nice knot, depending on how cynical you are.
A few annoyances that were avoided this time:
No stupid puzzle bosses (I’m looking at you Bed of Chaos, and Micolash). Hmm, maybe there was one … but he’s easy.
They kept the more refined upgrade systems from DS2. There are three main tracks of upgrade materials and then gems for infusing different kinds of elemental or other scaled damage. No crazy trees of different upgrade and infusing paths. This is good.
All the warping.
The bosses mostly have clean runs to the fog door. No armies of giant knights to stun lock you before you can get in. This is also good.
Of course, it would not be a Souls game without a few standard tropes.
Opening and closing episodes take place in or around a giant castle? Check.
Bad dragon fights. Check.
A village of the undead? Check.
NPCs and vendors who disappear for no reason, thus locking out from seeing entire storylines or buying supplies later in the game? Check.
Andre the Blacksmith! Check.
A poisoned swamp level: Check.
A giant underground lake full of fire: Check.
So there you go.
As is standard now with a new Souls game, I did a melee oriented Strength/Dex “quality” build to work through the game the first time. This is the best way to do things because you get to play with all the weapons and it’s usually the case that the DLC will fuck you over if you do a magic/faith/fire guy. I went through the game once this way, and played around with the PVP a little. I also tried to make a caster, but at low level it was frustratingly terrible.
My main complaint after these initial playthroughs had to do with the weapons. I played through the game on a long sword. The long sword is a great PVP weapon in the other games, but it’s a bit short and weak for PVE and bosses, at least for me. Not so here. It turns out it’s really hard to find a weapon in the game that is better than the long sword. Bigger weapons don’t hit hard enough to justify their slow attack speed (i.e. two swings with the long sword come out almost as fast and hit for more damage than one swing with a great-sword). Smaller weapons are not different enough from the long sword to be really interesting. Dual wield weapons get me killed because I suck at dual wielding. So that just leaves the straight swords.
Maybe I’m just overly jaded by move-set porn, but I found this slightly disappointing.
One twist in this game that does add to the weapons mix is a build style that is specifically oriented around bleed damage. Bleed is a status effect that some weapons deal. Each hit fills an invisible bleed meter which when full then does a fixed percentage of the creature’s total health in damage on the next hit. Many bosses in DS3 are susceptible to this and it’s a fun gimmick to play with for one run. Interestingly, the best weapon in the game to do this with is again, a special straight sword. Sigh.
Other random thoughts, in random order:
I hate Gwyndolin, and fuck you FromSoft for bringing him back disguised as a different boss.
The new Anor Londo was pretty cool to see the first time.
As usual it’s impossible to collect the achievement badges for the various styles of PVP because the level matching is broken. As usual they will eventually patch the game so you can farm these if you really want the trophies.
That music in the last boss. You know what I mean.
Respec is cool. The way to make a caster in this game, IMHO, is to get to high level playing with a melee guy and a RAW weapon while collecting all the magic bits. Then respec to magic at the end. Then the end game is easy.
Favorite fight just to look at: Dancer.
Favorite fight because it’s easy: Giant Ornstein? The Weird Dragon dude with the baby?
Favorite fight that I suck at: Twin Princes.
Overall this is a strong addition to the lineup, and I was happy to get back into it when my R1-elbow tendonitis finally cleared up around the new year. But, after working through the DLC (small area, one sort of tedious three stage boss) and then playing most of the game with a bleed build, I decided that Bloodborne was more fun.
So that’s a story.
Why Bloodborne is the Best “New” Souls Game
The combat is the best.
Two things happened to get me back into Bloodborne.
First, my old buddy Pete finally bought a PS4 to play The Last Guardian and ended up playing Bloodborne instead. Ha ha ha. I rolled a new character to maybe get into the co-op sessions. But that never happened.
Second, over the holiday break, the noted streamer and inhumanly good Souls game dude LobosJr was doing a crazy no leveling run of the whole game plus the DLC and all the Chalice Dungeon bosses.
I had tried the Chalices during my first couple of runs at this game, but hated them for their samey atmosphere and overly cryptic systems of construction and materials collection. But, for his run Lobos found a simple linear list of everything you needed to do to get through to the bottom. As with all things in souls games, it’s always 500% better if you have a video walkthrough.
So I built a guy specifically to do this run. At first I was going to make myself use the Saw Cleaver, but in the end I caved and gave the guy my favorite weapon of all time: Ludwig’s Holy Blade. I’ve talked about that weapon before. For about the first half of the run I continued to be confused about how to bond with the Saw Cleaver. And then I noticed something strange. On some creatures, particularly bosses of a certain sort, the cleaver hit harder than the sword even though the sword had much higher base damage. It turns out this happens for a few reasons:
The base damage of the sword is calibrated for its two handed mode, not its glorious one handed super-R1-spam mode. So one handed swings have a multiplier that is less than 1.
In contrast, the cleaver’s base damage is for its fastest attack mode. Also, successive swings of the cleaver give you an attack multiplier that is greater than 1.
Finally, the cleaver does extra damage against Beast enemies, like many of the bosses in the dungeons.
Put these together and you end up using the cleaver as an ludicrously powerful DPS machine. Here is a modest example. Note how the damage counter goes up slightly super-linearly. Truly the Saw Cleaver is the Dark Souls 1 falchion reborn.
Note: if you were really good and could avoid hits, you can combine this with the Beast Blood Pellets and deal even more damage as your beasthood meter fills and amplifies your hits. But I tend to get one-shot when I try to do that.
Belatedly discovering that the Saw Cleaver was so good made Bloodborne almost into a new game for me. I had always been slightly nervous about actually fighting things in super close quarters, but now I was willing to go in for the spam damage.
With the walkthrough, the Chalice Dungeons also distill the core of the game into its most pure and shiny form: fast runs to big bosses. Being able to just run in, unlock boss door and then fight the boss over and over again removed a lot of the tedious repetition of “exploring” the dungeons that I hated so much before. This was replaced with the comfortable and secure repetition of insta-dying to the bosses over and over again, especially when they fucking cheat.
As usual, the bosses that gave me the most trouble were:
Enemies with fast move-sets that you need to memorize for timing, but also adjust to quickly when the situations go all wrong. These take me hours to learn, even if the final fight looks short. You’ll notice in that video that I should have died at least six times.
Fights where I need to play unlocked. I’m not good at toggling locking and keeping track of where I am. The harder bosses in the Chalices really make you learn how to do this.
In the end, the final few fights were an anti-climax after the peak difficulty of the cursed dungeon (you have to play those at half HP). Oh, and Ebreitas was easy again. I don’t get it.
I happily collected my trophy and then considered whether I felt like getting the rest. We’ll see. What I did learn in this run was:
The Bloodborne combat is by far the best of the series. Still. I really miss the rally system when I play Dark Souls 3.
Even though there are fewer weapons, the weapon variety in Bloodborne also seems better than Dark Souls 3. As I’ve said before, the only thing really missing is a convenient way to play ranged. Arcane and gun builds work, but not as smoothly as in the other games.
Offsetting these wins are the relative bummers of needing to farm for healing potions and the relative lack of upgrade materials to get more than a few weapons fully upgraded in any given run of the game. You can mitigate this a bit with appropriate Chalice Dungeon diving, but that’s a lot of work.
I will probably run through the game again to collect the weapons trophy. It will be fun, as always, to murder the bosses in NG+ with the R1-spam buzzsaw. On balance Bloodborne takes its place as second on my all-time Souls list with DS3 and DS2 sitting third and fourth. I have to keep Dark Souls on top because I’ve played it the most and I would not have even tried the others if it had not taken over my brain. Secretly though, Bloodborne is probably better.