I should have known, really. Those long, wind-up swings and slow, lumbering lurches – the signs were there from the very beginning. And yet, even after thirty attempts at taking down Vordt of the Boreal Valley, the urge to dodge the moment I sensed even the slightest whiff of an attack was just too great.
I’d hit the roll button to try and leap out of harm’s way, only to get thrown to the other side of the room in a crushing blow of mangled metal, my pre-emptive strike having inadvertently sent me straight into the arms of Vordt’s frostbitten mace.
If only I’d waited that bit longer. If I’d dodged at the right time, I might still have had half my health bar in tact instead of being yet another life-replenishing Estus flask down and another step closer to loosing yet another bag of souls I could use to level up my pitiful collection of stats once I found the safe confines of the next bonfire. It would be pretty embarrassing to have to call it quits before I’d even defeated the game’s second boss, after all, but that’s the type of game that Dark Souls is – a cruel, unrelenting punisher of an RPG that’s not afraid to take its players down a peg at every available opportunity.
Thankfully, I did eventually best Vordt once I’d finally trained my trigger-happy fingers to hold off pressing dodge at the first sign of trouble, but there were several moments when I was ready to simply throw in the towel and call it a day. Perhaps it was destiny that I wasn’t going to be good at this game, and under normal circumstances I probably would have given up and returned to something easier and more familiar like The Witness or Xenoblade Chronicles X. A lot of people will probably come to the same conclusion after their first couple of hours of Dark Souls III, but those who do persist with the latest entry in FromSoftware’s rock-hard Souls series will find there’s plenty to be admired here, even if it is through tired eyes and a rather pained grimace.
The biggest reason to venture out into the realm of Lothric is its exquisite world design. Having skipped Dark Souls II in favour of helming last year’s Souls spin-off Bloodborne, director Hidetaka Miyazaki is back at the helm this time round, and his masterful touch is clearly present right from the off.
From the crumbling ruins of Lothric’s old high wall castle to the dilapidated shanty town of the Undead Settlement nestled in its foothills, the twisting paths carrying you toward ever greater levels of destruction are both wonderfully rendered and beautifully crafted. They’re full to the rafters with secrets and hidden pathways, and you’ll often marvel how each one eventually doubles back on itself to reveal cunning shortcuts and precious life-saving pathways toward your next goal.
The latter is particularly important when you’re on the warpath toward each area’s main boss, as you’ll need every ounce of health and as many healing items as you can afford before you can take them down. Pick up too many wounds and wayward arrows sticking out of your shoulder along the way and you might as well beat a hasty retreat back to your nearest bonfire and try again, especially if you’ve accumulated a decent number of souls in the process.
For souls are what make the world go round in the apocalyptic hills of Lothric, and you’ll need them to both level up your chosen warrior, improve your weapons and buy additional items to aid you in your travels. Dying puts all that hard work to the sword, you see, although you do get a second chance to retrieve your collection of spirits once you’ve been resurrected at your last bonfire. Fall again on the way, however, and they’ll be lost for good.
And it’s s here where Dark Souls III can quickly start to feel like a bit of a grind. Until a friend told me about one of the earlier shortcuts, for instance, I was repeatedly putting myself through at least fifteen minute gauntlet runs on the way to the next boss, which not only became incredibly tedious after the fifth attempt at trying to take this guy down, but also incredibly disheartening.
Even when you do manage to defeat these foes in combat, any sense of achievement or success is quickly snuffed out when you know there’s something even bigger and badder lurking round the next corner. For as soon as you bust open those heavy, wooden doors barring the way forward, it’s straight back to business, and the knowledge that everything that awaits you is going to be even harder and more difficult than the last set of monsters you’ve just spent hours memorising can be pretty daunting.
It’s in situations like these that I wish Dark Souls III would explain itself a bit more. Old hands might know that popping an ember before a boss fight might give you some much-needed extra health, but newcomers are pretty much thrown in the deep end without so much as a word or hint.
There’s also the secret business of being able to summon certain other warriors you defeat to help you in future battles, but you can’t see where you’re able to call upon them unless you’re embered up (of which there are precious few strewn across the world) or your Faith stat is above 15 – which is going to take some doing if you opt for one of the safer offensive classes like the Knight or Warrior. It doesn’t even go as far as explaining what each of its individual stats mean unless you switch on the explanation prompt, which I was still referring to even after six hours into the game.
Of course, you might say this reluctance to reveal its secrets is fairly typical of the Dark Souls series, and that the real reason why so many players continue to flock towards its borders is to work it all out on your own. This is all well and good if you really, and I mean really, relish the idea of being horribly butchered every ten minutes or so while you figure it all out, but it doesn’t really help make the game any more accessible to those coming in wide-eyed and fresh-faced.
And yet, for all its dogged distaste for an easy ride, I can’t quite bring myself to dislike Dark Souls III. It might be one of the most brutal and psychotic games I’ve ever played, but the level of craftsmanship on show here is undeniable. It certainly won’t be to everyone’s tastes, but this is a game that’s difficult by design rather than sheer malice. Slowly but surely, you will, eventually, uncover its inner workings. The only question remaining is just how much time you’re willing to give up in order to do so.
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