Dark Souls III is out today and it's one of the best games of the year so far, and a fitting send-off to one of the best video game series of all time.
If you’re worried about buying the game because you have no idea what happened in Dark Souls and Dark Souls II, don’t worry — the story’s so complex almost no one knows what happened in those games. They’re tangentially connected but the main takeaway is that you are an interloper in a strange world where pretty much everything wants to kill you.
If you’re worried about buying the game because you’ve heard it’s too hard, then I’d ask you to reconsider your position. Dark Souls III is good, but not because it’s hard. The hundreds of deaths you’ll face aren’t masochistic punishment, they’re part of the scientific process, helping you to learn by doing until you have the data to better your enemies.
But if you — as either Dark Souls old hand or series newbie — do decide to pick it up, we might be able to help speed you on your way. Here are the most important things to bear in mind about Dark Souls games; advice that’ll help the first few hours in Dark Souls III go smoothly, and some of the things that make From Software’s dungeon-crawling RPG interesting, unique, and oh so special.
Watch your corners
Play Dark Souls III like you’re learning to drive. Look left. Look right. Look left again. Only then can you enter a new room, and even then, you can expect to be dropped on from above by one of the game’s hunched assassins dislodging themselves from their position on the ceiling to plant a knife in your back.
Fight to your weapon
You can’t always decide when you’ll fight, but if you’re careful, you can usually dictate where you do battle. Luring single enemies away from their peers is key to getting through some of Dark Souls III’s tougher sections, but you should also try dragging them to where you can make best use of your weapon. If you’re using a Greatsword, for example, you’ll want to avoid tight corridors, or else your horizontal slash attacks will clang harmlessly off the wall. On the other hand, if you’re using a bow, a narrow hallway gives you a good chance of successfully hitting your target without them rolling to safety.
Seasoned Souls veterans will know the power of fighting near a ledge, keeping your fingers crossed that the game’s slightly wonky AI will launch your opponent into an exuberant attack that sends them plummeting to their doom, but Dark Souls III seems to have reduced the likelihood of this occurring. When I first arrived at the new game’s hub area of Firelink Shrine, I spent an hour trying to tease a super-fast samurai sword-wielding enemy into jumping clean off the edge of the world to no avail; the AI’s of self-preservation apparently tightened since the last Dark Souls.
Dark Souls games are studded with shiny objects; useful items glowing white in the gloom. Many of them are prizes for having survived so long, or ways to tell the story of a new area without spelling it out, but a good number are deliberate teases. Some are placed just out of reach, luring greedy travelers into long-distance leaps to their death, while others are put in plain sight, like cheese in a mousetrap ready to spring shut on the player.
Dark Souls III has a particularly harsh lesson for new players about treasure early on, but I won’t spoil it. In the meantime, treat an item like a dollar you find on the floor — you might want it, but take a moment to ask yourself how it got there.
Let your souls go
As in the previous games, souls are both Dark Souls III's reward and currency, given to players when they kill foes and used to buy items, upgrade weapons, and level up your character. As you forge through new areas and fight bigger enemies you’ll build up larger and larger stashes of souls, the loss of which hurts a little more with every death. The Souls games do offer a single chance to reclaim your souls after death — if you fight your way back to your bloodstain, you’ll reclaim every one you had on your last life — but be wary of chasing this dream at the expense of all else. I fell off a ledge while exploring one of Dark Souls III new areas last week, losing some 20,000 souls in the process. Impossibly annoyed, I sprinted past the same gaggle of enemies I’d previously spent 20 minutes carefully picking off, touching the spot of my previous death and regaining all my delicious souls — for about two seconds. A moment later one of the scarecrow-esque zombies I’d just antagonized appeared from nowhere and punched me down the same hole I’d just died in.
Don’t trust anyone
Friendly faces are hard to come by in the Dark Souls games, and whenever anyone does talk to you — rather than do their level best to murder you — they feel like your new BFF. But be wary: several hide a duplicitous nature behind cod-medieval speak, weird riddles, or overt cheerfulness. The poster boy for this kind of dickishness is Patches, a series regular that first appeared in Demon’s Souls and acts like a version of Loki, causing trouble for the sake of chaotic mischief. Patches is particularly unwelcome in the first Dark Souls, where he kicks the player into a pit in the middle of the Valley of the Giants, a long and grueling area cast into inky blackness and patrolled by vast skeleton soldiers.
The scars left when these apparent allies go rogue have lingered longer than any other I’ve picked up through my gaming career. The betrayal of Knight Lautrec — a golden-armored soldier I rescued during my first play through of Dark Souls I — hit perhaps the hardest. I freed Lautrec from a prison cell, taking pity on him as a mirror image of my own character, who also starts the game in jail. But rather than go on to have a swashbuckling career of helping people and ostensibly saving the world, Lautrec killed perhaps the only pure entity in Firelink Shrine and disappeared, only re-entering the frame hours later when I tracked him down for retribution in a parallel existence. Since then, I’m loathe to help characters I find locked up, figuring that someone put them there for a reason.
Spiritual successor Bloodborne borrowed this constant, cloying ambiguity for its own cast of characters, filling the world with people who were out to save their own skin first. Already conditioned by three Souls games (Demon’s, as well as Dark Souls I and II), I elected not to invite a guy I found standing over a corpse back to my secret clubhouse, deducing there was something fishy about his tattered clothing, ragged breathing, and bloody mouth. A friend later confirmed I was right — they’d let him into their safehouse, whereupon he’d turned into a werewolf and gutted a slew of innocents, like a video game retelling of the Three Little Pigs.
But don’t kill everyone for the sake of it
Some of Dark Souls’ friendliest characters are its most horrific looking. Kingseeker Frampt, for example, is an impossibly huge snake-monster that rises from the depths in front of you about two-thirds through the first game. He can eat the player in a single bite, or smash apart Firelink Shrine with two shakes of his snakey tail, but he’s on your side, swaying goofily in place until you progress with the mission he’s assigned you.
These characters feel like beacons of safety in the Dark Souls games, like one of Resident Evil’s soothing save rooms, or Zelda’s fairy grottos. There’s a church in the second Dark Souls that serves as a comparative safehouse, watched over by a legless, wizened hag in tattered robes. Lying prostrate and cackling, I nearly skewered her on my first run through the area, but her genuine concern for my well-being became one of the few points of light in a world consumed by darkness.
It’s all too easy to become paranoid in such worlds. The first time I played the original Dark Souls, I killed a particularly helpful character when I found him stuck inside a jar. To me, he was a rare occasion of the game taking pity on me, trapping a tough-looking enemy in place for an easy kill — but I discovered too late that if I’d let him go, he would’ve sold me incredibly helpful pyromancy spells to make my ongoing quest easier.
The series’ automatic save system makes accidents like the death of my jar-bound friend final. Once you’ve pissed off a merchant, ally, or acquaintance, they’re likely to remain hostile until you either kill them for good, or find a way to be forgiven. Players can usually do this by making good with Velka, the goddess of sin, but her agents are tricky to track down in each of the Dark Souls, necessitating some serious work if you’re looking for penance. It’s better instead to avoid upsetting them in the first place, a harsh lesson I learned from experience that now sees me take my fingers off my controller’s triggers during conversations.
Never let your guard down
I finished the first Dark Souls six times. My characters carried swords made of dragon tails, bows used by giants, and hurled lightning from their fists. I’d reforged the world, usurped gods, and murdered death — and yet I’d still get killed by the goddamn soldiers standing on the bridge to the Undead Burg. The weakest, slowest, simplest enemies in the game, and one time in 10, they’d catch me when I wasn’t concentrating and kick me to death.
Dark Souls III, like the first game, feels overwhelmingly fair, but part of that deal is giving your enemies the same chance to kill you as you have to kill them. It was always all too easy to get mobbed by weak foes, their low-grade weapons causing death by a thousand cuts, but the third game in the series serves up adversaries in greater numbers than before. Dark Souls III delights in putting packs of ghouls between you and your objective making it feel — in video game terms — like Resident Evil 4 compared to the original Dark Souls’ Resident Evil 1.
This advice applies for bosses, the screen-filling dragons, demons, and don’t-know-whats that you have to size up and take down during your hours in Dark Souls, but is most important to remember during invasions from other players. The series has a unique take on multiplayer that lets other real humans invade your game as terrifying red-and-black ghosts. Players can also call on other players for help, summoning them as blue, gold, and white figures to help them beat bigger enemies or get through tougher sections of the game, but these black phantoms only come for one reason — to kill you.
You’ll get a warning when your world is invaded by one of these vengeful spirits, at which point it’s best to find somewhere you feel comfortable fighting, or — if need be — hiding. There’s no shame in simply cowering in a corner and hoping you won’t be noticed — in fact, Dark Souls III gives you an item for that. Use a white branch and you’ll turn into a pot, a basket, or any other inanimate object from the environment, allowing you to hide under your foe’s nose. Just try not to move, and hope that your adversary doesn’t know the level too well, or else you’ll have to suffer the indignity of dying as a barrel.
Don’t give up
Thirty hours into the game, my character is certainly tougher than he was after an hour of play, but Dark Souls’ leveling system isn’t as set in stone as other RPGs and my hero is not so superhuman that a few good sword thrusts won’t leave him bleeding to death in the gutter. Instead of simply leveling up your combat abilities or giving you more moves, Dark Souls makes you level up your brain, forcing you to analyze attack patterns, be aware of your surroundings, and choose your moment.
You’ll die a lot, but even the most disheartening deaths — the ones that come deep into new territory and miles from the nearest bonfire save point — give you new information you can use on your next life. No life is wasted. Just take a deep breath, swallow the souls you lost, and put your new knowledge into practice.
Dark Souls III is available today on the PC, PS4, and Xbox One.