Dark Souls III Review

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I must be a glutton for punishment, right? In the space of a month or so, I have played and reviewed Salt & Sanctuary and now FromSoftware’s Dark Souls III. I’d make some psychologist out there a grade A paper, no doubt!

Born, die. Die, die again. Hollowed, unkindled. Fire and darkness. It’s these themes that encapsulate the world that Hidetaka Miyazaki, the Lord Gywn of the Soulsborne genre, created back in 2011 with the original Dark Souls. Before the Dark, there was the Demon, and I’d be remiss if I were ignorant of the fact that we have Demons Souls as the initial blueprint of the Dark trilogy. However, this is Dark Souls 3; the bookend to the saga that started back in a prison cell back half a decade ago, and it deserves its own corner office.
Now the respects have been paid, let us get down to business.

There are parts of Dark Souls III that I can’t talk about; not because of being asked nicely not to do so, but because if you have any investment in this world at all, then you’ll want to discover the secrets for yourself, and there are plenty to find.

Unlike previous Souls titles, the story and the narrative of the world around you are more accessible out of the gate. Yes, item descriptions cement a lot of the story. Yes, you’ll more than likely need to watch YouTube lore-masters. None of this is to be ashamed off, it’s part of the DNA of Soulsborne titles. Yet, from the moment of your emergence into this world – Lothric this time around, your purpose in this world is clear. Complete crystal. Everything else is pudding. Yummy, painful, rage inducing, dessert. Death by chocolate?

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That’s about as much of the story as I want to cover, as I’d be disrespecting the fan base otherwise. Though, please know, that even if you haven’t every played a Dark Souls title before, or never took in any of the lore around you, there is still much reason to look at Dark Souls 3.

My initial feeling on the combat changes in Dark Souls 3, which has turned the dial up to Bloodborne. I loved the idea that I was experiencing combat as if I were within the lines of a Lord Byron poem, yet it felt like I was going to be allowed room to make mistakes. I didn’t want it to be any less punishing than in Lordran or Drangleic. As I progressed through the opening area, I was dispatching enemies with ease. I was scared. I encountered the first boss, a petrified Knight. Upon on triggering the encounter, I reverted to turtle mode; shield up, skirting a path around this imposing figure. Then, he was defeated. It took less than two FP bars to defeat him. FP being what is consumed during spellcasting, or using skills moves of weapons.
Maybe I finally did it, I Git Gud? I started another character, went in full melee. He posed a little more trouble but ultimately didn’t award me with my first death. That award went to gravity!
I ventured onwards, knowing that the game had to pick up in difficulty soon.

It did, just a little bit. I was forced to expend all my Estus flasks, the one of the very few ways to restore health, no life gems in sight. This was versus a dog. Yeah. This hound would give Resident Evil puppies a run for their money.

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After several bosses failed to give me my first true death, I came up against the Abyss Watchers. This encounter has to be one of the most unique encounters in Dark Souls. No spoilers here. Just be prepared to be all like – ‘Hrmg. WTF. Oh, noes. Wait. What. DAMN IT’.

I was happy, I’d realised that after several hours of play, the Dark Souls I came to see was here; it had been here all along. FROMSoft had just provided balance to the whole experience, instead of several jumps in difficulty, the game was one huge curve. Well played, well played. From this point on, the curve started to hit ever increasing levels of difficulty. My Pyromancer had to start stacking points in Vitality and Vigor, this enabled me to have the cushion to takes hits and keep going.

The levelling experience in Dark Souls 3 is as much a boss as any of the Mace Wielding Knights. If you make a build for a certain weapon or playstyle, but then want to change it up because you just got THAT sword, you can. It’s a big cost to do so, as you’ll come to see. Levelling up is as you’d expect; hand in souls to a certain NPC, happy days. Yup, that’s correct, no levelling at bonfires. Also, whilst I am handing out bad news to Dark Souls purists, fast travel is open from the start. With each level gained, the requirement to level up is increased. It’s the same ‘Soulsborne’ formula we expect, yet it feels much deeper. At least, for a Pyromancer, as our spells scale off of Int/Faith now. It was a change that I had to learn to love, as I’d spent the previous titles building a walking tank that shot fireballs.

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One concern that I did have, having had read about previous to being able to play (and to be fair it’s still around), is how the world would feel scattered, due to the nature of the central hub being disconnected from each preceding and following area. I am happy to say that beyond one example, and a huge mirror moment, the whole world can be traversed without loading screens. Well, there is one more, but that’ll be down to you to find.

Speaking of loading screens. I had to make a conscious decision almost every time I wanted to restock at a bonfire; do I warp back, or do I run back? Hopefully, this can be fixed via a patch down the line. Remember Bloodborne’s epic loading times were fixed, so it’s not out of the realm of possibility. Alas, the performance woes aren’t limited to loading times. There were moments where I relived the Blighttown nightmare, again and again. There is a location that has already started to be referred to as Blighttown 2.0.

“Theorists are saying that the performance issues are due to low population of online players.”
Performance drops aren’t uncommon in FROMSoft titles, sadly. Bloodborne, still suffers from it today, though it’s more localised now. Dark Souls 3, however, chugs along at the strangest moments – I can be in a narrow corridor with two enemies, nothing fancy, and the game will enter go-slow-mode. I am not Digital Foundry, so I can’t give exact numbers, but my napkin fps math says as low as 20 fps in less than intense areas. When the particle effects hit the fan, it’s cost me an ember or two more than I’d care to say. Thankfully, there are no issues within boss encounters!

My experience with PvP in Dark Souls 3 has been limited so far, as you’d expect. Though, I am pretty sure that I was defeated by our editor’s online nemesis, Greg Miller, on more than one occasion. When I did invade others, the experience was smooth, and there are a lot of options on how to PvP in Dark Souls 3: You can use a Cracked Red Eye Orb, lay down a red Soapstone, or be yanked into the world of a fellow covenant member if they are in trouble. It’s a great experience, truly. Now, when you are invading, be prepared for karma to rain down on you. A few times I thought I was in a 1 Vs. 1 situation, only to then get taken down by a Sunbro rolling off a rooftop and plunging a sword through my spinal cord. Needless to say, controllers may have been placed down, and walks were taken. Often. For every time that happened, there is also a funny moment. You can enter other player’s worlds as an invader AND a supporter, that’s about as spoilerish as I am going to go. If you do this with a certain ring equipped, you can be a right mean bastard.

Lasting appeal. That’s largely the lifeblood of games like Dark Souls, of which there aren’t many. Player versus player, New Game Plus, Fashion Souls, naked runs, and the like are what keeps people playing both Dark Souls 1 and 2.

My experience with PvP in Dark Souls 3 has been limited so far, as you’d expect. Though, I am pretty sure that I was defeated by our editor’s online nemesis, Greg Miller, on more than one occasion. When I did invade others, the experience was smooth, and there are a lot of options on how to PvP in Dark Souls 3: You can use a Cracked Red Eye Orb, lay down a red Soapstone, or be yanked into the world of a fellow covenant member if they are in trouble. It’s a great experience, truly. Now, when you are invading, be prepared for karma to rain down on you. A few times I thought I was in a 1 Vs. 1 situation, only to then get taken down by a Sunbro rolling off a rooftop and plunging a sword through my spinal cord. Needless to say, controllers may have been placed down, and walks were taken. Often. For everytime that happened, there is also a funny moment. You can enter other player’s worlds as an invader AND a supporter, that’s about as spoilerish as I am going to go. If you do this with a certain ring equipped, you can be a right mean bastard.

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The other side of the coin is cooperative play. This is pretty much as in previous titles, laydown a soapstone, be summoned. Have a jolly good time. Please, remember that as the player being summoned, your job is to protect the host. If they die, you don’t get jack.

I’ve heard Dark Souls player say that “Dark Souls doesn’t even start until you hit NG+”, and I used to scoff at the notion. With Dark Souls III, at least for myself – my first run through was one giant learning experience. Every room was to be combed for hidden items, illusionary walls, and short cuts. Then, come NG+, I concentrated on the lore experience, knowing what enemies were a threat, and which were going to provide me with the chance to mix things up.

Weapons are abundant, with a large percentage feeling unique. Every weapon has a Skill, a weapon art if you will, this can be from flipping round and laying waste to enemies. Or, it can be buffing yourself for a short duration, allowing you to take a risk and be rewarded. My personal favourite is the Pyromancy glove. It has a small FP cost, packs a heck of a punch and to balance it out, has the range of about 2’.
Inclosing, Dark Souls 3 is the Dark Knight Rises to Batman Begins. It has so many threads that come from Hidetaka Miyazaki’s first Dark Souls title, that it could very be played as a direct continuation. Dark Souls 2, sadly, feels relegated to The Walking Dead: 400 Days status. I am sure there are a lot of ties that I simply didn’t see or read. Yet, the ones I did, I could count on my 19 toes and fingers.

It’s not a perfect game, and I am not sure that Hidetaka Miyazaki or FROMSoft were aiming to make it perfect. Which is weird to say, I know. Dark Souls 3 has a lot going for it, the world is beautiful. It’s connected in ways that would embarrass modern day architects, and I never felt like I was wandering aimlessly; I just had to look around. The world is real, it’s alive, you can see where you started, where you are going next, all from the top of a tower, or out of a window of a nearby castle. The tagline of “If you see it, you can go there” is very well represented in Dark Souls 3.

If the performance issues can be addressed and the lore of Dark Souls 2 brought more into the fold, then this could very well be a contender for GOTY. As it stands, it feels like the perfect follow-up to Dark Souls 1 and nothing else. I played the patched version, 1.02, which is currently labeled as the day one patch.

Score: 8/10

Pros:
It’s the most accessible Soulsborne title to date; difficulty curve is great
In parts, you’ll think you are living poetry in motion
Every refined aspect of the game is welcomed, and fits in well.
Cons:
In parts you’ll think you’ve gone back a generation due to performance problems
Blighttown 2.0
It Feels like Dark Souls 2 is the red-headed stepchild of the trilogy, by seemingly ignoring a lot of the lore established in Scholar.

Salt and Sanctuary Review

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Salt & Shake with Frustration

I’ll confess now, I am a huge Soulsborne fan. I wasn’t always, and the tale of how I became one would be best left for another day. So, I am always on the lookout for my next rage-filled game. Salt and Sanctuary is the lucky sod this time.

Sod being the keyword.

Salt and Sanctuary is a beautiful game, the team of two – well, four if you include their cats – have done a masterful job of taking sound, art, atmosphere, and the sense of claustrophobia, and putting it into a blender. It’s rendered in 2D, Metroidvania style, though with a heavy dose of dark. The result is a game that immediately feels familiar because, let’s be honest, it is hugely inspired by Dark Souls. I’d say Dark Souls is Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Salt is Danny DeVito; though this version of DeVito is as bad ass as Schwarzenegger.

As with its Austrian twin, Salt is thin on narrative; at least on the surface. Though, once you start to acquire items, slay enemies, and meet the NPCs of the world, of which there are many, you’ll start to see the cogs working. There is a lot to be found in Salt, and the structure of the game is ripe for backtracking.

“Oooh, that ladder leads down there. That’ll shave off a minute or two on my next death run”

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Throughout the world are sanctuaries, this is where you go to rest up; spend your salt at various NPCs or at the shrine. Shrines can be aligned with different devotions to yours. You can abandon your current belief, so you can get the full benefits of the current sanctuary. Doing so has benefits, although turning your back will have other sanctuaries’ restricting their wares at best….

Salt is used for a good many things, such as levelling up, reinforcing weapons and armour. They are also used to transmute weapons, and this is one of the best features in the game. You take items from slain enemies, both normal and bosses, find the correct NPC, and cross their palm with Salt. The results are always worth it, as this process will take a Class 0 weapon and level it to Class 1, whilst also changing the name and look.

“My Warhammer was treating me well, but I felt it needed some more kick. So, I transmuted it into Monstrous Mace. Mace. Smash!”

Combat in Salt and Sanctuary is as rewarding as it is frustrating. Square and Triangle are your attacks, light and heavy, respectively. You can chain combos together, holding Square and press Triangle right after will execute a sweeping uppercut with my mace. There are a lot of combos to be discovered per weapon, of which there are dozens. You can block, parry, jump, and roll. Parrying, rolling and jumping are defined by your equipment load. A few times I have died due to fat rolling through an attack, on my way back to level up after gaining some new loot.

As you level up via the Tree of Skill, think advance Sphere Grid from Final Fantasy X, you’ll be able to unlock nodes that enable you to equip higher class traits. As with the aforementioned advance Sphere Grid, this allows for a magnitude of depth – that well…. has no right to be in such a game. It however is here and Ska Studios have nailed it.

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I started out as a Paladin, a bastion of light. I then moved into Mage nodes, and then dabbled in Reaper weapons.

So, last but no means least, the boss encounters, of which are there close to two dozen. Each boss seems to have a weakness, such as poison, fire, holy, etc. You can buff your weapons with elemental effects, so your damage will be increased. However, some fights do feel truly unfair at times. Getting cornered by a hulking brute, and being unable to escape due a combo-from-hell.

The most frustrating boss for cheesy instakills is The Mad Alchemist. I had killed him on a few other characters, no issues. Then, I go at him again with a new character, and his slimes stun lock me into oblivion.

I know I sound salty, and maybe I am. Yet, once you get past the cheese of some of those instakill encounters, you’ll be treated to boss fights that require much more learning, coordination and skills than this game has a right to. I know I have said that before, but it holds true with this point, too. Standard enemies are all a cakewalk, excluding the shield Knights. So, the learning curve takes a huge leap once you go past the candles. All that said, it’s so rewarding to down a boss. Every. Single. Time. It appears that each boss has much more in their arsenal than they let on the first few times you face them.

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All in all, Salt and Sanctuary is an excellent game. From the art style to the Tree of Skill, and the areas that you didn’t know were there, it all works so well together. I’ll admit, I had moments where I had to put down my controller, take a few minutes, and then go back in. Heck, I even restarted the game three times, as I felt I’d messed up my character build – and the respect items weren’t in sight.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go scrub myself down so I can be utterly destroyed by Dark Souls III.

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Bus Simulator 2016 Review

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Dear Diary…….

Today I founded the ‘Two at Once’ bus company; It had been a lifelong dream to serve the masses with getting from A to B. In this day and age, we have some wonderful technology at our disposal. So, with the limited funds I had, I thought I would hire a bus simulation company, Stillalive Studios, to get me up to speed.

I’d like to document this, so any other potential public transport entrepreneurs can avoid the pitfalls. So, before we begin… Tickets, please!

Bus Simulator 2016 is Stillalive Studio’s first foray into the simulation market, but not the first for their publisher – Astragon Entertainment GmbH. With the rich history of the publisher, I went into Bus Simulator 2016 with merry optimism. Was that optimism returned with a smooth journey? Or, was I going to have to report the driver for reckless abandonment? I had my company on the line here.

Things’ started off good, on the provided tablet, the user interface is simple to navigate, and is clean. The main options for the day-to-day running of the company are on the left-hand side of the screen. From here I could do everything to ensure that my company would become the first name that the public would think of when it came to public transportation. From hiring drivers, setting up the routes that I could best cover, and setting up company branding. We went with pink buses with a red flower decal. I say we, my daughter wasn’t going to leave me alone.

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After watching the video tutorials, setting up the branding, and picking a relatively simple route, it was time to sit behind the wheel of my first simulated bus.

The layout of the dashboard was intimidating at first, kind of like going on a first date. I wasn’t sure how to get the engine going at first, then I noticed I’d left the parking brake on. As I cruised down the road, I familiarised myself with the ticket machine, air-conditioning, and door controls. It was a summer day; I’d not want any of my passengers to go passing out. Court battles wouldn’t do the business any good.

As I was cruising down the road, I took in my surroundings. At this point, I paused the simulation to check I was in the correct program. Yes, I was. This was 2016, not 2012. My business mind kicked in, I knew now that the monies I had paid to partake in this simulation was not going on aesthetics or detail. Though it was still a little saddening to see the world looking so bland, with characters more akin to animated manikins, than say, people. Looking out of my wing mirrors, I noticed the world behind me fading into a white mist that wouldn’t be amiss from horror title, Silent Hill.

I took a deep breath; I was approaching stop #1. I slowed down, aligning myself with the marked area. There were people there, so I swung open the doors of the bus, and greeted them all with a smile. The passengers were polite enough, and understood that I was new to this. On they boarded, and after a few miscalculations on the change given, we were off.

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Stop #2 approached. Great, just the one passenger. I opened the door, and on shuffled a drunk. Now, we’ve all taken the bus home after a few pints. Yet, it was 11:30am, so I notified him that I was unable to provide him carriage today. Sorry, Mr. Rand, but you need to take it easy on the booze, sir.

Now, I never made it to stop #3. The simulation was abruptly halted when I killed a pedestrian.

After several hours of expanding my route, hiring new drivers, and flirting with bankruptcy.  I decided it was time to give up my dream of providing a public service to the masses. Though, not launching this company, could be argued as the best public service I could provide.

The feedback I provided to the simulation company was brief: I felt truly immersed in the bus, never had I sweated so much during a video game. I felt compelled to make sure that I was at each stop within the allotted time, that my buses were on brand, and that I did what was best for my customers. However, the world around me wasn’t what I’d expect from a title published in 2016, and after looking at the 2012 version, there isn’t any progress.

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The handful of experiences that were truly negative were: Passengers’ purchasing unrealistic amounts of tickets. For example, one customer purchased 3 returns. They were the only passenger at that stop. The constant requests for the air-conditioning to be turned up and down, on the same trip; this cost me rather a lot of revenue for my time.

And, finally, there were no teenagers playing their loud music on speaker.

All being said, Bus Simulator 2016 isn’t for me. Maybe I’ll go try myself at farming, or delivering goods around Europe.

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