Like many students, I entered my holiday break ready to put down my required reading and pick up a game controller. The first game I chose to start my relaxing, carefree break was DARK SOULS III.

I know! That statement sounds like an oxymoron, especially if you have played the game before or you are aware of the franchise. Just hear me out!

For those of you who do not know the game, Hidetaka Miyazaki’s DARK SOULS III is the fourth and final installment in the SOULS series, after DEMON’S SOULS, DARK SOULS, and DARK SOULS II, developed by From Software. It was released worldwide in April 2016 and received critical acclaim, selling millions of copies in very little time.

Boss battle in DARK SOULS III
One of the many bosses you encounter in the series

Like its predecessors, the game is a third-person role-playing game set in a medieval fantasy environment. You can design your character in numerous ways, all the way down to making each eye a different color. Characters have the ability to use mana, or magic, along with their choice of weaponry; it is, however, as important to keep your mana filled as it is to keep your health up.

Thankfully, the game allows you to easily switch between items in your immediate inventory so you can chug an Estus Flask (basically your medicine) as an enemy charges up to attack you. The downside to this is that one flask does not fix all; you will have to switch in order to drink one for your health and one for your mana.

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The storyline of DARK SOULS III is incredibly detailed; it is filled with its own lore and history, even referencing the previous games in the series. The game, however, does not tell you everything as you play. You are responsible for talking to non-playable characters (NPCs) and reading inscriptions on your own if you want to learn more about the story beyond the general task you are given.

Without giving too much away or boring you with a dense re-telling of the SOULS franchise, here is a basic summary of your quest in DARK SOULS III:

Five Lords of Cinder are responsible for keeping the First Flame lit in order to prolong the Age of Fire. If the flame dies out, the Age of Fire ends and the Age of Dark begins, bringing curses and undead monsters to the land. This is not exactly anyone’s idea of a good time!

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The ritual that keeps the First Flame burning requires the Lords of Cinder to sacrifice their souls. Sadly, only one of them returns to his throne in the Firelink Shrine to fulfill his duty; the other four have decided to abandon their roles and let the flame die. Your job is to bring them back.

Dark Souls III - Firelink Shrine
Firelink Shrine

For those of you who don’t know the game or the series, this may seem like a pretty straightforward concept, right? Well, something I neglected to mention was that the series is notorious for being incredibly difficult to play.

Fans of the SOULS games often recommend it to seasoned, skilled players as any new gamer will only experience frustration, resulting in a lot of rage quits. Sometimes, even those skilled players get annoyed with the game, too, and need a break (possibly after rage quitting).

There is a constant notion to “proceed with caution” when it comes to the SOULS franchise, and DARK SOULS III is no different. So what exactly makes it difficult?

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No Pause Button

You read that right: there is no pause button.

This single game mechanic can be terrifying to players, and it is prevalent in every SOULS game. You cannot pause the game mid-play to take a bathroom break or even catch your breath. I will admit that it was this feature that singlehandedly kept me from playing DARK SOULS III for a long time. I was traumatized from when I first played DEMON’S SOULS back in 2009, learning the hard way that I could not pause in the middle of a fight.

There is a workaround, however, to this game design: quitting.

The game auto-saves every few seconds or after a major event, allowing you to quit the game instead of pause. I do not recommend always relying on it, but it can helpful when necessary!

Enemies Can Reset 

You’ve spent several minutes killing an enemy, maybe even a few of them, as you move through some ruins. You find a bonfire, the safe point where you can recover and repair equipment. The moment you leave that bonfire, however, those enemies that you killed are back.

Thankfully, Miyazaki takes some pity on us as players. Your basic enemies re-spawn while bosses stay dead.

Precision

This requirement is probably the biggest aspect of the game that contributes to its difficulty. Killing an enemy requires immense precision and strategy. Flailing your sword or ax around does nothing to help you, especially when an enemy can kill you in less than three moves.

You have to act cautiously and swing your weapon or jump out of the way at the exact right moment. Sometimes the window you have during combat can be the size of a hair and it will take you many times to get it right.

The slightest misstep rewards you with “You Died” written in red across your screen, as if you didn’t notice.

Dark Souls III - Game Over screen
…for the 137th time

These are just a few reasons why the game is so notoriously difficult. You can play for hours, die hundreds of times and still be a long way from reaching the end. So why would anyone play this game if it is just too challenging?

That is the thing: the shroud of difficulty that looms over DARK SOULS III is just smoke and mirrors.

Now, before fans of the game reach for my throat, let me explain. I am not saying that the game is not difficult; I am saying that the difficulty is just a cloud, not a brick wall.

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The developers were well aware of what they were doing when they made the game. If the franchise is challenging, it is not an accident. As such, there are elements to DARK SOULS III that help players navigate through that cloud.

One major aspect of the game is that it encourages you to explore. Yes, enemies respawn after you leave a bonfire and yes, sometimes they can kill you in two hits. This is exactly why you are urged to explore the area, to discover other paths that may or may not help you and may or may not have secret items.

You learn what to do and where to go each time you die.

Exploring in DARK SOULS III
Think about all that awaits you in there!

Another beneficial factor of the game is that you are never alone. You may feel like you are when you struggle in a certain area or against a specific enemy, but the beauty of DARK SOULS III is that there are other players around you even if you don’t notice them right away.

The game connects you online, building a multiplayer environment that you decide whether or not to join. (You also have the option of playing offline completely.) Other players appear ghostly on your screen when you are connected online, the faint outlines of their characters visible in certain angles.

If you want to take advantage of the multiplayer option, you have to collect Ember. This will enkindle your character, changing their appearance and allowing them to play with others. You are, however, at risk of invasion by other players when enkindled and you lose your Ember when you die.

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When a player dies, a bloodstain appears on the ground. You can touch these bloodstains and see their final moments, sometimes learning from their actions. For example, there is a high chance that a strong enemy is close by if there is a bloodstain at the entrance of a hidden pathway. There is also the possibility that the player had low health and the enemy was not that strong.

Either way, you have learned from the bloodstain that there is something on the path.

Along with bloodstains, players can leave notes for each other. You can be helpful, warning of dangerous enemies or high cliffs, or you can have a little fun and leave a joke. While some notes can be frustrating if people choose to trick you, they can be valuable in offering you some advice or making you laugh.

Dark Souls III - message
Thank you, random stranger!

Now, I am not saying that reading every message, studying every bloodstain, and exploring every nook and cranny of an area will maximize your chances of survival. It may result in the opposite and lead to your death (again).

The game will be difficult, but it is not impossible to overcome. Like I said earlier, the difficulty that shrouds DARK SOULS III is not an impenetrable brick wall; it is simply a cloud that you have to cautiously navigate through.

Will you die hundreds of times? Yes. Will you get frustrated? Absolutely. Will you rage quit? Probably many times.

Nonetheless, the cloud should not deter you from trying again.

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