Frivolous Waste of Time

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Dark Souls III: Ashes of Ariandel DLC for PS4, Xbox One and PC

I really enjoyed Dark Souls III, but as a Bloodborne man at heart Dark Souls III spent a lot of it’s time lurking in its shadow. I took a while for me to go for the Dark Souls III DLC and I’m glad I did. Ashes of Ariandel is the first of the two DLC packs, binging us to a new location, with new things to find and monsters to be murdered by.

Ashes of Ariandel opens with the Ashen One transported to the Painted World of Ariandel by the mysterious Slave Knight Gael. The snowy and pristine land, held within a painting, has been infected with a strange rot, with conflict within Ariandel about how to deal with this threat, burn away the rot and begin anew, or allow the rot to continue. Dark Souls is always going to Dark Souls so Ashes of Ariandel is as cryptic as ever, but this DLC does operate as an interesting microcosm for the main thrust of the series, about whether or not to link the fire.

Ariandel itself is a beautiful location, although I do generally feel that the series fares better when in city environments, allowing more complex geometry and clever pathways than will occur in a natural environment. Ariandel is still fun to explore, but it does lack some of that cleverness of world design which is my favourite thing about the series. There are a range of fun and challenging enemies to fight, such as wolves or the twisted Corvian bird people. One potential disappointment is the lack of boss fights; there is only one mandatory one at the end, with another that is optional. The optional fight is fun, but doesn’t really do anything which hasn’t been done in other boss fights throughout the series. The final boss fight is a bit more interesting, a multi-stage monster of a fight with three distinct stages, and health bars. It’s utterly brutal and at times felt a bit cheap, but at its best it reminded me of the superlative Maria boss fight from the Hunters Nightmare DLC for Bloodborne.

Ashes of Ariandel isn’t massive and doesn’t really represent the best of the series, but Dark Souls III is so solidly constructed that just adding more isn’t really a problem. On its own it may be a bit unsatisfying, but taken within the grand swatch of the game it’s difficult to fault it too much. If you’re sold your copy of Dark Souls III, Ashes of Ariandel isn’t a reason to rush out and buy a new one, but there are far worse ways you could spend your time.

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Dark Souls III for PS4, Xbox One and PC

I’ve mentioned before my blasphemous dislike for the first Dark Souls. I loved the setting and the way the world fit together, but the ponderous combat and punishing hollowing system was a heap I just could not get over. It took Bloodborne, one of my all-time favourite games, to convert me on the From Software style. I was nervous that I’d feel the same way about Dark Souls III as I did the first, but needed some of that sweet Bloodborne methodrone so took a risk. I’m glad I did; I loved Dark Souls III.

Dark Souls III is as obscure and unknowable as anything else in this series. You awaken in the dying land of Lothric with a task; to hunt and kill the Lords of Cinder, resurrected beings who had previously Linked the Fire and brought more time for the world from darkness. I’m sure there’s a lot more to the plot that I didn’t pick up on, having skipped the first two. It lacks the narrative cohesiveness of Bloodborne, which built an extremely compelling lore in one game, but there are moments of strange power which resonate even if you don’t have a clue what’s going on. I foresee watching many lore videos in my future.

Dark Souls III plays as a hybrid of Bloodborne and the older Souls games. It’s still a slower and more defensive beast than the quick and aggressive style of Bloodborne, but it’s also not nearly as defensive as the first Dark Souls. The reliance on hiding behind a shield in the first game put me off a bit and Dark Souls III does a much better job at catering to a range of play styles. I played as a sorcerer/swordsman hybrid, with a focus on light armour to allow me to dodge around. This served me pretty well and I didn’t feel the need to play the heavily armoured knight the series is probably best known for. That said, this isn’t Bloodborne and trying to play it like it was got me killed more than a few times. As the game progressed I came to enjoy the combat more and more and think that Dark Souls III may have one of the best combat systems I’ve ever encountered. On a purely mechanical level, Dark Souls III is extremely satisfying and lacks the clunkiness which put me off the first game. I can’t not mention the bosses, which are generally outstanding. There are a few which are focused on spectacle over challenge, which is fine as the spectacle is generally brilliant, but some of these bosses are brutal. I personally found Dark Souls III much harder than Bloodborne, but this probably says more about my preferred play style than anything else.

Whilst the environments in Dark Souls III are varied and interesting, they lacked the sense of cohesion and dense layering that made Bloodborne and (from what I’ve heard) the first Dark Souls so special. Partially for plot reasons, Dark Souls III is a bit of a mishmash, but there weren’t any moments of stunning short cut unlocking that were so exciting in Bloodborne. I’ll never forget travelling through the woods, crawling through the poison cave filled with giants, climbing a massive ladder and finding myself in the graveyard just outside Iosefka’s clinic from the start of the game. That’s not to say that the environments don’t sometimes fold back in on themselves in interesting ways, but all told Dark Souls III is a more linear experience that I was perhaps hoping for.

Dark Souls III is a supremely pretty game with a wonderfully melancholic and sinister art style. The monstrosities you face are suitably horrifying and the locations oppressive, but there are moments of genuinely breathtaking beauty. Emerging from some truly horrible dungeons and caverns into a new beautiful location is an emotional and oddly stirring experience and Dark Souls III has a couple of those moments. That said, I missed the cohesiveness of Bloodborne’s Yharnam. Sure, there was variety of Bloodborne, but everywhere was recognisably connected and afflicted by the same curse. This helped Yharnam stand up alongside settings like Rapture as one of the most compelling videogame cities I’ve ever explored. Dark Souls III doesn’t have that sense of overall coherence, making the setting of Lothric less compelling for me. The music is wonderful and the general sound design sublime. Running at a consistent frame rate on PS4, Dark Souls III is sumptuous and beautiful game.

Dark Souls III is a wonderful game that only suffers for following on from one of the best games of all time. From Software have created something truly unique in this series and they’re a company who I’ll now be following with great interest.

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Bloodborne: The Old Hunters for PS4

Bloodborne is one of my favourite games of all time, which is quite odd as most of my other favourites are from my childhood and seeped in nostalgia. Bloodborne got under my skin and affected me in a way that games simply don’t as a 25 year old man. Even recent games which I utterly adored, like The Witcher 3, didn’t affect me as much as Bloodborne. Playing Bloodborne for more than an hour often resulted in strange, unsettling dreams. It’s clear that Yharnam has it’s hooks in me. I actually rationed the DLC, playing it over the space of months, because I couldn’t bare to be done. Please make Bloodborne 2.

The Old Hunters sees the player cast into the Hunter’s Nightmare, where blood drunk hunters are pulled if they seep too far into depravity. This is the final resting place of legendary Healing Church figures such as Lawrence and Ludwig, but it holds a dark secret about an atrocity committed in the early days of the Church, with many figures in the Nightmare are desperate to keep hidden.

I love the lore and story of Bloodborne. I read an entire 107 page e-book analysis of thenplot for crying out loud (The Paleblood Hunt by Redgrave, it’s brilliant). The Old Hunter builds and develops the story in some interesting ways and casts light on some of the most enigmatic and fascinating figures in the game, such as the Plain Doll, Gehrman and Ludwig. Of course, it’s all still very obscure, but the strange power that suffused the main game is absolutely present in The Old Hunters.

Fundamentally, The Old Hunters is more of the same. There are loads of new weapons, although I didn’t really experiment with these much. I’m too stuck in my ways with my +10 Ludwig Holy Blade. It’s a shade more linear than the main game, which is inevitable considering that this is more of a bite sized Bloodborne chunk, but the environments are still complex and fold back on themselves in interesting ways. The boss fights are cool, which vary from slow heavy hitters to the furiously aggressive. The final boss of the DLC is an absolute nightmare, probably the hardest in the game. In fact, the difficulty is higher all round.

The Nightmare is a realm that we didn’t explore much in the main game, only really in the Nightmare Frontier and Mensis and its twisted proportions are fun to explore. I think a Bloodborne sequel built around free travel between the ‘real’ world and the Nightmare could be very interesting and offer a twist on the somewhat familiar ‘Soulsborne’ formula. Everything is very horrible and unsettling, with the final section being somewhere entirely unlike anywhere else in the game. The boss designs are stunning and The Old Hunters’ has some of the best music in the game.

Bloodborne is a masterpiece and The Old Hunter’s simply adds more to it. If you liked Bloodborne this is worth a go and if you love it as much as I do it’s essential.

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Bloodborne for PS4

I’d like to make a confession. I hated Dark Souls. It wasn’t that it was too hard, I just found the defensive combat boring, hated being invaded and killed by strangers and loathed the ‘hollow’ system that made each new try more challenging than the one before it. I thought maybe I hated the entire formula. I was wrong. Bloodborne isn’t just my favourite game so far for the PS4, it may be one of my favourite games of all time. I really, really loved it.

Bloodborne sees your mute protagonist arriving in the gothic city of Yarnham, a once beautiful place which has fallen into utter horror and despair. We’re told very little about what is going on, but we do know that it is the night of the ‘Hunt’ and hideous monstrosities have descended upon Yarnham. The protagonist must become a ‘Hunter’ and fight through the city. There’s a lot going on beneath the surface which gradually reveals itself, although it’s never really clear.

The worldbuilding in Bloodborne is hugely compelling. The lore is complex and arcane but you’re never hit over the head with anything. Bloodborne has very little exposition, but the clues are all there if you look for them. It’s a twisted and genuinely upsetting tale, one which pops into your head late at night and won’t let go. A lot of this is achieved through the setting itself, with Bloodborne’s Yarnham being my favourite example of storytelling through environmental design since BioShock’s Rapture. The atmosphere is oppressive and haunting in a way that you never really get used to.

As with Dark Souls, Bloodborne is an action-RPG, although there’s more than a dash of survival horror in there. The combat is quick and exciting, with the methodical combat of Dark Souls that I so despised swapped out in favour of a more rapid fighting style reliant on aggression and staggering foes. This much better suited my playstyle. This new focus on aggression is seen most clearly in the marvelously clever little mechanic which sees you regaining health if you strike back at your foes quickly enough after they’ve hit you. It’s so simple but so interesting, giving you a constant risk/reward decision to deal with as you fight; should you play it safe and back off, consuming one of your valuable healing items, or do you be bold and strike back, potentially leaving you at risk when you’re most vulnerable? These foes will hit you hard; Bloodborne is punishing, particularly early on, but there’s a moment when everything just clicks and you get into the rhythm of the game. Even the simplest enemies can kill you if you’re not paying attention and the bosses are brutal. Thankfully, you’re well armed, with a range of flashy and exciting weapons. All main weapons have two forms, a quicker and closer range form and a longer, slower harder hitting form. Switching between forms, as well as deciding when to use charge attacks, give battles a deceptively complex edge. Firearms in the left hand also play a role, although not as a ranged attack as you might have thought, but instead being used to parry enemy strikes which allow you to strike back with a gory ‘visceral’ attack. Bloodborne supports a range of playing styles, so you don’t have to be boxed in.

Underpinning all of the action packed goodness is an RPG leveling system which is simple enough to get to grips with but interesting enough to allow you to get creative. Your sole currency are ‘Blood Echoes’, gained from killing foes, which can be used to buy new weapons and equipment or to channel into levelling up. The main twist is that when you die, all of your blood echoes are lost, although they can be reclaimed as with Dark Souls. There’s a palpable feeling of tension when you’re carrying lots of Blood Echoes, with the decision as to whether to play it safe and carry my Blood Echoes back to safety to level up or to persevere (putting them at risk) being genuinely interesting throughout the entire game. There’s a weapon upgrade system to, as well as runes which give you personal benefits. These mechanics unfold gradually and never felt overwhelming, a major improvement over the unnecessarily obtuse Dark Souls. Don’t get me wrong, Bloodborne is still quite obtuse, but not unfairly so. This is a lengthy game too, with an epic story with plenty of other things to do, including the procedurally generated ‘Chalice Dungeons’, as well as Co-Op and PVP. These features didn’t interest me that much, I was more about the crafted content, but considering how much I loved the game without going too deep into them I imagine that people who are more into that sort of thing will be ecstatic.

Bloodborne has a few technical problems, but is generally impressive. The game looks gorgeous, with Yarnham oozing with character. The real visual triumph is in the animations however, both for the player and the enemies. The way the character moves is inherently satisfying and the weapon transitions are lovely in that impossible to describe way that presses a happy button in the back of your mind every time you see them. The enemy design is fantastic, with new spins on existing concepts. Although far from the most dangerous enemy you’ll face, one of the most memorable are the grounded crows which snarl and jump at you. There’s something so piteous about them that I’d feel bad about killing them if they didn’t scare me so much. The sound design is brilliant too, with a mournful soundtrack fueling the melancholy vibe. The sound of these creatures is just as striking as their look; the screams of the Cleric Beast still haunt me and the discordant sound of a woman singing always heralded the arrival of my most hated late game foe. One of the only real issues with Bloodborne is a semi-regular drop of frame rate; don’t get me wrong, this is no Assassin’s Creed: Unity, but it can be irritating. I didn’t find the load times as arduous as some, but they’re not helped by the fact that to get to a new area you must first return to the Hunter’s Dream hub, meaning that hopping between two areas of Yarnham involves two lengthy load screens. These issues aside, Bloodborne is a marvel.

I’m struggling to convey just how impressed I am by this game. I sometimes worry that my best game playing days are behind me, that adulthood means that I will never be able to get this affected by a game again. Although the aesthetic couldn’t be more different, Bloodborne makes me feel like old Nintendo games make me feel; this is a game made with clarity of purpose, with a series of goals that it sets out to complete and then completes them. If you’ve been waiting for a PS4 system seller, this is it.  fromsoftware

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