The two combatants square off in a semi-circle arena against a beautiful backdrop of snowy mountain peaks and an ominous-looking moon. Onlookers watch from atop a raised platform, some wreathed in red, others purple, and one who bears no noticeable colors, as a lightly-armored fighter wielding a dagger in one hand and a Caestus fist weapon in the other deftly dodges around the massive swings of his heavily-armored opponent’s two-handed greatsword.
To the casual observer, it would seem the dagger-wielder stands no chance against the greatsword-user’s powerful onslaught, but a more experienced spectator would see that the greatsword fighter is showing clear signs of annoyance and impatience as the dagger-wielder avoids his slow, lumbering strikes and occasionally manages to knick him with a quick slash of her much shorter (and less powerful) weapon.
If he could only land two, maybe three hits against this quick-dodging upstart, the fight would be over. Desperate, the greatsword wielder rushes in and goes for a running overhand strike that could easily end the dagger-user’s antics for good, and shockingly, the dagger-user makes no effort to dodge. Instead, she launches a perfectly-timed parry with her Caestus, deflecting the strike and leaving her opponent open to a counterattack. She moves in, unleashing the critical attack move which, when combined with the damage she’s already done, causes the greatsword user’s health to plummet down to zero.
Welcome to Dark Souls III’s PvP scene.
Bringing Order To Chaos
The above scenario is just one of thousands of different potential matchups which can occur in Dark Souls III’s more structured PvP community. Normally, PvP in Dark Souls III, or any Souls game for that matter, occurs on a more informal basis wherein one player “invades” the world of another and the two do battle until one dies. Normally this is an unexpected (and often unwanted) occurrence, but Dark Souls III developer From Software also put in the means for players who want to be invaded by other players to actively invite invaders using an item called a Red Soapstone.
Similar to the White Soapstone item which signifies that a player wants to be summoned by another player for the purpose of cooperative PvE adventuring, the Red Soapstone shows that a player wants to be summoned so that they can fight whoever summons them in PvP combat. Particularly brave players can use another item, Dried Fingers, to gain the ability to summon multiple Red Soapstone players at once. However, when players discovered that the “red phantoms” (the form a player takes when they invade another player’s world, either through their own means or via a Red Soapstone) and the purple phantoms summoned through the game’s Mound Makers covenant (special phantoms which can either aid or attack the person who summons them) could also fight each other in addition to the hosting “summoner” player, a new player-made concept was born: fight clubs.
Two Fighters Enter….
A fight club in Dark Souls III involves a host player summoning three red and/or purple phantom players at once by activating their Red Soapstones. Instead of having all the players engage in a chaotic melee, the host player and one of the phantom players (usually the last one summoned) stand by while the other two phantoms fight each other. When one phantom player is killed by the other, the third phantom steps in to fight the victor, the host summons a new phantom to replace the one who was killed (being killed as a phantom kicks you back to your “home” world), the winner of the previous fight heals up, and the process goes on for as long as the host deems fit.
The entire process is an unofficial one, as are the rules which have been established as the proper “fight club etiquette.” The use of healing Estus Flasks (the limited-use items which restore a player’s health) isn’t allowed during an actual fight, but any other items are fair game, which means crafty players are free to chuck firebombs and throwing knives, temporarily boost their stamina with Green Blossoms, and enhance their weapons with elemental effects such as fire and lighting using the game’s various resin items.
Players are also free to use whatever weapons they want, and this is where the established “meta” of Dark Souls III’s fight clubs truly shine. Over the months since Dark Souls III’s release, certain weapons have gained more popularity in the PvP scene than others, and a player’s choice of weaponry can impact their odds of victory in many different ways.
Adjusting To The Meta
Getting involved in Dark Souls III’s PvP scene isn’t hard, though it does take a little work on your end if you want to have the best chances of winning the fights you find yourself in. While there are a few unofficial “PvP hotspots” spread throughout the game’s world, the most popular by far is the semi-circle arena I described in this article’s opening paragraphs, an area located in the Ithryll of the Boreal Valley region, right after the Pontiff Sulyvahn boss fight.
If you travel to this area at virtually any time of day, chances are good you’ll see a bunch of summon signs on the ground, all of which belong to players itching for a duel. The agreed upon character level for PvP is level 120, though you can technically go as high as 150 (the game groups players into level ranges which have 30-level buffers, so 150 is the maximum level at which you can still be grouped with 120 players), or, if you want to really test yourself, you can go in at a lower level.
After grinding my way to 120, I went into the Dark Souls III PvP scene having had very little direct experience. I had engaged in the occasional invasion courtesy of the Watchdogs of Farron covenant (an in-game faction which will occasionally summon you automatically to fight off invading players in a specific region of the game) and I had even fought off the occasional invading player, but my first few fights in the established PvP meta proved just how unprepared I was. Out of my first 20 or so PvP meta fights, I lost every single one, and I often lost badly.
I had read that the Dark Sword weapon (a one-handed straight sword which is obtainable fairly early on in the game) was a popular PvP option, and I had improved it using the game’s weapon-reinforcement system, so much so that it actually became one of my favorite weapons in PvE. However, during my first few PvP meta fights, I would have done just as well wielding no weapon at all.
I tried my best to utilize the Dark Sword’s unique moves along with tactics like rolling, flanking, and dodging, but every opponent I faced was able to counter my maneuvers, pressuring me with strong offensive pushes from which I couldn’t recover, baiting me into rolling early so that they could strike me as I came out of the roll (your character is briefly invincible while rolling), and parrying me whenever I went on the offensive. It was rough, it was frustrating, and it was a very clear (and painful) lesson that the tactics and strategies I had mastered while fighting Dark Souls III’s PvE enemies didn’t mean much against other actual players.
Back to the Drawing Board
As tempted as I was to simply quit and move on, there was a part of me that didn’t want to just slink away in defeat. I decided that the best way to prevent another round of embarrassing losses was to do my research. As I googled terms like “best Dark Souls III PvP weapons” and “how to do better at Dark Souls III PvP,” I quickly discovered just how deep the PvP rabbit hole went.
It turns out that there are several weapons which are very popular in the PvP scene, weapons like the aforementioned Dark Sword, the massive Astora Greatsword, and the comically large “Washing Pole” katana. However, using such weapons is both a blessing and a curse, since while it does improve your odds of winning, it is also seen as a crutch which more experienced (and less kind) players will often mock you for.
Even worse, since the above weapons are so popular, that means that they’re the weapons which pretty much any experienced PvP player knows how to counter. Sure, the Washing Pole’s running stabs and bleeding damage effect can easily overwhelm a less experienced opponent, but if a seasoned combatant sees you coming at them with the Washing Pole, they’ll just equip a shield or the previously mentioned Caestus fist weapon (the Caestus’s high speed makes it a popular parrying tool) in their off-hand, parry your highly telegraphed strikes, and counterattack you into oblivion. Taking the Dark Sword into combat is an equally risky venture since the weapon’s short range means that more experienced opponents will just keep you at arm’s length with a greatsword or a spear, or simply punish you from afar with magic or ranged weapons.
After another series of frustrating losses, I eventually came to a realization: going against the established weapon meta can be just as important as going with it. I decided that, if I was going to lose, I might as well use weapons I enjoyed using, so I started experimenting. I tried out other popular armaments like the Rapier and the Chaos Blade katana, but I also threw my opponents the occasional curveball by equipping the Demon Fist fist weapons or the ice-infused Pontiff’s Curved Sword.
I learned about the inherent risks and benefits of equipping multiple weapons at once, since equipping more weapons gives you more options in the heat of combat (and suddenly switching your weapons can keep your opponent guessing) but it also raises your total equip load which, if raised too high, impacts your mobility (it also decreases the effectiveness of the popular “Flynn’s Ring” equippable ring which raises your attack as your equip load is lowered).
Slowly, over time, I came to realize that the mind games you play on your opponent are a weapon greater than any sword or spell. A seemingly unbeatable opponent can in fact be beaten if you take the time to analyze their habits and react accordingly. Sometimes, if I was summoned into a fight club, I’d be able to size up my opponent beforehand while they fought the phantoms who came before me, other times I’d have to spot my opponent’s weaknesses and tells in the heat of combat, hoping that I wasn’t giving away my own tells and that I had equipped a weapon which my opponent didn’t know how to deal with (and that I was just plain lucky if they did).
As of the time of this writing, I certainly wouldn’t consider myself an expert Dark Souls III PvP player, but I have at least racked up a fair number of wins to go along with my losses, and I feel that I improve just a little bit every time that I venture over to the Pontiff Sulyvahn arena.
A Game Within A Game
The PvP aspects of Dark Souls III and other Souls games aren’t for everyone. Even though they often use emotes to convey a sense of respect and honor, PvP opponents will never show you any quarter, and, unfortunately, there is the occasional bad sport who will rub their victory in your face with a disrespectful emote.
However, if you want to prolong your time with Dark Souls III beyond the game’s PvE offerings, the game’s PvP scene is a very different sort of beast to conquer. Much like the game’s many memorable boss encounters, finding success in the PvP scene requires patience, it requires skill, and it requires no small degree of luck. If you want a challenge which can be as rewarding as it can be painful, and you don’t mind taking a fair number of digital beatings along the way, the Dark Souls III PvP scene is an experience like no other.