Blindspots: A Novice Plays Dark Souls III

Blindspots is a new, irregular series in which I play games, series or genres that I have, for one reason or another, never spent significant time with. Sometimes that’s because of simple omission, other times it’s because I’ve deliberately avoided them – convinced that I wouldn’t enjoy them or that they were poor quality. My intent is to play each for long enough that, at the very least, I understand their appeal in order that I no longer dismiss them out of hand, but ideally I’ll reach the point where I break through the wall of ignorance or fear and love them as my own.

We begin with the Souls games, specifically the recent Dark Souls III. I have resolutely steered clear of this series because I have been certain that they would be too ‘difficult’ for me. Because I am a pathetic little babyman.

Statements I believed to be true before I played Dark Souls III:

1) Blocking is boring
2) Bosses are the worst
3) Memorising level layouts and enemy movement patterns involves empty, unsatisfying grind.

I no longer believe any of those things to be true, but it took several hard, unhappy days of play before that became the case. I knew, going in, that Dark Souls was going to give me a hard time: it seems to be all the internet talks about, after all, and I have never enjoyed a surfeit of either dexterity or patience. But simply ducking the issue, hoping that I could be in this job – hell, in this culture – without really knowing about Dark Souls was cowardly and unhealthy. I had to force myself. I had to understand it, at the very least.

Initial minutes with the game provided both relief and anxiety. The enemies in the first, forlorn area were easily killed with a single sword-swipe, but the messages littered on the ground warned about learning multiple blocking and dodge manoeuvres, and my heart sank with each: buttons to learn. Buttons to press with precise timing. Buttons my clumsy hands would mis-hit or fumble for.

I swore as simple, stupid enemies gave way to those who pursued or who double-teamed me, my flailing attacks interrupted by savage, lethal strikes. But I pushed on. I tried again and again, and I learned where those guys were, how they attacked, how they could be avoided, how my own attacks, blocks and parries worked. I stayed longer than I should, training myself, having already learned the hard way that, not far on, a boss lurked.

Not everyone, I came to discover, agrees that Iudex Gundyr is a true boss. But he was my nightmare.

A hulking knight with an axe which seemed able to span the entirety of the arena I was locked inside, an axe which seemed able to hit me no matter where I was. I couldn’t get my head around that axe, couldn’t understand its reach or where the safe spots were. Could not understand how I could beat someone who could hit me from anywhere. I ran and I rolled but none of it seemed to make a difference. Two or three hits and I was dead, and usually two of those hits happened within seconds of my stepping into the arena. Miserable.

By the tenth failed attempt, my heart sank: I wouldn’t be able to do this. I would have to give up. I would never understand. Never write this piece. Never be able to talk about Dark Souls, never be able to admit that I ever tried to play it. “Oh, I just never got around to it, ha ha. One of these days, you know, but I really am ever so busy. Ever so busy.”

Ever so busy staring at the wall, hating myself.

It was only in the admission of my shame and my worthlessness that victory became possible. I was blind Arya, I suppose. I decided to admit my failure on Twitter, rather than lock it up and pretend it had never happened. On my next attempt – calmer and unburdened now, just one more try for the road, Iudex Gundyr fell. In my new calmness, the anger gone, I found a flow.

I rolled in time, I swiped and stabbed only at his back. Sure, he took a few chunks at me, but suddenly, in quiet disbelief, I realise half his health had gone. Two thirds. Nine-tenths. It would take just one more hit. I was going to do it.

I worried I was going to die. I really did. My heart – it had never thumped so hard, so sickeningly before. Thump, like a rolled-up newspaper against my chest. Thump, like sudden turbulence on a flight. Thump, like… like I had done it.

I had defeated the tutorial boss. It was nothing, I knew. But a door had opened. I might have transformed from someone who was incapable of playing these games into someone who could. Later, I learned that others had struggled with Iudex Gundyr, that he was considered harder than other first Souls bosses, and that door opened further. I had dived in at the deep end, it seems, and I had not drowned.

Thereafter, I learned so much. The game told me little, but through exploration and experimentation I worked out how its Souls system – a single currency for both item purchases and levelling up – worked, the risk/reward of how far to push on before I went back and spent my earnings (to die would be to lose them all), how to dodge enemies entirely to reach new places or reclaim lost Souls more rapidly, how to upgrade weapons, how to deal with shielded foes, why to only fight down and never up a staircase, and most of all how to die.

How to die fast, how to die slow, how to die at the worst time, how to die at the right time, cutting losses or leaving dropped Souls in an easy-to-reach place. How to not mind when I die, because at least I will have learned something new.

Because I have learned so little, that I could tell. To play Dark Souls III would be to keep on learning: every enemy location, every shortcut, every ambush and every trap. I no longer felt that I was staring an insurmountable brick wall, though. Rather, I saw a long series of surmountable brick walls, each of which I could batter down once I found the right tools.

When I met the second boss, it was not with fear but with determination. Having faced down my doubt once, I knew that I would be able to do it again if I could just retain discipline and patience.

He was so much easier. I laughed even as he murdered me for the first and the second time, because even though I had failed I could see a way through. I could tell that, soon enough, I would win. The lack of that infinite axe helped enormously, to be honest: I could more easily understand a huge, armoured enemy who I simply had to dodge then hack at the behind of. I could see where I needed to be and where I should not be, whereas the exact capabilities of Iudex Gundyr’s absurd weapon had always been hard to comprehend.

Vordt of the Boreal Valley, though, fell on my third attempt. Thump, thump, thump, but not as sickeningly as before. Just the adrenaline of victory this time, not the conjoined disbelief that I had survived the impossible.

I have been much further than that, and there is so very far still to go, but now I can say this: I get Dark Souls. I get that it is not about ‘difficulty’ so much as it is working things out for myself. It’s not about precision so much as it is bludgeoning a way through, fumbling my way to success through a combination of patience and grit.

There is grind, but it doesn’t feel like it: not in the World of Warcraft sense, because I feel that something is improving and expanding, and because the ingenuity of the Souls systems means there’s always drama: I might lose all my earnings at any point.

Importantly, it’s about exploring as much as it is learning level layouts: wandering around, getting jumped, finding secrets and shortcuts, building a map in my mind. Getting a little further each time.

It’s also about working out what feels right, weapon-wise: not for me big, heavy two-handers or the heaviest armour, but a semi-fast, souped-up axe and a lightweight shield which I only really used to block the bolts of ranged enemies. I wear lighter armour so I can move faster: tanking is not for me. I want to swipe and swipe as I dodge and roll, not to time and lunge for big damage. I’m an attrition fighter, it seems. I have no doubt that I will soon meet a boss who will punish me for that. Because this is Dark Souls.

And I get it. Honestly, I was the last person I thought that could ever be true of, so I am quite sure that you can get it too.

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  1. Premium User Badge

    phuzz says:

    I too have never tried Dark Souls because I think it’ll be too difficult, but I think the constant difficulty, and trial and error, is why I’ve spent so much time in Kerbal Space Program.

    • ikehaiku says:

      I think it’s a good point: difficulty is in the eye of the beholder. I, too, never really played DS (picked up the first one for dirt cheap, gave up after the first boss), but never felt that KSP was hard – simply because the gameplay clicked for me (and the setting, obviously), so it never felt like a grind, but actually learning something. And I have no doubt a DS player feel the same way.
      OTOH – I think DS games have a constant difficulty throughout – whereas KSP has a step learning curve, but once you get past the first initial points (say, first orbit, first Mun-Landing and back mission), then it’s actually a pretty smooth sail?

      • Premium User Badge

        phuzz says:

        Oh yes, certainly the difficulty curve shallows out a bit once you’ve picked up the basics of orbital mechanics, but I find there’s still a lot of trial an error.
        Build rocket => try launch => explosions => change rocket => fly further then more explosions => rebuild again => more explosions => eventually get into orbit => realise you forgot solar panels, or parachutes or RCS, or a docking port => explosions.
        Plus the game has changed so much through development, a design that worked last year will explode in multiple ways today.

    • LANCERZzZz says:

      I would definitely give DS3 a shot. This is coming from someone who was turned off by the difficulty and the aesthetic in DS1, didn’t bother with DS2, and only got 3 because I had a gift card and one of my friends wanted me to get it. What the author in this article describes is 100% accurate in terms of how satisfying it is to take down any of the bosses in this game. Hell, just getting TO the boss in one try is a sort of mini achievement (I beat Iudex on my first try though, surprisingly. Kingdom Hearts trained me well I guess lol).

  2. Xerophyte says:

    Good for you Meer, they’re fun and pretty games. And difficult games that kill you a lot and then make you redo sections, but I really think the conversation gives people the wrong impression on what kind of difficult sometimes. The challenge isn’t being a fast twitchy swordgod, it’s figuring out the rules of the game and what approach works in a particular situation. Choosing the wrong approach is rewarded with death, but by then you will have learned what you need to get back to where you died and then you can try doing something smarter next time.

    So if I can give one piece of advice for the budding dark soulser it’s to vary your approach. Sometimes you will have an easier time with a bow, fighting at range. Sometimes you will need to charge in with the biggest stick available to you. Sometimes you should be patient and wait with shield up. As you move through the game(s) you’ll learn which type of attacks are best blocked, which are avoided and which should be interrupted, which enemies are best charged, which avoided, etc. If you don’t try different weapons and strategies you’ll eventually run into the thing that counters you, and then the game will kill you repeatedly for your hubris.

    As a concrete example: Iudex Gundyr, the first boss, has attacks that are perfectly blockable in his first phase, but not his second. His second phase is, however, cripplingly weak to fire (like that of the firebombs you can loot just outside his door) as well as mildly weak to just staying close and wailing on him. If you figure this out, you’re pretty much certain to win. If you do not know this and do not bother to figure then you’ll probably spend some time eating dirt first.

    • Inph says:

      EXACTLY. The game rewards careful and observant players.

      I’m the kind of player who likes to look around and stare at the scenery as much as ‘playing’ the game, so I find I get enough time to think through new strategies before frustration hits. If I find myself bored, I have fun finding inventive ways to cheese the area or boss.

      The Souls games for me have always been one of the most immersive game series, in which I enjoy simply existing in the world and have no interest in rushing.

    • Chaoslord AJ says:

      Didn’t know about the fire, just switched to two-handed-wielding and wacked away as there’s no avoiding him in the second phase. Just barely worked with the knight.

  3. RedViv says:

    It was the Flamelurker for me, when I really, really got it. When the Souls style put its hooks in me, deep into my heart, where they still sit and hurt me until I figure out whatever I am struggling with. Because it never was about difficulty, not for the biggest part.
    I am really not that good at most action games. But after that experience, whenever a game actually does provide enough options and hints which I only need to find and utilise? I know now I can do it. Wrestling down angels with a gun-booted witch, never having managed to do similar stuff with a white-haired prettyboy pizza fiend, was only the first step after that.

  4. PopeRatzo says:

    Let us know if you finish the game. I’m guessing nah.

    • Nevard says:

      What’s the point of that second sentence?

      • Niko says:

        My guess the point is to allow yourself to feel smug about beating an interactive experience that was designed to be beaten.

  5. zind says:

    You’ve made it further than I did. I beat Iudex on my third try, and even got the basilisk thing down before leaving that zone. Some dude with a sweet katana literally killed himself when I first encountered him, but I got to keep his sword.

    Since then I’ve been spending time exploring the walls and figuring out the enemies and gathering souls and gaining levels, but I ended up bailing out of pure boredom/tedium before I ever found another boss.

    That dragon is really impressive though. The first time I’ve ever really felt a sense of PRESENCE from a dragon in a video game; well done to the devs for that.

    • LANCERZzZz says:

      That’s what happened to me with the first Dark Souls. If you have any interest in giving it another shot, what got me into it was reading all the messages that players leave on the ground to find secret pathways and shortcuts to bonfires and bosses. That first part can get very boring if you don’t know where you’re supposed to go though, and the game is terrible at explaining stuff like that (or they just don’t give a fuck)

  6. japstersam says:

    Good piece which really described the first time I played a Souls game. I always try to tell people that its not so much about them being difficult, or grindy, just that you need to learn and improve and have patience with your attacks. A lot of the bosses go down really quickly, its just that you do too so there’s not much room for error. I look forward to more articles along the same lines!
    Do you think you enjoyed DS3 enough to see it through?
    Another huge part of it that is not mentioned is the multiplayer which is another big draw. Its very mysterious initially and I think that makes it really interesting.

  7. DragonDai says:

    I just finished the game myself. It was my first Dark Souls game (and probably the only one I’ll ever buy for anything even close to full price).

    At first, I felt EXACTLY like Meer. Index took me 23 attempts before I got him on try 24. And that feeling when I finally killed him…holy shit what a rush.

    None of the following bosses took me that many attempts. About half I killed on the first attempt. But each one, even the ones I killed on the first attempt, gave me that same feeling. That “Holy Hell that was amazing and I AM A GOD!” feeling…

    …up until Dancer that is anyway. Dancer killed me 97 times before I killed her. And afterwards there was no rush. No adrenaline. During the fight there was none either. The boss had taken the game, taken the joy found from playing the game, and murdered the fuck out of it.

    When I won I wasn’t excited or giddy or pumped or enthused or any positive adjective. I was glad it was over. I was tired. I was bored. And I was resigned to failure for literally forever. I just sort of lucked into a win. It felt cheap, shallow, and hollow (and no, I didn’t summon help for her, I beat her all by myself).

    Basically, that feeling that each boss had given me up until that point was left somewhere in the church Dancer called home. It never came back. I went on to beat the rest of the bosses in the game after Dancer (including all the optional ones…and all solo), and it never felt like before. It always felt like another Dancer. Some I struggled with (Dragonslayer Armor was 38 deaths before a kill, Nameless King took 72 because the first part is awful, killed his second part on the 7th time I ever saw it…possibly one of the worst boss fights in a popular video game ever), others I didn’t (I killed the Consumed King on my first attempt and the final boss on my third). But none of them ever felt satisfying. None of them ever gave me that rush. Each one was just another boss to slog through, another boss where at any moment, a single wrong move and I was dead.

    And while that SHOULD have been exhilarating or at least pulse pounding, it wasn’t. It was boring and excruciating. The boss fights in DS3 from Dancer on were some of the least fun I’ve had with a video game in years. Clearing the levels and exploring the world was still very enjoyable. There were several parts (especially in the Grand Archives) where I was fighting especially tough enemies or groups of enemies that FELT like the boss fights of the first half of the game. But the actual boss fights themselves were so…blah…

    So yeah…enjoy that feeling while it lasts, Meer. Hopefully it doesn’t fade away like it did for me. Hopefully the excitement and fun doesn’t get crushed beneath the boot of one of the bosses for you too.

    • japstersam says:

      You might have done this already, but something which took a while to click with me in the souls games is that your loadout also plays a HUGE part in how easy or difficult a boss is. I was having a NIGHTMARE with the Nameless King, really struggling, so I had a rethink and changed up my equipment a bit, tried again and found that I was still dying, but doing a bit better. And those tweaks to your loadout can affect your stamina and just make them feel much different and potentially much easier.
      The other option when you’re stuck in a rut like that, is to jump into the multiplayer. You can earn a TON of souls by going and helping out other players. That might let you buy some new equipment or a few levels which really help with the problematic boss. :)

      • MattFinnish says:

        That is very true. I was killed by the Crystal Sage MANY times, until I realized that I could change my wardrobe items to increase my resistance to his attacks. Beat him on the next try.

      • DragonDai says:

        I did change up gear, to an extent. I mean, I couldn’t completely switch weapons (that would require respecing, which I couldn’t do at the time AND reupgrading weapons, which I was out of mats almost completely) to make drastic changes there, but I did try out several different weapons that fit my build that I had leveled. My main (Estoc) was +10 at the time, but I had a +9 Uchigatana and a +8 Dark Axe too. And I ended up beating her by eventually ditching melee all together in the second phase and killing her with my +8 Longbow and Standard Arrows (I had Dark Arrows JUST for the fight, but forgot to use them…doh!). I also switched into gear that was slash resistant and fire resistant (I know she also does Dark damage, but I had to make choices somewhere and she did WAY more fire damage than dark).

        And yeah. I didn’t bang away at her 97 times straight. I’d throw a few attempts at her, fuck off do something else, come back do a few more, fuck off do something else, come back a few more, go have lunch, etc. The first time I probably did 30ish attempts in a row, but after that never more than a dozen or so at a time. I was stuck on her for 3 days of real life time.

        But yeah, she just had my number. And the slog, unpredictability, and mountain of my own corpses really helped murder the fun in the game.

    • fish99 says:

      Definitely agree about the Nameless King, it’s just designed to stop you getting a feel for the boss by forcing you to go through a tedious pre-fight every time. Even the pre-fight is badly designed since you can rarely hit the boss and constantly have to fight the camera/lock-on system to even see what’s going on. The whole fight is just about wasting your time.

      • Geebs says:

        The camera in that fight is incomprehensibly bad. You can, however, get through it with 5 regular hits and a critical attack with the right sort of weapon; if you bait the first stage of the boss in the right way, you can get it done in about 30 seconds.

        The big problem I have is that the second stage requires a different load out and I suck at changing equipment on the fly, especially when a ridiculously aggressive boss is right in my face.

        The worst bit about it overall, though, is that it’s not much fun to SunBro that fight because the hosts tend to get themselves screwed up and ruin my routine for quickly getting them through that first part, which makes it into a real slog.

        • DragonDai says:

          Yeah, seriously, one of the worst designed fights in a popular game that I’ve played in a long, long time…years. Just the first phase though. Second phase was super fun and a good challenge (if not nearly as hard as people made it out to be…stick to his butt = win).

          And yeah, you CAN kill it quick if you’re a STR build and have access to massive weapons…which I am not lol…

          • Geebs says:

            I’m a faith / strength / dex character. The weapon in question is a +10 lightning zweihander I have named “Easy Mode”.

      • banana says:

        Well, why not try locking-OFF as a change?
        I think people rely far too much on locking-on, which, in my opinion, promotes a very defensive playstyle, always face-to-face. And then start complaining about the camera issues when it goes all over the place.
        I’ve completed the game with absolutely minimal lock-on due to all the camera spinning and gravity deaths it entails. It’s really much better to turn all the “Auto-Target, Next Target” options in the menu off as well. Sure, it takes a while to get used to the freedom and need to literally aim (all the while not forgetting there are also these things called backstabs), but in the long run you get soo much more control!
        And, as a nice side effect, you will become much better in PvP!

        • fish99 says:

          I know some fights are easier without it, it’s just the spot I was attacking the dragon from (under it’s neck) you needed it to see incoming attacks. I was turning it on and off throughout the fight.

          As much as you should never rely on it, you also can’t do the game entirely without it though, since any time you’re moving the camera you don’t have your thumb on roll. I do object to the game losing lock though.

        • DragonDai says:

          Locking off didn’t make the fight any easier. But I think that has more to do with the fact that precise, fast camera control with a controller is always just poo. I mean, the structure of the fight didn’t help, but yeah. In short, locking on was a sure way to get killed because the camera is poop. Not locking on is a sure way to get killed because you miss the action trying to pan the camera to be where you need it to be. So you have to use both at the right time, switching between them on the fly, back and forth. And this adds another skill to Dark Souls that you have to master to do well in that fight, that you’ve had no prior need to practice, and that is presented in an extremely unforgiving boss fight.

          In short, they just needed to pull the camera back a good bit if they wanted to do a boss this big. The camera was already a pain on Greatwood, but here it goes from being a pain to being a huge detriment that completely ruins what could have otherwise been a cool fight.

    • Angel Dust says:

      Funnily enough, The Dancer has been my favourite boss so far.

      The Nameless King can fuck right off though.

    • Setheran says:

      The number of times you’ve been attempting some of those bosses seems absolutely insane to me. I don’t want this to come off as a “Git gud” kind of attitude, because if it took you 97 attempts to beat the Dancer you were likely under-leveled and under-equipped and had to employ a lot more skill than the average player to get the job done. But I think you worked far harder than you needed to for that victory, and I don’t think it’s the game’s fault that you burned yourself out in the process.

      I beat her on my 5th or 6th attempt, but was around level 70 and had weapons at +6. I had high health, put on fire-resistant equipment, some powerful rings and basically every advantage I could scrape together by that stage in the game. I think that’s how you’re meant to play – if something is hard, you level up, get better equipment, and try different approaches so that you make it easier for yourself. I don’t think you’re supposed to die 30+ times and just keep trying relentlessly.

      What different approaches did you try during those 97 attempts? I tried the Astora Straight Sword the first couple of times, but found I was getting more damage and range out of a flaming spear weapon I’d picked up, so I switched to that and had better luck. I also upgraded my shield to get a tiny bit more stability for blocking.

      Did you stop and try to level up some more at some point, or try offering your own summon sign to help other players? The first thing I try after losing to a boss is helping another player beat it, so that I can practice risk-free, earn souls for leveling, and see if there’s anything I’m missing that other players can show me.

      Reading stories like this just frustrates me a bit, because I think these games have earned this exaggerated reputation that they’re obscenely hard and only for masochistic players who somehow enjoy the frustration of failing over and over. It seems to trick a lot of new players into assuming they’re meant to beat their head against seemingly impossible enemies until they’ve developed masterful twitch skills, when in reality they’re almost always missing some vital gameplay mechanic, or trying to take on something they’re not ready for yet. I think I would lose all excitement for these games if I played that way too.

      • Inph says:

        Very well put. I’ve seen this a lot and it bugs me a little too. I think Dark Soul’s own marketing has pushed the difficulty thing in people’s faces a bit too much and so people go in with that expectation. They don’t see that the game is trying to communicate with them. It’s a really beautifully designed game that excels at inducing a sense of wonder in the player.

      • DragonDai says:

        It was either that or give up or summon help. The second two options sounded very appealing at times. I glad I didn’t use them.

        That’s a BIG (and wrong) assumption. I was level 80 (which is plenty), had softcapped Vig and End (WITH Ring of Favor, so plenty of survivability) had a +10 Estoc, a +9 Uchikatana backup and a +8 Dark Axe backup to the backup (all of which I tried), and a +9 Longbow (which is what I used exclusively during the second phase on the time I killed her). I also had about 30% absorption of both slashing and Fire resistance from my armor (but only about 20% dark…had to make choices, can’t have it all). Oh and I had a +4 Dragon Crest Shield (the one with high fire absorb) for blocking. In short, I was geared to the teeth and of plenty appropriate level.

        Short of respecing (which I couldn’t do cause I was working on Sunless’ questline), I tried everything at my disposal. I was mostly out of upgrade mats, but I took my Dark Axe from +6 to +8 just cause I heard she was weak against Dark (which, maybe she is, but it was, by far, my weakest weapon against her…like 50 less damage a swing than the other two).

        So yeah, I tried going 100% Bow, I tried Estoc, Uchigatana, and Dark Axe (with and without shield). I tried heavy blocking (highly upgraded shield that absorbs 86-100% of her damage), I tried heavy rolling. I tried mixing it up the two. I tried sticking close, I tried keeping my distance and only moving in to strike, etc….seriously, I didn’t just throw my corpse at her 97 times in the exact same way.

        I did not try helping other players. Honestly I just didn’t even think of it. That being said, fighting her over and over is also risk free. I had no souls (I grabbed my pile and homeward boned around try #10, used them all, and then made sure that if I took a break from beating my head against her I spent all the souls I got before more attempts). So yeah, just practising her myself was also pretty risk free.

        I am certainly not that type of player. I hated basically every minute of the Dancer boss fight and it more or less ruined the rest of the game for me. It was not fun, even a little.

        Well, I just don’t see how that was the case in my situation. It was 100% a failure of my twitch reflexes (which are bad…I have a disability that actually inhibits them AND I’ve always been bad at that shit anyway).

        I think the point here is that you’re assuming I’m playing the game wrong. As far as I know, I was not. I researched how to spec my character so as to not fuck myself (by, say, stacking lots of Luck when I wasn’t using a Luck Scaling sword or something). I was more than properly geared and leveled. I tried basically all the tactics I could try without permanently ending an in-game quest prematurely AND farming for upgrading mats for hours and hours, I mean, seriously, if you can see something I did wrong, let me know, but I feel like I did my due diligence here.

        And here’s the thing…it wasn’t JUST this boss. Sure, I never died close to the same number of times on a boss again (and Nameless doesn’t count as many of those deaths were within the first 30 seconds of engagement to a shitty move set I couldn’t see cause of the camera), but Dancer marked a tonal shift in the game’s boss battles. Before Dancer, every death on a boss brought knowledge on how to beat the boss. From Dancer forward, I NEVER felt like I learned ANYTHING from death on a boss ever again. I saw all their moves the first time out (even if I didn’t kill them quickly, which I did kill many bosses in 5 or less attempts after Dancer, even 1-shotted the Consumed King), and after that, it was just pain and grind until I got lucky and killed them. This was the feeling for Dancer, Dragonslayer Armor, Twin Princes, and Nameless King, for sure. Soul of Cinder was at least mildly entertaining because of all his different “forms.” But even he felt like a slog by the third time I fought him (which was the attempt I killed him).

        In short, Dancer took the enjoyment of the game and beat it out of me. And each following boss did their best to make sure that the game remained a boring, painful slog. Surprise attacks like a fireball in the back on Dragonslayer or the “teleport above and behind you to take 3/4ths of your health with a move that breaks camera” on Twin Prices or the entire first phase of Nameless, the game stopped playing by the same rules it played by in the Pre-Dancer stage, and it didn’t really give you any new tools to account for the change.

        The game got mean, the bosses got a LOT hardier and MUCH more unpredictable, and you’re power level growth tapered off quite quickly. It was a recipe for a lot of pain and a lot of death, especially for someone like me.

        So yeah, maybe that’ll give you a bit more insight into my situation, but unless I’m REALLY missing something, I can’t imagine anything I could have done better short of restarting the entire game and playing an entirely different way (like going heavy STR or something).

        • Setheran says:

          Sorry, you’re right, I did make assumptions about how you were equipped in the game. I guess different bosses must just be significantly harder for different playstyles.

          For me, she was a small difficulty spike (Yhorm before her was really easy), but didn’t require any new skills that I hadn’t already been employing in previous bosses. She was much less overwhelming to me than the Pontiff with his ghost both attacking at once, for example.

          I dodged whenever I could, and blocked the rest of the time, then got in spear attacks whenever I had stamina to spare in between. When things got a bit too overwhelming I was usually able to roll-spam my way behind a pillar to get some breathing room and heal up. Her attacks were dealing pretty huge amounts of damage, so I made sure I was always Embered for more health, and equipped the Estus Ring to get more out of healing. I think I’ve found all the Estus shards so far, so I had a lot of flasks to work with.

          I haven’t progressed past that point in the game yet, so you might be right about the next bosses being a drag. I really enjoyed the Dancer fight, though (especially the music), so I’m hoping I won’t be too disappointed.

          • DragonDai says:

            I enjoyed the aesthetics of the Dancer fight very much. The music, the way the church looked (especially after Dancer had lit some of it on fire), and the boss herself were all VERY aesthetically pleasing. And that aspect of the game doesn’t diminish/only gets better. Some of the upcoming fights are downright breathtaking.

            As for the content, Pontiff is my favorite fight in the game. I died 7 times on him, killed him on try 8. After try one I was sure I would never get past him. I was completely demolished. He leveled me faster than I could blink. Try 2 wasn’t quite as bad, but I still got flattened pretty fast. But I realized there was hope. Try 3 I actually got him to transition, though it was sheer luck. I died almost immediately to him and his ghost. On try 4 I figured out that if I stuck to him like glue, I could dodge many of his attacks without moving/rolling/blocking…and suddenly the fight changed. Try 5 and 6 were me honing my skills and try 7 I only died cause I got greedy right at the end. And then, on try 8, I destroyed him. Flawless victory.

            I relate all this because he is the perfect example of what made bosses in this game so amazing. When you start he’s the towering monstrosity of pain, death, and sadness. An insurmountable wall of “You Died.” And you’ll NEVER beat them.

            But then…suddenly, you learn a little something and BAM you can see the chinks in their armor. You find a weakness. And suddenly, that crazy unstoppable boss doesn’t seem to crazy or unstoppable anymore.

            And then, finally, after practise and a bit of repetition, you hone your skills and YOU become the master. YOU are the towering inferno of pain. YOU are the monster that gives the boss nightmares. You walk into the boss’ room and send them running. You are a fucking god. And when they fall it’s not JUST you defeating the impossible, it’s you taking that primal feeling of hopelessness and smashing it with the biggest fucking hammer until all that’s left is pure excellence.

            And that’s how I felt about every boss up until Dancer. From her on I never got that. I never “learned.” I never overcame that feeling of “this boss is unbeatable.” I mean I did eventually beat them, but I never walked away from the fights feeling like “Man I kicked ass in there.” It was always “Holy shit, thank god he’s dead, I didn’t want to have to see the inside of that boss room another time.”

            And that’s a shame. :(

            That said, I’m not gana give up. I still have a great time clearing the levels after Dancer. Level design in this game is insanely good in literally every level (even the poison swamp was well designed even if I hated it and think it’s a series convention that needs to die in a fire). Clearing levels often feels a bit like a puzzle (how do I clear this room without getting myself killed? How can I cheese that dude that’s murdered my face in stand up combat? etc), and it was always very satisfying to clean a place out, every monster, top to bottom and still have an estus or two left over.

            Besides, I want to try a STR build with a massive weapon or two and I want to play around with magic (if Regulation 1.06 will ever get to the PC…grrrrr Golden Week). So I think I’m gana play some more, either a new character or new game plus. I love the first half at least (probably more like 2/3rds). So hopefully I’ll find it was just the dex style of play that was causing me to dislike the game and that there’s another playstyle out there that’s better suited to me. :)

      • brokedownsystem says:

        I’ve never been that skilled at souls games (even in #3, I haven’t tried to parry). I probably died over 100 times to the old dragonslayer in dark souls 2, the “easy” entry in the series. That was mostly due to plain tired stubbornness, though I was also under leveled at the time too.

    • hungrycookpot says:

      I mean, play how you want, it’s your experience, not mine. But after, say, Attempt #50, why wouldn’t you just summon help? Like, if you’re not having fun anymore and you’re getting bored to the point where you’re finished with the series, why not just pull a summon sign and get through it. You clearly didn’t have the optimal type of build/playstyle for that boss, why torture yourself?

      • DragonDai says:

        Because, to me, summoning help is Easy Mode. It’s basically admitting I can’t hack it. And if I can’t hack Dancer, how likely am I to be able to hack any of the following bosses? In short, if I couldn’t beat her solo, the chances of beating the following bosses solo was poor. And if I was going to summon for the rest of the boss fights in the game (7 more after her), I might as well just uninstall and watch someone else play it on Youtube or something.

      • DragonDai says:

        And if you’ll read my reply to the other guy you’ll see an in-depth look at my build and playstyle. It’s pretty generic dex build with overpowered weapons and an overleveled character (for the boss). I’m sure hundreds of thousands of people have beat her with the exact same build I was using and the exact same weapons, only at lower SL and lower WL. So yeah, I don’t think my build/gear/leveling was to blame.

        • Poolback says:

          You talk about having a DEX build, but you only talked about softcapping VIG and END. Did you softcap DEX as well ? Have you infused your estoc with sharp to increase the DEX damage scaling ?

          • DragonDai says:

            I have since beaten the game, but yes. I have 40 dex and the estoc was sharp. At the time of the Dancer fight I did NOT have 40 dex (as I was still leveling), but it was Sharp and dex was probably like 30 or something. That being said, the difference between 30 and 40 dex on an B scaling sharp weapon (like the Estoc) is very little.

    • brokedownsystem says:

      Oh dear…I was starting to feel alot like that towards the last few chalice dungeon bosses in Bloodborne.

      I was explaining to my friend earlier that I wasn’t letting my pride get in the way of making progress in DS3. I’m just making my way slowly. I just beat the Deacons of the Deep by summoning someone to help me out with what would otherwise be something I could probably beat by myself, but was unwilling to grind my way through (and part of this was a misunderstanding on the boss strategy during the last sequence; I thought I had to kill the boss asap to disspell the curse, but apparently it’s his bodyguards).

      IF the whole game’s like that for the remainder, where I cannot afford to make much more than a single error or two…that’s just painful, and I’ll have no qualms about summoning help. That reminds of that little PSP title called Pursuit Force, which I wanted to love, but dearly hated at the same time b/c the execution to beat the clock on each level was so stringent. It became like mastering a ballet of timing and movements.

      For me, after the whole bloodborne platinum affair, I just want to soak in all the beauty of the art design and the joys of exploration…I don’t care so much about winning against the bosses if the odds are going to be stacked that high. It’s why I still love Demon’s Souls the best. Can’t quite hang with the melee fights? There was almost always a long-range alternative or other choice besides a sword, though it might take longer.

      • DragonDai says:

        You’ll find that Deacon is one of the very few gimmick bosses. And for everyone’s talk of how easy it is, it’s likely the hardest gimmick boss in terms of execution of the gimmick (maybe second hardest after Greatwood). But yeah, there’s only like 4 of those in the game. Rest of the bosses are more traditional bosses (so I’m told), like Vordt, as in they have a moveset, you learn the moveset, you don’t die. That being said, as someone who’s new to the series, I see nothing wrong with summoning help if you want to. It increases bosses health some, so it’s not gana be entirely a pushover (especially later one), and, like you said, the atmosphere and exploration are at least as important to the game as the boss fights. But yeah, don’t worry about having to beat a clock on other bosses or anything like that. Gimmick bosses are few and far between.

  8. popej says:

    This is one of the best new person plays Dark Souls articles I’ve read. Cheers Alec.

  9. Emeraude says:

    Since no one did it, I guess I’ll take one for the team:

    Knowing that one day you’ll beat the second boss fills you with DETERMINATION!

    I always enjoy watching people new to a game (and those one in particular) play and learn it. Very fun and informative seeing how differently people manage their gaming grammar.

  10. Premium User Badge

    AutonomyLost says:

    I’ve dabbled in DS II before, and given Bloodborne a good 15-or-so hours; DS III is the title where I told myself going in that I’d finish it no matter what. I’m now in the final expansive area of the game, I’m still dying here and there, but I feel confident in the mechanics, the risk/reward system, the telltale signs of when exploring just a smidgen further will yield much regret, etc. etc., and I am simply smitten with how this game has converted me into a Souls fan. I think after finishing this, and starting a NG+, I will revisit Bloodborne (although it will be admittedly painful having to play it on the PS4 when PC performance spoils me) and perhaps DS II again. If I were yet to embark on the journey of this latest release in the series, this article would have imbued a small sense of hope in me. Good read.

  11. rymm says:

    i’ve tried to like the dark souls series, i really have. my little brother is obsessed. i should like it, but i just dont.
    its the bosses. they always seem hard to solo, but if you take one or two phantoms with you they are too easy. not taking a phantom just feels like needlessly hampering yourself.
    beating a boss feels like solving an annoying puzzle more than winning a battle, feels like its more about ‘finding the trick’ to it.
    i dunno, maybe it just doesn’t measure up to monster hunter for me?

    • hungrycookpot says:

      Best way is to help a couple times as phantom and get a handle on it. Get lots of souls, and if the fight is too hard for your build, then use your humanity to grab the requisite number of phantoms for your own run.

  12. fish99 says:

    I love these games, but I’ve kinda hated a lot of this one. I currently have one boss left, not the already dispatched end boss, but the (without wanting to spoil anything) ‘dude on a thing’ in the optional secret area.

    It’s a unsympathetic fight (for my build – 2-hand dex). You’re constantly fighting both the ineffective camera and the useless lock-on system, you can’t hit the boss 98% of the time, and have to endure a tedious 10 minute fight to even get to the actual boss, who has deliberately off timings to trip you up. It feels like a big screw-you to the player, and a waste of your time.

    There’s only been maybe 3 or 4 boss fights (of nearly 20) in the game that felt really well designed, where it’s hard but fair and you get a rush from beating them.

    • Premium User Badge

      AutonomyLost says:

      I’m nearly positive that I’m about to fight this “dude on a thing” you write about, but I’m nothing less than stoked for it. I’m thinking he’s found in… a certain… Garden? Maybe not. Also, I have a usable item I don’t believe I’ve found a particular use for yet, so I don’t exactly know which beastie I’m about to face. I have a rather strong build this late in the game, so I welcome any challenge which may present itself.

      Anyway, I hope you persevere and kick the boss’s ass!

      • fish99 says:

        That garden is a different area. The bit with the dude on the thing is much later, but also earlier in a way, and it’s secret. You aren’t auto-transfered to NG+ in this game, so you can leave it as late as you wish, even after beating the game. It’s a pretty hard area.

        Thanks for the encouragement btw, I did eventually beat it :) Must have taken 60+ tries.

    • wcq says:

      I also had some real trouble with the boss you’re referring to, with the same kind of build. I only managed to beat it after I gave up trying to brute force it with my standard stuff and adjusted my equipment.

      I found that a weapon with good vertical reach (like the washing pole) is great for the first phase, while the second phase needs a quick weapon like a rapier.

      • fish99 says:

        Yeah I was trying that too, a long Chaos Blade for phase 1 and my regular Scimitar for phase 2, but I kinda gave up on doing it blind and watched a video, and saw I was attacking from the wrong spot in phase 1.

        If you stayed out in front of the drake and rolled through the fire, there were more opportunities to hit the head when it was low and still, so I could use the Scimitar for both phases. Trying to stay around the neck area was a mistake.

        • Poldovico says:

          I found a bow to be an incredible asset in that fight. I literally beat it “blind” on my first try with a +6 composite bow and a +9 refined longsword on a light-ish quality build.
          Sooooooooo useful.
          When he’s riding, you shoot his mount in the face from whatever safe position you can find. Lock on makes this easy.
          When you kill the mount, you fight him head on whenever you can, but when you have to get out of the way, arrows do respectable damage to him without putting you too much in harm’s way. The quickshot you can do after rolling is especially useful because it doesn’t take a long time to do and you can go to it straight from a dodge.

  13. fish99 says:

    …and it’s dead.

  14. Chillicothe says:

    Oh, UUUUUuuuuumbasa!

  15. Daemoroth says:

    “I laughed even as he murdered me for the first and the second time, because even though I had failed I could see a way through.”

    The most important part of the article, and for me it’s the reason the DS series is so successful. Any idiot can design a difficult encounter, the brilliance is in creating a difficult encounter without blocking out the light at the end of the tunnel.

    Something DS3 (So far, and I’m not TOO far – also my first dedicated attempt) does to near perfection (Near because there’s two particular enemies, not bosses, I feel are VERY luck-based on whether you manage to beat them).

  16. Premium User Badge

    Ericusson says:

    What puts me off games like dark souls is the community of people around these games howling and mewing “git good” in their sleep in the late morning lights from their sleep deprived brains.
    Also my 750M.

    • popej says:

      You probably shouldn’t let that put you off a game.

    • Dingbatwhirr says:

      I know exactly what you mean, Ericusson . I know, as popej said, I ‘shouldn’t let it put me off’, but it always does. For me, it’s because, as Alec makes clear in this excellent article, the value of ‘skill based’ games such as Dark Souls (as opposed to, say, primarily narrative-focused games) is in the learning experience – the sense that, although overcoming the challenges set by the game is the immediate goal, equipping oneself with the tools necessary to do so (which might include learning patterns, or developing character traits, such as patience) is the real source of value for a lot of people. As a result, someone who takes a couple of weeks to beat a single boss can be playing the game just as ‘well’ as someone who ‘beats’ the whole thing in a couple of days, by learning a lot from the experience and (slowly) developing their toolset. Of course, not everyone has the time or the inclination to learn these things by trial and error (myself included): there are other ways to learn, such as consulting the community or reading a list of tips and tricks. This is often seen as ‘cheating’, but I’m not sure that’s entirely fair: it’s a way of learning new tools which have to be applied correctly, just as the ‘trial and error’ method is.

      To my mind, the whole ‘git gud’ mentality which seems to pervade a large proportion of the Dark Souls community (though by no means all of it, fortunately), is a negation of all of the above. It represents, to my mind, the claim that the goals of ‘beating the game’ and ‘being better than everyone else’ are the only goals worth caring about.

      As someone without much of a natural aptitude for dexterity-based or tactical challenges, I know I’ll struggle with Dark Souls, and I know that, on occasion, I may need to turn to the community for help. When the frequent response of the community seems to be ‘haha, look at this loser, he needs to git gud’ rather than offering encouragement, or constructive advice, I can’t help but be a little off-put.

      It’s kind-of like when someone without much experience or aptitudes at crosswords (for example) is struggling with one you’ve already done. It’s the difference between saying ‘I can’t believe you can’t do it. You just need to get better’, which just makes the other person feel bad, and offering tips about how to approach the puzzle which don’t give the solution, but which helps the other person to expand their tool-set and so enhances their experience.

      Anyway, sorry for the wall of text, but it’s just something which popped into my head. It seems to be that, with the internet, game-playing can’t help but be social: communities are very important and it’s natural to be put off by hostile ones.

      • fish99 says:

        The source you turn to when stuck on a Souls game should be one of the excellent wikis, a non-interactive curated source, which will not judge you and will only offer helpful advice. I’m sure no one would judge you on the RPS forums/comments either. You’re scared of something which doesn’t really exist.

        If you’re using the Steam forums or reddit for your advice, there’s going to be trolls no matter what the game happens to be. Also the in-game PVP is completely optional.

        • Dingbatwhirr says:

          Sorry, I didn’t really phrase that very well. I should have mentioned that I have indeed used the excellent wikis, and encountered lots of very helpful people (not ventured onto the RPS forums yet, but I’m sure the community there is as lovely as it normally is).

          My point is that, as a whole, the image that community conveys to me is largely a negative one (the helpful voices (probably a majority) get drowned out, as usual, by the vocal and memorable negative ones). Crucially, although it’s far from unique, this is more apparent in Dark Souls’ community than in a lot of other communities, in my experience. (Why, I’m not quite sure. Maybe something to do with the challenge of the game? Difficult obstacles seem to have a tendency to breed a kind of elitism among those who’ve ‘succeeded’.)

          I might well be mistaken, as you say, but one can’t help but go by one’s first impressions and, as a relative outsider to Dark Souls, this is something that I’ve experienced, and much more so than other games. Of course, I may be alone in this, or have just had bad luck, but I’d hazard that at least a few others feel the same way too.

          • fish99 says:

            Even if you were right, you don’t need to have any interaction with that community to play and enjoy the game.

          • Dingbatwhirr says:

            That’s true. And the unsavoury parts of the community can always be avoided by sticking to wikis etc. It isn’t a deal-breaker for me, just something which makes me think twice about getting into it, as community engagement is something I often find valuable.

            I think I just want everyone to be nice to each other on the internet, which is about like wanting pigs to fly… I realise I’m naive, but a man can dream… :P

          • Twist says:

            Honestly, Ericusson and Dingbatwhirr, you’re judging a game and its community based on a misunderstanding.

            The whole “git gud” thing is more of a joke and a meme than a reality.

            If you do see someone receive eye-rolls from the community, it’s usually after that particular someone rage quit a boss fight, and then while still angry about it, headed to some forum to complain about how the game sucks and all the people who love it are stupid for liking it.

      • brokedownsystem says:

        The Dark Souls group admin’ed by Julianne Irace seems pretty good on FB. Not too much of that “git gud” nonsense, if people say it, it’s usually out of silliness.

  17. MattFinnish says:

    Great piece, thanks. I’m exactly the same in that this was my first Souls game. After 4 hours of play and not getting past Iudex Gundyr, I contacted Valve about getting a refund, only to find out that 2 hours of game play is the limit for that, so $60 not well spent.

    After finding much help on YouTube, I’m about halfway in and enjoying it. I still die a lot, but am getting better.

  18. Unknown says:

    This is the same way I felt about Hyper Light Drifter. Very challenging, but with patience and practice you can develop a very satisfying feel for the game’s rhythms and your character’s capabilities. Shame that John (and by extension, RPS) bounced off of it so hard.

  19. Raoul Duke says:

    Does it still have the worst user interface of all time, or have they fixed that?

    And are you still required to arbitrarily pick 200 stats at the start with no information about what any of them mean?

  20. keithh_r says:

    What a beautiful piece. I really love the way you were able to depict the emotions you went through regarding defeating your very first Souls boss. I had the very same feeling a couple of years ago when i stepped into the ring of Demon Souls. After many nights of horrified shrieks, i finally felled many a beast and found myself praising the game. Very well done mate. Very well written

  21. GallonOfAlan says:

    I’ve always admired them from afar for similar reasons to Alec – they seemed to represent a perfect storm of things that I hate in games, namely:

    Having to learn combos
    Having to replay sections
    Having to replay bosses

    So I don’t think I’ll ever play them but it’s great that so many people get so much from the games.

    • fish99 says:

      There aren’t really combos in the Souls games. Some attacks chain together better, but that’s about it. You never have to press multiple buttons together. I did the vast majority of DS3 with just light attack.

      Also you only have to successfully fight through an area once, to unlock the shortcut which then makes getting to the boss straight forward. You generally don’t have to fight anything on the run back to a boss.


      • Premium User Badge

        Awesomeclaw says:

        Ability to run straight back to a boss after a death definitely depends on the boss, build, and game. In my experience there are very few shortcuts which take you straight back to the fog door.

        • Poldovico says:

          Straight to the fog is rare, but very quickly to the fog with little to no need to fight is pretty much omnipresent.

        • fish99 says:

          Every build can run. I’d say >80% of run backs can be done without fighting anything in DS3, and in DS1 for that matter. And the rest you might have to fight <5 things on the way. And when there is a shortcut in that area, it's usually there to shorten the boss run.

          DS2 was a bit of an exception in that it had the mob despawning mechanism, so they loaded up some of the run backs with enemies, like Smelter for instance.

        • FreshHands says:

          I have been loving Dark Souls for 500+ hours now, but I am still not convinced that running up to the Boss is a very good design decision.

          If I could hop straight back into the fight after dying for the x-th time it probably would reduce the frustration level significantly – á la Hotline Miami for example.

          However it might also not work – maybe the devs already tested bonfires next to the fog and it somehow lessened the experience.

          Still all that running really raises my aggression to berzerk-like heights.

  22. Caiman says:

    Great article. I can so relate to this, but for me it was (and still is) the first Dark Souls. I played it about two years ago, never really feeling in control, always struggling, often getting frustrated. Then I hit the Gaping Dragon boss and it defeated me. I didn’t have the will to go on, and I shelved the game.

    Then recently I watched a stream of Dark Souls 3. I saw the determination, the improvement, the elation at beating difficult bosses, and I got my curiosity back. I booted up Dark Souls again, and started from scratch. At first I felt that familiar sense of defeat, but after perhaps three hours of play, while I was running through Undead Burg, something inside me clicked. Suddenly I started to “get” Dark Souls. The thoughtfulness that’s required. I beat the Taurus Demon on the battlements in record time, a boss that was a nightmare the first time around. Eventually I came back to Gaping Dragon. I killed it on my first attempt, finally understanding the game. The elation I felt at that moment made me a true Dark Souls fan.

  23. Pelaf says:

    “-and I have never enjoyed a surfeit of either DEXTERITY or patience.”
    STR builds all the way. *Elitism intensifies despite my DS-noobishness*

  24. Premium User Badge

    Elusiv3Pastry says:

    Great idea for a new series, I hope to see more of these! The highlight videos for DS3 look hilarious but I haven’t tried it myself, less because I think my withered, palsied hands and reflexes will fail me and more because I simply hate forced repetition/grind for the sake of grind. I do enjoy very hard/challenging games (higher difficulty XCom and Civ, for example) but having to play the same level over and over and over again doesn’t sound fun to me.

    • Poldovico says:

      If that’s what you’re after, you might find out you actually love Dark Souls. It takes much less skill and repetition than people would have you think, what it does require of you is thoughtfulness and care, which you should have well in hand with your strategy background. You might go back through a place a couple of times, but it will almost entirely be for exploration, not grind.

    • Chaoslord AJ says:

      It’s not really boring because you concentrate on the battles and not to get ambushed – it’s like a meditation in a way.

    • Twist says:

      I’d echo what Poldovico said. It’s not about “repetition and grind for the sake of grind.” The game rewards you for being patient, attentive and poised.

  25. Premium User Badge

    Awesomeclaw says:

    For me, every Dark Souls game is essentially two separate games: the difficult but rewarding single player portion, and the somewhat goofy (and easier) co-op portion. Summoning other players to fight a boss might remove a fair bit of the challenge, but joining three other players to completely dismantle a boss which was difficult to defeat solo is still extremely satisfying.

    • Chaoslord AJ says:

      Except if you place your sign at Vordt’s, then get summoned and every time the guy runs off to the Dancer on the far end and I get slayered…

  26. feverberries says:

    Good read. Reminds me of my first Souls-experience with DS1.

    I was personally instantly hooked to the mysterious and challenging gameplay. You had to figure out stuff yourself, and boy there was a lot to it. I quickly learned that you can also make the game easier when you find some good farming spots near bonfires and you are willing to spend some time grinding. You can level up yourself and your gear to near-absurd level.

  27. Drhank says:

    Yea about that point where you’re at your 10th or so try on the first boss. I got Dark Souls 3 as well, and as you, newb to the series. It looks quite interesting alright, ugly character customization but the environment and surroundings look stunning.

    Anyway that first boss fight. I tried it more then 25+ times and I just gave up, its not for me, not my kind of game and I refunded it on steam (I hope, I tried it so many times, I played over 3 hours now and might not be eligible to a refund – and if I dont end up getting it I guess I am forced to get my moneys worth by playing it over and over again, oh my..)