I scan the battlefield. Location? The sunken half-circle balcony to the rear of Pontiff Sulyvahn's boss battle chamber. Opponents? Three glowing-red human players – a pyromancer, a mage, and a Smough's Great Hammer-wielding warrior. Me? I'm ready to fight. Always. Let's go.
I leap from the stairwell above, skirt over tufts of unkempt grass at my feet, and then lunge at the mage to my right, who's seemingly locked in the game's 'Welcome' gesture. A dull thud followed by a high-pitched clang echoes around the arena, as my Dragonslayer Swordspear connects with its target, and then the concrete below on the follow-through.
I prepare for a riposte, but, instead... silence. Nobody moves. Fog rolls over the crumbling barrier at the far side of the balcony, and its lines of ornate Gothic statues cast stony stares into the distance. I pause. They pause. And then... CRASH! BANG! WALLOP! I'm down. I've been ambushed. Those bastards! YOU DIED. Well, duh.
Despite what might have been viewed as odd behaviour from my opponents in the Dark Souls 3 online PvP encounter described above, I'd actually, unwittingly, stumbled upon one of the series' renowned fight clubs – player-organised bouts, whereby two people battle it out to the death, and the invasion's remaining participants watch on from the sidelines.
Welcome to Knight Club
In the absence of voice chat, the series' gesture system acts as the set-pieces' only means of communication, which, to newcomers, can be both confusing and hilarious. In the above scenario, for example, the mage mashing the Welcome gesture, was in fact saying: "What the heck are you doing, mate? Fight the bloke in the middle of the ring."
But, of course, the only way to learn these harsh rules is via the one method the Souls series is known for: death. Fight the wrong dude? YOU DIED. Invade from the sidelines before a fight is finished? YOU DIED. Fail to welcome combatants without the appropriate gesture? YOU DIED. And, the cardinal sin: chug a health- restoring Estus Flask before your fight is over? Oh, man, YOU definitely DIED.
Want to get involved in the action? Here's a Dark Souls 3 location and etiquette guide to get you started.
Once you learn the ropes, though, Dark Souls' fight clubs are great fun. After the brief and bloody misadventure outlined earlier, I scoured the series' community threads in order to give its fight clubs a proper crack of the Notched Whip. I learned the best and most frequented spots for fight-clubbing, the most appropriate gestures and their pseudo-contextualised meanings, how to host my own set-tos, and how best to learn as an observer. I learned that fight clubs often litter their battlegrounds with multicoloured Prism Stones – cosmetic items used as in-game markers – and that the likes of Sen's Fortress, Oolacile, Iron Keep and the High Wall Of Lothric are considered hotspots throughout the series. Likewise, Dark Souls III has the most populated fight club scene today, but last year's Remastered has breathed new life into the original's frontlines.
Like any Dark Souls learning curve, I died and died and died in my quest for fight club success, and found the weapon-less, bare-fisted melees to be the most entertaining. Seriously, try whacking seven shades of crap out of an opponent, one sliver of health at a time, while a handful of red silhouettes frantically Jump For Joy, Rejoice or Praise The Sun from the sidelines without cracking a smile.
Don't break the rules
One encounter saw me watching from the crowd as another chap darted away, climbed to the top of a hill, and watched the entire battle through his binoculars, applauding as he went – as if staring down from a theatre's upper circle, as we minions rubbed shoulders in the stalls.
Now full of confidence, understanding of the rules, and safe in the knowledge that this is my fight club, I'm the host here, and I'll gesture my wee heart out with the full backing of my fighters. I'm the man. I'm untouchable. I've nicknamed myself Tyler Lordran in an ill-fitting nod to both the game world and the protagonist of the Fight Club movie.
Fresh meat enters the balcony to the rear of Pontiff Sulyvahn's chamber. He rounds the arena, unsheathes a Firelink Greatsword, and moves towards the centre. He chugs an Estus. The fight hasn't begun, so I let it slide. I motion a Proper Bow gesture. He dashes and strikes me. He pauses. We pause. I chug an Estus. All bets are off. Let's get him, lads. It's the only way he will learn.