Backstabs are slowly killing my enjoyment of Dark Souls combat

The Dark Souls games are fantastic. There's a reason why the original is ranked as our number one game of all time: it's just that good. You get to explore an ominous, dangerous world filled with creepy creatures, deep character lore, and gameplay challenges that rival the toughness of old-school video games. But I have one problem with Dark Souls: I can't stop myself from cheesing its challenges, and it's starting to affect how much I enjoy the games.

When I played through an early chunk of Dark Souls 3 at the most recent demo event, all the enemies were easy victims for my backstabs and suckers for my circle-strafing maneuverability. It's a tried-and-true tactic of the series: Land the backstab and you'll deplete a hefty chunk of most enemies' health bars and cause your foe to flop on the floor, giving you plenty of time to land the final killing blow while they recover. You're even invulnerable to incoming attacks when you're in the backstab animation, so the other foes around you can't even interfere. The combat strategy of constantly maneuvering behind enemies eliminates the challenge of taking on those enemy characters toe-to-toe. Backstabbing is cheap, easy, and effective. But it's also getting boring.

The thing about Dark Souls combat is that the series has trained its players to attack its enemies from behind. When you step into your very first Dark Souls battle, you're cautious, taking your time to study your opponent and only attacking when you think your enemy is vulnerable. Every fight feels intense as you perfect your combat strategy through trial and error. At least, that's the way you play until you get a bit more experience. Now that I've worked my way through three total Souls games up to this point, my strategy is refined, and attacks from the rear reign supreme. With Dark Souls 3, there needs to be more to the combat. Battles need to be unpredictable and enemies need to start denying the backstabbing tactics.

I'm making the game less enjoyable for myself. I could make it more challenging and just withhold the backstabbing for good old blocking, dodging, and carefully-timed attacks, opting to brave the dangers of a particularly difficult area using nothing more than my core combat skills. That might restore the moments that made me swell with pride when I first started playing, as I struck down a cursed knight or gracefully dodged a series of attacks in carefully choreographed combat patterns. But I probably won't.

With a game like Dark Souls 3, you want to preserve as many limited-use items and health-restoring Estus Flasks as you can when making your way from bonfire A to bonfire B. You need that sweet Estus nectar when you finally come face-to-face with a boss, or step into some unexpected trap. Cheesing saves you the hassle of failing those moments and starting all the way back at the last bonfire. So of course I'm going to take every opportunity to avoid reducing my item stock, no matter how tedious my options may be.

Cheesy strategies are difficult to avoid in Dark Souls, whether it's exploiting backstab stuns or loading up on arrows to pelt enemies from a distance for an unconscionable amount of time. I can't help but resort to those boring tactics. When I face a Dark Souls enemy, dodge-rolling behind my opponent then quickly shoving a sword up its butt is instinctive. It's too easy, and it shouldn't be. I want to go back to feeling intimidated and mystified by that evil monster's abilities. I want the battle to provide the thrill of an epic struggle between my hero and a corrupted beast. Those tactics are an easy way out of an otherwise challenging fight.

For all I know, the later parts of Dark Souls 3 may have the most challenging enemies the series has seen yet, but from the short demo I played, it really just feels like more Dark Souls - especially when it comes to the combat. Something needs to be done about the simple, braindead combat tactics we've developed over the previous games. It's time to challenge players with something more than enemies that can be bested by circle-strafing and backstab tactics. Give us enemies that really test our skills, force us to develop new combat strategies, and teach us to make use of the game's new weapon abilities. There's still much more of Dark Souls 3 to see and many more enemies to face, but From Software will need to step up the challenge if the developer wants the third and final title to close out the Dark Souls franchise with a bang.

Lorenzo Veloria

Many years ago, Lorenzo Veloria was a Senior Editor here at GamesRadar+ helping to shape content strategy. Since then, Lorenzo has shifted his attention to Future Plc's broader video game portfolio, working as a Senior Brand Marketing Manager to oversee the development of advertising pitches and marketing strategies for the department. He might not have all that much time to write about games anymore, but he's still focused on making sure the latest and greatest end up in front of your eyes one way or another.