It is hard to underestimate just how much of an impact Dark Souls has had on this decade of gaming. The way it redefined how games could approach difficulty, combat, level design, and narrative has slowly seeped into the wider medium so much so that critics are now afraid to compare other games to it, for fear of repeating themselves time and time again. It is a sign of a masterpiece, that all that follow in some respect pay homage. It is funny then that in our early conclusions for Dark Souls, it almost received 7/10. Average, when the game is so far from just that.
It is understandable. On first impressions the game is incomprehensible, brutally difficult, poorly optimised and graphically unimpressive. Even after several hours of dying it fails to open up to the player, almost screaming at them to leave it alone. Yet first impressions are often misleading, and indeed Dark Souls’ mysterious and vicious depth are all part of a package that if unwrapped, through patience and perseverance, reveal a truly astonishing experience.
FROM Software, the studio behind the series, has been prolific in the five years since Dark Souls’ release. We’ve seen a competent, if limited, sequel, a truly excellent sister project in the form of Bloodborne and a huge range of brilliant expansions. It has all led to this point, Dark Souls 3, the conclusion of a truly exceptional series. If the rumour that this is the last we see of a Souls game is true, it is a glorious and fitting ending.
So many times have I written about these opening screens. Dark Souls 3 introduces itself with that familiar metallic clang. Haunting choral music rises above, setting that persistent melancholic atmosphere. That familiarity that should have become frustrating and repetitive has somehow become an almost religious experience. Even those irritating unnecessary button presses to log in to the server, then waiting through loading screens layered in bizarre item descriptions, have become ceremony.
Character creation has slowly evolved over that time. Dark Souls 3 now runs on the much improved Bloodborne engine (and obviously the next generation of consoles) which means your avatar is no longer a bulging mess of ugly textures. It’s still not impressive, you will not find anything like the narcissistic beauty parade of recent MMORPG Black Desert Online, but at least you can create something that appears vaguely human. Not that it matters, soon enough you will be bedecked in enough medieval armour to obscure everything you agonised over in creation. Even the class and items you choose have very little effect, as always with the Souls series your character is moulded as you play, slowly leveling and adding a point to any chosen characteristic. Experienced players will evolve their character to suit their playstyle, others will undoubtedly be left bemused until they slowly get their bearings.
While many go on about the original’s legendary difficulty, it seems FROM have slowly changed their approach over the last five years, perhaps understanding that laughing in the face of all who fail is not necessarily the most financially astute tactic. In Dark Souls 3 the brief tutorial area, named the Cemetery of Ash, quickly teaches the player the basics by reading those infamous glowing runes on the floor, the creatures here unthreatening and swiftly defeated. All creatures except one, which the runes rather comically tell you to avoid, a raging crystalline lizard who rolls straight at you on sight and most likely crushes the player beneath its shining spines. It rather wonderfully teaches the player that in Dark Souls 3 there are battles that you may wish to avoid, something the original famously forgot as it led the players wilfully into end game areas just moments after the tutorial, crushing their spirit before it has even had a chance to grow.
The Cemetery of Ash concludes in a punishing battle against the game’s first boss, a reanimated knight armed with a hulking halberd named Iudex Gundyr. It is an almost perfunctory warm-up for what is to come. The player settles into that familiar dance, timing their rolls to avoid the crushing weight of that massive weapon, stabbing away while the foe recovers its footing. Battles in Dark Souls are a matter of managing stamina, each movement, block, dodge or attack draining that precious green bar. Depleting stamina will often leave the player one step from death, unable to dodge an incoming attack and taking huge, if not mortal, damage. It’s a bitter and twisted learning curve, each death sending the player back to the last checkpoint bonfire with all enemies respawned, all their souls (the currency and experience of the game) deposited on the spot of their death and lost forever if uncollected in the next life. Each Souls player will have a number that sits on their conscience, reminding of them of the time and effort lost due to one foolish mistake. Mine’s close to two-hundred thousand. Sigh.
It’s all part of the Dark Souls experience. It’s a rollercoaster of a game with emotional highs that soar above the clouds as you defeat that single boss that has been your bane for far too long, and then punishing lows as you lose hours of painstaking work in a ridiculous and sometimes unfair death. It’s a scream at the screen, smash the controller and pull the plug kind of game. Everyone loves that.
The hub of Dark Souls 3 is the firelink shrine, found following the tutorial and defeating Gundyr. An enclosed area where the player may rest, level their character, purchase items, upgrade weapons and talk to the various NPCs whom you gather on your quest. A haunting mausoleum, so much of the game’s theme revolves around death, with a melancholic orchestral backdrop, it becomes the player’s home for the duration of the game. Those that know FROM’s back catalogue will find it reminiscent of the Nexus from their first Souls game Demon Souls. As it fills with characters, each evolving in certain, often unpredictable, ways depending on choices you make throughout your travels, it really gives the game a sense of progression and fulfilment.
From this hub the Dark Souls 3 begins proper. Teleporting (an act again available from the start, something the sequel added into the mix to help frustrated players) to the top of the High Wall of Lothric, the player stares out across the world they will still explore. World-building may well be the series’ greatest strength. Each game is filled with winding passageways that weave their way across the land emerging out in unexpected places, leaving the player with a sense of wonder over the lands construction. It worked so well in Dark Souls, a game that lacked teleportation until much later into the game, because it gave the player shortcuts back and forth between areas. Each unlocked door gave the player a huge sense of achievement, rewarding them with links to bonfires and a huge dose of stress relief that this entails. Dark Souls 2 meanwhile with its rushed development and seemingly unplanned world made little sense: pirate coves hidden under temples that were strangely underground yet with a visible sky at the same time. It was definitely the sequel’s biggest failing.
Fortunately Dark Souls 3 is a return to form in this respect (and virtually all others too). There may not be so many crafty shortcuts that bring forth that sense of achievement, but the world feels far more realistic and well-formed. Helped by the much improved engine that usually keeps a consistent frame rate throughout and running on this new generation of console, it’s easy to become immersed in the game’s atmosphere. The High Walls of Lothric is just the beginning and as you plunge deeper into the game it’s rather therapeutic to look back and acknowledge the areas you’ve conquered towering over you.
One of the most interesting aspects of the Souls universe is the mysterious way in which it unveils its story. Many players will not even unravel the lore that is hidden in the obscure text of item description, the layout and architecture of the buildings, even in the design, armour and movement of their enemies. One has to become a virtual archaeologist, really studying this decaying world to really understand it, and even then so much is left open to interpretation. The story of Lothric, with its collapsing buildings and dead dragons crashed on its walls, seems to be that of destruction and finality, fitting perhaps for a conclusion to a series. The player is told in the firelink shrine that they must defeat the lords of cinder, bring their ashes back to relight the first fire and renew the world, but this is only a tiny portion of what is really going on. Something that can be unravelled in the multiple secret endings that may be discovered.
Whether or not the player is taking in any of this history and lore ,they will descend from the walls through an undead village, reminicent of Hemwick Charnal lane from Bloodborne, a putrid swamp that’s overly familiar if you’ve ever traipsed through Blighttown in Dark Souls and into a mausoleum that feels ripped from the Undead Crypt in Dark Souls 2. This may well be FROM’s greatest issue, there’s an over familiarity to their style that much of the originality is lost. So many of the locations feel like hazy memories of previous entries and most of the creatures are lumbering undead that would fit into any of the other games. It’s the reason that most Souls fans have fondest memories from the first game they play, and perhaps why FROM may have chosen to draw the series to a close with this entry.
Similarly the beautiful dance that is the fighting has become more of a trance. Seasoned players will have developed their skills to such a point that they naturally know when to roll away from attacks and when to backstab their opponents for critical damage. It’s not that you will not die, you will die and you will die a lot, it is more that there is less shock when it happens. Battles have simply not evolved. True, in Dark Souls 3 each weapon has an ability that can be triggered ranging from moves that can sweep enemies off their feet or a war cry that increases outgoing damage, but nothing drastically changes the form or flow of the fight. This is something that Bloodborne achieved magnificently with its aggressive nature, the combined result of the reflexive offhand ranged-weapon that could stun any aggressor if timed correctly and the rally system which sees the player regain lost health if they retaliate quickly. In many ways following on from Bloodborne seems like a step backwards in the fighting mechanics for Dark Souls 3.
Perhaps it is a little unfair to criticise a series for lacking originality compared to itself when the entire medium is trapped in a nauseating loop of repetition and sequels. Dark Souls 3 is still likely the most exciting release we will see this year. The boss fights for example are drastically improved in comparison to the previous entry, each brutal, clever and fantastically memorable. The Dancer of Boreal Valley with her lithe hypnotic movements and a fighting style that more resembles ballet than battle was a particular highlight. So much so that I wore her armour, with a gleaming veil that swings from the crown as a trophy for the rest of the game. In drastic contrast is Aldrich, Devourer of the Gods, who has become fat and bloated from his feasting but can still unleash a hail of arrows and shards of magic at the player that pummel them to death. There’s a great variance between each boss fight, and while perhaps there is an overreliance on humanoid fighters with large weapons, all of them feel individual and refreshing. Until you’ve died to them again and again.
Fortunately these fights do not have to be fought alone. Multiplayer in Dark Souls may well be the most novel, unique and clever aspect of the series. While kindled (similar to humanity in the original game, that occurs when using the limited supply of an item called ember) players can locate summon signs that litter the floor of the world, particularly just before boss battles, and bring in others to help. Fights are made significantly easier and sometimes more entertaining with a friend or a random stranger to help aggravate your opponents, leaving you room to deal some damage. And when the fight is over they disappear into the void they came from, often giving a wave or a funny gesture as they go. Those gestures are fantastic. There’s something about the Dark Souls community, with the inability to make any form of communication other than a handful of gestures acquired throughout the game (and some strange carvings that can vocalise a few words), that brings out a gamer’s humanity. Ironic perhaps in world stricken with the undead.
There are other, less friendly, aspects to the multiplayer as well. Players can join certain covenants, located throughout the world, that prefer slaughter over survival. These dark fiends can then invade other player’s games as red phantoms and destroy their progression, taking a trophy as a reward. There are leaderboards (again hidden mysteriously throughout the land) for both light and dark players, with the best players competing for the prestigious top stops. Slaughtering those simply trying to enjoy their game they’ve spent hard earned money on may seem like a rather dark pursuit but it’s damn entertaining, and adds a whole extra lease of life to the game. Predictably there are already fight clubs and tournaments set up around the world to really hone player’s technique.
Meanwhile those shining messages that players can leave on the floor to guide, or fool, others return, but somehow now they feel rather worn. A system that used to seem so unique, now feels uninspired. You see a message directly in front of a wall you do not even need to read it now to know that those bricks are most likely an illusion you can smash down. See another in front of a chest and most likely it’s yet another mimic creature (a joke that FROM have now worn way too thin) that will eat you if you try and open it. Personally I find these messages ruin the anticipation and mystery of the world, and I could do without them now.
And this returns us to about the only fault one can give to Dark Souls 3: it’s lack of originality. But this is only when compared to its own series. This is the richest, most exciting and well-designed game of the series, which makes it one of the finest games of all time. FROM have ironed out some of the frustration and cleared the obtuseness that marked the first entry, and at the same time they’ve delivered a world that feels full and bosses that deliver when compared to the Dark Souls 2. It may not be as clever or as memorable as Dark Souls, but nothing actually can be. For all Souls fans though this is the game they’ve been waiting for, a deserved conclusion to one of the most magnificent series in gaming.