The problem with reviewing Dark Souls 3 is that it’s all too easy to find yourself reviewing the series as a whole. Not a lot changes between incarnations and that which does change – setting, enemy layout, the story being told – changes only enough to be new. It’s clever but that’s nothing new, all that’s changed is the specifics of that design.
With this in mind, coupled with the fact that this seems to be the last, this review will be something of a retrospective, taking a look at the trilogy of four as a whole as well as 3’s place within it.
The first thing I noticed, while Dark Souls 1 had a memorable selection of dangerous looking beasts and Dark Souls 2 favoured huge guys, Dark Souls 3 takes an unhealthy interest in creatures that should not be.
It’s hardly a new thing for the series to produce monsters that look like you’re doing them a favour by taking a claymore to their tortured forms. In between fierce and efficient monsters there’s always lurked the kind of things that can kill you in less time than it takes you to figure out which end you’re looking at. More than once I died to a creature because I misread its attack animation as just another convulsion, and this doesn’t include the times I had my undead ass handed to me because curiosity demanded I at least try to figure out what it was I was killing.
Fortunately, what Dark Souls 3 is good at is making this confusion feel worthwhile: every enemy has a reason to be there beyond getting in your way, and figuring out exactly what the thing you’re fighting is and, more importantly, used to be is pretty much mandatory to understanding the plot. It doesn’t make the crowd of maggot people painfully flopping toward you any less horrifying, but picking through their bloated corpses and having a good look around can help you figure out what they were when things were still only heading to shit.
It’s like the old saying goes: those who do not learn from history are doomed to have their bodies corrupted beyond recognition by the abominations of the deep.
At least, that’s how I assume it goes within the Dark Souls universe. Metaphors are a much more serious business there.
For instance, have you ever heard the phrase, “If at first you don’t succeed, make sure to touch the greasy stain your corpse made lest the ancient souls you’d gathered be lost to a decaying world”? It’s the motto From Software have built their empire on, and as true here as it always was.
But it’s a fool who thinks all Dark Souls is is difficult. Another interesting thing is how gradually you come to understand it. It’s like some slowly blossoming flower, probably one of those huge bastards that stinks of death. More and more layers are exposed as you look at it, with each new area requiring the same process. At first it’s a brick wall, strange and unyielding, but then you start to understand the enemies; first their positions and then their attack patterns and progress starts happening. Once you know their weaknesses the invincible knights suddenly seem clumsy and trivial and you’re skipping gaily through places you used to skulk. Second comes the why: who were these mopey fuckers and what can I loot from them? They’re not obstacles at this point, just mobile treasure chests (and like treasure chests, they will still occasionally kill you), but they’re not the real threat. Lastly comes the “what next” as, piecing the history of the world together even as you rifle through its pockets for halberds and loose change, you meet a boss, a nice thematic ending to the section, who will remind you of what it feels like to shit your teeth before getting out of the way and letting the next bit begin.
It’s a pleasing cycle and, more than ever, it feels consistent. Dark Souls 2, for all it got right, fucked up the sense of consistency in a way that was both subtle and obnoxious. Simply put, in Dark Souls 2 you climb a spire that rises, solitary, from a bog until, at its highest peak, the horizon stretches out on all sides and nothing but fetid swampland for miles, you slay a medusa, walk through a door and find yourself at the bottom of castle drowning in lava.
It doesn’t fucking make sense, and while in the moment of discovery you’re just marvelling at the towers of blackened iron, it’s an irritating reminder that this isn’t a real place. Stranger, it’s an obvious mistake in a series that previously has been obsessively populating its worlds with consistent details. Dark Souls 3 brings back the feeling of continuity, the sense that the world makes some, has proportion, isn’t just a bunch of levels in a video-game but a place that has a logic and can be understood. There’s still a swamp level, a gothic castle and a skeleton dungeon, but they’re places that work together to tell the story of a world. Not just fun places to go and explore (or die trying) but little chunks in a bigger story.
There’s a lot of talk given to the difficulty of these games, and I can see why: to a new player it’s the most obvious element, smashing your nose with a lobstered gauntlet, but it’s not what’s most interesting about them. Dark Souls 3 may be bloody good at being difficult, but it’s bloody excellent at telling a story while, on the surface, not telling you anything. With the patience and detail of a dreaded indie walking simulator you find items, objects and geography telling the story in such a well-paced, gradual way that it’s entirely easy to miss if you’re playing only for the hacky stabby fun fun. There’s no wrong way to play it, and exploring the world as an archaeologist or a barbarian feel satisfying in their own ways, but pretending Dark Souls is just difficult is ignoring the thousands of hours dedicated to theorising over item descriptions on YouTube.
I mentioned at the beginning of this review that this seems to be the end of Dark Souls and despite loving the games I can’t help but hope that it is. There’s talk of Miyazaki wanting to take his brand of violent weirdness into sci-fi and I think it would be extremely cowardly to not want to see how that goes. In the words of inspiring warriors the world over:
Score: 9/9 Hammers
Dark Souls 3 | Developer: From Software | Released: March 24th , 2016 | Official Website