I finally platinum’d Dark Souls 3 last week. Right now I’m building up a PvP character, prioritizing versatility to get the most fun out of multiplayer. As such, I have had ample time to explore all of Lothric and its surrounding lands, and have seen just about everything this game as to offer. It’d be a whole lot to cover, so I’m only going talk about three important factors that I believe have made the Souls series so beloved and adored, and where Dark Souls 3 stands in regards to those traits.
I’ve platinum’d every other Souls game, including Bloodborne, except for Dark Souls 2 because that’s one we pretend never happened, but more than that, I’ve played and beaten all of them, have watched VaatiVidya and EpicNameBro and their interpretations of the various games, hung out at the Dark Souls reddits, and this was my wallpaper for the longest time. Basically, I’m a Souls fan, and this is relevant because a Souls veteran will evaluate Dark Souls 3 differently than a newcomer. We have higher standards, because FromSoftware has been spoiling us these past seven years, and I think most of us were holding our breaths after Dark Souls 2 (and breathed a small sigh of relief after Bloodborne), but, thank the old gods, I am happy to say Dark Souls 3 lives up to its name, and goes beyond. Umbasa.
Dark Souls’ First Pillar
In the Souls series, Game Design has long been considered one of the Three Pillars of the FromSoft’s rule, and were thus allowed to hook gamers.
Increases immersion and fun factor.
Some fans love the Souls series for its story and heavy lore implications, others love it for the unique multiplayer interaction, but I think the element that has enticed the most fans (probably without them even realizing it) is the game design, the most fundamental aspect of any video game, yet one of the most overlooked.
Game design does not mean simply how the game’s controls work, or how the levels are constructed, or even the overall style or identity of the game. It is all the little details and things that we gamers take for granted, which we usually only notice when it sucks. I’m talking about enemy placement, item placement, how a player gets from A to B (and everything standing in their way), the order of the bosses the player has to face (and their movesets), how your character gets stronger and the rate at which they can do so, and so much more. All these things inevitably come together in a whole greater than the sum of its parts, and FromSoftware has nailed it (and by “it” I mean everything) yet again with Dark Souls 3.
It’s impossible for me to write about all those little things here, so I’ll mention the two big ones: level design and controls.
While some fans were initially disappointed that the looping level design from Dark Souls 1 didn’t make a comeback, I think everyone was appeased by what’s been offered in recompense. Focused and linear level design has its advantages too, and the areas in Dark Souls 3 aren’t even that linear. Consider the tension of climbing down Blighttown for the first time; would you rather have more clever looping levels or more experiences like that one? I prefer the latter, and that’s what you get with Dark Souls 3.
Farron Keep stood out for me; it was the closest I ever got to feeling like I was in Blighttown for the first time again. On my first playthrough I had snuffed out the first two flames, proceeding through the swamp slowly and methodically, and I was feeling quite good having covered so much ground without dying once, but it was also spectacularly nerve-wracking. I had gotten so far that it would’ve been such a big disappointment to die before getting the last flame. I did inevitably die, to one of the Elder Ghrus, and it was devastating, but I went back in immediately, and was still excited when I finally reached the last flame and discovered the tower with the Old Wolf.
I can’t speak to the technical aspect of designing great levels, cause I’m not a game designer, but from a player’s perspective, good level design stands out to me as something that rewards gamers for using their intuition and skill to see them through the various obstacles. Great level design goes further and establishes mood, builds tension, and sometimes offers clever little quirks, such as looping shortcuts and sneaky traps that seem obvious only after you’ve triggered them.
Dark Souls 3 has all of this, and shows it off consistently and with great variety throughout the game, from the Cathedral of the Deep (that switches from a creepy graveyard to a grand cathedral) to the Grand Archives (an elegant library leading to a leisurely rooftop stroll). In terms of gameplay and aesthetics, Dark Souls 3 has some of the most engaging level design in any video game ever.
The second big design element are the controls. Once again we are rolling our way to victory, but if it ain’t broken, why fix it? Dark Souls 3 adds the charged strong attack from Bloodborne, and there are now weapon arts that enable special attacks that often require you to forego your shield. Both of these elements add more strategy to the combat system without detracting from it, and so they are both welcome additions. Even the camera issue has been addressed, with large bosses having two points of lock-on, giving players the ability to adjust the camera as they see fit. Doesn’t solve the issue completely, but it most definitely helps.
Level design and controls are only two big slices of a FromSoft’s Dark Souls pie. There is so much more that makes this a great game, but level design and controls are usually the two more relevant video game elements for players, and FromSoft has succeeded once again.
Dark Souls’ Second Pillar
In the Souls series, Lore has long been considered one of the Three Pillars of FromSoft’s rule, and is therefore master of endearing gamers.
Builds community and identity.
The Souls series is renowned for its uniquely effective approach to storytelling. Cutscenes and exposition are rare, and even then it only gives you the immediate story of what you are doing and why. However, to fully understand everything about the story you need to read item descriptions and stop and consider where you found those items in the first place.
The story of Dark Souls 3 is simple and epic. You are an unkindled, which is different from being undead in that the undead have a chance at linking the fire and delaying the heat-death of the world, while the unkindled have failed to do so. Since the most recent linking of the flame has failed, you are called upon to do the next best thing: kill the previous undead who have linked the fire and use their power to extend the current life-cycle of the world a bit longer until a proper undead rises with the strength to link the flame.
Along the way you find out more about these previous flame-linkers, also known by the more bad-ass title of “Lord of Cinders”. The Lords each had their own reasons for linking the flame (except for one), but have since shirked their duty, hence the reason you must track and hunt them down. If you pay attention during your journey, you’ll come across tidbits of the plot, such as why the previous Lords of Cinder don’t want the age of fire to continue, and the motivations of various NPCs, and it is up to you to piece them together, resulting in storytelling that is even more interactive than a Telltale games. Instead of making choices in the game world, you put the story together in the real world, and it’s a heck of thing when you put two and two together (such as realizing how much you need to merc Aldrich).
FromSoft has, yet again, delivered another epic dark fantasy story, and although you must have played Dark Souls 1 to fully appreciate it, new fans have plenty to speculate about, and they can always use google to fill in the missing gaps.
A lot of game developers underestimate the significance of lore. I understand their point of view; it does seem like a waste of time and resources to work on something that has no effect on the immediate gameplay. However, as the Souls series as shown us, lore has the capability of transforming a game from being just a product to something more, something that has a community where people get together to talk about the story post-credits, something that compels people to create thousands of hours of YouTube videos analyzing and explaining theories about why a seemingly miscellaneous corpse is where it is. That is how you create a fanbase, and get people talking about your game years and years after it’s been published. There is no better marketing scheme out there.
Dark Souls’ Third Pillar
In Dark Souls, Difficulty has long been considered one of the Three Pillars of the FromSoft’s rule. Difficulty also served to weed out casual gamers.
Increases frustration and triumph simultaneously.
Any Souls fan will agree that Dark Souls 3 is not difficult, generally speaking. After so many games in the series, we know that running away is always an option, that weapon upgrades are critical, and that armor is more for show than for utility. Even so, this game is most definitely challenging.
FromSoft has cleverly played on our expectations and experience. We all know the best way to dispatch enemies is to backstab them. In the first area are knights that bash you with their shield when you try to circle around them, completely negating that fundamental tactic. The lance version of these knights are particularly capable of whooping any veteran’s butt, and it was a peculiar feeling for me to see such an intimidating common enemy in the first area. Perhaps it rekindled that feeling from playing Demon’s Souls for the first time. This game will not go easy on you, and I fully appreciated that.
More and more I’m starting to think that the Souls games have never been difficult (which is completely different from being challenging). It is more likely the case that mainstream games have just become easier and easier, with instant respawns, regenerating health bars, and virtually zero consequences for failing. If you’re a business, you want as many people to buy your product as possible. Sometimes that means catering to everybody at the expense of the overall quality of your product, and difficulty is one of those things that has been shaved off in order to get more consumers into the game.
Dark Souls is a great game because it’s smart. The game is only as hard as you want it to be. There is still an easy mode via co-op, a system that is built in game and available to any player struggling with a boss. But you’re not forced to use it if you don’t want to (and if you want an authentic “Souls” experience, I highly recommend not using co-op for your first playthrough). The difficulty can even be ramped up in a variety of ways: by limiting the type of weapons and upgrades you give yourself, using no weapons at all, never levelling up even once, or any other crazy restriction.
I also wanted to talk specifically about the bosses, because they have always epitomized the challenging aspect of the Souls series.
The difference between “difficult” and “challenging” is fun factor. The bosses in Dark Souls, for the most part, are challenging because they are varied and fun to play against, but you will indeed die a few times before beating them. Most of them require you to be patient, to learn the nature of the their attacks, and the rhythm needed to dodge them, and that’s the genius of it all. Every time you die, it’s because you dodged too early or too late, or you got greedy and thought you had time to land one more attack, or you weren’t paying attention to your surroundings. You are accountable for every death, because everything is under your control (attacking timing, when to heal, when to dodge), and that is what makes Dark Souls, above all else, fair. That is what makes a difficult game challenging, rather than cheap.
And what I just said can be applied for regular enemy encounters and environmental traps. It goes deeper when you consider the fact that you are free to choose your weapon, spells, and what stats to level up. Like the knights of Catarina, Dark Souls has layers and layers of depth, and this is the psychological reason why it feels immensely satisfying when you finally defeat a boss: your success is completely 100% of your own doing (casuals who use co-op need not apply here).
As a final word on the bosses, Dark Souls 3 just might have the strongest line up out of all the games. There is no Bed of Chaos, Maneaters, or Pinwheels here. Every boss is fun, challenging, and the majority of them look amazing and have awesome lore implications. A great way to end off the series.
Dark Souls 3 is a fantastic action RPG. It stays true to its roots, and is loving and carefully thought out “farewell” to all of its fans. Because of the summoning mechanic, I can recommend it to new gamers as well; the game is only as difficult as you want it to be.
Amazing visuals, heart-pounding boss encounters, tight controls, a gamut of armor and weapons (and thus play styles) to choose from, and a charming sense of humour all come together to create a masterpiece reminiscent of a time when gaming was less about micro-transactions and setpieces, and more about having fun and giving a genuine sense of accomplishment.
As Demon’s Souls is considered to be a spiritual successor to King’s Field, I can’t wait to see what FromSoft has in store for us next. Miyazaki has only raised the bar with each game he directs, and if his next game will do to Dark Souls 3 what Demon’s Souls did for King’s Field, then the future is looking bright indeed.
Praise the sun!
This has been a gamobo review.