April 09, 2016
The Dark Souls games inspire an odd kind of fanaticism. From the outside in, it has often seemed childishly elitist to me. I’ve seen people highlight what appeared to be legitimate grumbles about director Miyazaki’s creations, only to be quickly countered by suggestions that they’re crap at games, or are too stupid to understand. “Boo hoo, baby wants someone to hold their hand?” It makes me think: well fuck Dark Souls then.
This is only a small fraction of the Souls community, of course. It’s possible to be a fan without being a massive wanker. But I’ve seen enough of it that it puts me off. I played about 25 hours of the original Dark Souls, a bit more of Bloodborne, about an hour of Demon’s Souls and that’s it. My occasional exposure to hardcore Souls plonkers is part of the reason I’ve never dug deeper.
Their attitude makes me want to point out the series’ shortcomings. Souls games are not beyond criticism. The suggestion that if you die it’s always your fault is bollocks, for a start. Throughout the series I’ve had swords bring me to my knees that have passed through solid walls on their way into my vital organs, the game’s collision detection having a day off. That’s a categorically bad thing and Dark Souls III does it too.
I’ve shaken my head at the idiosyncrasies of the trilogy’s lock-on system also, which every now and again decides that it doesn’t want to play ball. Even in Dark Souls III, it occasionally locks to the wrong person, unlocks for dumb reasons, or just won’t fucking lock at all. It’s not a regular thing, but in a game like Dark Souls just once is enough. It’s not good, whatever way you look at it.
And then there’s the story. Contained within the opening cinematic, the obtuse dialogue, item and weapon descriptions, and the super brief cutscenes, there is a story, of sorts. I’ve read the Reddit threads trying to tie it all together. But the idea of trawling through it myself doesn’t grab me and the vast majority of players will never even begin to grasp what the hell is going on. Dark Souls III continues this trend.
Yet here’s the thing: whenever I spend time with these games, regardless of the grumbles I have, I just can’t disagree with this: Dark Souls is one of the finest action RPG series ever created. It’s brilliant, chilling, stressful, beautiful, terrifying, rewarding, fantastically designed and stupendously atmospheric. It’s just not perfect. And occasionally its fans can be tits.
Dark Souls III is very much a Souls game. There are new additions like a skills system that allows you to use alternate attacks on your weapons and magic, there’s been an increase in the speed of combat, there’s some new starting classes, and some of the core elements have been rejigged, but at its core it remains the same game.
What this means is careful exploration, punishing shield, sword and magic combat, a whole bunch of items you’re not quite sure what to do with, the wonderful Souls system of amassing and potentially losing XP, and boss battles against (largely) giant enemies in a dark, horror-flecked fantasy universe. Oh and normal enemies that will slice you to ribbons if you let your concentration slip.
Some elements of these core components fare better than others in Dark Souls III. The level design, for example, remains remarkably intricate, with areas looping back and interlinking with each other in surprising ways. It’s one of my favourite things about the Souls games and it’s back here after what I understand was a poorly-received break in Dark Souls II. And I really enjoy it. But there are many more of those “Oh wow, this bit links with this bit!” moments to be had in both the original Dark Souls and Bloodborne.
The boss battles can be a little patchy too. While a couple of Dark Souls III’s big bads are disappointingly easy, or mechanically unimaginative, others have ranked among my favourite boss battles ever. So while there’s a roll-between-the-big-ugly-thing’s-back-legs-and-hit-it-for-as-long-as-possible encounter, there’s also some air-punchingly brilliant ones too. At least Miyazaki’s creature and environment designers ensure that whether good or bad, these boss battles are very rarely dull.
More on those environments and creatures (both big and small): there’s a degree of familiarity to them all. Skeletons, swamps, dragons, high castles and dark dungeons. You’ve seen all this stuff before. Yet they’re so visually distinct from any other game, so unmistakably Soulsian and twisted that I never got bored. Perhaps those who have trudged through all of the other games repeatedly will feel different.
And then we come to difficulty, which you can’t really avoid mentioning when discussing Dark Souls. Generally speaking, Dark Souls III is a hard game. You’re going to die a lot. But the game’s difficulty curve is nice and smooth compared to some of its predecessors; it warms you up nicely with a relatively friendly opening area and training boss. And throughout the game you’re going to encounter a lot of bonfires, those little safe havens that allow you to bank your amassed Souls, far more than I remember there being in the original. It’s not as brutal as it could be, and as a result this is probably a good jumping-on point for newcomers to the series.
The hammer does fall though. Likelihood is you’ll struggle through much of the game, especially if you’re one of those newcomers. But that’s kind of the point? You’ve no doubt heard this sentiment before, but it bears repeating: Dark Souls isn’t often cheap or unfair. The rules of engagement for every enemy are there to be studied and learned. Attack patterns and strategies exist to transform almost every encounter into a manageable one, regardless of how hopeless it might initially seem.
Case in point: there’s a boss, who I won’t describe for fear of revealing too much, encountered some way into the game. It must have killed me 10 times, maybe more. But every time I died I picked up another tip, another key to unlocking its puzzle. When I finally beat it, I hardly suffered a scratch. That’s the Souls difficulty experience in a nutshell, for me. A boss who seemed impossibly difficult during my first handful of attempts, dropped like a fly once everything clicked. I had similar experiences with the late game’s mobs. You die, you learn, and then it’s relatively easy.
I’ve seen players complain that the Dark Souls games have unresponsive combat. That’s categorically untrue. All of the Dark Souls games are wonderfully responsive. The thing is that just about every combat action in Dark Souls has a warm-up. When you hit a button, you’re not hitting that button because you want to hit something now. You’re hitting the button because you know that by the time your attack unfurls, your enemy will have its shield down, or be in range, or have opened itself up in some way. Mastery of Dark Souls means mastery of the warm up times.
You can see what’s happening to me here, right? I’m using some of the arguments I’ve seen displayed by those nutty, obnoxious Souls fans. Dark Souls isn’t hard, you just have to get good. Dark Souls’ combat is beyond reproach, you just don’t understand. Boo hoo, baby wants someone to hold their hand.
I could feel this happening to me the more I played Dark Souls III. That growing sense that people who don’t like the Souls games just don’t get it. And I think I understand why. To get the most out of the experience, you have to put a lot in. You have to bang your head against a brick wall for a while. You will occasionally feel hopeless and cheated. You have to die and you have to learn. The beauty is that with Dark Souls games you’re rewarded every step of the way. Dark Souls III is no exception.
Don’t mind being viciously mauled by your average common-or-garden enemy? It’ll eventually click and you’ll feel like a god. Not bothered losing a bunch of times to an arsehole cheap boss dickhead? You’ll work out how to beat it and you’ll realise it wasn’t cheap after all. Wanna wade through item descriptions and study weird ass obtuse dialogue? You’ll be rewarded with a story that just about makes sense. It’s all there for you, if you just have the time and patience.
I think this is what those Souls obsessives are trying to communicate. They’ve been through the wringer and come out the other side. They’ve worked out the shortcuts, the strategies and story. They know their shit. And until you yourself have dedicated a considerable amount of time to the game, you’re clueless. You’ve got so much to learn. Dark Souls III creates much of this situation by rarely explaining things, but its ability to consistently reward your dedication is nevertheless its greatest strength.
My transformation into a sneering, Dark Souls obsessed lunatic hasn’t completely taken me over, however. I’m still able to see those shortcomings. Dark Souls III is not a perfect game, but it is very, very good. You don’t just chew it up, spit it out and forget about it. It stays with you and captures you. You should really give it a go, even if you’ve previously written it off as not your thing. Just promise me that if you like it you won’t turn into a shithead, yeah?
The score is fantastic, jumping easily from haunting atmospherics to choral bombast depending on the needs of the on-screen action. The audio design is great too, helping to deliver the world’s creepy feel. The voice acting is solid enough.
Technically, some elements of the game are rough. It can be a little fuzzy sometimes, the textures a bit bleh. I also suffered notable frame rate drops in some sections. But the art direction is fantastic. Nobody makes creepy environments and horrific monsters like From Software.
The combat is wonderful, one of the jewels in Dark Souls’ (probably maggot-infested) crown, and the way the environments interlink is remarkable (even if the original game is still the highlight in this regard). It’s just let down by the occasional glitch, like a enemy hitting you through a wall or the lock-on going wonky. These moments are thankfully rare.
There’s a lot of game here. A single playthrough will take tens of hours and there’s plenty of reason to explore the side-missions, find the secrets, and return for NG+ replays, PvP battling and co-op messing around. Should you want to, you can spend a very long time indeed mastering everything Dark Souls III has to offer.
I feel like this list would be underwhelming if it was attached to any other game. There’s not much in the way of creativity, yet for a game of this type I think beating all of the enemies, seeing all of the endings and collecting all of the things is fitting? Unlocking The Dark Soul will help you appreciate the game a whole lot more.
The Dark Souls games remain a high-water mark for the action RPG. Uncompromising, occasionally infuriating, yet constantly rewarding for those with the correct level of patience and dedication, Dark Souls III is a fitting end to a fantastic trilogy.