Ah, Dark Souls. I’ll be perfectly honest with you, it’s entirely impossible for me to be objective, as an avid Souls fan and the follower of the word of his Lord and Savior Miyazaki I cannot objectively criticize bad aspects of Souls games, even if I recognize them for what they are, I would just devolve into trying to excuse them.
So I’m not even going to try. I will of course explain what the game is about and what makes it so wonderful, in addition to telling you how it innovates the series, but this can’t really be called an objective review. No, my friends, this is a love-letter.
What is the souls series?
The Souls series occupies a very pronounced and simultaneously niche place in the gaming industry. It’s a series often talked about, with a viciously dedicated fanbase, but incomprehensible to people outside of its community. Many people try to get into it, boot up one of the games, only to bounce off of it, as if hitting a brick wall. A brick wall with spikes and contact-poison.
The story begins with a 2009 game Demon’s Souls (yes, singular Demon and plural Souls… It’s complicated) released on PS3, a self-proclaimed spiritual successor to King’s Field and inspired by, among others, the Berserk manga. It was a Japanese take on the European, medieval fantasy, with knights going on adventures, fighting dangerous monsters and saving the world.
The trick is that it was difficult. Really, really difficult. The combat in the Souls series is clunky and unwieldy and it is so by design. At the same time, the game was heavily skill-focused, taking full advantage of the controller and player’s reflexes. Understanding how to play Demon’s Souls is a puzzle in and of itself and mastering it is no mean feat. And this difficulty also ties into the game’s story, reflecting the state of the world as this dangerous place facing the collapse of civilization.
These ideas, the medieval setting clearly viewed with Japanese sensibilities, brutally difficult, skill-focused gameplay and fractured storyline in a setting wracked with waning glory, with death and decay creeping in to destroy all the works of men, are what stuck. And these ideas would later be perfected by the lead creator Hidetaka Miyazaki in the following games.
Where Dark Souls 3 lies.
Dark Souls 3 is technically the 5th entry in the series, with Demon’s Souls serving as a precursor, a sort of proof of concept, and Bloodborne as a spinoff which, while it occupies a different setting, shares all the important traits with other games.
And in more ways than one, Dark Souls is the absolute culmination of the formula, a perfected vision of all the ideas that were developing through each iteration.
I’ll be breaking Dark Souls 3 down into three categories, much like with any other review I did: visuals, gameplay and story. With every category I will also be talking briefly about how Dark Souls 3 handles this particular aspect differently (and better), than in previous entries.
Make no mistake, this isn’t just about graphics. It’s also about style. Souls as a series was always very particular about its art style, with realistic human characters living in a world of fantastic and terrifying monsters, looking legitimately like something out of a comic book or manga.
In particular, the visual design of bosses is an important factor. And it’s not just about the looks, with a game as difficult as Dark Souls 3, you need to design your enemies to be suitably imposing. There needs to be a distinctive audio-visual relationship between what you see and what you can do.
And so, the bosses in Dark Souls 3 are huge, hulking and monstrous, giving you an immediate idea of what the fight with them is going to be like. Humanoid opponents will move and fight like humans do, with weapon sweeps, kicks, punches and lunges.
Meanwhile more beastly opponents will act accordingly as well. It’s absolutely on point, the design of these enemies perfectly conveys exactly the information you need to beat them and that’s all you can rely on when the battle starts.
Dark Souls games
The arcane art of level design.
Visuals are of course not just about the design of enemies either, more importantly it’s about the design of the world. There’s two layers to this, one is a cohesive, communicative art-style. And that Dark Souls 3 has in spades.
The world of Lothric is extremely evocative of the medieval fantasy its trying to be. The initial levels, taking you to the castle of Lothric nobility show a great and proud city, with huge towers of stone, wide plazas and marvelous bridges. It is also a city after a war, ravaged by a conflict long since passed, littered with dead bodies and submerged in heavy dust.
Secondly, your levels need to be easy to navigate. Dark Souls as a series famously doesn’t fall back on the tried and tested idea of a mini-map. That’s right, you have to navigate this world only with your eyes. And with the amount of back-tracking you need to do, this world needs to be filled with landmarks that make navigating it easy. It needs to be understandable and realistic.
And it really, really is. Unlike the world of Dark Souls 2, which left a lot to be desired in this department, the world of Dark Souls 3 is logical and comprehensible. The game also rewards the player for giving up on the beaten track and trying to find secrets in hidden places. You have to be careful though, as dangers also lurk there, but there’s ALWAYS a reward for your efforts. There’s virtually no dead ends here, even when you’re lost, you’re going somewhere.
Understanding Dark Souls 3 is, in many ways, more about understanding the world, than about mastering combat. Use terrain to your advantage and you’ll win every single fight. This world is so well-designed and so visually distinct that with some practice, it’s possible to memorize its entirety. The whole path, from start to finish, is now burned in my brain, along with the placement of every single item on the way.
By most standards, the most important aspect of a video game (as that’s what you’ll be doing for the most part- playing it), gameplay is about all the ways in which the player interacts with the game’s world. With an Action RPG like Dark Souls 3, this mostly means combat, so let’s talk about combat.
As I’ve said before, the game is intensely skill-focused. While it features a progression system with levels, as far as PvE is concerned, a starting weapon and sheer skill is enough to carry you through the whole game. However, different weapons have different attribute requirements and planning out your build meticulously in order to be able to use a specific weapon can be a big part of the game. It’s much less of a necessity than in previous entries, but it’s a thing you can still do.
New to the series is the Weapon Arts system, which gives every weapon in the game (and there’s A LOT of them) a special move that can be executed using a new resource called Focus (which functions identical to your normal understanding of Mana). Some weapon art moves are shared between weapons, but some, especially for weapons gained from bosses, are truly unique and exceptionally powerful.
Speaking of Focus, it’s now the resource you’ll be using to cast spells, as opposed to the previous model where you had a fixed amount of castings of any given spell. Most spells from previous games make a return and function very similarly and there’s also a few new ones to make things interesting.
Movement in Dark Souls.
An important note has to be made here. As I said before, movement in the souls series is clunky. When it comes to combat this has a certain level of charm to itself, exaggerated movements make every attack very meaningful, overcommitting can be the difference between life and death.
However, this also means maneuvering through the world can be… tricky. Especially when ledges suspended over death-pits are a thing you must deal with. And this is something Dark Souls 3 is weirdly fond of- sort of platforming segments where you have to navigate with controls that can be your death.
Now of course, dying repeatedly, over and over again, and hopefully learning something in the process, is the staple of the game. And where combat is concerned, it’s fun, you get to get better at it. But you can never really acclimatize to the clunky controls to move on shaky ground. Even after practicing for hours on end, you’ll find yourself fumbling to your doom occasionally.
And as much as I love you Miyazaki… That’s not fun. It’s never been fun, not in Dark Souls 1, not in Dark Souls 3. So if there’s one point of honest-to-God criticism I can muster, here it is: maybe don’t put so many platforming segments in a game with sucky controls.
Storytelling in Dark Souls.
The beautiful glue that holds the above-mentioned elements together is the fragmented story of Dark Souls. Since this is classic, medieval fantasy, it’s not a personal story, in fact your character pretty much lacks any and all personality, they are a vessel for souls and in a meta-sense, exist only to further the plot.
The story is more so about the world, about the various characters of importance in it, about it’s past, present and possible future and about the themes the creators at FromSoft wanted to explore with that. Themes of various human downfalls as well as uplifting hope, as flimsy and bitter-sweet as it is.
This story is presented less via expository dialogue from NPCs (which is frankly mostly confusing and on your first playthrough will make very little sense) or cut-scenes, and more via environmental storytelling and item descriptions, written from the perspective of an omniscient narrator.
Discovering the secrets of the world of Dark Souls is a journey. It can be extremely intellectually rewarding to keep your eyes peeled and try to piece all the fragments together. It’s also hugely immersive, because it’s almost like walking through a museum of ancient history.
Now, this style of storytelling is certainly not for everyone. It’s far more poetic, than the western audience is used to, we mostly expect a straight-forward plot conveyed through dialogue, and that’s something Dark Souls 3 will not give you.
On the synthesis of gameplay mechanics and storytelling.
Finally, the most fantastic aspect of this is the way in which there’s virtually no gameplay-story segregation in Dark Souls 3. Every aspect of the plot is in one way or another executed mechanically.
For example, in the story, the relationship between Fire, Darkness and Humanity is a very important element. Fire is the source of life and strength, but it can only be extended by human sacrifice. And so Pyromancies- ancient arts that attune the practitioner to the Fire, are enhanced both by the practitioner’s Faith and Intelligence.
Darkness, being the flip-side to Fire, is paradoxically the peaceful, less energetic side. But as the biggest bonfires cast the largest shadows, dark spells will too use the practitioner’s Intelligence and Faith.
It’s this melding of story and gameplay that makes Dark Souls 3 more than the sum of its parts, that has to be taken in holistically.
The soul still burns.
As I’ve said at the beginning, I cannot possibly be objective here, I LOVE Dark Souls and in particular Dark Souls 3, which, having played all other entries in the series, I consider the absolute peak perfection. With full honesty I can state that I don’t think it would even be possible to make Dark Souls better. This is absolute peak performance.
So take everything I said with a tiiiny grain of salt yeah? This was me waxing lyrically about a game I truly love and me trying to explain in a technical way, what made me fall in love with it. This series of games is very hard to get into, so I can’t fault anyone for not doing that, but it’s absolutely worth a shot and Dark Souls 3 is your best bet.