Seven years after FromSotware’s Deamon Souls first introduced us to its revolutionary style, the fifth and possibly final instalment of Miyazaki’s souls games delivers an ambitious climax to their bleak fantasy journey.
Souls games have become notorious above all else for their punishing difficulty. Previous iterations reduced even the most experienced gamers to tears and madness, and yet fans return ready and willing to face that infamous ‘you died’ screen over and over.
The popularity of Dark Souls, in the face of absurd frustration, comes from an authentic feeling of exploration, the mystery of uncovering deep lore and the complexity of its game mechanics. It’s difficult to find anything in this third instalment that hasn’t been meticulously designed not just to challenge you but to be a fiercely memorable and rewarding experience.
If you are new to the series, imagine a typical fantasy RPG without any of the safety nets; there are no map markers, no objective reminders, no help – it isn’t even ever possible to pause the game for a breather. Friendly NPC allies are few and far between and, for the most part, you won’t have the luxury of having any clue where you’re going or what’s waiting for you. But that’s the beauty of Dark Souls, and while it might not sound appealing to everyone, the game is ready to reward players who put the time in.
More challenging than defeating fierce enemies or navigating treacherous maps, is uncovering the fantasy story behind the action. There is a rich, deep story ready to be unearthed if you have the patience to piece together its many scattered fragments. The inspiration for this comes from creator Miyazaki who, in a fascinating interview with the guardian at the release of Bloodborne, described his childhood borrowing books beyond his early comprehension and inventing stories from their illustrations. Knowing this contextualises the storytelling techniques of the souls series. Determined fans have constructed deep lore from vague clues, brief rare item descriptions and cryptic NPC dialogue, and in doing so maybe experience a little of the thrill young Miyazaki enjoyed.
There have also been many discussions over the years about the underlying themes of the series. The terrifying recurring question of identity and memory loss haunts the first two entries to the series, an eventual and inevitable side effect of the undead curse. In a genre saturated with games using long stretches of dialogue and cut scenes to frame their stories, it’s refreshing to see storytelling take a back seat to action, yet still resonate so strongly.
Dark Souls 3 is no exception to this, with a rich and rewarding story that can unfold without you even noticing, unless you’re paying attention, and many nods to the themes and theories that have built up around its predecessors.
Veteran players will notice subtle changes in gameplay, most likely inspired by the faster, more aggressive style of play in last year’s Bloodborne. There are a huge range of enemies, all with unique attack patterns to study before you can ever feel too comfortable. Even Boss fights evolve and deliver new challenges just as you’re finding your feet. The result is a game that feels just a little more fast paced than the first instalment, but maintains all the features we’ve come to love.
The game does offer some fresh ideas, with the introduction of weapon art and a new status bar sandwiched between your health and stamina – focus points. This creates a whole new dynamic of sacrificing your much needed health-replenishing Estus flask for its ashen counterpart, which restores the focus points you need to use magic or weapon art. It’s not a ground-breaking innovation, but gives you greater agency to control how you play.
Aside from some bug issues for PC users, the only real criticism is repetitiveness, or rather over-familiarity. One of the reasons Dark Souls is so beloved is its ability to break the conventions of similar games and surprise its audience, so as the fifth souls game to date there are few surprises left. But that’s the curse of a successful series. Many of the aspects that made the original Dark Souls or Bloodborne great have been incorporated in order to deliver what fans expect, another great souls game. It’s difficult to accomplish this without drawing on the developments and success of previous releases.
Maybe for this reason it’s no bad thing that the latest release is rumoured to be the last in the series, with Miyazaki stating they’re looking to “aggressively make new things in the future”. Whatever the case, Dark Souls 3 offers up more than enough to be remembered fondly, either as worthy addition or beautiful finale to the series.
TL;DR: Excellent souls game that doesn’t break the mould.
Pros: Exceptional world and character design.Great for exploration, challenging battles and subtle storytelling. Slightly more fast paced than the original.
Cons: Doesn’t really build on the previous games. Its a weak criticism, but for a series lauded for its originality, this is surprisingly familiar.