Deep Into that Darkness Peering: a review of Dark Souls III

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Did you know that the Dark Souls games are hard? Well they are. They hate you and kill you and make you want to cry. They love it, but so do you. You love getting owned by the skeletons with the swords, or getting knocked off a cliff by an undead dog. Because when you learn and grow to overcome the pain and persevere until victory you will feel amazing. You earnt this victory. It was tough but fair.

Dark Souls games are hard – and Dark Souls III is the latest Dark Souls game. It continues the trend of being hard. You will die a lot and you will love it.

This tends to be how the larger gaming community talks about the Dark Souls games. They are tough but fair – only ever punishing you because it was you who made the mistake. I love the Dark Souls games but I will be the first to admit that this isn’t entirely true. The Souls games are mostly thoughtfully designed, but they have always had rough or sloppy moments that are hard to think of as being anything other than ‘bad design’. Having to exhaust all dialogue options with some inconspicuous non-player character so that she’ll randomly turn up later on in the game to open a door for you in Dark Souls II – well that’s just bullshit.

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Since Dark Souls II came out I have been really divided on which one is “the best one”. Contrast Dark Souls’ janky controls (running in a straight line can be weirdly unreliable) and less interesting late game content, with Dark Souls II’s better controls but boring world building and boss designs – and neither of the two really convincingly take the crown. Thankfully, we can finally throw that debate out the window, because as far as I’m concerned Dark Souls III clearly takes the best bits from the previous ‘Souls experiments’ and uses them to create the most compelling and fun-to-play Dark Souls game yet, and maybe ever. It is the closest to perfection that the series has ever been.

Now this is all very well and good for those who have already spent the past few years slowly sinking deeper into the Dark Souls fandom like the poisonous bog at the bottom of Blight Town, but I’m sure there are many of you still screaming the question, “what the fuck even is a Dark Souls?”

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Dark Souls III, like its predecessors, is a 3D action roleplaying game set in a decaying fantasy universe. In it, you must go on a lonely, dangerous pilgrimage towards a largely unexplained goal – navigating the branching paths, twisting underground labyrinths, murky mires, and crumbling rooftops that make up your path. On your journey you must kill the powerful beasts and warriors that stand in your way – harvesting the souls they carry as you do so. ‘Souls’ in these games are like an all-purpose experience/currency hybrid that are used in exchange for levelling up your abilities, buying items, and strengthening your equipment. What makes this interesting is that when you die you lose all of your unspent souls, with the opportunity to reclaim them if you can make it back to the spot where you died to pick them up. But if you die again, they are lost forever.

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Rude.

Combat is mostly melee focused, with the expectation you will be fighting with weapon and a shield. Every action from swinging, to blocking, to dodge-rolling uses up points in your stamina bar – making timing and choosing your actions carefully a crucial part of the game. There are tonnes of weapon, spell, shield, and armour combinations to choose from – each with a different set of attack speeds and patterns. One thing that’s new to Dark Souls III is the blue ‘FP’ meter, which is spent to use spells and some special abilities for weapons. Unlike the green stamina bar, the FP gauge doesn’t automatically refill as you play and is recovered with a new item called the Ashen Estus Flask. Returning fans will recognize the Estus Flask as a vessel for restoring health, with a finite number of uses between checkpoints. The Ashen Estus Flask functions in a similar way, but introduces some new dynamics for spell casters. From the game’s hub area, you can divide the total number of ‘uses’ for both flasks between the Ashen Estus Flask and the classic model – meaning there are some very real risk-reward trade-offs for those who are looking at making spell casting a major part of their playstyle.

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As usual, the story of Dark Souls III is largely inferred through background and environmental elements. For those who care about it, you will be required to gather lore in order to piece together everything you need to know about its universe. For everyone else the background story is quickly established in an opening cut scene and quickly forgotten as you push through the expansive world towards an uncertain end. It’s something about the Lords of Cinder who “linked the flame” previously watching as the world they forged around them turns to ashes through the slow passage of time. Although it continues the tradition of moving to another setting, Dark Souls III does a lot to connect with the previous entries in the franchise in a way that the series hasn’t really done before. For fans of the first game in particular, there are going to be some interesting twists and nods in Dark Souls III. In fact, the whole game feels like a metaphor for the franchise itself – re-imagining and refining the themes and mechanics as the series moves closer and closer to feeling lifeless. How many times can the Dark Souls formula set our expectations ablaze? How many times can they rise again from the ashes?

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One thing I will say about the Dark Souls series that I still think needs improvement, is accessibility. A certain level of difficulty in games is always going to be a touchy subject that divides the fan base who relish in it, from the people who are turned off by its unforgiving design. Dark Souls isn’t just hard, but it also asks you to take the time to learn the script. Nothing particularly random happens in Dark Souls III, everything you find was very deliberately placed there. Whether or not the series would benefit from having multiple difficulty levels (I think it probably would), it cannot be denied that these are games that demand a lot of free time, and in fairly sizeable chunks. This isn’t a game you can just jump into for a quick go. This is a ‘take a week off for sick leave’ kind of game. This isn’t really a criticism, but it will mean that there will be people who simply won’t be able to play it. But something I will criticise about Dark Souls III and the series as a whole is this – it needs a fucking pause button. You can’t pause Dark Souls games. This is often justified by fans as something that makes the game harder, but it doesn’t make sense to me. Human beings need to go to the toilet, take care of children, respond to emergencies, the list goes on. Being able to pause mid-boss fight has never made a boss easier to beat in any other game, it just makes me able to answer my phone.

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There are so many things I could go on talking about in Dark Souls III, like the online messages players can leave each other in the game world, or the opportunities for cooperative play and PVP. But these all feel like loving asides to a much bigger picture I am trying to paint here. For returning fans, Dark Souls III serves as the greatest reminder as to why you ever fell in love with a series that pulls the video game equivalent of abandoning you at a shopping centre. For curious newcomers, this is by far the most manageable and well-designed entry in the series so far. If you have the time and the patience for it, Dark Souls III is the very best Darks Souls to ever kill you.

10/10
Masterpiece

nb: This score does not mean “perfect”.

Select Start Media was provided with a review copy of Dark Souls III for PS4.

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