I’m not gonna beat around the bush here: Dark Souls III is bloody brilliant. The original Dark Souls is one of my favourite games of all time, Dark Souls II was also excellent and my hype was immense. I’m not writing about the game for beginners; nobody is reading this without some knowledge of Souls. This is a series fanboy, writing for other Dark Souls players, about where the game fits in that hierarchy of masterpieces.
If you’re looking for a measured outsider opinion, or to see the game nobody will shut up about taken down a peg or two, you’ve come to the wrong place. My most controversial opinion on Dark Souls III is that for all its technical brilliance, it still isn’t as good a game as Dark Souls.
And Dark Souls III is technically brilliant. It looks phenomenal, with gorgeous skyboxes full of things you can hunt down. Enemy and character design is as evocative as ever and everything runs at a fair lick, a novelty for the series. Framerates stuttered here and there, but no one area brings the game to a standstill.
Perhaps because of this structural integrity, or perhaps because of changes in design philosophy, the combat moves much faster than in the original. This still isn’t at a Bloodborne level of action. Combat is still a measured affair, with blocking and patience integral at least to the early game. Characters do run and roll more quickly and weapons all have fancy attacks and combos. The variety, always key to the experience, is greater than ever.
This will presumably come as welcome news to the PVP community. I’ve never been a big dabbler in that side of the game, so word that certain stats and features have been awkwardly and unpopularly nerfed didn’t bother me too much.
Much as I enjoy the combat and the thrill of victory, for me the beating heart of the Dark Souls experience was exploration. Slowly inching my way out from the start, discovering more and more of the world, seeing how it all pieced together and looped back and flowed naturally from area to area, is a deeply powerful feeling. Discovering, through these excursions, the world’s history, the characters, the meaning of every little detail, is a phenomenal piece of design.
Dark Souls III, much more so than II, succeeds in recreating that feeling. Standing in one part of the world, one can look up or down and see areas they’ve been to, working out precisely how everything fits together. Areas that at first seem insignificant become important as more characters are revealed.
Often when this concept is discussed, the half-joking response is that it’s nice in theory, but very few players really bother. They explore the world, yes, but they don’t know the nitty gritty details until they letter watch youtube videos, listen to podcasts and read wikis.
To prove the doubters wrong, and to squeeze the most out of what is probably going to be the series’ last game, I’ve put my money where my mouth is. Along with fellow Gintendo alumni Andy, Jay and Jas, I’ve been playing through the game blind. No videos, no podcasts, no walkthroughs. My only discussion of the game has been with those three, and you can keep up with our lore theorising on our podcast Guesstus Flask.
You know what? It works! When you’re looking for them, a lot of the answers are there. Bosses with impressive but nonsensical names become real character with real, often tragic stories. Areas that might appear to be generic fantasy settings are quickly revealed to be meaningful, rich worlds dripping with history and melancholy.
Like in Dark Souls II, the player has the option to warp between bonfires from the start. This is welcoming, as areas can be vast and the bosses challenging. At the same time, it can mean that when a run between fires is completed once, the player never sees it again. In Dark Souls, I physically ran back and forth for the first half of the game. Seeing what were previously quite long distances shrunk by better knowledge and better skill was empowering. The repeated journeys through areas I eventually knew like the back of my hand deepened my connection to Lordran, my understanding of it.
In Dark Souls III, the connections between worlds are tangible and meaningful, but can be easily missed. Kicking down a ladder and realising you’re directly above an earlier area is less of a victory when one could have warped to that area at any time anyway, and the lack of any real reason to revisit areas meant I had to deliberately make myself go back to explore and investigate.
This Stockholm syndrome effect isn’t the only reason I feel better about the first game. The other, spoiler warning, is that this game is very directly a sequel. While Dark Souls II saw a vague connection to the first, taking place in another kingdom over the sea where the curse was playing out again, Dark Souls III sees the player revisiting old areas and bosses, concluding the story Dark Souls started.
It bookends the trilogy perfectly, and makes Dark Souls II more interesting in retrospect, but it I’d be hard pressed to say Dark Souls III is better than the first game when all my favourite moments were callbacks to that first game. That isn’t to say new characters and enemies aren’t interesting, or that the story didn’t build sensibly on the first game in the best way that great sequels do.
When I finished the original game, I was desperate for it not to be over. I consumed all the media I could find online about the game and the lore, I did things I never did like watching Lets Plays, just to kindle that bonfire a little more. With the second game, I never had that feeling in the same way but it came back for Dark Souls III. When I beat the final boss and knew, even though there will be repeat playthroughs and DLC and podcasts and comicbooks and eventually videos, that Dark Souls was over, I almost cried.
Overall, I can’t recommend Dark Souls III highly enough. To newcomers, it is less obtuse than the original, and features a “best of” of the previous games, meaning it can be played without worrying too much about going back. For people invested in the first game’s world and story, this is a meaningful and satisfying sequel. For people looking to recreate that experience they had playing one of the greatest games of all time: who are you kidding?
By Luke Summerhayes