I’m not really a fan of difficult games. That doesn’t mean that I enjoy a cake walk like Yoshi’s Story (one of the worst and easiest games I’ve ever played). I like a bit of a challenge. Games like the recent Quantum Break or Halo 5 are challenging games with great difficulty curves that I really enjoyed. But if I die two dozen times at the same point in a game, most of the time I just get frustrated and play something else.
Still, I don’t strictly avoid games that are tough yet fair. I actually beat the first two Ninja Gaidens in the revived series, and I loved the Mega Man games on the original NES when I was a kid. And then there’s Dark Souls. I’ve actually played all three of the games in the series now, plus Demon’s Souls and Bloodborne. And they’ve all thoroughly kicked my ass. Maybe my gaming skills aren’t quite what they used to be, or I just don’t have the time to fully master them. But even though I won’t get a ton of viewers on Twitch anytime soon because of my Dark Souls skills, I’ve still thoroughly enjoyed the series, and Dark Souls III might be the best Souls game yet.
I actually went back and played a bit of Dark Souls I and II before reviewing Dark Souls III, and it’s amazing how little has changed between the games, and also how timeless they all feel. Much of the user interface in Dark Souls III is lifted straight from the original. Even the combat doesn’t feel that different from the first game that came out back in 2011, but then again, why fix what isn’t broken?
There has been much written online about how Dark Souls III took inspiration from the excellent PS4-exclusive Bloodborne to make combat faster, but I don’t really see it. Attacks might be a little bit speedier, and weaker enemies go down a little bit easier in Dark Souls III, but the game doesn’t reward offense nearly as much as Bloodborne does. Dark Souls III feels very much like… well, Dark Souls. If you get aggressive and stupid, you’re going to die. A lot.
As with the previous two games, Dark Souls III begins with an impressive cinematic about the dying kingdom of Lothric, and your quest to defeat the Lords of Cinder to stop the coming Apocalypse. Much of the story and history of the world is left open to interpretation. Dark Souls III is a game that lures you in with the depth of its world but also works to keep its many secrets from you. Similarly, even the basic controls and game systems are never fully explained, but since they haven’t changed much since the original, there are plenty of primers available online. This can help you get started, but much of the fun of the Dark Souls games comes from exploring and figuring things out on your own.
Early in the game, I was low on health-refilling Estus Flasks when I came upon a courtyard with an overpowered executioner enemy. Fighting this beast head-on would have been suicide, but I was able to make my way to the top of a nearby building and pepper him with firebombs before finally finishing him off with a diving lunge attack.
That worked well for me, but other players might be able to go head-to-head with the executioner and perfectly dodge his strong attacks. Some might just run right past him. The choice is yours, and the game never makes you feel like you made a wrong decision. In that respect, Dark Souls is almost like a really difficult Elder Scrolls game (and indeed there are some basic similarities in combat). But while victory is eventually assured the Elder Scrolls game, death is around every corner in Dark Souls III. A couple dumb moves against a low-level enemy can result in a quick death and having to run back to the site of your demise to collect your lost souls. And then there are the massive bosses, who require numerous attempts to defeat.
It actually can be more frustrating than fun to figure out the complex patterns of the bosses in Dark Souls III, and how to perfectly avoid their attacks, or lead them into traps that cause massive damage, but there really is a huge sense of an accomplishment that comes along with defeating one of these wicked creations of FromSoftware, and that’s enough to keep even someone like me who usually doesn’t like difficult games to keep playing.
One my favorite painters is the Polish artist Zdzisław Beksiński. Beksiński was a pretty nice guy in life, but he created these surrealist paintings depicting this horrific alternate universe of old gods among giant, dying cities. I’ve never seen anything that confirms that Dark Souls’ art-style was inspired by Beksiński, but making my way through the kingdom of Lothric certainly made me feel like I was in one of his beautifully apocalyptic paintings. Though the graphics may only be slightly better than the past two entries (which were not bad looking games by any means), FromSoftware deserves a lot of credit for creating yet another unique landscape that is both horrific and inviting. I’d never want to actually live in Lothric, but it’s certainly a nice place to kill monsters for a few hours.
The sound design of Dark Souls III is a minimalist masterpiece. For most of the game, the only sounds that accompany you are the taps of your own footsteps, which are only interrupted when you come across a monster. Then it’s the familiar clanging of steel and the grunts of another beast as you fight for your life. But every now and then you’ll enter a new location and be greeted by a beautiful yet mournful tune, not unlike some of the earlier work of post-rock masters Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Many games claim to be about the end of the world, but few actually sound like the end of days like Dark Souls III does.
How long you play Dark Souls III really depends on your patience. Those who are quickly frustrated will likely quit at the first or second boss, or when they stumble onto an overpowered secret enemy a little off the beaten path. Those who persevere will find a main quest that takes 25-30 hours to beat, plus numerous hours finding the best gear and discovering all of Lothric’s secrets. Two lengthy expansions adding new equipment, enemies, and locations are also planned for later this year, meaning that you could spend a lot of time with Dark Souls III trying to “git gud.”
Review by Chris Freiberg