“I wonder how long it will be before I die,” I said, as I booted up Dark Souls 3 for the first time. To followers of the series, I suppose that’s a common thought. Maybe some folks approached the question with a little more bravado, but not me. I knew Dark Souls would kill me, as it already had hundreds of times in its previous incarnations. And I was perfectly okay with that.
For the uninitiated, Dark Souls 3 is an action adventure game with character customization and RPG mechanics. In some ways it’s a standard hack-and-slash affair, with a tight focus on shielding and dodging, since your enemies have a tendency to tear through your health and armor like butter. Players can learn magic, gather items, level up, and even team up with friends in order to tackle to the game. Even with all those options, it’s a relentless experience.
This is the series that puts a ball-gag in your mouth, beats you with your own shoe, pries out your fingernails, then pulls your intestines out through your nostrils. When it’s done with that, it pushes you to the ground, lifts your head up by the chin and winks at you suggestively as if to say, “You like that, don’t you?”
Of course you don’t like it! Who likes getting destroyed five seconds into a boss fight? If you’re lucky, you won’t have any friends watching you. It’s one of those games not to play in front of people until you’ve already practiced and can perform well. Then you can use it to show off for girls, since I’m told that being good at Dark Souls is the best way to attract females.
But until then, you’re stuck with dying over and over again. In typical Dark Souls fashion, every small victory has a sort of significant air to it. Beating a mid-game boss is like climbing some unknown, obscure Himalayan mountain. Yeah, it’s not Mr. Everest, but you still feel pretty badass. By the time this thing’s done, Everest will be below you, just like the rest of the world.
While it’s cool to talk about the Dark Souls difficulty curve, it’s really only significant when you compare it to your average AAA titles. There’s nothing unbeatable about Dark Souls 3, and if anything, the difficulty is starting to feel commonplace. Yes, some of the bosses will wreck you repeatedly, but the average player should be able to endure if they care enough to do so. In other words, Dark Souls 3 is a challenge, but beating it is no longer a point of pride; or at least it shouldn’t be.
After all, haven’t we played this game before? While Dark Souls 3 has some cool locations and some epic boss fights, there’s not much new to see here. There are dungeons, castles, swamps and forests, all derivative of the first Dark Souls, even down to the enemy types. Dragons rain fire onto your path, skeletons rise, then fall, then rise again. Sure, there’s still a surprise every now and then, and when they happen, they’re as great as ever. But a gift isn’t as special the second time you open it. Or in this case, the third.
But to be fair, Dark Souls 3 is a significant improvement over the second installment. While that game suffered from uninspired environments, boring bosses and imbalanced weapons, Dark Souls 3 hearkens back to the feel of the original game, including the darker atmosphere and more foreboding foes.
The boss fights are a particular strength, especially mechanically. Each boss exhibits different behavior and requires a unique strategy to defeat. Some bosses require puzzle solving while others require careful spacing and timing. It’s always different, which means there’s always something fresh to look forward to. That’s high praise for a game that’s otherwise a little too familiar.
Aesthetically though, this isn’t the best crop of bosses. While about half of them are huge and awesome with intensely creative artistic designs, the other half are just big humans with weird armor. What’s the fun in fighting a normal looking guy with a shield when the previous boss was a titanic lich monster surrounded by pure blackness? We know this developer is capable of coming up with fantastic enemy concepts, so anything less is an inevitable disappointment.
The same principle applies to the basic enemies. A lot of enemy types have been recycled from previous games. Various knights, ghouls, and undead creatures look and behave exactly how they did in the first Dark Souls, and that game arrived on a previous console generation. It reeks of a rushed development schedule, though that may be a bit harsh. Recycled or not, the enemies are still fun to fight and they’re well integrated into the world of the game.
The world itself is atmospheric, brimming with cool architecture and the requisite danger around every corner. Some areas are more impressive than others, and I am particularly fond of the mid-game areas, such as the catacombs and Irithyll of the Boreal Valley. These areas are tricky, with some especially hostile enemies and challenging stretches.
And when the challenge gets too tough, there’s always the double-edged sword that is multiplayer. While you can enlist allies to help you battle tougher foes, rival players can also invade your game for the sole purpose of murdering you while you’re minding your own business. There are methods for avoiding or discouraging this feature, and aside from testing it out for the sake of this review, I do everything I can to avoid invasions. I can’t stand them, and I can’t stand the people who do them.
Fortunately, Dark Souls 3 allows for a lot of play styles. It’s enjoyable as both a single and a multiplayer game, but it probably appeals most to people who already know and enjoy the Dark Souls franchise. That makes it a weird game to review. There’s nothing here to encourage new players who disliked the previous games, nor is there anything to discourage long time fans of the series. It’s Dark Souls for people who like Dark Souls.
Of course, I can’t help but think that From Software could have done more with the game from a technical standpoint. It often looks and feels like a PS3 or Xbox 360 game, with drab, washed out colors and a middling frame rate. Occasionally the backgrounds and lighting seem marginally more impressive, but the game is not a high end technical achievement. It’s fun and it’s functional, and truthfully, that’s what matters.
Dark Souls 3 is a great game for enthusiasts of the series, and while it’s not a bad entry point for people who have never played a Souls game before, the first Dark Souls is a much better place to start. That game is a modern classic, and one of the best titles of the past five years. Dark Souls 3 is an enjoyable sequel with some memorable fights and great bosses, but it lacks the novelty and all around brilliance of its acclaimed predecessor.
Publisher: Bandai Namco Entertainment
Original Release Date: April 12th, 2016
Platforms: Xbox One (reviewed), PS4, PC
ESRB Rating: M – Mature
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