Game Review

by Dave Riley,

Dark Souls 3

PS4, Xbox One, PC

Dark Souls 3
Dark Souls 3 is a splendid rendition of the form, but familiarity often breeds contempt. Though it's a great refinement of everything that's come before, this new iteration adds little to the formula.

It's tough to describe Dark Souls 3 without becoming mired in references, it leans so hard into what's come before that its own character feels somewhat slight. Here's the poison swamp, here's the chubby, hapless knight errant, here's Havel's Ring. If there's a weapon or area or magic spell or boss encounter you liked in a Souls game, there's a similar-enough-to-be identical version here, or just an outright copy. Again, we're whiling away the post-apocalypse. The world is over, and the gods have long-since fled or been consumed, but there's another eternal fire to link and some Chosen Undead or other is going to do it eventually.

With its characters doggedly going through the motions, is it any surprise the game does too? Mechanically, narratively, thematically, this is a synthesis of everything that's come before. Taking lessons from Bloodborne, combat is markedly faster and summarily deadly. Knights, wraiths, and angry crow people punish the smallest mistakes with seemingly infinite stamina and the baseline tactic of turtling behind a shield is less effective than ever. There are limited options for healing outside of your Estus flask, so it's tougher to brute force encounters like you could in Dark Souls 2. Regardless of Dark Souls 3's actual difficulty, the rapid pace of its engagements make it feel like the hardest, most uncompromising game in the series.

It's not hopeless. Enemies move faster, but so do you. From the very first boss, you learn that often the safest place to be is right in an enemy's face, primed to deliver your riposte during the split-second cooldown after a long combo string. As with all Souls games, if you're struggling against something, lateral thinking often provides the solution. That might mean trying out long-range sorcery, or shooting arrows to separate enemies from their packs, or throwing caution to the wind and ditching your shield for the better stagger capabilities of a gigantic, two-handed machete. Far from the austerity of Bloodborne's equipment selection, Dark Souls 3 offers dozens of weapons with individuality and flourish without drowning itself in the kitchen-sink feel of Dark Souls 2. This is a clean and focused product, the pure strain. The enemies are efficiently, abruptly brutal, but so is your skill set. Learn to adapt—or, at the very least, figure out how to abuse your roll's invincibility frames.

The major mechanical change is the return of the mana bar. Not just for spells, now most weapons have a special attack or super move. These can vary from the charge-up war cry of clubs and axes to the iaijutsu stances of katanas, which allow you to live out your Zatoichi dreams with one shoulder button and execute a lightning-fast parry with the other. Some special attacks are cool because they spool up a headlong charge with a eight foot-long lightning spear, some are cool because they seem to expand the limits of the game itself, like a candlestick which works as a built-in hint guide, revealing hidden messages from the developers.

Though the equipment sets and lore text focus on Dark Souls 1 call backs, the shape and form of this game is heavily inspired by Demon's Souls. Entering the hub, the title card may read “Firelink Shrine,” but the concentric staircases say “Nexus.” The High Wall of Lothric, Dark Souls 3's version of the dilapidated castle that jumps off every Souls game, is much more Boletaria than Undead Burg. Lothric is a gritty, grimy place. Its inhabitants aren't melancholic, they are furious. They run at you screaming, and they explode. Demon Soul's upgrades like Heavy, Sharp, and Quality are back, letting you skew outlier Strength and Dexterity weapons a little closer to your build. But most prominent is how this game shares Demon's Souls stinginess. Mid-game enemies dish out pittances of souls for your effort, 80 or 90 a pop, even as your level ups butt against five-figure sums.

It's not all unrelenting sadism. Bonfires, combination checkpoints and fast travel hotspots are everywhere. No more climbing through half of Blighttown every time you want to buy new pyromancy spells, you can go anywhere you want whenever you want. Teleporting is convenient, and convenience can be necessary when trying to integrate a 40+ hour-long RPG into an adult life with adult responsibilities, but something integral is lost in the process. The foreboding atmosphere takes a hit, and the long-term stress of exploration and resource management is greatly reduced. In the first Dark Souls, you emerged triumphant from your battle with the Taurus Demon, flush with its incalculable bounty of three thousand souls, only to realize you had no idea what comes next. Do you push onward, hoping the next safe haven is right around the bend, or do you scurry back the way you came, sacrificing your hard-won forward progress for the sake of protecting your windfall of souls? By not forcing decisions on when to press your luck, Dark Souls 3 is more a series of hundred-meter sprints than it is a marathon.

Universal fast travel also devalues the loop backs and hidden shortcuts that are an essential component of the tide of tension and release in a Souls game. There's nothing here like the elevator ride down from Undead Parish that deposited weary, startled explorers right back where they started the game, a moment that crystallized the Souls experience for many players. The linking of geography still exists, and that's more than most games will give you, but the marvel of the Dark Souls 3's world is diluted by its concessions towards convenience. Opening a gate in a ruined castle and reentering the marsh you conquered ten hours back elicits only an “oh, neat.” No navigational revelation, just a fun surprise.

The wonder isn't completely gone. The High Wall where you start the game is an almost constant presence. Looking up from the depths of a tortured poison swamp, twenty hours in, you see the buttresses of the Lothric's bridge looming in the hazy, smog-filtered sunlight. Somehow, this is something beautiful, even in the midst of this miserable mire. You come upon a lost city. Frozen in time, it is remarkable in its stillness. The marvel remains, in these moments.

But it's only ever seated in the distance, something to be admired, but not interacted with. Areas in this game are mostly discrete from one another, and you rarely need to revisit them. While the non-linearity of Souls games is often overstated, this is as straightforward as it's ever been. When the road branches, it does so briefly: right continues the main story path, left leads to a detour area that dead ends after a single boss. It's sad to think the cohesive, tangled world of Dark Souls 1 is probably never coming back. Considering how close Bloodborne and Dark Souls 2 hewed to the original hub-and-spokes model of Demon's Souls, by now you have to recognize that Dark Souls 1, which everyone fawns over for its almost unthinkable amount of intertwining paths, whose every area seemed catty-corner to everywhere else, was the outlier, not the norm.

Coming out a year after Bloodborne twisted familiar concepts into new surprises, Dark Souls 3 is strange because it represents such a single-minded return to the mean. In appreciating what this game does well, you can't help but be reminded of how you've seen most of it somewhere else already. It's hardly a matter of better or worse, more like a case of diminishing returns. Dark Souls 3 gives you what it knows you like, but the unilateral commitment to its history mutes the game's individual majesty. As fine, fast, and focused as this game is, even when it sings, something about it stings in the same measure. Even as it is wondrous, it is all too apprehensible. That Dark Souls 3 struggles to surprise us shouldn't, in itself, be surprising. Souls games are about looping cycles, endless rhythms, and the ebbs and flows of eons; repeating content is in their DNA.

Ultimately, what's disappointing is the lack of peculiarity. These enemy encounters are frightening, but somehow routine. These bosses are missing some essential vim, something more than “another big guy with a sword.” No matter how tense, sweaty, and controller-gripping those encounters have you in the moment, they're prone to muddling together in the afterglow. The endgame battles hold to the style and pressure you expect from the series, but few of the bosses here approach the immediately memorable grandeur Dark Souls's sword-swinging ninja wolf or telekinetic super dragon. The level progression never truly breaks left, never drops you in an area as strange and foreboding as Black Gulch, let alone the blood-soaked dreamscapes of Bloodborne or the chasmal ancestral mausoleums of Dark Souls 1.

In Demon's Souls there was the Tower of Latria, with its chime-ringing mind flayers, painfully ominous in their mute stalking. Dark Souls 3 has its grody, blood-soaked dungeon too. It's a perfectly fine dungeon with plenty of tough enemies and out-of-nowhere scares, but it's a straight shot, and then you're on to the next thing. The environmental design bears plenty of tricks and ambushes, but rare are the puzzle elements that forced you to navigate with not just caution, but dread. There's no equivalent to the Indiana Jones slog through Sen's Fortress's swinging axe blades and rolling boulders. There are one or two fire-breathing dragons perched atop long bridges; there'd probably be a riot if there weren't.

The gameplay holds fast to the series' knack for unprompted discovery. Inasmuch as the esoteric mechanics frustrate new players, that frustration allows dozens of tiny, serendipitous revelations over the course of natural play. Pulling out a torch to observe your surroundings in a dank tomb, you inadvertently cure the maggot infestation draining your health. Stumbling into this knowledge without the aid of a tutorial or a HUD pop-up, the breakthrough belongs entirely to you.

Rarely do modern games force you to ask “what just happened?” The unexplained, tuned just right, has a way of producing an aura of mysticism. It's that Nintendo-era trial-and-error we're required to loathe now, as grown-up players with modern standards, but seemed so magical at the time. By leaving things undefined, Dark Souls gives the sense that anything is possible, and that everything, no matter how trivial, might matter. Bang your sword on every wall, some of them might be illusions. Save every useless item, someone might want them later. Hurl yourself down bottomless gorges, sometimes they're not as bottomless as they look. By offering you the promise of the unknown, Dark Souls provides space for your imagination to bloom. These games are staggeringly obtuse, but for a reason.

In that respect Dark Souls remains the only contender in its field. One of the few big-budget games that doesn't concern itself with the bulk filler of “content,” the landscape of a Souls game isn't a shellacked, procedurally generated slop of collectable trinkets and side activities. They might always bring you back to a poison swamp, but each time they do it's a discrete area, hand crafted, stuffed to bursting with nooks and crannies to explore, uncover, die in, and build strategies around. Dark Souls side quests aren't genericized diversions made to kill time, but unique strings of events that are easy to miss or flub. The best side quest in Dark Souls 3 attacks the central conceit of the series. Reformatting and reinterpreting the structured mythology of all these long eons, it suggests the machinations of this mythos don't start and end with what the wise crone painstakingly delineates during the opening cutscene. With a snake-in-the-garden wink, it asks the question that's always been on the tip of Dark Souls's tongue: “why should these people cling to rituals whose power never belonged to them in the first place?” It is fascinating because it could not exist in any game but Dark Souls 3, a game intransigently invested in tradition. It is disappointing because it's the only time when Dark Souls 3 doesn't just invoke the tropes set up by earlier games, but excoriates them.

If the worst you can say about this game is “doesn't it feel a bit too much like those games?” Then doesn't every complaint about call backs or fan-service also take the aura of a compliment, given how they're rooted in comparison to some of the most critically beloved games of the past decade? While you're playing Dark Souls 3, you don't care that these traps are ten percent less innovative than the last time you saw them, because they're still immeasurably harrowing in the doing of them.

Couldn't they keep making these games forever? Wouldn't I keep playing them if they did?

Even though they've said it will be, it's hard to believe that Dark Souls 3 will be the last Dark Souls—it's still making money, after all. But, taking them at their word, maybe it's okay to go out on this one. In fact, maybe it's perfect. As an iteration of the form, Dark Souls 3 feels slim, a bit too hollow at the center; as the final work of a well-used kiln, its references become not onerous, but dignified. They're the developers playing around in the garden of their own making, dumping lavish praise on the legacy they've built: every boss, every weapon, every location, every straggling bit of text attached to any random, inconspicuous gauntlet or crossbow. Dark Souls 3 is narcissistic, but it's invited you along for the ride, and its self-indulgence is welcoming, in a way. The people who make these games love them just as much as you do.

The aspiration of a Souls game is only limited if considered in a vacuum. Half a decade since everyone decided the Souls archetype was The Next Hot Thing In Videogames, nobody outside of From Software has produced even a satisfactory facsimile. It's hard to reconcile the disappointments over form and structure with the elation of simply just having another one of these games in your hands, the gift of another experience so intricate and detailed it feels almost bespoke to you. A year after you've ground every secret out of Bloodborne, two years after you did the same with Dark Souls 2, the thrill of another 40+ blind hours to poke at, struggle against, thrash beneath, and eventually overcome overwrites most niggling doubts. Dark Souls 3 is fan-service, through and through, but the most scathing condemnation you can muster against it is paradoxical in nature. “I wish this were less like one of my favorite games of all time.”

Overall : A
Graphics : A
Sound/Music : A-
Gameplay : A+
Presentation : B-

+ Precise, fast combat. Rich new areas to explore
Self-indulgent and obsessed with its history, the game creates few moments of surprise.

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