It had been a while – last time was probably Mass Effect – since a game had me pining to be back at home during work hours, eager to see what it held in store next. Actually, that’s not quite true: the last time was Bloodbourne, Hidetaka Miyazaki’s dark and brooding masterpiece on PS4; the maestro has followed it up with another exhilarating effort in Dark Souls 3. What a very special game it is indeed – daring to challenge the player as befits its reputation, but equally uplifting those who rise up to that challenge like few other games before, with a sense of wonder and accomplishment delivered through exquisite level design and the most influential combat system of the last few years. New levels are reached through intricate yet entirely organic routes, bonfires and shortcuts are ingeniously woven into the progress so that risky adventuring is deliciously balanced by the opportunity to minimize needless grind.
I’ve never completed the previous Dark Souls games, so I missed much of the connection between them and this third entry, but Dark Souls 3 starts much the same way as the first one started: you wake up in a coffin seemingly for no reason in the middle of nowhere, with few instructions other than to move forward and avoid getting brutally murdered before reaching the next bonfire. Progress is not outlined by cutscenes or mission-distributing NPCs but rather motivated by the sheer mystery and beauty – alternately grim and majestic – of the game’s environments, the compulsive risk/reward balance forcing the player to choose between ass-clenching progress and the safety of the Firelink Shrine. The Shrine is a haven you come across after the first boss where you can upgrade your character, weapons and armour, as well as purchase various accessories. At the Shrine a blind maiden called the Fire Keeper instructs you to return the Lords of Cinder to their thrones or some such in order to… well, do something that sounds quite proper and portentous and could help the world carry on a bit longer. I don’t mean to sound dismissive – Dark Souls 3 is bewildering at first and intentionally so. It is in no hurry to reveal its hand to the player in the hopes of warding off boredom or frustration, but instead has the confidence to slowly unfold itself, letting its world and the items found within it tell a truly layered and lived-in story. The levels aren’t quite wholly contiguous, but for the most part are interlinked with ingenuity and invention, and the electrifying sense of achievement as you defeat a boss and receive a well-earned opportunity to venture into a new area – with the warm glow of a lit bonfire behind you – is as essential to the Souls series as it remains rare in other games. Time and again Dark Souls 3 plunges you into the murkiest of depths like Catacombs of Carthus before lifting you up onto places that take your breath away with its otherworldly grandeur like Irithyll of the Boreal Valley. My favorite such transition was in Farron Keep. It is a poisonous swamp, an area for which developers usually reserve their least presentable creatures as well as the most malingering status effects. You run around trying to light the three fires that will open a gate to the next area, all the while fending off squelching slime-beasts and quaffing down poison cures to stay alive – your typical, all-consuming Dark Souls brand of stress escalation. You notice a long ladder on the side of a tower, and upon climbing up and passing through a room containing a huge dead wolf for some reason, come to a battlement steeply overlooking the entire swamp area – with a vista that takes in far more. You notice the swamp is cordoned off by imposing castle walls, and beyond the walls is the sea. The realization that there is a whole world out there, vast and evocative under the twilight sun, puts your brutal struggles in the swamp into cathartic perspective, and the pang of unexplained longing stays with you for quite some time. True to form there’s a humongous (optional) boss waiting for you just up the stairs from this particular vantage point, but still1.
Dark Souls 3 remains a game defined by its opacity, requiring regular visits to online forums and guides to find all that it has to offer. Triggering NPC side-quests is an exercise in arcana, while interaction with various merchants – and consequently the items and magic they offer – is governed by a hidden script only the more dedicated players will manage to unearth. Leveling up your character as well as your equipment is less esoteric, but again it requires a certain level of in-game commitment as well as google searches to truly ascertain the true depth of Dark Souls 3’s role playing system. This lack of transparency used to be one of those elements that were often decried in JRPGs as that genre declined in the mid-2000s, but the beauty of this game is that the player doesn’t really need to get to grips with its deeper nuances to have an enthralling experience. You don’t need, for example, to read any of the item descriptions to get a feel for a tired, aged world quietly shuffling towards oblivion, a world where vast abandoned cathedrals and cavernous underground cities are abandoned by all but the most dangerous or demented inhabitants, where makeshift platforms infest once-gleaming castle walls and exquisitely designed palace interiors house putrid puddles on the floor. You don’t actually need to kill any non-boss enemy to progress (hence the amazing speedruns on Youtube), unlike many first- and third-person action games that block off exits from kill zones until the area is all cleared out2. You don’t need to access the optional levels to get your money’s worth with gameplay that lasts at least multiple dozens of hours, although the optional levels are definitely worth the extra effort to find. You can upgrade your equipment as well as your character without really knowing which shard or gem does what, and still enjoy the gratification of ever-increasing power. Elsewhere, Dark Souls 3 makes some unexpected concessions. The Estus Flasks are replenished in their entirety every time the bonfire is touched, an allowance so generous that at first I thought it was a bug. Character movement is noticeably fast, certainly faster than what I remember from Dark Souls. Bonfires are rather numerous, at times redundantly so. Ambushes and traps are rare, as are situations where threats are completely unavoidable. If general progress has been made more player-friendly, individual enemies and boss battles are tougher than Bloodborne, which in its later moments tended to become less taxing to navigate3.
I feel a little sore that my first proper experience with the Dark Souls series is with its last game. Had I finished Dark Souls all those years ago, it would have made for a richer and more poignant experience. But even without it, even without really understanding what the hell is going on, Dark Souls 3 offers the kind of gameplay that is simply unmatched in its depth and atmosphere, its uncanny ability to induce stomach-churning tension one minute and then a primal sense of wonder and curiosity the next, its intensely baroque and macabre art direction, and the kind of level design which consistently makes the player sigh with admiration. Its Groundhog Day-esque cycle of death and progress, frustrating at first, creates a hypnotic hold on the player before long4. Everything – combat, platforming, shortcuts, item hunting – is beautifully, ruthlessly balanced and constantly asks the player to be vigilant, alert and watchful. In return, Dark Souls 3 provides a hugely satisfying challenge that, remarkably, manages to triumph against the laws of diminishing returns.
- The closest experience of this kind that I’ve had in video games was in Shadow of the Colossus, a game that had one of the greatest self-contained and contiguous environments ever designed. ↩
- When done right, like in Doom and God of War, it’s great. Others, not so much. ↩
- All relative, of course – it was still more often than not nightmare-inducing, but as I noted in the Bloodborne review, my character became powerful enough that some bosses were defeated on the first try. ↩
- Miyazaki’s games are unique in that the player is likely to spend much more time in the first level than in anywhere else. I must have toiled away for many more hours in the High Walls of Lothric than the more intimidating environs of Farron Keep or Cathedral of the Deep. Likewise I spent much longer stuck in Central Yharnam than anywhere else. ↩