One day, many years from now, when I have a family that I hang out with by way of a VR headset while in real life we all fester in our isolated cubicles, I envision my future kid coming up to me in our shared virtual space and asking “Daddy, what was Dark Souls like?” At this point, I’d look wistfully out the virtual window at the setting sun (an illusion concealing the fact that in the real world the sun had set for the last time many years ago), and I’d say:
“Dark Souls, my child, wasn’t like all the other games. It didn’t play nice. It didn’t hold your hand, or make you feel loved or important, but it was, in many ways, the purest game series of all. It ended in 2016.”
Then, in true Dark Souls fashion, I’d conclude by making some sardonic observation followed by a bone-dry laugh: “Perhaps we are fools for having left it behind. But then, ‘tis fitting for a game that relished making fools of us all. Hehehehehehe….”
Spoiler Warning: References to various key characters and locations in Dark Souls 3
While I’ll let Adam’s review fill you in on the basic judgement regarding Dark Souls 3, I can concur that the old magic is still there. That feeling of dying to a boss for the 20th time in a row, convincing myself that series’ creator Hidetaka Miyazai has ‘really gone too far this time’, before making the slightest of tweaks to my strategy that suddenly helps me breeze through said boss remains as powerful as ever.
A good session of Dark Souls makes me sleep well at night and wake up the next day ready to tackle any challenges that await. A bad session gives me nightmares about being a hollow in the Undead Asylum, wailing in that pathetic hollowed way as I’m bounced around like a blubbering pinball amidst a trio of asylum demons (and that’s only after I spend a good hour restlessly shuffling in bed, cursing the game as I toss onto my left side and cursing myself as I turn onto my right).
The die-try-die-again ethos that the series introduced to the masses is ever-present in Dark Souls 3, and continues to creep through into my daily functioning in a way that few games can. But as I explore Lothric’s forlorn keeps, twisted villages and cathedral-like cities perforating the fast-moving skies, I’m quickly overcome with an odd sense of comfort and homeliness, like the game is reaching out to me, as a Souls veteran, and saying ‘haven’t we had fun over the years?’ or ‘You know what’s coming next, don’t you?’
Even though the kingdom of Lothric is new to me, and I spend the first few hours being duly battered into the ground by enemies I really should know how to deal with, it’s a place that’s designed to feel familiar. Where before the Souls games were only cryptically connected with each other, leaving the community to thread the lore together, Dark Souls 3 not only threads the narratives together but then wraps them up with a bow and some confetti. Familiar faces return, old locations are revisited and items you pick up tighten those threads.
The familiarity of the narrative is intentional, but it also seeps through to the gameplay, causing much of what was once intrepid and intimidating to become routine: I know what will happen when the dragon appears in the first level, because it does the same thing in each Souls game; I’m able to ambush 90% of intended ambushers thanks to a Soul sense that I’ve honed over the years; and the aesthetic of its world no longer carries the menace of the unknown (or the unknowable).
And yet Dark Souls 3 is the most polished and mechanically sound game in the series yet, its visual splendour dazzling me each time I start feeling that creeping sense of familiarity. It’s the zenith of the series and its natural limit, making it the perfect point to bring those glorious cycles of fire and darkness to an end and seek a new setting for a gameplay formula that could well prove to be timeless.
Dark Souls 3 is a veritable mish-mash of Souls tropes. Each area has the satisfyingly interwoven design of the original game (while the overarching structure is more like one long, epic path). The stunning views and wide-open spaces of the sequel are inspired by Dark Souls 2, while the more pacey combat borrows from Bloodborne. It’s the perfect amalgamation of all that’s come before, and yet it doesn’t feel greater than the sum of all those parts. Instead, it feels precisely like the sum of those parts, content to look back and say ‘Hasn’t it been a blast?’ in a way that suggests it’s aware of its own finality.
The sense of repetition in Dark Souls 3 is palpable from the start. The first boss explodes in his second phase to become an unpredictable, jerky beast that has echoes of Bloodborne’s beast bosses, while the first area you visit after the very Demon’s Souls-like Firelink Shrine is the High Wall of Lothric – a well-designed but generic battlement much like Dark Souls 2’s Forest of Fallen Giants (but better laid-out) and Undead Burg from the original.
The second area, the Undead Settlement, is a wonderfully atmospheric rural village, where the buildings and trees appear to be twisting and squirming into each other in a vain attempt to protect themselves from the malaise enveloping them. But Bloodborne players will recognise it as a spitting image of Hemwick Charnel Lane, a feeling that becomes even more pronounced when you head down to the central square, and find none other than Yharnam’s villagers – pitchforks and all – seemingly on a rural weekend retreat, congregating around a portly magician who looks like the female twin of the Fat Official enemy from Demon’s Souls. From the attack dogs to the locales, there are countless moments where I questioned whether the repetition was a result of creative drought or an acceptance by the devs that certain things that came before in the series are so good they’re worth repeating.
Moving beyond the assets, repetition in Dark Souls 3 is often used to charming and poignant effects. I chuckled when I bumped into the bumbling Siegward of Catarina, the natural successor to Dark Souls’ loveable but tragic Siegmeyer, whose tubby armour earned him the endearing ‘onion knight’ moniker. Siegward is essentially the renamed return of a fan favourite, his constant predicaments and now-legendary ‘Hmmmm-ing’ providing the feelings of warmth and nostalgia that you’d expect from the final episode of a much-loved sitcom.
Conversely, I could almost hear the pantomime booing when I met Unbreakable Patches, Dark Souls 3’s iteration of the recurring villain who may as well be stroking his figurative thin, twirly moustache as he sets traps that you inevitably always find your way out of.
The Abyss Watchers, meanwhile, are heirs to possibly the most popular boss in the series, Artorias, with their tragic story, music and movesets paying tribute to the great Abysswalker. All these characters are more than just cameos – they play an important part in Dark Souls 3’s narrative – but that narrative itself is based on homage to the original game. Never is this more apparent than when you revisit Anor Londo, the great God-city from the original game that’s now frozen over. It acts almost like a kind of museum, as you wander through the cathedral where you fought Ornstein and Smough, visit the now-empty rooms where the queen Gwynevere and Gwyndolin used to dwell, and take on a horrifying, mutated version of the latter. As you explore, players’ soapstone messages act as rudimentary information boards at key landmarks, reminding you that you’re not alone in your historical tour.
Dark Souls 3 comes as close as its dark mood will allow to being a celebration of the people we met, the bosses we fought and the stories we’ve been part of for the last several years. Remember that Citadel DLC for Mass Effect 3, which gave closure to fans who felt betrayed by the main game’s conclusion? Dark Souls 3 is the equivalent, minus the orgiastic atmosphere, but with a similarly self-aware sense of humour. So many little details and lore tidbits from previous games are brought together in Dark Souls 3 that it takes on an almost reflective tone, looking back on the series’ ‘Best Bits’ and presenting them to us in a satisfying closing chapter.
With Dark Souls III being From Software’s fastest-selling game to date, the temptation will be there for the company to milk those rancid yet moreish teets a little bit more (awful image, I know…). And you can easily argue that if publishers of other top franchises (of mostly inferior quality) are rinse-repeating their big games with only superficial changes, then why shouldn’t something as undeniably great as Dark Souls do it?
It’s true that Dark Souls is special. So special, in fact, that it’s the only series that can get away with not having to come up with some kind of revolutionary feature, new gimmick, or even distinct settings between its constituent games. We complain about Far Cry never evolving, even though it’s just taken us to the Stone Age (though I guess it’s more accurate to call that devolving? Am I right?), or Assassin’s Creed, where it’s just not enough that it takes us to a different beautifully realised historical city each time round. But Dark Souls? Dark Souls which has so many overlaps between locations, enemies, bosses, weapons and other assets across the series? Nah, you’re OK Dark Souls. As you were…
That’s because the series, from the start, has been damn-near perfect at what it intended to do. It never needed to offer players a punchline, or fantasies of surviving the post-apocalypse, or exploring historical places, or ‘doing whatever you like’, because its appeal lay in its fantastic core mechanics. Nor has it ever needed to market itself with silly buzzwords for in-game mechanics, or gloat about how open its world is. ‘Soulsborne’ has a unique role on the gaming scene that defies all claims of competition because it’s the master of a genre of its own making, spawning only games that genuflect before it rather than dare try and usurp it.
Series’ creator Hidetaka Miyazaki’s formula isn’t married to its medieval setting of clanky armour, dungeons, keeps and cathedral-cities. In fact, it’s already proven to transcend it, and at this point the only thing that can taint its appeal is keeping it in a Dark Souls universe that may have reached its full state of becoming.
Sisyphian repetition and cyclicality is woven through every part of the Souls series’ fabric. Gods awaken then fall, to be replaced by equivalents in newer kingdoms that layer over the old ones in enigmatic ways. Ages of fire come and go, and even your perpetual dying is artfully integrated into the narrative. We’ve embraced this relentless repetition for five years, and its impact has hardly budged until now, as the series has come to feel like an old friend rather than a mysterious yet intriguing stranger like the original Demon’s Souls.
The rapturous reception of Bloodborne shows that the appeal of ‘Soulsborne’ lies in its systems. We’re drawn to their deadly light by their uniquely passive approach to storytelling, haunting atmospheres, mechanically simple yet deeply tactical stamina-based combat systems, and of course gruelling challenges and weighty consequences for death. Playing Bloodborne (I know it’s not available on PC, but indulge me for a moment), with its idiosyncratic vision of a Lovecraftian-Gothic nightmare world opened me up to the myriad creative possibilities to which Miyazaki’s magical touch could be applied, to the extent that going back to the relatively conventional medieval world of Dark Souls afterwards felt more like a fond trip down memory lane than a confident stride towards the future.
I’d never turn down a return to Dark Souls, which I’m indebted to for helping me rediscover a way of playing that I once thought was gone forever. If a Dark Souls 4 appeared, then I’d be there for it, because it would almost certainly continue to satisfy a craving that no other game can. But I want more than an itch scratched – I want that, and to explore other dark recesses of Miyazaki and co’s imaginations.
Dark Souls 3 feels like both a triumphant final performance and a victory lap, and From Software should honour that. I’ll miss it terribly, but I’d rather have that feeling of longing for Dark Souls than quietly growing to resent it, while fantasising about the wild directions its formula could take – Steampunk? Sci-fi? A fantasy universe based on pre-medieval times, like classical or ancient? More Lovecraftian horror a la Bloodborne?
As well as being a fitting swansong for the series, Dark Souls 3 is a powerful statement that the formula is refined and ready for new horizons. That’s why there’s no better time to put out the Souls fire, and herald in a new age of darkness in which we can live with the excited trepidation of not knowing what tragic, brutal world Miyazaki has lying in wait, ready to ambush us around the next corner.