Dark Souls 3 is mechanically brilliant, but this concluding chapter lacks something more important: heart
The final send-off is never easy and yet the time comes to say goodbye to every great series. For the designer, it means one last opportunity to fix minor flaws and deliver the definitive experience. But when that game designer is Hidetaka Miyazaki and the series in question is Dark Souls, immortality is already guaranteed. All that’s left is to add more gloss to a series that’s been honed razor sharp and has risen phoenix-like from obscurity to become an entertainment phenomenon. Dark Souls 3 will be the biggest commercial success in the series yet, shipping millions.
As a final salvo, Dark Souls 3 is slick, refined and even a little self-knowing. It’s the sum of ideas from the games that came before it: Demon’s Souls (2009), which produced the template; Dark Souls (2011), which perfected it; and Dark Souls 2 (2014), which opened the floodgates to the mass market. Even spiritual predecessor Bloodborne has influenced a faster breed of action and a dark new look.
Is this really the end? If it is, series director Hidetaka Miyazaki and FromSoftware have tried to entice newcomers while servicing the enormous expectations of existing fans. The mechanics have been streamlined, eliminating the intentional obliqueness of the prior games. There are fewer annoying ways to die (though die you will) meaning Dark Souls 3 is altogether less chaotic. But this final act is missing something. A spark, if you will.
“There are fewer annoying ways to die (though die you will) meaning Dark Souls 3 is altogether less chaotic. But this final act is missing something. A spark, if you will.”
The most crucial ingredient in a Dark Souls game is setting and in Lothric, FromSoftware has its newest protagonist, a kingdom home to the Lords of Cinder. Lothric is a clear response to the criticism levelled at Drangleic, the domain of Dark Souls 2, which took illogical leaps in design to the extent you could be wading through a poisonous swamp one minute and gliding up the steps of a fire kingdom the next. Here, every step is a logical progression from one territory to the next, so much so that it forgets to have any fun.
The early going belies the monotony that proceeds it, and a map like the Road of Sacrifices teases nooks and crannies, varied topography and a horizon dense with stuff to see. But all too quickly you’ve descended into a subterranean world of greys and browns that follows a school of design logic, but forgets to differentiate one location from the other.
It’s almost as if, bound by the rules of the world they’ve built, FromSoftware can’t work out a way to spring you free of the dungeons and caves and plunge you back into sunlight. The game is crying out for a splash of colour, a dash of fun, but once Dark Souls 3 burrows into the ground it keeps tunneling, taking you deeper and deeper past the point of no return.
Worse, the vaunted level design that has made the series so good has only been half-halfheartedly attempted here. The news that Miyazaki was back at the helm after working on Bloodborne (and leaving DS2 to another team in the process) brought with it the expectation he would deliver on the blueprint he laid down Dark Souls I. But levels are disappointingly lean, one-dimensional and lacking in versatility, and Dark Souls 3 winds up being a pale of facsimile of Miyazaki’s best work.
“3 takes things slow at first, giving players the easiest learning curve of the series to date, but once you’re past the five-hour mark, the difficulty ramps up tenfold”
In Dark Souls I, the world was interconnected in such a way that levels were adjacent to one another, and it was often possible to create shortcuts between late-game areas and earlier levels, opening and then closing the loop on a treacherous and circuitous journey.
In Dark Souls 3, there’s forwards and there’s backwards, and while there’s plenty to see while you’re going – including hidden walls, gems, NPCs and the odd small shortcut off the beaten track – these are small-scale concessions rather than innovative ideas done with purpose. The shortcuts you do find feel wasted in maps you’re unlikely to repeat exploring, and the game is content to do the bare minimum, funneling you down a pre-determined path until you find the exit. Even the most basic building block of the formula, the bonfire, is placed at inconsistent points throughout each map and either feels like it’s popping up too regularly or not often enough.
If, however, you’re only interested in the challenge of combat and the sensation of warding off the undead, Dark Souls has never been better. The combat is fast and fluid and enemies pose a sizable challenge. 3 takes things slow at first, giving players the easiest learning curve of the series to date, but once you’re past the five-hour mark, the difficulty ramps up tenfold and late-game bosses demand that you’ve mastered not only the ability to roll and dodge, but that you can manipulate your stamina bar and time an opportunistic strike perfectly.
The boss fights are, as always, the proving grounds to test what you’ve learnt and 3 plays host to some of the most challenging fights in the canon. If you’re nuts about these encounters (so much so that you’ve ranked every single one in the entire series so far, 1-107) you’ll leave Dark Souls 3 with new favourites for your list. I particularly loved the penultimate fight of the game which winds up offering a true test of skill and is equally fun alongside co-op partners.
Dark Souls 3 is also the best looking game we’ve ever seen in the series, and has been optimized well for modern consoles. With the newest patch installed, 1.04, the game runs without a hitch on PS4, slowing down only in one or two areas. By and large, this hits rock solid 30 frames per second and is a dream to play and it feels like we’ve come light years from the sluggishness of Dark Souls on Xbox 360.
“Dark Souls 3 is also the best looking game we’ve ever seen, and optimized well for modern consoles.”
Elsewhere, hundreds of small tweaks have been made that subtly change the experience, though many of them you may never notice. You can’t upgrade your armour, for instance, which means you’re freed to spend your energy on crafting a kickass sword. Enemy AI is more aggressive. The blacksmith, a character you’ve needed to hunt for in the past, is presented to you from the start. You no longer need to use humanity to summon help, and rely instead on an Ember. Levelling up is handled at the central hub, and fast-travel points are generously spaced. Load-times are also remarkably improved upon since Bloodborne, and item descriptions are easier to understand.
This is Dark Souls for the mass market, then, and some of its intrigue is gone. There are no ruinously irritating areas like Blighttown, but nowhere quite as memorable either. The game is over far more quickly as a result, and what you’re left with is the slickest interpretation of a formula minus the highest highs and lowest lows.
The stiffening difficulty is still there, of course, and this is a punishing game whose late bosses rank among the toughest in the series. It remains as masochistically moreish as ever been, and if this is your first Dark Souls encounter, you’ll likely be blown away by the design of this world. But if this is a series you know well, the tricks will be familiar.
“We’re left with a game that’s purer and more mechanically sound than it’s ever been, and yet further away from that groundbreaking vision of Dark Souls 1.“
In the end, all I ever wanted from Dark Souls 3 was more of the same, and in a sense, the game delivers that. But what I didn’t realize is that the most important ingredient of all, the world, needs more time to blossom. The magic of this series can’t be recreated on an annual basis through a repeat of its mechanics alone, and with FromSoftware up against a series of insane deadlines, there’s no doubt the creativity of the series has taken a hit.
If this is the last time we’ll play the series, it’s a bittersweet ending. We’re left with a game that’s purer and more mechanically sound than it’s ever been, and yet further from that groundbreaking vision of Dark Souls I than before. Something tells me this is not the end though but simply the beginning, and now that Miyazaki is president of FromSoftware, a new era is about to begin. Whatever his next game will be, here’s hoping he can capture the magic of his earlier work, for while the flame in Dark Souls 3 still burns brightly, the fire is waning.