The prepare to die edition!
In a climate in which ‘cinematic elements’ and action set-pieces are favoured in lieu of basic player education and agency, From Software’s Souls series offers an experience so involved that once you cross the threshold of ‘newcomer,’ you’ll be thinking about these games in your sleep.
So right off the bat, this review arrives complete with some caveats: first and foremost, Bloodborne was my initial introduction to Software’s notoriously brow-beating action RPG series, so I’m a bit of a late-comer. Secondly, I haven’t actually played any of the other Souls games, so in terms of lore and call-backs to previous titles, I’m a little bit out of the loop. Thirdly and finally, I’m probably what most would consider a ‘scrub’ and a proud, upstanding representative of the proverbial ‘gank squad’.
Side-bar: on behalf of my impostor syndrome, I’d like to pre-emptively apologise for my use of terms like ‘scrub’ and ‘gank.’
Anyway, Dark Souls 3 is the alleged final chapter in Hidetaka Miyazaki’s series of knuckle-whitening, teeth-grinding fantasy death-fests. With each release of these titles, the waiting room is invariably occupied by an elephant (much like my reviews are invariably occupied by redundant metaphors), and that’s the difficulty. Yes, Dark Souls 3 is a difficult game, but not in the way one would normally expect.
The thing I love about this series is that, contrary to popular belief, the general design philosophy isn’t to extol the virtues of a player’s frustration, but more to encourage users to exercise caution and patience when surmounting the game’s various obstacles and heart-pounding set-pieces. It’s all about transcending that incremental learning curve by memorising enemy attack patterns and optimal routes, and paying close attention to a bosses’ telegraphed behaviours by committing to animation priorities. Knowing when to strike, to dodge and to parry is the key to success.
There’s a graceful nuance to the way in which players are prompted to keep on fighting and push forward despite the odds being ostensibly stacked against them; the implementation of a rudimentary reward/punishment paradigm is congruent with the psychological conditioning the game is attempting to clandestinely sneak in (like Pavlov’s dogs, except instead of a dog, it’s you and instead of anticipating a bell ring you’re positively quivering at the notion of your inevitable and impending demise at the hands of a broadsword-wielding, blood-thirsty knight adorned in what can only be described as Lord of the Rings cosplay).
A game that’s simply difficult for difficulty’s sake will relentlessly throw perils at a player until their spare change is rinsed, like the days of yore when arcade machines were the number one cause of poverty and repetitive strain-injury. At first glance, people tend to misconstrue Dark Souls as an impossible feat, but I think it boils down to the uninitiated conflating reasonable challenge with unfair punishment.
So from what I can gather, Dark Souls 3 takes numerous mechanics from previous titles and adds a sprinkle of Bloodborne in there for good measure (sans sopping wet Lovecraftian nightmare creatures in a heavy menstrual cycle). Limited healing items and calculated play-styles emphasising defence are staples of former adventures, but this time around, players are afforded a bit more freedom to be aggressive, like in Bloodborne. Obviously greediness is punished if you don’t know what you’re doing and health can’t be retrieved when striking back at an enemy (unless a certain item is equipped), but in lieu of trick weapons, the new Weapon Arts feature allows for varied attacks and combos.
Of course there’s everything you expect and want from these games: dungeon-crawling, epic expanses, tough-as-nails enemies and awe-inspiring, towering bosses that can only have been conceived of by a brilliant mind occupied with Tolkien and sado-masochism, so you’re covered there!
I never really bothered with PvP in Bloodborne, but this time round I’ve been getting ‘reet’ stuck in. Tense altercations with enemy invaders can be a lot of fun, especially when you give them a good hidin’ for having the temerity to interrupt your progress or trying to trick you into fighting amongst a mob of enemies.
The biggest appeal of this series to me is the presentation of the world-building and lore explored through environmental story-telling. The thing I loved the most about Bloodborne was the ‘eureka!’ factor: you know, exploring cautiously; lost, dazed and confused, low on resources, praying for a safe-zone or some healing items and eventually you stumble upon an unassuming gate that actually leads back to an area you were at some two-to-three hours ago!
Dark Souls 3 is no exception to this and it can often be mind-blowing to realise just how interconnected these vistas really are. At first glance, one might assume the world of Dark Souls 3 is merely a facile fantasy setting in a Medieval epoch with all the predictable tropes in play: dragons, Ray Harryhausen-esque stop-motion skeletons, knights in shining armour and sure, it is for the most part. However, underpinning these familiar conventions is a thread of hopelessness and abandon: portraying a world torn asunder with the sword of demise perpetually looming like my ostensibly interest-free overdraft.
Themes of death and rebirth are explored – souls being extinguished and reignited like the vestigial flames of their ancestors for a destiny much larger than themselves, and oddly enough a curious sense of camaraderie.
Yeah, for a game that celebrates anguish and despair so much, levity can be found in some of the brilliant NPC characters and online elements. Facing foes in co-op as a ‘Sun Bro’ or joining everyone’s favourite Brian Blessed in-a-pickle Siegward on his quest for redemption offers hope in a largely mirthless environment.
I could potentially ramble on about this game for hours and I’ve gotta say, there hasn’t been a video game series in the past decade or so that’s inspired so much joy in me like the Souls series has (and that’s coming from someone who still needs to go back and play the previous games). Praise the sun!