“YOU DIED.” The phrase is boldface, red text, center screen and demands attention. This is the tagline of the Soulsborne series – spanning five separate entries and an updated re-release of one – and has been since 2009 for good reason. Following the success of series progenitor Demons Souls, the first entry in the Dark Souls trilogy released in 2011, and I’ve followed the train of death and despair ever since. There’s a reason this series has such a loyal following, and developer From Software proved you could summarize the reason in two words only – “YOU DIED.”
If that describes the sort of experience that will have you beating your head against a wall in frustration to you, you’re not far off. Recently released Dark Souls III represents the challenges awaiting series newcomers and series veterans alike – you are Unkindled, and tasked with ushering the Lords of Cinder back to their thrones so that you might fuel the First Flame once again before the Age of Dark begins. Much like other games in the Soulsborne series, this is about all the context you get for your adventure – more on that later. I bring this up to highlight that it is the gameplay, not the narrative, that takes center stage.
Dark Souls III‘s gameplay format, like entries before it, is of a “level-boss” format – players will explore area after area, conquering enemies and traps to reach the end. Should you fall at any point in this journey, well, “YOU DIED.” That statement takes all the more meaning when you realize that your souls – the all-encompassing resource for game progression, from leveling your characters stats to upgrading their weapons and purchasing new gear – are no longer on your person, instead left at the spot of your demise. Fail to reclaim them before you fall again, and they – along with whatever progress you made since leveling or upgrading weaponry – will be gone forever. The only things left will be your will to continue forward after such a frustrating setback, and your experience with the game and its obstacles that you have already acquired. This is what has separated the newcomer from the veteran since the release of Dark Souls II – once you’re used to the tricks up From Softwares sleeve, you’re far less likely to fall victim to them. The same holds true for Dark Souls III – I found myself having little trouble with the areas themselves and more with the clash in gameplay mechanics – again, more on that later.
What never quite translates from gameplay in one entry to another is the boss encounters, and Dark Souls III shines just as brightly here as its predecessors. At the end of each area of enemies, traps and moody atmospheres lies a boss that will not hesitate to put you in the ground every single time. What further elevates them past the likes of their predecessors is that now, every boss has two phases, sometimes beginning partway through their health bar or at the depletion of their first one. The level of depth it adds to these encounters is enthralling – managing your supply of Estus Flasks, the main and oftentimes only source of healing in the game, becomes crucial. The more you can save in Phase 1, the better your chances of skating through by the skin of your teeth during Phase 2.
It deserves mention, of course, that you need not face these dangers alone. You’re free to call allies to aid you and with the inclusion of a password system first introduced in Bloodborne, these can now be your friends! Their supply of Estus may be limited and their health scaled down, but the extra pair of hands can mean the difference between life and death for many. Of course, this is not without its drawbacks – more people fighting a boss means its health increases to match, so one unlucky hit and a player may find himself fighting a battle alone meant for two. In addition, to send for such aid, you must be Embered, a state in Dark Souls III that considerably boosts your HP but opens you up to invasions by other players, regardless of it you have souls in the level or if there is anyone available to help you through the world. Believe me, they could care less.
The character you play can also mean as much as who you play with. To begin, the potential for building a play style you enjoy is vast – you can wield heavy weapons, armor and shields, go lightweight with quick-hitting weapons, cast spells of various types such as Sorceries, Miracles and Pyromancies or, if you choose, some combination of these aspects. You are only limited by your progression through the game, and what stats you level – do I get the stats to wield the shield along side my great sword, or the stats to cast that powerful spell I found? The choice is yours, and it means far more than it should, by Dark Souls standards. Released before Dark Souls III, Bloodborne was a spiritual successor to the series – welcomed by the Soulsborne community, it favored fast-paced, skill-based gameplay in a Lovecraftian setting, in contrast to the patience driven fantasy world of the Dark Souls games. Dark Souls III attempted to merge the two styles, with little success. The game is highly enjoyable, sure, but also unreasonably frustrating at times, when the game pits the standard style of play of patience and learning for your survival against the high-speed encounters of Bloodborne. Time and time again, I found myself frustrated with certain bosses and encounters simply because I couldn’t keep up. Although the ability to respect your character can be unlocked early on, it can’t get you back the materials you used to upgrade your weapons of choice, and feeling that spending unnecessary time farming these items and the souls to level was actually a viable course of action spoke to me, as I know from past experience with the Dark Souls games that no such changes could actually improve my performance within the game.
The payoff for clearing these encounters, however, was something that the Soulsborne series strives to do – highlight achievement, and produce a strong catharsis from clearing such a mighty hurdle, no matter its validity. It’s a drug present in both gameplay and narrative, where the distinct lack of direct storytelling has fostered an entire community of players pouring through item descriptions, exploring areas, taking notes and comparing them with fellow lore-seekers, ultimately to themselves paint the world they play in. It is a process of finding oneself, through challenge after challenge, that ultimately shaped the franchise to its current state.This, I find, is the greatest thing about Dark Souls III. It is a sterling example of the creative process, one that pushes players to improve and developers to improve right along side them. It will be flawed, whether inherently or inconsequentially, but it has never stopped, and will never stop, keeping players coming back for more. In the all-too-grim words of Dark Souls III NPC Eygon, “Enough death to leave you broken, time after time.”
Broken in, sure, but who’s counting?
Developer: From Software
Publisher: Bandai Namco Entertainment
Platform(s): PC, Xbox One, PS4
Release Date: April 12th, 2016