The “Dark Souls” series has become synonymous with one thing: punishing difficulty. But the series isn’t just for masochists who crave a more difficult brand of video game. “Dark Souls 3” has a comparable difficulty to its predecessors, sure, but the experience is much more than a rigorous loop of trial and error.
The “Dark Souls” experience is about discovery, progression and success that grants a sense of satisfaction that is severely lacking in much of the adventure genre. “Dark Souls 3” impeccably improves on the structure of the original “Dark Souls” and “Dark Souls 2” all while managing to make the experience more accessible to newcomers.
“Dark Souls 2” introduced players to a vast open world, but one that suffered from flaws in its layout. In an otherwise excellent game, it had several new areas to explore that all branched from the central hub area. Having the hub at the center of everything meant that the player had to do a lot of backtracking, and never ventured far from home. There’s a psychology to that design that doesn’t mesh with the game’s tone. The “Dark Souls” experience is about exploring areas that feel inherently foreign. Each new environment welcomes the player with hordes of dangerous creatures and numerous twisting paths that lead to parts unknown. By design, each new area is supposed to feel alienating. Some of that feeling is lost when the warm, welcoming hub world is nearby.
In “Dark Souls 3” the hub world can’t even be accessed on foot. It’s far away and can only be accessed by bonfire travel. The knight, or warlock or thief that you’ve created is on his or her own in the uninviting and terrifying world. Every step journeys farther away from a place of normalcy. “Bloodborne” perfected the art of an interconnected open world; one where progressing to new areas somehow linked to previous ones. “Dark Souls 3” shows that From Software recognizes that perfection. Discovering new areas in this game conveys a mix of reward and fear of what lies ahead that isn’t found in other games.
The “Dark Souls” series usually has a front loaded difficulty. That’s especially the case with “Bloodborne.” The beginning areas are the most difficult while the player figures out what works and what doesn’t. Then things finally “click” and the player can breeze through future areas. “Dark Souls 3” is more balanced. The beginning isn’t as punishing. Actually, it is, but no more punishing from the rest of the game.
The balance of “Dark Souls 3’s” combat is one of its most underrated achievements. Balance is as important to a game like this as it is to something like the “Street Fighter” series. There are many ways to approach its action. The game offers dozens of weapons to choose from throughout the journey, all which have different attack speeds and unique abilities. Different characters can rely on spells or arrows for ranged attack. It’s possible to make a character who relies on counter punching after a successful block or parry. I got hooked on “Bloodborne’s” style and never relied on a shield, and instead crafted a character with good agility for dodging.
There isn’t a right or wrong way to approach a character in “Dark Souls 3.” Every type has their own strengths and weaknesses. There’s no exploitive easy button character. “Dark Souls 3” is designed to be challenging for every character class. My advice is to choose one path and continue it. Don’t start with a mage and change it to a knight halfway through the game. Don’t become a jack of all trades and a master of none. Specialization is key.
“Dark Souls 3” is an excellent jumping off point for the uninitiated. The lore isn’t connected to the first two games, at least as far as one could tell during the review process. The “Souls” series is lore heavy, so there may be some deep-seeded connection between all three games, but newcomers won’t miss much in that department. More importantly, “Dark Souls 3” doesn’t assume the player knows the gameplay mechanics from the previous games. That’s partially because much of the core mechanics have been altered in the sequel.
Hollowing is gone. The biggest annoyance and arguably the most punishing aspect of “Dark Souls 2” is no more. Hollowing used to mean the player’s maximum health decreased with each death. In a game like “Dark Souls” where one dies a lot, this can be a serious hindrance on progress. I always viewed it like the game was punishing me for even attempting a new area or boss. Fortunately, that mechanic is gone in “Dark Souls 3.” Well, it’s mostly gone. The player will lose some health upon death, but it doesn’t stack with subsequent deaths. The process can be reversed with ember items, which are comparable to human effigies from the previous game. Restoring humanity (it’s called harnessing the power of the Lord of Cinder in “Dark Souls 3”) with embers is also tied to the game’s co-op gameplay.
Co-op phantoms can only be summoned if humanity is restored to the player. In other words, you’ll have to use an ember in order to summon help from a friend. Ember availability is close to how plentiful human effigies were in “Dark Souls 2.” They can also be purchased in exchange for souls in the hub area. Defeating any boss will also restore humanity without having to burn an ember usage.
Online play of the “Souls” series has always been unique. Summoning a friend is an easy way to get through a boss that has been beating you to a pulp for ten or more attempts. It’s the same in “Dark Souls 3.” There should be a limit on how many times one can summon a friend. It takes away from some of the game’s difficulty, which takes away from the satisfaction once victory is achieved.
The game’s message system thankfully returns, which is one of the most genius uses of online play in any adventure game. Message senders are limited to what words they can leave for other players, but the game gives enough options to be descriptive. Each message is a helping hand from a nameless player going through the same tribulations that you are. It’s like the players are bound by the fraternity of “Dark Souls” and feel compelled to leave helpful messages to others in need. There’s hope for internet comments yet!
The “Dark Souls” series has an undeniable learning curve. There’s absolutely no way anyone will pick up a game controller for the first time and begin with a “Dark Souls” game. It’s an acquired taste that requires patience and appreciation for what the game asks of its players. Once that “eureka” moment happens, the game becomes one of the most rewarding experiences in the medium. Give it a chance, stick with it and make each death a learning experience. It might just become your new favorite series.
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