Having spent quite some time savoring the warm safety emanating from a bonfire, the prospect of venturing forth seems all the less alluring. I don’t know what’s ahead of me, but the sounds coming from the rooftops ahead do not sound welcoming. Without much aplomb, I finished filling my Estus Flasks for a false sense of curative comfort and left the fire.
After dispatching a few groups of zombie-like adversaries, I eventually happen upon a ladder leading down to the rooftops. A light uphill trot up the first roof leads me to a group of praying acolytes. I’ve seen them before. They never pay me any mind, but I don’t want to take any chances I don’t have to take. I begin slaughtering them two by two with each swipe of my sword – some of them start to rise but fail to draw their weapon before they’re struck down. I lock on to the closest enemy of the remaining three and notice something peculiar. He starts oozing out some mysterious, thick black liquid from his neck while twitching uncontrollably. The ooze doesn’t take long to quickly over take the dangerously meek body (now host), and materializes itself as a giant abomination of a snake-like creature atop the host’s shoulders. Back to the bonfire.
This is Dark Souls 3.
Once again, you are a vaguely anonymous hero playing an essential role in linking “the fire.” The Lords of Cinder have left their thrones, and it is up to you to return them to their stations to act as kindling – what exactly this means, of course, remains a mystery. Fire-linking has been a resounding motif throughout the Dark Souls franchise, and the third entry continues to maintain the strangely obscure aura that surrounds its narrative. FromSoftware takes advantage of their knack for microscopic storytelling in this one, rewarding players’ thirst for exploration with subtle inclusions of atmospheric subplots.
The kingdom of Lothric houses such recurring characters as the Blind Maiden, Andre the Blacksmith, and Siegward of Catarina (sound familiar?), just to name a few. Many more can be found in the most unlikely of places, each with their own macabre addition to the story – some can be invited to stay at Firelink Shrine, the game’s main hub, while others seem to thrive in the chaos outside. Dark Souls 3 provides a certain creative freedom behind its storytelling techniques, creating a cryptic sense of progression that keeps the game’s intrigue palpable.
As effective as its ambiguity is, the game can often feel too vague. It’s almost a shame that the game’s amorphous narrative structure naturally veils the depth of the game’s world; the obscurity even bleeds into the gameplay itself. Information like staying under 70% weight load to prevent your rolling dodge from being horrifically slow is more easily found online than in-game, and the Dark Sigil mechanic is introduced in an ill-defined way for what seems like the sake of mystique. Fans of previous entries will find themselves right at home in Dark Souls 3, but newcomers to the series may encounter a steep informational learning curve.
With that said, Dark Souls 3 contains an impressive amount of moments that employ truly great game design. Enemy position often coincides with the level design to create a sense of danger behind every corner. Running away is usually worse than staying to fight due to the unpredictability of fatal possibilities that await.
Your journey may lead you to discover a large spear-wielding knight that can be found walking in circles around a broken fountain. When approaching the knight to initiate the fight, you’ll discover a pile of flaming debris against one of the fountain’s sides. Depending on your playstyle, you may decide to circle the fountain, keeping the knight from getting too close. The fire acts as an additional obstacle, however, and one misstep into the flames may stagger you long enough to cost you your life. Enemies with throwing daggers and fire bombs are commonly placed to keep you in their line of sight, which may force you to unknowingly walk back-first into an ambush. Or a dragon.
Dark Souls 3 is difficult. As unfair as it may seem, the cause of your death is almost always a fault of your own. The trouble doesn’t reside in unfair gameplay segments, but rather the collective skills of pattern recognition, memorization, and execution required to progress through the game. One mistaken reading of an enemy’s animation or even a single roll in the wrong direction is often all it takes to see that infamous “You Died” screen for the thousandth time. Tedious gameplay elements, such as losing your souls upon death or maintaining weapon durability, balance out the polished mechanics and intriguing atmosphere to make Dark Souls 3 an incredibly worthwhile journey full of surprises.
The combat system doesn’t venture far from its predecessors, including the main dodge/block/counterattack strategy with a variety of different weapon types from which to wield. Each type has its own unique feel, animations, and stats that make for a pretty crazy amount of gameplay styles. Maintaining a harmony between strategically upgraded stats and the weight of your equipment can create a slow, heavy-hitting champion or a quick, rogue-like swordsman. Miracles and Pyromancy make a welcome return, and both can grow more powerful as certain items and rewards are discovered. Summoning players to aid you in battle as a phantom reveals a plethora of character types others have concocted, often inspiring direction for your own style. Anyway you play it, Dark Souls 3 maintains a core of quality gameplay throughout its entirety.
Locations and characters seem more colorful than the previous entries’, while simultaneously maintaining its grim, eerily dark personality. The game’s lighting creates a strangely realistic mood set in a wildly macabre world. Debris rolls off rooftops with a lifelike character. Ambient sounds from the environment and the shrieks of enemies are thrown around at various distances to craft a convincing experience, and the controls to experience it all are graciously responsive. Combine this with a wealth of hidden secrets, and the game gets all the more alluring.
Illusory walls that disappear upon impact, sneakily hidden pathways, and floors that can fall out from under your feet are just a few things that can be discovered. Encountering any of these can flip the pace of the game on its head – the game’s environment can give you an unexpected second to breathe or throw you into a much deadlier situation. You never really know which one you’ll get.
This game feels like the liveliest entry in the series. Dark Souls 3 provides plenty of noticeable improvements that separate it from its brethren. Friend and foe both seem more characterized and fleshed out than ever before, and the remarkable urge to discover what lies ahead manifests itself as motivation to progress after each death. And let me tell you, few things in life feel better than finding the next bonfire. Curiosity trumps frustration in this game, and outside of a few personal arguments I’ve had with the camera, complaints are hard to find.
As much as you’ll want to, Dark Souls 3 is simply hard to put down.
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