I didn’t get Dark Souls.
Why would you play something so very hard and then have to repeat your journey again and again and again, just to be able to progress a little bit further? Who are these weird characters that speak in a mixture of Middle Earth language and a 90’s Japanese children’s cartoon? How do I know where to go? What is this in my hand? What is an undead bone?…These were my thoughts when I played the original Dark Souls game a few years back. I played for 30 minutes then traded the game in for something more sporty.
But something was always nagging away at me; some devil on my shoulder, telling me that I was missing out on a fantastic experience. All the hype, all the reviews and awards the franchise has gained means people can’t be wrong can they? Maybe it’s me; maybe I’m just a gaming idiot who hasn’t got the intelligence to play a real game.
So I did. I played Dark Souls 3 and committed myself to playing the hell out of it. And after the pain, the glory and the deaths, I think I’ve seen the light and it is bright…praise the sun.
So I am writing this review with a limited knowledge of the Dark Souls universe, so experts in the franchise close your eyes for a bit. You first choose a character and then its profession before thinking about how you like to play games; tanking, dancing around opponents, firing arrows or magic from a distance and all that kind of stuff will determine what you should be and how your journey will progress.
The game starts as you rise from the grave and from there you begin your quest. There are blood markings on the floor that give a tutorial on the controls and then you are left fighting baddies. The key to attacking in Dark Souls, and the difference from my earlier aborted attempts, revolves around blocking and taking your time. Watching the enemy moves, studying its attacks and learning from your mistakes. If you run in all swords a swinging, you’ll die very quickly. If you parry, block, move and probe, you will survive a bit longer. Doing this is how Dark Souls suddenly become the enjoyable experience I learnt to adore. The combat though does feel more accessible this time around; quicker and more fluid then my last experience. The developers have had time to perfect this dynamic with their other projects and it works very well indeed.
The story is grand and epic in its scale. I did some homework on the lore of the series online before I started playing this game and it really did suck me in. The world didn’t feel silly anymore or annoying, but beautiful, dark and sad. The voice work is of a high standard and the acting helps lay on the epic nature of the plot. Fans of the lore will spend more hours doing multiple playthroughs to gather all the information and clues they can find.
Gameplay wise as I said before it’s all about learning as you go. Really look carefully at the items you pick up and the weapons you use because every stat counts. A piece of armor can protect you against poison or a certain ring will increase your fire attacks. In this game the smallest bit of advantage can be the difference between life and death. As you traverse through the world your friend will be the bonfire. Here you can rest up and get valuable Estus flasks to regain health, save and travel to other safe points. There is a place, a kind of home base where you can level up, enhance your weapons and prepare yourself for the next onslaught. At the end of each level there is a boss and these bosses really live up to their names. Hard, huge and at first glance impossible to beat, but try you must. You will gulp as you see a creature as big as the whole screen fly towards you and kill you with one attack. You brace yourself and try again, and after what for me seemed a lifetime, you will work out how to dodge, parry and eventually kill it. Normally there is much swearing involved, a few thrown controllers across the room and in my case, a dog hiding under the couch. But when you beat it (not the dog), there is nothing better in the world. The sense of achievement is unlike anything I’ve experienced lately playing games. That sums up the Dark Souls gameplay in a nutshell, lots of pain followed by extreme joy. Is the joy worth the pain? Well for me, and I can only speak from my experience, it’s a big yes.
The look and design of the game is beautiful. Some old Souls players will feel that this isn’t a major shift from the earlier games in style, but the extra power the new consoles gives the game makes all the difference. The character and creature design are unbelievably creative and stunning. The level of detail in each of the designs from the smallest being to the largest boss is staggering and belongs in the mind of someone like Guillermo del Toro. The levels and worlds you occupy are perfectly capturing the decaying ruins of a once populous realm without it just being a standard brownish hue. The actual backdrops are stunning and you can always see something amazing in the background that you know you eventually get to, or it hints at events in the larger story.
There is no debating that the sound in Dark Souls has always been terrific and this time around is no different. Firstly the score itself is rousing, epic and ethereal. It responds to the action in game, especially when you are fighting a large enemy when it really does rack up the tension. On one occasion there was an especially hard boss I was defeated by so many times, so I turned the sound on mute and fought it without the orchestral tension. It made it better, but it certainly wasn’t as fun and it felt like cheating. The sound effects, voice work, grunts, groans and everything else are all of a very high standard – something that you expect from this game studio.
Unfortunately, the online servers weren’t working with my time in review so I didn’t get to experience the online element of the game. But from what I understand it will very much be like the games before with the ability to see ghosts of other real players tackling a tricky boss and you left standing and watching over how they died. There are hints and traps written by players in blood. People can invade your world and try to kill you or you can do the same. You can also summon up to 6 people to help fight a big boss or enemy. I didn’t mind not having the multiplayer element in place however and found my lonely solo journey was pretty much all I needed.
I’ve thrown over 25 hours into Dark Souls 3 so far and maybe now I’ve finally experienced a quarter of what is in place. It’s true, I’ve died a hell of a lot and a more experienced player would no doubt breeze through some elements of the game that I struggled in. There is however loads to do and I’ve found secrets galore with little extras here and there.
Overall and Dark Souls 3 is a brilliant monster of an experience that I have categorically enjoyed and savored. Mark my word and I promise you now – I will complete the game, even if I feel it might kill me and it will be fast approaching 2020 by the time I do so!