Dark Souls III
Pik Sen Lim, Olivia Mace, Roger Ringrose
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It’s dense, sprawling and rich with secrets.
It’s hard to write this review of Dark Souls III. I don’t mean that as an abstract, by the way. I’m not saying it’s intellectually difficult to define the frequently subjective appeal of this series. No, I’m saying it’s physically hard for me to keep my hands steady enough to type. Because they’re shaking, quite a lot, from the excitement of besting the final boss about 35 minutes ago.
I am suffused with a sense of bone deep satisfaction and accomplishment. I’ve spent more hours than I care to contemplate sitting in my tracksuit pants, on the couch, working my way up to the final boss, only to be rebuffed again and again and again. But that ended today. In a focused session, with much swearing and punching of ragecushions*, I finally toppled the entity (whose identity I won’t spoil) and I’m already planning my second playthrough.
See, that’s the thing about the Dark Souls series (encompassing Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls I,II and III) and FromSoftware’s other, thematically similar entry, Bloodborne – they’re tough, unforgiving and, ultimately profoundly rewarding on a weirdly psychological level. From a distance their appeal is baffling: third person, dark fantasy adventures with insanely high degrees of difficulty, obtuse, minimalist storytelling and enemies that respawn every time you die. Why would any sentient being subject themselves to that level of masochistic bullshittery?
To be honest, I don’t know. It’s a tough thing to explain. But I’ll share some experiences I jotted down in my 55 hours of playtime.
There was the moment in the cheerfully named Crucifixion Woods where I got lost. Like, powerfully, utterly, completely lost. I ran from one ill-fated encounter with a couple of giant crabs to a mob of skeletal wizards and finally met my maker at a boss who seemed to come out of nowhere. And it felt wonderful. The game opened up and swallowed me whole and it was great.
Later a literal army of skeletons chased me across a rickety rope bridge. I channelled my inner Indiana Jones and hacked at the side of the bridge. Two chops and I sent the horde of Harryhausen-esque creeps flailing to their doom. Then I climbed down the bridge like a ladder and uncovered a whole secret area… where a fire demon immediately killed me.
More recently, in a massive library area called The Grand Archives, I ran afoul of ghostly hands that burst unbidden from bookcases as I walked past them. Shortly afterwards I noticed wax-headed acolytes beaming deadly spells at me. I killed the acolytes and stumbled across a vat of boiling wax. The game prompted me to dip my head in the hot wax. Following the logic of a half-remembered nightmare, I dipped my head and found that the ghost hands could no longer hurt me. Of course, the trio of powerful knights and gargoyles still could, and did.
I could go on, but I won’t. Half the fun of Dark Souls III is the joy of discovery. The moment when you realise that chest you were fighting towards was in fact a toothy Mimic ready to feast on your delicious flesh or what you thought was a shortcut is in fact filled with poisonous rats. There’s a rhythm to the proceedings and if you learn to be patient and methodical, you’ll eventually emerge triumphant.
Gameplay wise, Dark Souls III has learned a few tricks from Bloodborne. The combat is faster and much more responsive. There will still be moments where a heavy blow feels unfair or the camera a tad unwieldy but overall there’s a lot to love. Graphically this is a beautiful game, with massive environments brimming with more enemies than ever before. The downside to this is sporadic framerate issues which are distracting, but rare enough that they won’t ruin the immersion.
Ultimately, a few stumbles aside, Dark Souls III is a worthy (allegedly final) chapter in a series that is both confounding and compelling. It’s not quite the focused Lovecraftian masterpiece that is Bloodborne, but it improves on almost every aspect of Dark Souls II. It’s dense, sprawling and rich with secrets – but they won’t reveal themselves easily.
So gird your loins, grip your weapon and step into the darkness… and may the flames guide thee.
*Ragecushions – are cushions specifically used to scream into and/or punch. If that sounds absurd you’ve clearly not played a Souls game before.