Dark Souls III review impressions

I usually hate difficult games.

I like to think that my non-gaming hobbies – learning to code in C#, boxing, volunteering in Emergency Medical Services – are challenging enough (or maybe that’s what I tell myself to feel better about being a giant weenie). But for some reason, the Souls series is different. I still “hate” them, but there’s enough love in there to keep me going, despite a complete and utter lack of skill.

Dark Souls III is pretty much the same thing you know and love (or hate, or love to hate), and it carries a strong whiff of Bloodborne, the last game in the series, with it. Like its brethren, it’s a brilliant, nasty piece of work – a sprawling 3rd person action game with exacting combat, brutal boss battles, and stiff RPG elements, set in a gorgeous, crumbing land.

Let it be known – I like the series, but I’m still new to the obsession. If you are a giant Soulsborne fan, you’ve had this pre-ordered for months and you’re probably resisting the temptation to read everything on the reddit for the already-released Japanese version, or you’re already speedrunning the game. As for me, I dipped my toe delicately into Demon’s Souls back in 2009, and never really dived in until Bloodborne last year, when I was fully infected with whatever causes people to scream at the screen, grit their teeth, and proceed to play every area or boss over and over again until they get it.

Maybe it’s because you know exactly what you’re getting into when you choose to enter the Souls relationship. There’s going to be a lot of pain – of losing progress to a rando right before lighting the next bonfire, or dying to whatever monstrosity From decided was appropriate to pit you against, dozens of times – but there’s going to be pleasure too.

There’s going to be the satisfaction of a job well done, when you finally do get the patterns down, and more importantly, match yours to your foe. There will be joy in finding little scraps of story and lore, despite never really knowing exactly what the hell is going on. There will even be pride, when you look back over a well-worn path and feel yourself improving.

My trial by (bon)fire really began with Bloodborne, and Dark Souls III looks – and feels – a lot like From’s weirdest game. So much so that I truly missed the interrupt attacks and the rally feature – where you could recover some of your lost health by mercilessly whaling on an enemy. I never really messed with shields, favoring the pyromancer build with a flame spell in my left and my melee weapon in my right.

Early areas of Dark Souls III – graveyards, crumbling ruins crawling with undead – practically scream Bloodeborne’s name. I could’ve sworn I saw reused art assets in Lothric Tower – an area that looks like Old Yharnam and Yahar’gul had a nasty little baby. This isn’t a bad thing – I loved the creepy, bizarre world of the previous game, so the familiar territory was practically a welcome home, until the game kicked my teeth in, repeatedly.

Some of that punishment was unnecessary. I know that Dark Souls will make me pay for every sloppy mistake – any random enemy can kill you, if you aren’t paying attention, and bosses require precise strategy as well as the dexterity to pull it off – but sometimes, I died for the most ridiculous reasons. Like the time an enemy got into an elevator with me, and trying to attack it mean I fell to my death. Or the countless times the camera didn’t register my lock-on, instead swooping to the least useful angle at the moment. When a game is this difficult, it’s up to the mechanics to be as clean and transparent as possible, and the design to communicate to the player precisely what is needed to succeed. Dark Souls III does this most of the time, but it’s in those few moments where it doesn’t that threw me into white-hot rage.

It’s also, frankly, not a lot of fun if you totally suck at it. Sticking with the game, having patience with yourself and its exacting design, you’ll make progress. But spending hours farming souls just to level up and get a little cushion makes for a frustrating use of time, and it’s fair to say that not every adult with a busy life will want to put in the time to get good enough.

This is where Dark Souls becomes difficult to write about, particularly as elements of the games have calcified at 5 entires. Bloodborne remains the natural entry point for gamers weaned on other combat-based action games. It’s the most accessible game in the series, and possibly the best, if only because its weirdness is a wonderful thing to watch unfold. But there’s enough to recommend here – particularly the terrifying boss and world design – for anyone with curiosity and the will to take their boo-boos like a big unkindled and learn from their mistakes.

Curiosity, then, is as important as patience in enjoying Dark Souls III. It’s the combat that dominates the moment-to-moment experience, but the dreamy landscapes and barely-comprehensible lore that keeps me dragging my sore behind back to the game, eager for more. There’s something sad and beautiful and distinctly odd about this world, so much so that I find myself poring over fan theories and lore descriptions in the hours I’m not playing it. The mystery sustains me, and the barely-translated dream logic of the world entices me. I want to know everything about Dark Souls III, and I love that I never will.

I’m not done with Dark Souls III yet – more accurately, it’s not done with me. I have many more hours of punishment and play before I can hang up my sweaty helm and walk out the door. At least, until the next game arrives.