Review: Dark Souls III (**** stars) (Part 4)

Part 3

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Nostalgia

The thing about all these improvements is that, for the most part, they are good! Very good! Especially on paper! Dark Souls III nails the “Souls” formula much better than Dark Souls II, that’s for sure. That’s what you get when the game is, you know, actually finished! Even so, there’s a decidedly lack of originality from a From Software product.

Dark Souls III is an iterative product, pure and simple. This is the first entry in the series where I truly felt as if the developers rested on their laurels, letting hype and marketing make up the difference. To give that feeling of a “sequel”, they lifted things wholesale from the first game, as already mentioned, but that also comes from some of the areas. I suppose we’re venturing into SPOILER territory here, but many areas and boss encounters clearly echo content from the first game, if not directly copied in their entirety.

The Abyss Watchers plays like Artorias of the Abyss with multiple foes; Anor Londo appears, with no mistaking its appearance or that it’s a direct homage. Andre of Astora just appears in the game for reasons that aren’t clear to me. Enemies return from previous areas (so many Black and Silver Knights!), and memorable spots from the original game end up here as well. I get that this is the “last” game in the series, and that recalling your past in a game about eternal cycles is important, but man if they aren’t relying on nostalgia for a lot of the game’s charm. I’ll even add that the number of new weapons and armor sets is quite low; more than half of them come from the other two games, and that’s a pretty big shame when we could wield new weapons with cool new designs. I can understand how they were able to create three Souls games in about 5 years times: just copy assets and stuff. Dark Souls III isn’t exactly shy about it!

Those elements, unfortunately, ruin your suspension of disbelief. When I saw them, it broke my immersion in the tense action/exploration that’s core to the Souls experience. At best, they appear as a cool callback, and at worse it’s blatant fan-pandering. How else do you explain the Solaire covenant appearing yet again? A neat character in the first game is now a joke with zero context attached to it, no more than a way to exploit a player’s affection for an original character they liked. With a company like From Software, I expect originality, even in their sequels. With Dark Souls II, which was not perfect by any means, I got the sense they wanted to distance themselves from the first game as much as possible. Dark Souls III, however, tries to be Dark Souls I so much that it fails to establish its own unique identity.

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Conclusions

I guess that’s how I came to my 4/5 conclusion. Dark Souls III, like all good sequels, improves on the fundamental experience that the brand exemplifies, but it just doesn’t do much beyond that. I’m thinking that I will always have this problem with every Souls game I play after the first one. Once the learning curve and the surprise disappear, what can a Souls game really do except, well, finish the series with a solid, competent entry? Maybe my expectations are simply too high, but a Souls game need to surprise as well as entertain. Dark Souls III comes so far down the line that it can’t do much but improve on what’s already there. I can’t say that my thoughts going into this game were “Dark Souls II disappointed me; this will deliver!” I simply assumed I would play yet another competently made Souls game with the Miyazaki touch. But, even Miyazaki’s dark and moody atmosphere can’t fundamentally change this franchise now that it sells so many copies.

I think it really comes down to the first Souls game you play always being the best one. Souls games desire a player who doesn’t know anything, someone blundering into a hostile world that wants him to die. It wants that player to understand the thrill of overcoming obstacles, of seeking accomplishment over a seemingly impossible hill. Over time, they will learn the game and they, personally, will “level up”, understand the game, and attune to its nuances. But, you can’t pull that trick more than once; the rest of us just pine for a time when we were ignorant and didn’t know any better, because Souls just isn’t the same without that sense of mystery. As a known quantity, Souls games just don’t play the same as they used to for me personally, and I know that comes down to me. The game’s fine; I am the one who’s changed.

It’s a bit like Paul talking about the perfect versus the imperfect, except in Souls terms, I know in full.

 Love never fails; but if there are gifts of prophecy, they will be done away; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be done away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part; 10 but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away. 11 When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things. 12 For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known. 13 But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love.

Once Christ entered the picture, the disciples knew, but they didn’t know. You can read this in any of the Gospels, and see the same exact thing: while they believed in some sense, they didn’t understand what was happening until the things Jesus said came to pass. Playing a game like Dark Souls’ sequels gives us, at least, a bit of a prefiguring of how that will feel – although, obviously, not in the apathetic, boring way I am listening! Human beings simply cannot create something that can keep us surprised and entertained forever. Only God can really fulfill the desires of our hearts, much as we might try to find it elsewhere.

Even when they tried to make Dark Souls III pleasing to veterans like myself, it only takes a few hours to understand the fundamental changes and nuances of the new system. For me, after the Abyss Watchers, I had pretty much mastered the game from ship to stern. Even without knowing what I would encounter in the areas to come, it’s not like I felt frightened or tense at all. I already knew that I would die, and to spend my Souls immediately upon reaching a bonfire (another problem of the teleportation system is that Souls are easy to accrue and immediately spend). Nothing much surprised me after I had to learn the dodge timing, and that made every boss after them nearly trivial. I had more problem with the minibosses (like Sulyvahn’s Dogs or the Irithyll Knight) than the bosses, and that’s a bit disappointing! I guess I’ve had my fill of this series, and I think that it’s a perfectly fine entry to end it for a long time to come. If they release one more in the coming years, I’m afraid things will get stale, and that’s the last thing I want from a Souls game!

But, to know that you are done with a game like this isn’t a bad thing! I appreciate and enjoyed my time with the Souls games (though I’m still interested in giving Bloodborne a shot), and I wouldn’t say that Dark Souls III is horrible by any means in comparison to its predecessors. Its failings are really impossible to fix unless something fundamental changes about the series, which I assume will never happen. I’m content to say I had a good time with Dark Souls III, but the formula’s starting to wear thin without any fundamental changes to the core.

In short: Dark Souls III is a perfectly competent Souls game…but I don’t think that’s a good thing.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.
  • Doe_Clapton

    What a ride this review was in and of itself. I wish other reviews were as robust and in depth as this. Phenomenal job Zach!

    • Zachery Oliver

      I try to be thorough! The more attention we pay to all the elements of the game, the better we can understand it (despite needing 6600 words to say it). Much appreciate the complements!