“Demon’s Souls” was quite the anomaly when it came out. At a time when games were becoming more streamlined, it jettisoned such niceties as a pause button and grew harder the more you died. Furthermore, certain actions, never explicitly disclosed to the player, could shift the world between different “tendencies” altering the game’s possibilities. Without the extensive consultation of an online wiki, much of the game’s depths would be lost on all but the most zealous of players. It made most other RPG and action titles seem trite by comparison.
But what was once disarmingly new is now a known entity. 2011’s “Dark Souls” trimmed some of “Demon’s Souls” more esoteric elements — its world tendencies and its escalating difficulty tied to failure — while expanding the game’s scope and seamlessly unifying its environments. The game won rapturous praise for its world design and raised the fortunes of its director, Hidetaka Miyazaki, who went on to become president of From Software in 2014. Miyazaki relinquished his directorial role for “Dark Souls 2” (2014), which received favorable reviews when it came out but has since been relegated to the least appreciated game in the cannon. Now, Miyazaki’s latest directorial effort, “Dark Souls 3,” comes just one year after he shepherded the development of the Souls-offshoot, “Bloodborne.”
For a series that’s always cloaked itself in mystery, “Dark Souls 3” comes with the weight of overexposure. Nowadays, the Souls series is milked for buzzwords and knockoffs. For example, last month the gaming world was atwitter over “Salt and Sanctuary,” a 2-d style version of a Souls game which aspired to be simply that. As for the series’ vaunted difficulty level, within two weeks of “Dark Souls 3’s” release in Japan, a speedrunner finished the game in less than two hours.
Souls games have always encouraged multiple playthroughs via their New Game+ feature, which allows a player to carry over his souped-up avatar from one game to another while at the same time increasing the difficulty of enemies and upping the value of the rewards. Forcing oneself to get better is the gift it gives to the player. Anyone who has weathered one of these long games will have a range of useful strategies committed to muscle memory. (Speedrunners, for instance, know when the best time is to evade a conflict.) Over time, playing these games can move from being an exercise in masochism to a quasi-meditative practice.
One of the more interesting aspects of “Dark Souls 3” is how it toys with a Souls veteran’s vanity. After I felled the game’s first two bosses without much ado, I grew fairly complacent in my ability to read an opponent’s movesets and anticipate things like an ambush. Since Souls games are notorious for throwing players into the deep end early on, I imagined that I knew the ropes. My self-assurance was dashed after I encountered the Abyss Watchers, a boss fight that got me with the classic Soul trick of reanimating a vanquished foe into an exponentially more powerful enemy. I lost a day to that fight.
As it happens, “Dark Souls 3” contains some of my favorite boss fights in the series. The Deacons of the Deep sees the player face off against an ecclesiastical order of skeletons arrayed in different vestments. The trick in the fight is to spot, amongst the rabble, a group of fiery-eyed skeletons that are vulnerable to attack. Kill them and a mist will rise up and descend on another group imbuing them with a similar unholy light. The lapsed Catholic in me delighted in slaying those desiccated elders caught by the spirit.
At moments such as these, or when I turned a blind corner in an underground area to see a city that looked like a fairy-tale rendition of St. Petersburg, I was reminded of the series’ ability to surprise, which was a good thing because many of the environments are reinterpretations of the stages of past games. While I didn’t mind seeing how Irithyll Dungeon recalls the Tower of Latria from “Demon’s Souls,” I couldn’t repress the idea that nostalgia has crept into the series — indeed, isn’t that what fan service is all about?
With its handsomely-crafted labyrinths and rigorously paced combat, “Dark Souls 3” hits all the notes that aficionados have come to expect. Still, I hope Miyazaki’s next creation finds a new way to cut against the grain.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer who has been playing video games since the days of the Atari 2600. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the Barnes & Noble Review, Al Jazeera America, the Guardian and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.
More game reviews: