Monday, April 25, 2016

Dark Souls 3, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Praise the Sun

Game: Dark Souls III
From Software, 2016 (PC version reviewed)

Dark Souls 3 is Dark Souls 2 at heart. Not the Dark Souls 2 that actually exists, mind you - a great game but flawed sequel in many of the ways it parted from its predecessor - but the Dark Souls 2 that might have been had it recaptured the essence of the first and built directly upon its successes. Sometimes it does a bit too much recapturing and a bit too little building, sure. But it gets the balance right where it matters most, and it’s tough to imagine any fan of the series coming away disappointed with its conclusion.

DS3 isn’t shy about its sequel status; in fact it’s constantly celebrating it. From the moment the familiar title screen appears and the music begins, the game revels in its place in the trilogy. Where the first Dark Souls featured only quiet, cut by the harsh slashing noise of the player pressing “any button to continue,” and the second introduced a soft, pensive chorus, DS3 bursts into a full-blown choral requiem not-so-subtly indebted to Mozart’s. It’s a fitting crescendo for a game that is in every way aware of its derivative nature as a sequel while simultaneously being determined to take those familiar elements and push them to their extremes. 

Hello, old frenemies.
The very first boss epitomizes this, a beautiful little fight combining elements of DS1’s Artorias battle with a very Bloodborne-esque transformation phase. It’s hard to think of a more exciting way to welcome veteran players to this new yet familiar chapter while teaching newcomers the core principles of the series, its combat, and it’s themes. On that front, the developers took criticisms of the infamous Souls obtuseness to heart and deigned to supply in the new Firelink Shrine the most helpful and accessible tutorials of the series. The game is probably still opaque as hell to first timers, don’t get me wrong, but it’s nice to see From Software making some basic concessions to mechanical guidance while still leaving plenty of room for discovery where more advanced aspects of DS3’s systems are concerned. 
Bloodborne’s grandiose Gothic architecture returns in spades.

Not all the changes are for the better. It’s hard not to be disappointed that DS3’s Firelink Shrine has reverted to the abstract teleportation hub that is the Nexus of Demon’s Souls, rather than DS1’s central axis from which the surrounding world is unlocked like a puzzle box. But while large stretches of DS3 at first seem to unravel in a fairly linear fashion after Firelink, it quickly becomes apparent that the world is as massive and full of alternative routes and secret paths as DS1, if not more so . The areas are gorgeously crafted, each evoking memories of prior Souls entries or Bloodborne while building something entirely new on those memories. The introductory High Wall of Lothric and the Undead Settlement, for example, while instantly reminiscent of the Undead Burg, turn out to have much more in common with Bloodborne’s terrifyingly hostile Central Yharnam. Rather than the staid, largely passive undead guardians of DS1, these areas are full of frenzied religious mobs, packs of hounds, and nightmare creatures that burst from the shadows, all pushing the player toward Bloodborne’s much faster pace of combat and crowd control skills than DS1’s “Try luring them out one at a time” duel-like approach to encounters. These areas are still meticulously designed puzzles to be unlocked through careful exploration, creativity, and plain old trial and error, but the frenetic new pace and variety of enemies succeed in injecting Bloodborne’s excited fear into the proceedings in a way that DS2’s tedious clusters of identical sword-wielding humanoids so frequently failed to do.

For all the allure of Fashion Souls you might be surprised to see half the player base running around dressed as Raggedy Kylo Ren.
The nods to previous From Software titles can feel overbearing to the point of fan service at first. My emotions at rediscovering old allies and locales peaked in the first hour and almost immediately ebbed after that when I started to worry DS3 was content to be the sequel that rehashes the best moments of its predecessors, then calls it a day. That worry didn’t last long. Without spoiling anything specific, the frequent throwbacks and nods to history do turn out to serve an important thematic purpose that pays off big dividends in the second half of the game, when I was surprised to find myself affected and even disturbed by the places DS3 proves willing to go to both to fulfill and to subvert the themes established by the series. I know this spoiler-aversion makes for a horribly vague way to discuss story, and I’m aware that the effectiveness of these narrative moments is often limited to those who have obsessively explored previous Souls worlds and their surrounding lore,* but all I can say is that I found them deeply satisfying and as appropriate a conclusion to the trilogy as I could have hoped for. 

DS3’s bosses come in all shapes and sizes, but the biggest and baddest are the biggest and baddest of any Souls yet.
Even sixty hours and one ending in, it’s too early for me to speculate where the game stands among the From titles. The full potential of these games isn’t always apparent on a first playthrough or before having had some time to reflect on and live with the experience. Some initial disappointment aside, I had a blast with my first DS2 encounter, and it wasn’t until revisiting DS1 and returning to DS2 that I realized how much less satisfied I was with it as a Souls game, and how much less interested I was in plumbing the depths of its world than I was with its predecessor and Demon’s Souls. But I can confidently say some superlative things about DS3. The bosses are beautiful, hulking creations that prove a thrill to discover and a joy to master, providing challenges to match the most memorable fights in the series. More than in any previous Souls game I found myself not wanting to move past a given area until I had engaged in jolly cooperation with other players dozens of times, learning the ins and outs of these titans and vicariously re-experiencing the pleasure of besting them. A friend I recently introduced to the series pointed out that some of these battles reminded him as much of Shadow of the Colossus as they did of DS1, and I can think of no better compliment to From than that they have succeeded in wedding the titanic scale and puzzle-like design of those creatures with the intense combat intricacies of Souls, accompanied by the simultaneously most sweeping and most personal orchestrations Yuka Kitamura and Motoi Sakuraba have yet composed for the series.

Papers could and have been written on the From design philosophy and what makes their worlds tick so distinctively. We can point to numerous core elements and speculate to what extent they’re the “secret sauce” imparting that unmistakable Souls flavor no one else has yet managed to imitate. The brutality of the combat and the careful precision it demands. The unique sense of accomplishment that comes from mastering something so challenging and precise. The mystery of an ancient world largely uninterested in the player character or in giving away its secrets. The thrill of putting together the pieces of those secrets and beginning to discern patterns in the dream-like chaos. The visual design that is equal parts familiar and alien, historically gothic yet otherworldly in its proportions and inhabitants.
You won’t want for excuses to stop and take in the view...
Maybe it’s some of those things; maybe it’s the careful combination of them. I haven’t even touched upon the multiplayer component that, PVE and PVP alike, is so singular to this series in the ways in which it seamlessly integrates with the “solo” game experience, now expanded and perhaps even perfected in DS3. I certainly haven’t spent the time I should have complaining about the state of the PC port, which a month after its initial Japanese release remains as plagued by network bugs and online instabilities as on day one. 

...buut you’ll be taking in this slightly less welcome view quite a lot as well.
But I could talk about one or another aspect for this game for pages and still have volumes to write,** so on some level this review was always going to be a half-assed summary. I haven’t made any secret that Dark Souls was my favorite game of its generation - and maybe ever - so maybe it’s enough  to say Dark Souls 3 is the sequel I always thought it deserved. If last year’s Bloodborne wasn’t evidence enough of the difference it makes to have Hidetaka Miyazaki at the helm, this should be plenty for anyone. It may not be as exciting to see the director retread familiar ground as it was to see him build an entirely new world, but it’s remarkably fulfilling to experience the way he puts an end to the old. 

* A not-small percentage of the Souls fan base, to be fair.
** And hopefully will, one of these days.

Loved it!

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