After the gruelling Lovecraftian gothic horror stylings of Bloodborne, From Software have returned to the gruelling medieval fantasy where they made their name. Once more you are a nameless undead in a ruined world where hope fades, once more you must face withering difficulty and monstrous bosses as you negotiate mighty fortresses, rotting villages, toxic swamps and crumbling catacombs in a quest you scarcely understand, once more you will die a lot.
In many ways this is the best of the series – the impossible castles are bigger than ever, the monsters more varied, the action slicker, and the unique atmosphere of mysterious brooding doom is still present and correct. Graphics are much improved, with interiors far more detailed and varied and the vistas of mad ruins more gobsmacking than ever. The delicate touch with the information is still there – the story delivered in tantalising fragments of dialogue and item descriptions that allow the careful player to piece together their own idea of what’s going on. The sense of a surprisingly interconnected world which was maybe lost a bit in Dark Souls 2 seemed to be back in this instalment too, with some amazing reveals, haunting perspectives and crazy architecture.
Maybe I’ve just got used to what’s expected, but it felt as if, along with a slightly slicker interface, the difficulty has been softened again. You still need your wits about you at all times and, yeah, sure, you’re gonna die a lot, but it rarely feels positively unfair in the way that previous games sometimes could, doesn’t force you to push through the same section and fight the same monsters as often as in the past, and with sufficient determination the progress is steady. That’s both a good and a bad thing, I think – the frustration is less, but the corresponding feeling of achievement is less too. This iteration felt just that little bit more routine for some sections, more of a reliable pattern of: open up new area, figure out its monsters, probe for the path forward while picking up loot, then open up new area. There was less fear, less shock, less of the sweaty palms that have come with this series’ best moments.
I find RPGs often have a ‘sweet spot’. A time half way through when the world feels huge, the plot feels driving, the scope for development of character and gear vast. Then will come a moment as you close in on the end where suddenly you realise there’s not much left to do and the illusion of there being all that much point to all the levelling up and collecting of stuff starts to crumble. For me that happened earlier than I was expecting with Dark Souls 3 – certainly than it had with other games in the series – and towards the end I felt I was going through the motions a bit. Didn’t help that the very end felt a bit underdeveloped – a slightly bland boss fight then a one minute cut scene? I thought they could’ve done better.
I don’t mean to sound down on it because it’s still a great game. In every measurable way you’d have to say it was a solid step on but, I dunno, after four games of this (including the prototype of sorts, Demons Souls) there was a bit of a sense of having seen it all before: Bonfires, hollows, elaborate shortcuts, invading spirits, various knights, elusive shreds of story, about six corrupted cathedrals. It’s a fine line between ingeniously referencing your previous successes and just chugging away at your greatest hits, and at times it felt as though Dark Souls 3 was teetering towards the latter. It’s a shame, in a way, as dark fantasy is obviously close to my heart, and Dark Souls 3 was still a great game, but in the end I think Bloodborne was the more memorable, more exciting development of the core concept.