When Dark Souls emerged, so brooding and so strange, in 2011, it had that most treasured of all video game attributes: novelty. Dark fantasy action games are a staple of a medium that rarely ventures from the agreed confines of genre.
But only players of Hidetaka Miyazaki’s little-known game, Demon’s Souls, were familiar with the director’s talent for arranging castles, knights, swords and dragons in such a beguiling manner.
As a child, Miyazaki would borrow western fantasy books from the library, then, unable to read them, would imagine stories to accompany the illustrations. Through his games he has revealed an understanding of the power of enigma. Where most designers gingerly lead the player while explaining every rule and backstory nugget in wearying detail, Miyazaki constantly withholds information, thereby provoking a much keener interest – which is then compounded by the fact that every enemy encounter is a life or death battle.
The novelty is gone in this, the third and final Dark Souls game. Most players are familiar with the titles and have either succumbed to their mesmerising rhythms or skulked away. Where once Dark Souls felt furtive and refreshing, an antidote to the mainstream parade of minutely tinkered video game sequels, now it is part of the same cycle. And yet, the cyclical nature of life, death and rebirth is the foundational theme of this series; your character revives after death, and may return to the point of his or her demise to collect what was dropped. In this way, revisiting this realm does not weary or undermine what came before. Rather, it completes the circle. And it does so with arguably Miyazaki and his Shinjuku-based team’s greatest flourish yet.
In the first Dark Souls, Lordran was a place buffered and ruined by time as much as by violence. At once ethereal and vividly tangible, with its rain-slicked cobblestones, and moss-covered pillars, its history was partially obscured by nature’s reclaiming work. As such, you had to unpick the story of the place like an archaeologist digging at ruins, or by reading the abstruse descriptions on items plundered from crisp-dry corpses, or rust-stuck chests. In Dark Souls 3, the setting is Lothric, though we do return to certain areas of Lordran which have been further disrupted by decay. You meet old friends, enemies and acquaintances, but each has been changed in mysterious ways; you visit places that seem familiar but for a few new architectural arrangements, as if encountered in a recurring yet warping dream.
Firelink Shrine is one such place. Once positioned on a cliff surrounded by crumbling pillars, it was a dear place of refuge in the first game, a spiritual centre where the elemental warmth of its health-restoring firelight could be enjoyed without fear of attack. In Dark Souls 3, Firelink Shrine performs the same function, but here it’s found in a grand, throne-room like structure, with stratospheric ceilings and a warren of tunnels and stairwells. You may heal your character, level up their abilities, meet with a benevolent blacksmith who can fortify your weapons, and trade with other various salespeople. In this location, the weird and colourful characters whom you meet in your travels congregate, with their freakish sniffles, bent backs, and glinting masks. Firelink becomes, as one character puts it late in the game, a “cesspool of doddering old-folk and degenerates.” It’s an unfair judgement. Besides, you must take every friend you can get in a place like this.
There have been several concessions to the series’ renowned difficulty, which has surely caused injury to many a controller, smushed into the carpet while the refrain ‘You Died’ drips onto the screen. There is, for example, a more generous spattering of bonfires throughout the world, those life-giving warp points which offer you shortcuts into the mystery as, scene by scene, you clear the fog of war. Those glittering bugs which carry essential crafting material on their backs no longer vanish after a few seconds, meaning you’ll only need to chase them into a corner to catch and harvest them. Years of muscle memory build-up will enable veterans of the series to blitz through many of its boss fights, those spectacular encounters that demand players first observe and learn the enemy’s patterns before launching their own assaults. In some areas foes of different stripes will even turn on one another (a particularly memorable battle uses this idea to disorientating effect), further easing the sense that you are the only opposing force in this opposing world.
As in Miyazaki’s gothic horror masterpiece, Bloodborne, every weapon now has a special ability, making the acquisition of new items a constant delight. While the second game in the series (the only one not to have been directed by Miyazaki) is seen by the majority as a less cohesive piece of work, with forgettable boss designs and a far less elegant and delightful layout, many argue that, in terms of its moment to moment play, it’s the better game. Most of its improvements to the original’s interactions (the ability to roll in multiple directions; the ability to teleport between bonfires from the beginning of the game; the option to equip multiple rings; the increased flexibility of character builds and so on) carry across. Dark Souls 3, meanwhile, rediscovers the weight and lore of the debut, thereby combining the best of its two predecessors. It may not have the novelty of the first Dark Souls, but it is, by most measures, the more pristine and rounded work.
Last year, two writers of blockbuster video games, Tom Bissell (Gears of War 3, Uncharted 4) and Matthew Burns (Halo) released a Twine game set in a fictional yet apparently true-to-life American video game studio. The Writer Will Do Something examines the frustration of the videogame scriptwriter in trying to shape story in a medium that, in most cases, is led by interactive design. In one scene the game’s creative director screams at team members who keep referencing Dark Souls in the design meetings. In the story, the creative director argues that Dark Souls’ design is not ‘commercially viable’ for the scope of the blockbuster on which the team is working. It’s a fictional conversation that has surely happened across many studios many times in the past few years. The Dark Souls series is beloved of designers, who see its singular, idiosyncratic approach, and seemingly uncompromised vision as an example of everything they hope to achieve.
In truth, Dark Souls is un-replicable precisely because of its individuality. Yes, many of its best moments have been felt in other games through the years: the joyful surprise of opening an unlikely shortcut, the rush of dopamine at defeating a long-standing boss, the thrill of upgrading a character and evening the odds, the sense of aesthetic wonder at a piece of grand architecture. But no game has combined them in such an alluring and memorable way, or with such adherence to cohesive vision. Break apart the whole, and the pieces remain, in many cases, best in class. Dark Souls 3 has the best life-like combat system of any video game, for example. And its cathedrals are unmatched. So too is this trilogy.
Namco Bandai; PS4/Xbox One; £40; Pegi rating: 16+
This article was written by Simon Parkin, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 12th April 2016 08.52 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010