Dark Souls 3

September 10, 2016

“Nameless, accursed undead, unfit even to be Cinder… and so it is, that Ash seeketh Embers”

Once again, the Fire fades, and once again, we’re transported to a world of lords and fire, of dragons and sorcery, and of darkness, for the same cryptic purpose: to Link the Fire, and renew the Age of Light.

From its opening cinematic, Dark Souls 3 establishes the epic scale, the legendary stakes, and the somber, gothic tone that will color the game. The journey is familiar, another turning of the wheel that is the Dark Souls mythos, and yet the world seems more fragile and chaotic than ever. A library could probably be written analyzing and recording the lore of the Souls series, but here’s the gist:

The world of Dark Souls is defined by a cycle - an Age of Fire, which fades unless the Fire is rekindled - or "Linked". As the fire fades, a curse emerges amidst humanity - victims are marked by the Darksign, and are unable to rest in death, cursed to resurrect continuously as an undead. With each resurrection, the victim loses some of their humanity and sanity, until they're nothing more than a mindless husk, or "Hollow". Typically it falls to an undead to harness their immortality and amass enough strength to serve as kindling for the Fire (quite literally). With the Fire renewed, the undead curse abates and the Age of Fire begins again.

Dark Souls 3 begins as an Age of Fire fades, but this time, things are more dire - no undead champion has arisen in this age, and the Fire is fast-fading, threatening to plunge the world into an Age of Darkness. In a last desperate attempt, beings who managed to rekindle the Fire in the past, called “Lords of Cinder” - are resurrected, in the hope that together they have enough strength to refuel the fire. The Lords are unwilling to do so, though, and retreat back deep within their own domains. In response, you, the Unkindled, are awoken - a being of undead ash, tasked with gathering up the Lords of Cinder by force and rekindling the fire yourself.

This may seem like a lot of setup for a review, but it’s my opinion that the lore is an integral part of what makes this game great. Chances are, if you’ve heard one thing about the Souls’ series, it’s probably that they're soul-crushingly difficult; that’s become the defining trait of the games for many, and it is definitely a huge part of their identity. However, the mythology and storytelling behind the series is staggeringly detailed and complex, and is woven with such care and coupled so tightly with the gameplay that it should really be mentioned in any discussion of the games.

Most of the lore is pieced together from item descriptions and cryptic dialogue and much of it is left to speculation and theory - like the gameplay itself, you're left to figure it out on your own. The bottom line? There's a rich and detailed mythos beneath the surface that's free to explore if you care to, and that adds a lot to the overall experience. That said, the game is still an outstanding experience for those without the inclination to seek out these details.

So, with the stage set, let’s begin.

The Basics

Dark Souls 3 is an RPG, and the setup will be familiar for anyone who’s played one before - choose a starting class, some starting equipment, and spend far too much time customizing a face that’ll be covered by a helmet almost immediately. The game features scores of weapons, spells, and skills to choose from - you can choose to become anything from a simple sword-and-shield knight (my personal pick, for my first playthrough) to a lighting-hurling cleric or a fire-brandishing pyromancer. Some options are definitely easier than others; the knight has the advantage of a solid shield from the start, which definitely helped chip away at the admittedly brutal learning curve.

And from the start, we face the aforementioned difficulty that the Souls games are famous for - after your first few steps, you’re thrown into the deep end with an angry crystal lizard beast, and you’ll have your first test of patience. Combat in DS3 is unforgiving - one dodge roll in the wrong direction, one greedy slash at a foe, and you’re punished almost immediately with death. It’s easy to become frustrated, especially at the beginning. The menu system is overwhelming and the game does little to nothing to explain what you should be doing, or how, and even the controls are obscure to start. Even after multiple playthroughs it’s apparent that the first quarter of the game seems to cross from “difficult” to “controller-smashing”, especially for those new to the series.

The amount of information is overwhelming, and while some is useful, some can be ignored entirely.

After you’ve gotten your bearings and learned the ropes a bit, the game truly begins to open up. There are some barriers based on which Lords of Cinder you’ve slain, but multiple areas are available for exploration almost immediately. The range of environments is incredible - poisonous swamps, mountain crags, ruined castles, and a moonlit city are just a few of the backdrops to the adventure. 

“The game feels huge, and many of the areas, bosses and enemies are totally optional - but don’t pass on them. ”

With each locale comes a unique swath of enemies, many with detailed (and almost invariably tragic) lore behind them. The game feels huge, and many of the areas, bosses, and enemies are totally optional - but don’t pass on them. Explore everything. There are a number of side quests, mini-bosses, and other secrets that could easily be missed in a hasty playthrough.

It should be noted that several of the optional areas and bosses would no doubt be marketed and sold as DLC in almost any other franchise. While there is paid DLC for DS3 on the way, it's refreshing to see an already-substantial "vanilla" game include so many detailed bonuses and secrets without attaching a price tag to them.

The Big Bads

At the heart of each of these environments lurks one - or sometimes many - bosses. The boss fights are another hallmark of the Souls series and DS3 does not disappoint. Confrontations are epic and the cutscenes that precede them give real weight to these encounters. That weight is important - when you’re facing a Lord of Cinder, you know it; in fact, I haven’t been so awed by boss encounters since Shadow of the Colossus. The bosses, like the lesser enemies that surround them, also vary wildly. From swift and aggressive swordsmen to lumbering giants and arcane sorcerers, each foe offers a unique test of skill - but all demand patience and precision. Each of these is a trial by fire and the last boss you'll face serves as a well-orchestrated, climactic final exam to test the skills you've honed.

In particular, seek out the Nameless King and Champion Gundyr - both of these fights are optional, but both offer a spectacular challenge, and are considered to be the hardest battles in the game. Each offers some interesting lore tidbits, too, if that’s your thing.

The Other Worlds

Multiplayer in Dark Souls is equal parts multiverse theory, fight club, and social experiment. Here’s how it works: every player exists and makes progress in their own personal game world. However, if your console is connected to the internet, you’re given opportunities to interact with other players nearby in their own game worlds.

The simplest example of this is the message system. Players can create messages from predefined words / phrase templates, and scrawl them on the floor of their game world. Then, if another player is in the same area, that player will be able to see that message in their game world.

This mechanic has some interesting implications; ahead of boss rooms, messages range from celebrations, to lamentations, to “advice” (my favorite being the oh-so-helpful “try beating to a pulp”). “Beware left” and “ambush ahead” attempt to warn future Unkindled from traps and lurking enemies, and are among the most common messages scattered throughout the world. “Treasure ahead” before a cliff or other deadly area is also a regular sight, sometimes paired with the bitter “liar ahead”. These expose another side of Dark Souls 3 - a humorous, tongue-in-cheek element to the game that I was pleasantly surprised by.

Messages aren’t the only interaction, though. The primary feature of DS3 multiplayer is the ability to invade, or be summoned to, other players’ worlds as a “phantom”. Invasions are simple. Certain items in the game allow players to invade other game worlds and attempt to kill the host, whether for fun, or because they’ve joined a “covenant” (an in-game faction) that demands it. Summonings are a bit different, and come in two flavors - white and red. Placing a white summoning sign down will allow other players to use the sign to summon you for help in their world. Placing a red summoning sign down is a challenge - passing players can use these to summon you to their worlds to duel.

Bowing before a duel is one of the customs that's emerged within the Souls online community.

An important note: since the first game in the series, the Souls games have not had voice chat, or text chat beyond messages. In fact, there’s really only one primary method of communication between players - gestures. Things like waving, jumping for joy, or bowing. Rather than hindering communication, this lack of direct language has instead led to some fascinating emergent gameplay, and the formation of customs within the series: for instance, before any duel, it’s customary to use one of the bow gestures to acknowledge your opponent.

More complex traditions have also arisen, including the emergence of “fight clubs”. In this case, one player, the “host”, will summon multiple phantoms, typically in a fairly calm area of the game world. These phantoms will square off, with the host acting as a referee of sorts. Those victorious will stay on, and the host will continue to summon phantoms to duke it out (in the video above, I’m acting as host for the two red phantoms). Keep in mind that all of this is organized without voice or text - only by being “in the know”, and through gestures. At any point, one (or both) of the red phantoms in my video could have turned and killed me, but what amounts to “cultural tradition” allows me to summon them, and then gesture from one to the other and trust that they’ll know what’s up.

There are problems with the multiplayer system, though. At one point, myself and two friends were attempting to jump into the same game world to play, and spent nearly 2 hours unsuccessfully troubleshooting what should be a really simple process.

The reason I can't be mad about that, though, is that even if you skip the optional areas, ignore the lore, and play offline, Dark Souls 3, in it's simplest form, is still a great game. 


Get to know Dark Souls 3. At the surface, it’s a brutal but rewarding RPG experience; beyond that, though, you’ll find a complex mythology, an enthusiastic online community, and more than a touch of humor behind the gothic facade.