“Some day the flame will fade and only embers will remain.” This exact quote has been rehashed and muttered by countless characters in the Dark Souls franchise. The climatic end to this trilogy is a spiraling descent into utter madness which forces the player to examine the game worlds darkest motifs. For the uniformed, the Dark Souls series is noteworthy for two things: its difficulty that expects the player to learn and adapt to his or her surroundings and its relatively abstract lore and history. FromSoftware dark-fantasy RPG series from the outside perspective appears to lack any sense or overall story. This is a shallow and misconstrued examination. Like the difficult gameplay that forces the player to learn on their own, the story in itself parallels the gameplay very much so. The lore and story, the implications of a grand overarching story are all in the game; the player must simply look for it. Whether it is told through abstract dialogue with various side characters, to the item descriptions for the player’s gear, to the very architecture and environment that is presented to the player, a story is in fact present. This story is cyclical in nature. The world of Dark Souls is poetic, a never ending struggle between the darkness of the abyss and the light of the first flame. Yet the idea of the light being the “good” and the darkness being “evil” is never truly expressed. Each game has the player either ending the age of fire or plunging the world into utter chaos but according to the game’s lore embers always remain and the fire is rekindled. This remains true even in Dark Souls III if the player chooses to do so.
You may be thinking, “Get on with the review already!” However, I cannot express how essential this struggle and cycle is when it comes to the central tenants of this games and the franchise. Games as a whole encompass more than the gameplay presented to the player. The specific way developers choose to feed players story varies significantly. FromSoftware’s unique approach throughout this titular franchise stand out personally. The player ultimately wields the power in Dark Souls III to either continue the previously mentioned cycle by feeding the first flame or leaving it alone, walking away from the player’s supposed destiny. The final choice effectively sees the world plunged into an eternal darkness with the player consuming the first flame and ushering in a world without light. These endings can be interpreted dozens of different ways, but I will spare you by not going into detail.
After already playing the game early thanks to the early release in Japan and by making a Japanese PlayStation Network Account, I finally was given the oppurtunuty to play the North American version this past Monday (4/11). To mark the beginning of my character’s journey on my PC version I tweeted out at Xbox and the games official Twitter account “And the descent into utter rage begins….. @DarkSoulsGame @Xbox I hope the Elite Controller can take it.” I by no means expected an actual response from Xbox’s Twitter account but oddly enough I received a response “@TheHuntGilbert Good luck, Hunter. Try not to go Hollow!” This was a kind and genuine response which happened to clean my mental pallet for the struggles I was about to endure. It is worth mention that “to go Hollow” is an in game mechanic in all games that slowly begins to make the player character look rotten and dead after each death.
To further understand the game it is worth explaining the RPG elements that Dark Souls III has. The player earns souls, a form of currency by killing enemies and selling items that are used to level up their character. Skill points are allotted into which ever category the player wants. This ranges from adding additional points to your Vigor trait (that grants the player additional health) to luck (which can increase the drop rate for items after killing enemies). The catch is that if the player dies they lose all of their souls. The game allows the player to regain these souls by treking to his/her point of death and simply picking them up from the ground. If the player dies again before doing so the souls are lost forever. This mechanic which has been in all Souls games has led countless players into fits of rage and frustration for essentially being sent backwards on their overall progress (at times countless hours of progress can be lost).
The variety of traits allow for the player to customize their character to fit their own playtstyle. Whether you choose to use a sword and shield or a spear and staff Dark Souls III allows the player to further decide how they will go about their trek to the first flame. Magic can be used as well, the variety and ability to decide between, hexes, miracles, pyromancy and normal sorcery form a perfect synthesis and variety of magical power for the player to wield.
One of the key tenants of every Souls game are the incredibly intimidating and elaborate boss fights. The series challenges the player to analyze each and every bosses move set on the fly while. Through countless deaths and at times fits of utter frustration, the strategy behind each boss is revealed. Most bosses have two stages, for example the first boss Iudex Gundyr begins the opening fight by wielding a large axe like weapon. Roughly halfway through the fight a dark serpent emerges from his back forming two enormous hands. The entire fight changes from a range battle to a more up close and personal engagement. In general, the change in fighting styles in boss fights in Dark Souls III becomes expected. At some times the health bar of the boss will come back altogether. This only occurs in a small amount of boss fights. Overall each boss fight proved to be incredibly enjoyable and difficult at times. Several bosses have some gimmicks but I felt as if they added to the overall presentation of each boss. Whether the gimmick was a specific weapon used to kill the boss or specific weak points that were the sole points of inflicting damage, each one felt necessary for the overarching engagement.
The average enemies encountered between boss fights have a enormous variety. Whether it is undead hounds or holy paladin knights, each and every enemy has their own unique move set for the most part. Some enemies may be larger scale versions of other enemies or maybe enemies that share the same weapon types strike the same way. The majority of the enemies in my opinion are push-overs in one on one engagements. On the other hand gangs of the exact same kind of enemies can prove to be quite the hassle. Meanwhile, certain enemies, especially in later environments prove to require almost as much precision and focus that is normally required in a boss fight. It is worth mentioning that most gear used by enemies can be eventually recovered after slaying said enemy (the drops do not always drop at a certain 100%). Fan favorite weapons and armor pieces from past games make appearances throughout Dark Souls III. I won’t spoil as to which ones return but some will absolutely create an essence of nostalgia. This applies to characters from past games as well. Some other reviewers claim that the game attempts to cater to players nostalgia from the past games too much. I personally find a perfect balance between new content and older gear.
It is worth noting one last new addition to the franchise: weapon arts. This new addition to the robust combat system adds unique move-sets to each kind of weapon. In some cases one of a kind moves are bound to each individual weapon but this does not apply across the board. Using spells along with these weapon arts uses FP, or the purple/bluish bar beneath the HP bar and above the stamina bar. FP is regained by either resting at a bonfire (waypoints used to warp across the world) or by chugging an Ashen Estus Flask (a consumable item that is refilled at each bonfire or upon death). Excluding weapon arts the formula for a Souls game is still present in Dark Souls III. It is worth mentioning that combat is somewhat quicker than that of the combat in previous Souls games. I personally corroborate this by the fact as to how fast combos are when using weapon arts.
As previously mentioned the plot of the game is to reach the first flame. However, for the player to do so they must first hunt down and kill the Lords of Cinder. These are 5 different associates that all share some sort of power found within the first flame. In order to rekindle the first flame their souls and life force must be transfuse into a vessel that will then replenish the life force of the flame. The player character is this vessel. At first the task of hunting down 5 individuals may seem daunting, especially since two of the individuals are in fact not one specific person but instead a group of individuals that all share the soul. The game does make the whole process easier since one of the 5 individuals that holds one of these souls is already waiting for the player at the Firelink Shrine, the hub for the gameworld. That leaves 4 other Lord souls that need to be stripped from their current holders. The first and last soul are set to specific bosses due to how the game progresses while the other two can be retrieved to the players choosing. I personally found that killing Yorm the Giant was a far easier task than killing Aldrich, the Devourer of Gods, first. Yet I will leave the entire process up to the reader/player.
After slaying all of the Lords of Cinder and combing their ashes in the Firelink Shrine the player is warped to a recognizable location to any player that has played Dark Souls I, The Kiln of the First Flame. This is when the entire game series clicked for me and I had an epiphany as to what I thought the series was trying to tell the player. As previously mentioned the average individual simply doesn’t put forth the effort to understand the cryptic nature of the story provided to the player in each game. The significance as to why the player has returned to this location is quickly revealed as the player treks up a steep slope of ash. Basically, the Kiln of the First Flame is where the first ever Lord of Cinder linked the First Flame. His name was Gwyn, Lord of Cinder (below on the right). The player kills him in the first game and then links the fire themselves or refuses to. Regardless of the players actions someone has linked the flame and when it was about to die out again an additional person linked the flame with the souls they have accumulated over their journey. This process has repeated itself so many times by the timeline in Dark Souls III that the Kiln of the First Flame is now littered with ashes of the charred individuals that linked the First Flame along with all of their weapons they brought with them.
The player upon entering the inner ring of the Kiln initiates the boss fight with the final boss, The Soul of Cinder. The thought behind this fight by the developers actually made me sit down and write out my thoughts in order to retain what I had just accomplished by beating this boss. The Soul of Cinder is in my opinion tied for the most difficult boss in the game alongside the Nameless King which is actually an optional boss. The reason why this fight is so difficult is because of two factors: the open nature of the fight/lack of cover and the bosses moveset. The boss is literally all of the Souls that have been sacrificed by countless individuals warped into a single flaming set of armor. Through further logic since it is the culmination of all of these people into one being the boss itself can utilize all moves that the player can use from all three games! This gives the Soul of Cinder the widest variety of moves to kill the player. There are so many moves that I encountered only a 1/3rd of them on my first try. This in turn means that a player will have to either get really lucky on their first try or die multiple times in order to learn all of the bosses moves. When the player finally eliminates the Soul of Cinder’s life bar it takes a knee and the fast paced classical music that has been playing in the background is replaced by a musical queue associated with Gwyn from the first game. In other words a rampant symphonic score is replaced by a slow melodic piano. The Soul of Cinder then begins using the exact same moves as Gwyn from the first game. I found this touch incredibly nostalgic and kind of sad in a sense. Even though countless souls have sacrificed themselves to the first flame, the original soul still retains some sort of control over the warped and mangled body; thousands of years after the fact. The fact that the game ends in the exact same environment against the exact same final boss from the first game seems poetic. This on top of the cyclical nature of the games story feels oddly like the right way for the series to end.
Dark Souls III is an astounding end to the well respected Souls series. As much as the public is aware, this is indeed the final game in the series. I personally am completely okay with that. Sure not having any more entries in one of my most beloved franchises is a sad idea but I would rather have the developers not recycle and rewash a franchise to death. The ending to this game also ties up the series in a sense so that is also a plus. For once there are no open endings and for that I am thankful. If you feel like embarking on an arduous trek through a realm of darkness, go pick up Dark Souls III.