Even in my earliest playing hours with FromSoftware's Dark Souls III, I couldn't escape the feeling that the experience of playing this game is like moving through Kübler-Ross' 5 stages of grief. A quick google search will yield that I'm not the only reviewer to feel this way. Initially I walked away from writing this review from that perspective, it's been done before. But the longer I spend with Dark Souls III, the more I am convinced that there really is no other way to frame the discussion for a first time player to the series, except through these stages. Let's face it, everyone's journey through death and dying is a personal one, and just because I'm not the first, doesn't make my experience any less authentic.
I entered the world of Lothric eager to tackle the challenges ahead, excited about the journey before me, and undaunted by haunting tales of an unforgiving gaming experience. The hallmark of the Dark Souls series is its difficulty. It presents you with a brutally honest fighting mechanic, lets you take as many swings as you want, but tries to take everything you've earned when you falter and die. And you will die. Over and again, you will die.
There is one currency in Dark Souls, souls. Kill some enemies, get souls. Use those souls to level up your character, your gear, etc. Die, and you drop all your unspent souls on the spot. Run back to the scene of your demise to reclaim these lost souls. But die again en route, and that lost cache of souls are gone forever. You can take as many swings at the levels as you like. You can snatch up that lost bounty of hard earned souls over and again, until that one time you don't quite make it as far as before and are stopped short, putting you back to square one. It's a simple mechanic, and on the surface seems fair. If I plunge too deep beyond my abilities I'll lose everything, but if I work my way forward balancing my increasing skillset against the challenges I'll be fine. I'm ready to live, die, repeat, I tell myself. This won't be so bad.
And as the game opens and my undead warrior takes to the Cemetery of Ash, things start nicely. There really isn't much by way of a tutorial. Just a few messages scrawled on the floor and singular opportunities to try out a hint at a tactic. Backstabs and parries are mentioned but little sticks. I can handle the first few enemies with relative ease, as long as I take them on at a time. The first lesson you learn is that taking on more than a single opponent is possibly the quickest path to a untimely death. But that's great, that's part of the process. File that one away and give it another go. I'll say it again, this won't be so bad.
Are you kidding me... I died falling of a ledge because the motion of my swing near the edge took me clean over.
Don't rush, don't rush, don't rush... I died yet again in the face of "easy" enemies I've dispatched countlessly with no problems simply because I raced into the encounter and go too close to three of them at once.
Are you serious... I can't jump over a knee high pile of pebbles? If you don't want someone going up those stairs, don't make them stairs. Putting a few stones you should be able to step over as an impassible obstacle is just bad level design.
I just, i can't... I finally got past that mid-boss after what felt like dozens of attempts only to die around the very next corner from cheaply falling off a ledge. It wasn't even that high.
Son of a... I am never going to kill that bleeping knight.
You know what, I've finally gotten to a place where I am pretty good at these stages just in front of me, I can take on that knight with consistency as long as he's alone, and those assassins are a piece of cake as long as I see them coming. Why waste my time slogging through these sections risking health with each encounter before that mid-boss? I can just run past the lot of them and if I drop to that ledge they won't even be able to follow. Even if they had a heart to the terrible enemy bathing fro get from point A to point B means they would never actually catch up. Then one more drop and viola, mid-boss. Let's just get good at taking him down...
Ok, so now I'm 50/50 on that sub-boss. Surely that's good enough for now. After all I can just flee from him and he doesn't really follow outside his area. Why whittle down my health taking him down and leave myself exposed against the tougher boss at the end of the level? I can just run past that knight, those scrubs, the mid-boss, and basically be at full strength on the end-boss. Easy peasy! Besides, I'm getting better aren't I? And surely the skills I pick up besting this end boss will translate to make all that came before it that much more doable. Or maybe open up a new weapon or item to tip the scales. So yeah, we can do this, just don't try and be a completionist.
Like Sisyphus, I am bound to my fate. No matter how I carry the great weight of the boulder to the top, there is always another enemy to topple my prize back to the bottom of the mount. I have died and died again. I have become numb to it. Death no longer delivers its sting. The pain in it comes solely from the resignation that as I start again down this familiar path, the result will inevitably be the same. Maybe this time I'll only take that boss down to half health, maybe I'll nearly defeat them before they are overcome by some end-encounter rage state and obliterate me within swinging distance of the goal. Maybe I'll just die before even arriving at that hump when the low level ghouls I've slaughtered a thousand times get the drop on me in a group as I rush the encounters frustrated by repetition of the outcome. And even if I somehow manage to squeak by, the only future that awaits is another death, to another foe. That bonfire, the portal back to the Firelink Shrine where I can spend my souls, level up, and play my role in the macabre dance of "progression" this game levies on me like some cruel joke, is just a portal to begin the whole melodrama anew under a different mask. What face will the architect of my endless demise wear this time? It's the only question I have to ask at each new bonfire.
The game has become a slog, and ceased to be fun. The challenge isn't interesting anymore. I'm supposed to learn from my mistakes, direct each setback with an evaluation of what went wrong and how I might fix it. But I've realized something, I can't offer a solution to a problem when I truly don't understand the mechanics of how things went wrong or the branching options of alternative strategies I could have employed instead. What's the point...
Truthfully, I haven't made it here yet. But I believe it exists. I don't even need to believe the countless Dark Souls players who have become sort of acolytes to the series. Even though I died more than I could hope to remember, I don't recall ever feeling the death wasn't my own fault. I pressed the wrong button at the wrong time. I rushed. I fell from too great a height. Perhaps the exception that proves the rule is the one time my swing took me over the ledge. I'm not convinced that was my doing, but at the same time it's an easy lesson to learn not to try and melee wildly next do a deadly precipice. For an exceedingly difficult and complex game that relies solely on precise movement and timing, I always felt comfortable with the controller in my hand. I'd say the control scheme is flawless. Each button maps intuitively to it's action. There aren't complex maneuvers that require awkward combinations. Quickly changing actions; quick swapping weapons, spells, or items; moving your character or the camera around the environment is effortless to grasp, though mastery will take quite a bit more experience and time. The only really poor mechanic is the jumping, which is atrocious. But in my experience, it never comes into play in intense moments, and there really are no platforming sections to expose it. It might be bad, but it isn't a factor.
I haven't accepted my position in this game yet, but I believe in the possibility of that outcome. I believe there is an incredible gaming experience here, unlike anything else in the market. I believe when the Dark Souls apologists tell you stick with it because it gets really good in the end.
However, I'm not ready to give the game a full pardon like I see many other reviewers do. Because frankly, this game hates you. There is an intense and intricate mechanic at play here and it makes no attempt to teach you how to use it, or even lay the groundwork for the rules. It mentions a few skills in passing on those scrawled hints early on, and leaves you entirely to your own devices to sort out the timing of it, find situation where it is practical and impractical, on which enemies to attempt it or which require something different. Your best bet is to travel back and forth between the home base of the Firelink Shrine and develop your own practice regimen on the respawning hordes yourself because there isn't a tutorial in the game, there is no arena to practice moves and strategies, and no discussion ever takes place in the game about what those strategies even are or where to apply them.
What there is, however, is an incredible community that had developed around the series, probably out of necessity. The brave souls who stuck with a product that gave them no invitation to actually develop their skills has created a wealth of information, insight, and tips to help you where the developers have not. While the makers set themselves out to be your enemy, Google and YouTube, you will quickly find, are your best friends. But I really do get a feeling of disdain in the actual product towards the playing community. Even long-time players are treated to new mechanics and the developers don't even make a passing mention of these new features in the actual game.
I guess where Dark Souls III ultimately falls short for me, is that I never got the feeling of being strong and never was able to satisfy my curiosity to explore. Those are two of the primary reasons I enjoy games. For example, I loved the challenge rooms in the Batman Arkham series filled with more enemies than could fit in the screen. Chain together a dozen different moves, strategies and takedowns into one giant combo and empty the entire area to the tune of one massive score modifier. There was still a great challenge in that. One misstep would end the whole combo but in the end you felt like the Batman. But Dark Souls III punishes you for trying to take on anything more than one enemy at a time. Just about every bit of early advice for this series reiterates that point. Only ever take on one foe at a time. Draw out a single enemy and pick them off. Then repeat for every other one you come across. There is survival in that, but there isn't ever a feeling of strength or heroism, and there isn't any sense of swashbuckling adventure. Even in success you are reminded of your own frailty. But secondly, every new corridor could lead to being overcome by a new foe, or group of old ones. If there is this rich and interesting world to explore, I was never treated to an excitement to do so. I spent the vast majority of my time repeatedly taking on the same paths over and again to return my latest sticking point, and was cowered by fear that the only sure truth that lies down a new corridor is a series of repeated deaths. There might be a new treasure down there, or only a dead end, but the cost of unearthing it was just so high. It was more chore than entertainment.
The game is also not without a few early bugs. At least one was absolutely game-breaking and two patches were released in the first week. Patches are in and it's not such a big deal, but it does leave me a little wary of the whole FromSoftware release schedule. Between Dark Souls and Bloodborne there's been a release every Spring for three years running and eventually that kind of a timeline seems to end up being overly taxing on dev teams. Even with the bug fixes there persist a few annoyances, like those knee-high impassable rubble artificial boundaries, graphical inconsistencies like your character's legs having no real physical basis in the game world and constantly clipping through environments (that they can't step over), and occasionally getting stuck between a rock and a hard place, literally. The game's weakest moments are any that require uneven ground or footing. Those jump mechanics, while they probably accurately reflect the actual jumping abilities of your average human, are underwhelmingly meh. Falling from just about any height deals great damage, and I was even able to fall into one particular crevice and get my character stuck. For a game that is so punishing to death, the oversight of having environments that could force a player to hit the reset button and lose progress without even a pool of souls to return too is pretty glaring. Also, while the enemy combat AI is up to speed, their bathing can sometimes be laughably poor. An enemy may spot you and have a clear path to your location, but one awkwardly placed destructible chair or box in they way could mean they spend the rest of eternity aimlessly looping through their running motion blocked by the obstacle, frothing at the bit to end your life but never getting step closer to that goal.
So is it worth it? If you're a long time fan and have enjoyed previous editions in the Dark Souls series, I can't find a reason not to suggest you take the plunge on this next adventure. It look and plays beautifully, there are new mechanics like weapon skills and focus points to evolve the combat, and plenty of content and secrets to unlock. But for the new initiates, I'm not convinced. Not just because I personally failed to find that Acceptance, but there might be better ways to try before you buy. You can pick up full editions with all DLCs of the original Dark Souls or Dark Souls II at a significant discount off the price of this latest entry. You might be better served experiencing the punishing difficulty of the genre first before committing fully to the latest in the series. The apologists who have been converted swear by the game, but not every initiate becomes one and gets to that point. Just like the path to progressing in the game, the path to purchasing might also benefit by the same advice, proceed with caution. As far as bang for your buck, this is a game that will allow you sink hours on hours into it, not only because you'll be sinking those hours into repeatedly attacking the same challenges with only slightly better failures at each end, but because the character creation provides a wide variety of different archetypes to take on the game and plenty of optional bosses, challenges, and secrets you might pass on the first go to take the time to explore in future attempts.
As for a score, I can't punish the game for being hard, because at no point did I ever feel that it was done cheaply. My deaths were my fault. However, I'm unwilling to be overly-forgiving of a game who artificially boosts its already impressive difficult by simply being uninterested in teaching you how to play it. At the same time, I fully support balancing that score by the great community around the game that has developed to help you on your journey. I'd say the game itself deserves about a 7 for new players, maybe a point higher for the experienced, while the community around it gets a 10. Split that difference?
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
First picked up a game controller when my mother bought an Atari 2600 for my brother and I one fateful Christmas.
Now I'm a Software Developer in my day job who is happy to be a part of the Gaming Nexus team so I can have at least a flimsy excuse for my wife as to why I need to get those 15 more minutes of game time in...