by Jed Pressgrove
Dark Souls is a great horror game for injecting new drama into the traditional video-game challenge of methodically dispatching enemies and traversing dangerous places. In Dark Souls, the bonfire’s dubious salvation — restoration and growth in exchange for the regeneration of all vanquished foes — might inspire a game critic to write an analysis on death, learning, and repetition, but more inspiring than that is the undulation of suspense and relief (unique from the game’s ancestors, Castlevania and The Legend of Zelda). With Dark Souls III, discovering or using a bonfire means much less. Director Hidetaka Miyazaki and other leads at FromSoftware have allowed the standards of many other (more banal) games to invade: convenient hubs, easy-to-find merchants, more safe spots, fast travel, explicit warnings about danger, more linear level design, enemies that are easier to sneak up on or avoid altogether, and so on. Dark Souls III is about as mysterious as a McDonald’s on a street corner.
The title screen music, composed by Yuka Kitamura, suggests an epic spiritual crisis, but neither the introductory cutscene nor the ensuing journey earn the various emotions of the song. In the intro, a voice-over tries to put a different spin on the Dark Souls tradition of struggle with “And so it is, that ash seeketh embers,” yet the game actually amounts to “Hey, you need to kick these guys’ asses; use an ember to boost your health beforehand.” The brawniness of Dark Souls III would be better without the existential posturing.
The best thing that can be said about Dark Souls III is it doesn’t look as bad as Miyazaki’s recent hit Bloodborne. The player avatar and various physical structures in Dark Souls III do not blend together as they did in Bloodborne, which stupidly wasted its Gothic architecture by ignoring the importance of an illusion of depth. But like Bloodborne, Dark Souls III can’t buy scares with its cheap Resident Evil 4 homages, such as the Undead Settlement and enemies who get taken over by what looks like a demonic virus. Dark Souls III also makes ideas from Dark Souls less captivating from a visual/spatial perspective; Dark Souls III’s perching dragon, for example, doesn’t cause as much anxiety as its Dark Souls counterpart that stared players down from the opposite side of a long bridge. Similarly, the Anor Londo location returns from Dark Souls but with little of the awe.
Considering that so many ideas return from previous entries, the more straightforward pathfinding in Dark Souls III doesn’t serve it well, as dying again and again allows more opportunities to confirm the general lack of startling or curious concepts. Being able to veer more often from the standard path would have at least delayed this realization. FromSoftware attempts to spice up the proceedings with weapon skills, yet all you really need to do is dodge and attack without overextending, and unlike the case in the more fascinating Golden Axe: Beast Rider, there’s little work in countering besides memorizing enemy patterns and locking on to targets.
It can’t be denied that some of the adversaries in Dark Souls III are hard to forget, from the spastic bird people to the tubby undead evangelist women to the Abyss Watchers that hilariously kill each other as you fight them. Since these quirky creations are the main reason to play, one could view Dark Souls III as a streamlined monster mash, yet it still has tons of useless items and pointless texts (juxtapose this flirty storytelling with Planescape: Torment’s clear commentary on the human condition with its descriptions). People often describe Dark Souls games as vague and open to interpretation. That’s Miyazaki and company’s greatest swindle: convincing people that “see monster, try to kill monster” sequelitis is profound. Take the unfamiliar monsters away, and you have one boring-ass game in Dark Souls III.