If Hidetaka Miyazaki’s business card doesn’t read “Hello. My name is Hidetaka Miyazaki. Have you played my game? Prepare to die” then there is much more amiss in this world than just my inexperience with his Dark Souls franchise. For those Patrick Star- subscribers or potential fellow Dark Souls initiates out there, the Dark Souls games fall into the ostensibly simplistic action role-playing category, with the player undertaking a physical journey that is barred by ghoulish enemies to be fought and overcome. The first and second titles in this series are almost unanimously lauded for their intense difficulty; for being games that are punishing and yet not unfair.
To be honest, though, I wouldn’t really know. Prior to the Dark Souls III preview event held by publisher Bandai Namco in late- February, I had never played a title in the franchise but COULD attest to having a basic understanding of the games’ mechanics- as well as the notion that you fight and you die. Often, for the latter. A fact that fellow journalists were keen to make sure accompanied every mention of my newbie status. Here’s my first impression of the game that proceeded to prove those journalists right…
The game begins with a cutscene that looks, feels and sounds like it has been ripped straight out of a Lord of the Rings film. Sweeping, orchestral music and cinematic visuals accompany choice voice acting to establish a fantastic, medieval setting with an “evil things exist and have risen” plot device. At least, I believe that is what they were going for… Throughout the few hours I had with this game I felt that the plot was quite vague, perhaps esoteric in nature, with many of the happenings in the world conforming to ‘nightmarish logic’- the idea that some sensical information is given and your brain just makes sense of the illogical rest. This didn’t sit well with me. However, I’m told that the plot, or rather lore of the game, is hinted at during exploration for those who are diligent, patient and brave enough to trek off the beaten path. I think this is one of those times when three hours with a game just isn’t enough. Especially when you’ve spent a considerable amount of that three hours toying with the character creation component!
Straight after the prologue, the player is thrown into the character creation menu. This really is a J.R.R. Tolkien meets The Sims moment. Outside of choosing a class of fighter (which changes the garments of the player as well as stats for ten different variables such as luck, strength, agility and faith), customisation of the player’s character extends to skin colour, skin tone hues, laugh lines, young/mature/ aged voice (in reality, you’re really just picking the pitch of your death scream with this one), body hair thickness, body segment dimensions… there are also ten different face presets including the repugnant ‘Great Swamp Outcast’, sun-soaked ‘Catarina Merrymaker’ and ‘Dragon Academy Student,’ all of which look considerably different. The only really impactful choice is the class you choose, as in-game looks, gender and age have ‘no bearing on ability.’ For the daring player, there is the ‘deprived’ class which sets all attributes to ten and their level to one. I was really impressed by the character customisation options in Dark Souls III but part of me wished that the sombre, foreboding soundtrack had been replaced by the upbeat The Sims character creation music for this component. Nothing like a bit of joy (and ridiculous contrast) before you die 1000 times.
If you play as a knight (recommended option for beginners) or any other character with a helmet, your perfectly crafted laugh lines and almost every other cosmetic choice will seem completely pointless. However, the visual customisation of the character has an impact beyond aesthetics, and that is in creating a sense of ownership of and a connection between player and character. Looking around at the preview event, I saw stalwart Dark Souls players and fellow journalists giving the finger to a boss that was particularly hard to beat, as well as heard involuntary outcries when an enemy landed a hit. My heart stopped for a moment in-game and in real life whenever I missed a dodge. One journalist described himself as having “the Dark Souls trembles” during a battle with the boss Vrodt. But why are the feels so intense?
The creator concept and intense difficulty of the game force an emotional investment from the player. The game is unforgiving and never holds your hand. If you’re facing slightly the wrong way when guarding, you’ll eat a blow from an enemy, which is a considerable amount of damage- almost a death sentence when dealt by a boss. You cannot expect to hack and slash your way through. Recognising your enemy’s attack patterns, timing dodges, managing your stamina bar, and, god forbid, trying to parry- if you die, you only have yourself to blame. There is no personality forced upon the in-game character or chance involved in combat, so every choice, every action, every success and failure can be attributed to the player. When you die (it will happen. A lot. Have I mentioned that?), you respawn at the last bonfire you fought your way to. Bonfires are only at the very start of each area/ level. TL;DR? You need to be skilled. And put in a hell of a lot of effort. When it doesn’t pay off, it is heart wrenching – one could even say that your soul is darkened…
Adding to this sense of connection is the fact that everything feels realistic (as realistic as a knight fighting undead dementor skeletons, cages of Wendigos or zombie scarecrows can be). Little touches like the character’s breathing movement when idle, on-point ambient noise like wind whistling on top of a hill, taking damage when you jump or fall down from a ledge onto the ground, the heavy damage and second or two of recovery time after you are hit by a blow, and the stamina bar (which limits how many actions you can perform in a row without rest) all help to immerse the player in the world created.
The rendered environment is also pretty impressive, being very varied and detailed. Settings include cemeteries, dungeons, cathedrals, farms, rooftops- often allowing for interesting and unexpected enemy placement and good use of the plunging attack (a downward blow able to be dealt by the player when jumping down from a level onto an enemy). The castles and undead settlements, in particular, are so beautifully crafted that they would be somewhere I would want to live- provided there was some garden maintenance and zombie clearance. On that note, perhaps this is an adult narratorial medieval successor to Plants vs Zombies in which the homeowner/ lord of the castle has returned for a long crusade to find that the plants he purchased from ye olde crazy-eth Dave were useless.
On the topic of purchasing items, further customisation of the character exists in the form of weapon optimisation at the blacksmith but I didn’t have too much time to toy with this element of the game. I did stumble across a cool little feature that may be useful (or fun) in the online multiplayer aspect of this game- the actions/ features menu, which allows the character to express an emotion through gesturing. The joy action/ gesture allows your character to join you in fist pumping when you defeat Judex Gundyr (you’ll understand in time, Padawan) or your despair upon death when you realise that you need to fight through all the enemies you have already fought through in that area in order to return to the boss. It would be nice if you could respawn just outside the boss battle (although I’m told there are often shortcuts players can uncover to make this process slightly less arduous) but I guess harsh penalties for failure are a trademark of the Dark Souls series.
Dark Souls III is both incredibly frustrating and intensely rewarding, by design. The game throws you straight into the action, and straight out if you’re not up to the task. Mechanically and visually it is a triple A game but more interestingly it does not pander to weaker video game players, which is rare and should be appreciated. Would I buy this game? Well, Stephen O’Leary from Bandai Namco is a seasoned Dark Souls player, has already sunk 60 hours into Dark Souls III and has just reached the final boss. This is a credit to the expanse of the world but is quite daunting for me, as I consider myself more of a casual gamer and do not have the time to spend honing my presently non-existent Dark Souls skills. This is the game I would buy if I were to spend all year playing one game.