I have always had a love-hate relationship with the Souls games. The emphasis on challenge, exploration, and experimentation is something that I am really drawn toward. However, as someone who was balancing school and a career, it became really difficult to actually put the time in the series required to give it a fair shot from start to finish.
With Elden Ring on the horizon, I felt the need to go back to the last entry in the trilogy that I haven’t given a go quite yet.
I remember when Dark Souls 3 came out, and my peers were going on about some of their triumphs, and I was envious. It would take me nearly six years to see how this title stacked up to the others, and on the whole, I have to say that I am extremely impressed.
Getting Lost in Lothric
I’ll be frank: I understand very little about what’s going on in these games. That’s because Dark Souls wants you to glean its story from item descriptions, character interactions, and environmental storytelling.
This approach can make the tone of Dark Souls fit perfectly into the fantasy genre compared to most since it won’t spew exposition at the player. It feels more mysterious and otherworldly when so much of it isn’t simply thrown conveniently at the player.
I both love and hate this because I don’t have the internal bandwidth to spend my day learning about the world when I need to take on the Abyss Watchers for the 10th time and file my taxes before bed.
There are plenty of lore videos, and I think I will give them a watch eventually, but I thought it would be interesting to write about my current understanding of this game’s plot. I think I have a pretty decent idea of the broader story, but there are surely plenty of details that I either missed or completely misinterpreted.
With that, here’s what I thought the setup for this game was all about: Dark Souls 3 has you take on the role of the Ashen One, who is come back to try his hand at continuing the cycle of despair. They must return to Firelink Shrine, light the bonfire, and learn about the Lords of Cinder, who are the key to lighting the final bonfire, which will reset everything for another go around. Or enable the cycle to end altogether.
To reach this summit, the Ashen One must travel across the Kingdom of Lothric, defeating the lords of Cinder whose job it was to do this but instead ran from their responsibilities and became monstrous.
That’s about all I understood. And honestly, it’s all you need because the main draw is the gameplay. The rest is just flavor text for the people who REALLY want to get lost in this world. Walking around this world and taking in its ambiance was enough for me, and I could understand the story however I liked.
I loved coming upon a new area to explore and taking stock of my current state. These moments of rest not only gave me a checkpoint which meant safety, but they also were new summits reached.
Looking back, I could see all the enemies that I was able to conquer. It really is a feeling that is missing from most games today. This sense of accomplishment just isn’t matched anywhere else.
There are some really pretty scenes in this entry, and I loved the entire climb through Anor Londo. You start at the bottom of this temple and can just make out the peak through the snow and mist.
It seems like such an impossible journey, but a few hours later, when you are standing at the top looking back at where you came from, the feeling is next to none, and you’ll have plenty of war stories by the end of it.
Superb Enemy Design
Besides its level design, Dark Souls is famous for its bosses and difficulty, and on the whole, Dark Souls 3 continues that trend. Like the Souls games before it, Dark Souls 3 has you fighting your first boss within the first 20 minutes of gameplay. The Iudex Gundyr is an easy boss, but he serves as the first learning curve that the player must overcome.
Seasoned Souls players will have no trouble, but people new to the franchise might be sweating under the collar as they have second thoughts about jumping into this series. The enemies before this big baddie are practically one-hit kills and very easy to dodge.
The Gundyr is slightly faster, with more powerful attacks, and will force the player to anticipate various enemy patterns. I feel he does a great job at preparing the player for the future, at least in terms of combat.
I do feel it lacks in broader lessons such as the Asylum Demon teaches in the original Dark Souls, and this trend of smaller lessons continues throughout the game. However, for the most part, Dark Souls 3 still does a great job at crafting bosses that challenge the player without feeling unfair.
There are definitely difficulty spikes, such as the Abyss Watchers, Pontiff, and the Princes. I loved fighting these enemies. Each one felt like it was forcing me to learn how to use my character in a new way (if I hadn’t already learned the crucial lesson they were teaching).
The Abyss Watchers made me pay attention to the entire battlefield as new enemies were constantly spawning. Pontiff took that lesson but forced me to be more aggressive instead of holding back as much.
In contrast, the Princes forced me to alternate my usual footwork as they teleported around the room, and I was forced to learn to adapt to the enhanced battling methods of its second phase.
It turns out my favorite bosses were also the biggest difficulty spikes, at least for the most part. There is one spike in difficulty that felt a little overblown, and I’m still not sure if I was doing something wrong. The Souls of Cinder is the accumulation of everyone who had linked the First Flame and also doubled my playtime in Dark Souls 3.
Yes, I was pretty miserable by the end of it. His rapid attack patterns were easy to get used to, but there were a few specific attacks where the timing felt so different from everything else that I couldn’t get the hang of it.
That and his second health bar made this a very long fight for a knight character. His distance attacks appeared to be really slow and easy to dodge, so it’s possible that a melee character might have more difficulty than something like a mage.
It was grueling, and it almost broke me, but the fact that I was at the final boss made me continue to push. It’s possible that I was under-leveled since I didn’t struggle that much with the rest of the game, but it still felt out of nowhere for me. When it was over, my anger slowly dissipated, and I was only filled with pride, and that’s what these games are all about.
The Most Linear Dark Souls
One of the defining elements of a Souls game is its level design. Dark Souls had a map that was so interconnected that it made exploring it a major advantage to the player to help them navigate from bonfires more easily.
Dark Souls 3 doesn’t have that as much. Lothric is made up of different sub-areas that have this design philosophy, but at the most, this includes 6-7 small locations.
You move forward and conquer whatever obstacle might be in front of you. If you faced a fork in the road and took a left, you will be able to fast travel back to a bonfire right before the fork and take the other option. Since this map isn’t as connected, it couldn’t be made as punishing either.
Shortcuts were for explorers, so they received less consequence for getting defeated, but in Dark Souls 3, I rarely felt that I was getting bogged down in the minutia of walking around the same castle walls.
Many will consider this a quality of life improvement, while others might say this takes away from some of the hardship that made the first Souls game so endearing.
Dark Souls 3 punishes you solely with boss difficulty rather than its map, which is great for newcomers and people who aren’t masochists, but it might come off as too easy to more hardcore Souls fans. It’s a matter of preference, but this is easily the most friendly Souls game for people wanting to try it out.
The linear nature and fast travel from the start are just two of the things that make it feel less like a confusing knot to sort through. The emphasis is really on conquering the bosses, which I enjoy tremendously.
However, this difference in focus changes up the stories that write themselves as you play. In Dark Souls 1, for instance, I might say that I was taking on the cemetery early while my brother ended up taking up a path that I hadn’t seen.
He progressed through the game while I had hit a hard wall since I wasn’t ready for that particular section. But pushing through, I managed to get into quite a pickle that left me raving like a lunatic about the endless horde of the undead to my brother, who already rang one of the bells.
Dark Souls 1 allowed you to define your experience much more, while Dark Souls 3 feels more like a condensed and streamlined experience. If the areas were any smaller, it might even feel like the experience was prescribed rather than self-defined, which helps to give this series so much of its charm.
However, I have to say that if you enjoyed Dark Souls 3, then you should definitely give other titles (especially Dark Souls 1) a try. The lessons you learn in the third installment should be more than enough to give you a great idea of how to properly tackle the original or any of the titles that FromSoftware has developed, and if you haven’t tried a From Software game before, this one is the perfect one for beginners.
I was blown away by the visuals in Dark Souls 3, and the bosses are some of the coolest in the Souls series. The linear design of the levels might leave a sour taste in some people’s mouths, but I enjoyed it overall for what it was, and the more accessible start to the game was much appreciated.
Dark Souls 3 is a great ending to a trilogy that will go down in gaming history for its difficulty, creativity, and commitment to hitting a mark in the fantasy genre that no other game has done successfully for me: making the world feel otherworldly and dangerous. 9/10