Spoiler alert; I love the Souls series.
I have Platinum Trophies for all three major games of the series, plus Bloodborne. I’ve also 100%’ed a few “Souls-Likes” in my time too, such as Salt & Sanctuary. So when I was brutal to Dark Souls 3, it wasn’t out of spite – merely out of some misplaced concern. The first DLC Pack, Ashes of Ariandel, did nothing to abate my concerns either; short, confusing and repeating the mistakes of the main game (Yes, yes FROM Software, I remember The Painted World from the first game too thanks!), it just didn’t connect.
I have finished the final DLC, The Ringed City. And… eh, s’alright I guess.
With Miyazaki now confirming that the Dark Souls series is ‘over’, I should be sad I guess. But I’m not. In fact, I’d suggest Dark Souls 3 is arguably the best argument to leave this series alone, at least for a while, and let it rest a little. Dark Souls 3 fell into the trap that a certain series called The Legend of Zelda kept hurling itself into over two decades; great, you’ve got a formula. Fantastic. But… uhh… try and mix it up a little bit, would you? It’s my overriding criticism of Dark Souls 3 – it’s been done before, and arguably better. The first games locales were far more dark and interesting, and the second game had a much stronger combat engine – particularly in the PS4 remaster, where it ran at sixty frames a second and was so smooth and buttery it was a delight. And Bloodborne had a much grander, much more graspable and much more intelligible setting and story to boot.
“The Difficult Third Album” is a bit of a cliché, but for me it applies readily to Dark Souls 3. It feels like a creation on auto-pilot, not particularly design-by-committee but definitely one that wasn’t in any rush to mix up a thing that even in Bloodborne was starting to just wear a teensy bit thin.
More than that, going back to Dark Souls 3 for The Ringed City shocked me by how badly this game has aged in the last year.
Nioh was far more interesting as a concept. Salt & Sanctuary was a masterclass on how to boil a Souls-like down to two-dimensions (Slashy Souls didn’t happen we were all on holiday!). And as for games and formula… well, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild certainly took the core basics of Souls-like combat and married it to a gorgeous, bright and open world packed with charm and near-limitless freedom to explore. We’ve also had the more story-driven Lords of the Fallen, which whilst imperfect in many ways was still hugely entertaining and proved you could craft an actual whole story from beginning to end in a single game of this ilk. And there are plenty more Souls-like games in the works, like The Surge (a sci-fi Souls-like from the people behind Lords of the Fallen) and a few in Early Access, like Memory of Eldurim.
The sub-genre is rapidly evolving, has huge interest and is seeing both big-budget and indie studios all looking to put their stamp on this relatively new sub-genre. With such rapid change, it’s not unfair to point out that Dark Souls 3 feels kind of antiquated now, a year on from its initial release.
I mean, coming in barely weeks from Nioh and Breath of the Wild, it’s almost like stepping back in time. And no, that’s not exactly the fault of Dark Souls 3, FROM Software or indeed, Hidetaki Miyazaki. I think FROM Software were just as taken aback by the success of the Dark Souls series, and how it spawned a sub-genre of its own. The problem with creating a sub-genre of this kind is… well… others will want a piece of it. Create a market and watch as people rush in to try and tear chunks off you, in true Souls fashion. FROM Software have always had a bit of a timing issue – that’s sad, but I guess I can’t blame them for that – it’s just The Ringed City has dropped so late that we’ve already seen examples of how to move the sub-genre forward into new areas.
So yeah, I’m not sold on Dark Souls 3. With the “Game of the Year” edition, The Fire Fades, it would be an opportunity if FROM were willing to pull a Scholar of the First Sin, and remix and rebalance the game from the ground up. I just don’t know if they will, or if it would be a good use of their time. They can’t exactly undo other games on the market; only improve on what they’ve already got, and that’s a lot of ground to cover.
Thing is, I also think Miyazaki and FROM Software should try other games for a while and let the increasingly crowded Souls-like sub-genre play out a little first. See what rises, see what falls, and come back later with something that learns from the best and worst examples. Right now, Dark Souls seems behind the pace, and any future Souls game isn’t going to get the same kind of pass we’re giving #3, that’s for sure.
I do want to see FROM return at some point; Bloodborne has bags of potential, after all, and whilst Breath of the Wild had more than its fair share of Souls-like mechanics I’d love to see what would happen if Hidetaki Miyazaki and Eiji Aonuma got together for a proper Hyrule Souls game – heck, I might even brainstorm a few ideas for that sometime. This isn’t me saying FROM should go away and never return; that’s churlish and one dud game in a series does not a failure make. Just that right now, I’m not sure that the Souls series could or would resist doubling down on the numerous issues within Dark Souls 3, particularly its propensity for cheapness and sponge-like encounters that aren’t actually much fun.
And it really is fine to end “Dark Souls” as it is. It had a great run, all things considered, and no-one could have predicted how successful the series would end up being… particularly when you consider the market the first game landed in, with games increasingly homogenising in pursuit of a “wider audience”. No-one can deny the huge impact the series has had on the video game market; challenging, dark, high-fantasy fare has never been more in-vogue, and a massive part of this is at the feet of FROM Software and Hidetaki Miyazaki. Very few people can claim to have made profound changes in this industry – and those that do should never have their achievements diluted even if they trip over their feet from time to time. Heck, it’s not often you spawn your own sub-genre – that alone has cemented Dark Souls in the pantheon of gaming greats.
But times are a-changin’. The market has new hardware, and the sub-genre is flourishing. Dark Souls 3 just didn’t have the same impact of its forebears, and perhaps that’s as good a sign as any to finally put the poor thing to rest.
Here’s to the next chapter in the Souls-like sub-genre. And here’s to hoping in time, FROM Software pick up the ashes and craft a conclusion worthy of this series.
But seriously, what will it take to get Miyazaki and Aonuma in the same room for an hour?