The Dark Souls series has defined itself as a fight around the idea of entropy. Should we embrace that all things must come to an end or rage against the dying of the light? Or perhaps find another way entirely? This conflict forms the central theme that permeates every nook and cranny of the game world, clarifying itself with each new enemy and boss. That struggle makes up the Dark Soul itself.
The kingdoms of men in the Age of Fire, for all their strength, are doomed to fade and succumb to a curse brought on by time and the gods themselves. When the curse awakens, it makes men immortal, living on in a state of undeath, but once undead, humans begin to lose bits of themselves as time passes. Time eventually wears them away into hollows, mindless monsters who hunger for purpose. There is only one way to lift the curse: A hero must arise and brave the dangers of a world deteriorating into chaos to rekindle the First Flame, a bastion of power that preserves the world. After braving horrors and madness, players are given the option of rekindling the First Flame with their life or snuffing it out to usher in the Age of Dark, a new world order that embraces a fireless world - but there may be other choices hidden to all but a few.
Players entered the world of the first Dark Souls shortly after the curse had begun afflicting humans for the first time. No matter how that great cataclysm is resolved, the events of Dark Souls II take place far into the future, in the middle of the Age of Fire. The second game has players fighting to ascend to the Throne of Want, a throne that looks strikingly like a kiln. Again, no matter how players decide to end the story, Dark Souls III happens. This time, the Age of Fire has begun to literally choke on its own ash.
The First Flame is dying. It has been linked so many times that one powerful soul can no longer relight it. Now several are needed. In an effort to avert almost certain death, powerful beings from history have revived as Lords of Cinder to become sacrifices, however all but one refuse their duty to continue the world. One more bit of unkindled ash arises from the graves of heroes and receives the task of uniting those Lords and relighting the flame – the player.
From the beginning, the world of Dark Souls III feels tired and broken. Ash litters the ground. Violent religious cults abound, each with their own ways of coping with their hopeless plight. The player isn’t even a lowly undead as in previous titles, but the dregs of ashen souls randomly reforged. Even immortal dragons have begun to succumb to decay of mind and body. This is the Dark Souls that players have known and loved since the beginning of the series, but all around the edges of that Dark Souls identity threads come unraveled.
Of course, when I say “this is the same Dark Souls,” I mean thematically and visually. The mechanics of Dark Souls III have undergone a revision that incorporates lessons learned from the development of Bloodborne. When Bloodborne released, people compared its fast, aggressive combat favorably against the more deliberate, measured pace of the Dark Souls series. You can see that quickened sensibility translated into Dark Souls III in a number of little ways. For example, the player gets locked into fewer animations, something that in previous Souls games could mean death by accidental button press. More weapons feature transformations between distinct move sets, something that Bloodborne certainly popularized.
Combat occurs with a desperate finality. The enemies players encounter act as if they know they are living in a world with a mortal wound, a fatal injury that affects them as well. And as the saying goes, “nothing is more dangerous than a wounded animal.” Enemies throw themselves into combat ferociously, adopting frenzied patterns of attack. Sometimes these patterns can seem unfair, but the core fun of Dark Souls has always been in learning those patterns and overcoming obstacles either alone or in jolly cooperation with other players. Dark Souls III feels rigorously balanced to avoid luring players into cheap deaths. Often it feels like if you’re just vigilant enough, you could deal with anything the game might throw at you. Though that confidence is often immediately undercut by a blistering encounter - if nothing else, Dark Souls III keeps players humble.
Developer From Software describes their artistic approach to Dark Souls III as “withered beauty.” I wasn’t sure at first if the style of a dying world in all its dilapidated grandeur stemmed from a conscious choice or if the aesthetic was an extension of series creator Hidetaka Miyazaki’s reluctance to return to the series. He had made some statements in the past that indicated he wanted to be done with Dark Souls and that too many sequels would muddy his original intent. After spending almost 100 hours in its intricate, crumbling world, I feel comfortable saying that, yes, Dark Souls III is an entirely intentional work of art that brings the series full circle.
While the core game does conclude on a definitive note regardless of player choice, the DLC ultimately brings things to a climactic final coda at the end of all things: A clash between the old world and the possibilities of the future.
Ashes of Ariandel invites players into a world of rot and ice, a refuge from the apocalypse in the outside world. However, the shelter from ending possesses its own dangers and stands out as providing one of the most unique encounters in Dark Souls III. It also introduces a largely disposable multiplayer Vs. Mode, though I am sure many will derive some joy from fighting friends and strangers.
Ashes of Ariandel ultimately exists to set the stage for The Ringed City DLC. This lore-heavy expansion has players delving into the legendary home of the Pygmies, an obscure, but important race of beings in the Souls universe. However, some characters and creatures have persisted within the city’s walls for countless years, standing firm to ward off intruders who come hoping to lay claim to the titular Dark Soul. Strangely, the final encounter in this DLC doesn’t end with an explosive cutscene or much exposition, just an intimate battle to the death and a subtle revelation hidden within the Ashes of Ariandel. It’s quiet, and that muted finale subverts expectations in a game that goes big so often. But that ending gets at the heart of what Dark Souls III and, indeed, what the larger Dark Souls series was about from the beginning.
Dark Souls has been about the continuation of a toxic cycle, a cycle that offers diminishing returns with each renewal. Miyazaki purposefully left that cycle open to interpretation as an artistic statement. Does it represent addiction? Depression? Existentialism? One can interpret the cycle of spiraling rebirth and death to mean quite a number of things on a personal level – that, along with the near perfect "firm but fair" mechanics, is part of what allowed so many people to identify so strongly with the series.
Dark Souls III sees that cycle finally spiral down toward its ultimate conclusion. The world can continue to struggle on, locked in an endless twilight, take the plunge into darkness where hope might one day be born anew, or the cycle can be broken into something else entirely. Even in this ending, Miyazaki leaves what the series could mean up to each player’s interpretation. There are some who see nothing in it, a pointless exercise in rehashing the Dark Souls adventure for a third time. There are some who see some truth in that portrayal of the world. Personally, Dark Souls III seems to be a meta commentary on the creative process – it is an adventure that seems limitless until limits are imposed upon it by solidifying an idea and making it real, and then creativity dies or stagnates or, very rarely, soldiers on toward something new and unknown. Indeed, while Miyazaki might not have initially desired a Dark Souls III, he and his team made the most of it while operating within the constraints of the franchise. Now From Software is working on something new, a new world on a new canvas.
Dark Souls III is now available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC