Thursday, 11 May 2017

"Dark Souls 3" Review

by Alex Hill


Dark Souls 3 is like "The Force Awakens"; It's the bare minimum of what it needed to be, a video game for the sake of a video game. It thinks fan-service, nods and references will carry it, because it offers little that's new or interesting enough to stand on its' own. It has more to offer than Bloodborne, but it's still a regression of the Souls formula. Someone shaved this wild, untamed thing, and whittled its' fangs down too far.

A bell tolls, and you emerge from a casket submerged in a dusty canyon. A surprisingly well-lit canyon. It wasn't until looking up at the environment that I realized I was supposed to be in shadow the whole time. This game looks wrong, is what I'm saying. I've been saying that since before it came out.

I wouldn't classify the Souls games as survival-horror, but they used to be spooky at least. Much of this was due to atmosphere and sound-design, but also because you went to a lot of places that were dark and spooky. But the way this game's engine handles lighting and colour(or the lack therof) means even on the lowest brightness settings you can see everything. For miles around you. Everything being out in the open makes the monsters a lot less intimidating in concept. For the same reason why a horror movie doesn't let you get a good look at the monster: your imagination is supposed to fill in the blanks. It's better than shining a dull spotlight on everything. There are torches and spells to light dark areas, in a game without darkness.

Here's how Dark Souls 3 was advertised...'s what we got.

There is no longer a sense of dread in pursuing your goal, in venturing a little further into places man ought steer clear of. There are some guys. You have to fight the guys. You fight the guys and then go and fight more guys. Oh look, some more guys to fight. They're wearing slightly different rags than the previous guys. 30 hours later, and you're fighting guys again. Very similar guys. Guys who too often damage you even when you're blocking their attacks with a shield that's supposed to negate 100% of any physical damage. 

Amidst all of this dude-fighting, you might ask: What is the MOOD of Dark Souls 3? 

What am I supposed to be feeling during all of this dude-slaughtering? It's abandoned any pretense of being spooky. It's not a comedy. It's not really an adventure, in the romantic sense. It's not saccharine or pleasant, nor is it all that depressing. Since you never really inhabit a better version of the kingdom of Lothric, there's no sense of loss to see that legacy ruined. Yuka Kitamura and others gave it some exciting music during the boss fights, but I couldn't tell you what this game SOUNDS like. It has no personality.

If it does have something to say, it does a poor job of it. Very little is communicated even through the game's visual design. Even when an enemy telegraphs its' attacks(which isn't something you can rely on), there's still the sense that it's attacking you faster than you can attack them, or like they get to skip some of the windup and get right to the pitch. The weakest, most pathetic shambling corpse can chain multiple attacks against you, leaving you unable to fight back, flee or heal your wounds. Some of the more menacing-looking beasts can be removed with trivial ease.

You'll fight giant, hulking, armoured foes and... rats. And the rats are the ones who are overpowered.

Dark Souls 3 can't decide whether it wants to empower you or dis-empower you, and it splits the difference in a clumsy way. It's not even satisfying to pull off any of those new, fancy-looking special attacks, when a tiny crab can interrupt you AND kill you by pinching your shins. It's almost as if they wanted to make a game that's better to watch than it is to play. Gotta get those sweet Let's Play bucks, right?

What was advertised...

...and what we got.

For me, a good Dark Souls game is open-ended, with an uneasy tone and setting, with important decisions to make every step of the way. They're at their best when you're put in an uncomfortable situation, and have to pay careful attention to your surroundings to make it through alive. It works better when it's closer to a Metroidvania game than a strict Point A-to-Point B structure. But this game takes entirely too long to really open up, and it doesn't have enough surprises along the way to leave a lasting impression.

The first game gave you access to more than 5 areas from the start(if you start with a certain item). Here, you don't really get the chance to veer off the beaten path until halfway through, and even then your options are bottlenecked. I was about to compare it to the level progression in Super Mario Bros., but even that game had warp pipes that could take you to different levels. Not that you'd have much reason to go exploring, because there is so much wasted space in this game that could have been filled with collectibles, secrets or enemies.

The amount of times I said to myself: "It would be cool if there was an illusory wall HERE!", or "this would be a good spot to put a hidden item" got depressing quick. Developing and playtesting a game is hard, but it's like the developers only cared about making it easier on themselves, and couldn't be arsed to make a game that has content in it.

The environments in this game play like a proof of concept, like something I made in a level editor for the first time, and I'm just testing everything out.

You're not even allowed to level up your character until you beat the first boss. That encounter being so badly designed that it's nearly impossible to tell what and where it will hurt you, or where you can hurt it. Points for creativity, but it doesn't read well in a tense situation, which is bad news for a game where you depend on being able to read your enemies and gauge their movements and reach. Especially in a series where you can lose progress so easily. Newer players won't appreciate that, and the hardcore types will just learn to breeze through it anyway, so I don't know who this was balanced for.

Being opaque is quaint for the background lore, but when it comes to conveying need-to-know information to the player, Dark Souls 3 whiffs hard. Maybe that's because this game's biggest set-pieces can be made entirely trivial.

Do you remember the giant sand worm from the trailer? Doesn't that look like it will be a cool boss fight? Just stand behind a small hill, while a giant crossbow kills it slowly.

A heavily-armoured knight is chasing you through a catacomb filled with living skeletons? Just destroy a bridge behind you, and they'll casually stroll right into the abyss.

You can win a fight against several NPCs at once, by simply stepping onto a ladder that goes down a big hole. Then just sit there while they jump into the hole and fall to their deaths.

The last level has these bookshelves lining the walls, and creepy laser hands come out and can Curse you. Curses have the same effect as dying, so you have to move from safe zone to safe zone while being attacked by monsters...

Except you can just dip your head in a wax pool, which is there specifically to make it so you can't get cursed. And there's more wax pools on each floor, and you can use them as much as you want without consequence.

It's no wonder I've been trying to beat this game without dying. The default experience is so unrewarding. I dislike the term "broken" to describe something in a game that makes everything too easy, because that places blame on the developer for the willpower of the player. But this game goes out of its' way to break itself.

The DLC has that spark of cleverness that I expect from Dark Souls, but I'm convinced now that they deliberately make the main game worse to justify buying the extra levels. It's like if Capcom made you pay extra to play as Ryu or Chun-Li in Street Fighter.

I know pre-release screenshots are supposed to look better...

...but why did they make the finished product look WORSE?

There are no moments here I approach with hesitation, let alone fear of failure. No opponent here makes me nervous to take on in a fight, like the silver knight archers in Anor Londo. None of the levels give me that pit in my stomach the way the narrow walkways in Sen's Fortress do. No part of this game rewards ingenuity the way the reviving skeletons in the catacombs did(in this game, they only revive once). It feels no more complex or engaging than an old side-scrolling beat-'em-up.

Perhaps if this game were filled with lively, interesting characters, it could serve as a nice contrast to the drab, generic apocalypse setting. But most of the recurring characters have nothing interesting to add to the world, and they say everything in a dreary monotone that could rival Peter Dinklage in "Destiny". The world of Dark Souls 3 has delusions of being fearsome or interesting that it never lives up to. So when I win, it doesn't feel like much of an accomplishment. And when I fail, it feels less like a reasonable outcome in a hungry world, and more like the game failed me.



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