As I write this, it has been a matter of hours since I walked into the ashen wastes of the Kiln of the First Flame. Behind me lay a barren dead forest, guarded only by the ghosts of long-dead knights. At my side stood the summoned spirit of the Knight Solaire, my trusty companion through many an arduous battle. A beautiful, haunting orchestral swell announced the appearance of Gwyn, Lord of Cinder, Lordran’s very own Apollo and the final boss of Dark Souls. A few breathless, fire-sword filled minutes later, he was vanquished and the end credits were rolling, concluding the 86 hour playthrough I started all the way back in April (taking into account the 2 month period I didn’t play after getting cursed in The Depths, because I needed to calm down). I’m still working the ending through in my head, but there can be no doubt that it is already one of my favourite games of all time, and the game that reminded me how great it feels to truly commit, to look forward to getting home from work, booting it up and getting lost in it for hours.
The way the narrative is laid out, dropping you into a world which is slowly slipping into a deathly demise, learning more and more about the tragic past as you struggle from one ghostly, hostile vista to the next reminded me what it is I love about video games – stories that you are tasked with figuring out for yourself by exploring and delving, by actually living them. Archaeological narrative, if you will. There’s also the fact that, for the first 75% of the game, Dark Souls is utterly without mercy. This is not a game that you can haphazardly muddle your way through, if you don’t learn the patterns and hone your skills through constant trial and error, you simply will not get anywhere. It could have been even harder though, and I’m kind of disappointed in myself for not letting it be.
Let me explain, Dark Souls is a labyrinth, all the areas in the game are ingeniously interwoven and there are endless offshoots, short cuts and hidden areas to find. One of the joys of the game was discovering all this, but since the game has been out for 4 years, more or less everything that can be found, has been found.
Being the weak willed little guttersnipe that I am, I found myself resorting to guides and let’s plays far more than I’m proud of, whether it was to find out where I needed to go next, if there were any valuable items knocking about or how to deal with the blood-thirsty atrocity that was waiting over the next ridge, carefully picking out which seasoning it was going to use for my freshly peeled testicles. I found that when I put all that to one side and went through the game without knowing where I was supposed to go, or what to expect, the end result was far more satisfying.
It’s one thing cautiously edging your way up a narrow staircase because you know there’s a tall, heavily armoured knight lurking at the top, and quite another when you make the climb completely oblivious to that, and then shriek like an owl in a tumble dryer when he comes rushing down the stairs and wedges his halberd between your front teeth. One of the most exhilarating moments in the entire game came when I entered an entirely new area, wandered out of a cavern into a serene, woodland lakeside and was immediately savaged to death by a giant winged chimera with a scorpion’s tail and electrified halitosis. Some time, and many deaths later, I caught my breath and soldiered on, well reminded that any feeling of safety or serenity is either a gift to be cherished or a precursor to something truly awful.
This is the reason why I am immensely excited that Dark Souls 3is coming out as soon as it is, and why I’m determined to find out as little about it as possible. Oh, sure, I could play the second instalment, but it’s one thing to forge your way through a game knowing that, if the going really got tough, you could turn your attention to the internet to find the support you need, and another to start a game before any such advantages even exist. I already know too much about Dark Souls 2 anyway. I know that your maximum health slowly depletes with each death, I know that you only get one healing Estus Flask as the game begins and I know that after you kill enemies a certain number of times, they stop respawning. That is the biggest source of discouragement, for me.
The transition from terrifying unknown to comforting familiarity is one of the most absorbing aspects of Dark Souls. Enemies that terrified you upon first encounter end up becoming old friends that you visit as you move between areas, providing a welcome respite from the newer, harder foes and a valuable source of the precious souls used for levelling, crafting and currency. The idea that after a while those old, stabby friends will vanish for good is enough to discourage me. I hope that rather egregious feature won’t make it into the new one, but since it didn’t turn up in Bloodborne, it seems like From Software are listening to their fans.
I’ve seen a few morsels of gameplay from this third title and read a few pieces about the changes/new features, but I’ve decided not to dig any deeper and leave as much as possible until I actually get my grubby hands on it. What little information I have gleaned makes me confident that Dark Souls 3, whilst maybe not as good as the first (or second, depending on whether you count Demon’s Souls), will end up being one of the first true masterpieces of this generation. Bloodborne enabled From Software to get a feel for how much scope they have to build worlds with the Xbox One and PS4 hardware at their disposal and Dark Souls 2 likely gave them a far stronger understanding of which mechanics from Dark Souls needed to be tweaked and which ones needed to be left alone.
The other thing about Dark Souls 2 is that, narratively, it acts as a separate entity to Dark Souls, described by some as the ‘South Pole’ to i’s predecessor’s North. As I said, the story of Dark Souls is a puzzle in and of itself, scattered between fleeting dialogue sequences, visual clues and the odd snippet of lore taken from item descriptions and loading screens. The ending leaves the door wide open and it certainly feels like there’s a great deal more left to be said. Judging from what early material from DS3 has been made available, it will follow on from the first game far more directly, which suggests that it will answer a lot of big questions, whether we were asking them or not.
The basic atmosphere, form and function will likely also be the same, but I can’t imagine any way that this won’t end up being the largest, most visually stunning instalment in the series yet. Bloodborne is a very handsome game in a hideous sort of way, but from what I’ve seen, the areas are all a bit samey after a while. The Souls franchise has a reputation for offering diverse, unique, eye-melting areas to explore and I doubt this one will do anything to tarnish that. You can’t replicate the blend of awe and frustration offered by the Crystal Caves, the serene menace of Darkroot Forest or the tragic, and the cloying terror of the New Londo Ruins. The developers have more tools than ever before at their disposal to weave new webs (but hopefully no more beds) of chaos beyond our wildest daydreams, most of them likely harbouring some monstrous thing equally beyond the reaches of imagination, eagerly awaiting the chance to repurpose our ribs as toothpicks. I can’t wait to find out, and do it the hard way this time.