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After over 600 hours in Dark Souls 3, nothing could be more painfully clear to me that it’s nothing more than the mainstreamed bastard child of Dark Souls and Bloodborne forced into existence like the lords to their thrones.“A thing that feeds on souls,” the Gael within me chain-rolled and R1’d his way through the loops of the final Souls painting like a prisoner to the flame, and the old Firekeepers cackling in my mind, I resigned myself to the task. “This is my fate, for I remain among the accursed” chanted my mind – but wait, this is a game, and I don’t have to burn away the “rot” of the past in favor of the novel and ‘innovative.’
The common trend in defending Dark Souls 3 is to claim that our complaints stem from “nostalgia,” and that it feels easy because we already “got gud,” but every time I go back to previous titles I am floored by their difficulty and how much more I enjoy them. When I revisited Xenogears on Playstation years ago, I was shouting to my roommate until credit roll like an ape on three different pre-workout supplements, “It’s better than I remembered!” Metal Gear Solid 1 – 3 are better than 4 and 5. This is not nostalgia, this is the consensus, and just because one person’s opinion differs from another’s doesn’t mean we throw the baby out with the bathwater. Far and few between, the games of the Holy Grail are not without fault, but be it Super Metroid, Metal Gear Solid, or Dark Souls, somewhere beneath the crags and through the formless fog lies tangible claim to their legacy.
Miyazaki said he had very little to lose when creating Demon’s Souls, giving him a large degree of creative freedom. Now the fourth and final game in the series, Dark Souls 3 plays so hard not to lose that it falls flat like every new album from your favorite metal band, everything a shadow of what was, with the very idea expressed through the lyrics, or as paintings representing the games we consume. New games in a series are vulnerable to all kinds of biases: the time investment bias, where every hundred hours spent only serves as more reason to justify it; the identity bias, where we become attached to our characters, performance, or builds and by effect defend ourselves; consumer bias, where we praise the game to reconcile the 60 dollars (or hundreds for a console) spent; and “FoMO” where we stick with said game out of “Fear of Missing Out” to see beyond it’s flaws.
With better graphics and larger populations, new games lure us from the front page of Twitch to spit us out the other side when they are long forgotten. Video games fundamentally involve the self, but as we seek salvation in the finality of their coded constructs, it isn’t complete freedom we yearn for, but confinement and the stories told within the bounds. Unlike movies, games allow meta-narratives to form as the player finds meaning within their constraints, but if any Souls game lacks constraints, it’s DS3, in which the meditative combat that defined the series is replaced by unconscious frenzy, the player detached from the weightless world and evaporating into thin air along with it, armor and all.
A Labyrinth Closing
“Your first Souls game is always the hardest” is one of the worst myths to come out of the Soulsborne community. DS3 may be hard by the numbers, but it offers no space for mastery— enemies are either ruined or rolled away from at it’s expense. Chain-roll or mash your weapon with R1, combat in the game is a binary repetition that rewards frantic persistence over calculated restrain, where the player endlessly rolls from endless chain attacks to be forgiven too often and punished by the unfair. The low stamina consumption of rolls, faster roll recovery animations, quick moving heals, and short lasting damage frames on enemy attacks are to blame, and while these things may be “necessary to compensate for the faster pace of the game,” one must ask, why make the enemies faster in the first place?
Resident Evil 4 has limited controls compared to the cinematic RE6, and REmake with it’s “tank controls” is widely considered the best in the series, while fans patiently await the remake of the second game. In the early RE games, choosing when to fight or flee was a shot-call only the most experienced players made with ease, but never did they deny the gravity of the lone zombie blocking the narrow path. Like the early RE games, the first Souls games use limitations to create a cohesive whole, matching their dreamlike mythos with the ‘underwater’ combat to pronounce the weight of the world and define the player in it. We hear that the early Souls games are “clunky” while Bloodborne and Dark Souls 3 are “fluid” without any explanation as to what these words mean. Most games are fluid: Devil May Cry, God of War, now Bayonetta – we’ve known it for years but Demon’s Souls shattered the figurative hourglass to form real, weighted, substance from the remains. When reading through the Steam reviews for Hollow Knight, I found a wealth of 10/10 reviews, but what made me finally buy it was a 6/10 and a 2/10. One calling it “clunky” and the other, “too hard,” I bought it instantly.
The Space Betwixt
In PVP or fighting games, players compete toward a common goal, but when players compete without influencing the progress of the other, these games are called “flowcharty,” in which each player follows their own rigid script with the winner having merely followed theirs best. The result is is one type of game, every game, until it’s “Ded Gaem” and the community moves on in favor of a better competitive ‘narrative.’ PVE follows the same principle, where depth is the result of the integration of player and enemy in a process contained by their limitations. Here, “fluid” and “fast” can easily become invitations for waste, where efficiency is replaced by isolated inputs like aimless arpeggios in shred guitar noodling. Gameplay in Nier Automata amounts to linear hypnosis in near autopilot, where success is defined by only further adherence to its script.
This “more is more” approach can be rewarding enough to experience a good story, but turns to an obligatory annoyance when used to dramatize what isn’t fully there or fails to express what is. Yngwie Malmsteen may play guitar fast, but few of his songs match their speed with an emotionally engaging shape or narrative. Whether it be in music, art, or video games, boundaries exhibit the forms they contain, and how these boundaries are positioned in relation to our abilities gives meaning to our actions.
While the level design in Dark Souls 2 look like something I could have made in Unreal Editor at age 14, the gameplay itself is commonly praised as being the best in the series, where the slow pace of combat and stamina / chain-roll penalty system allows for miniature stories to develop within each fight. In Dark Souls 3, you find yourself either rolling away entirely or spamming R1 for guaranteed single combo finishes. The earlier Souls games reversely punish either attempt, forcing the player to enter into the process posed by each enemy like a digital form of “consecrated action.” The Harald Legion Knights in The Ringed City DLC are too fast to be enjoyably fought together, and so we are given a way to one shot and stun them. This is a far cry from a dance with the Sentinels in Dark Souls 1, or the Old Knights in Dark Souls 2, in which every action and non-action is a nod in agreement within a shared space of deliberate accord.
Our countless deaths send us back to the process time and time again to be who we are within this liminal space like a journey through the Buddhist Gateless Gate. This is elegantly mirrored by the mythology of the series, as we seek a middle path “beyond the scope of light, beyond the reach of dark,” but in DS3 we are barred entry, and instead roll around the periphery on a downward spiral to the end of the world, where all walls collapse with the hollow shell of our so-called progress. The game appropriately ends in ashen fields adust, where the final boss is the consumer and destroyer of boundaries in what could be the ultimate meta-commentary on video games ever made, but Miyazaki fails to understand the very value of his games to begin with: they were never paintings to be burned, or a “sickly sweet bed to lie upon,” but rather timeless works of art in which every guarded corridor was an extension of the soul. Pages of criticism could be written about the early Souls games, but they point to a idea too soon to be forgotten, now ossified within the graves of giants and obscured by the blackness of technological obsolescence.
Mirror My Mind Cage
Just as the player is shaped by their surroundings, we too learn who we are through confronting our limitations, or “via negativa”: through what we are not. Making it to Anor Londo to meet Gwynevere should be just as soul-crushing of a trial as it is to behold such feminine beauty in the real world, however fleeting the illusion, and taking the chthonic plunge to reclaim our humanity from the abyss should feel no different than facing the greatest horrors from our past. A game should mirror our mind cage: impose walls in just the right places and with just the right height so we feel deserving when they fall. If Dark Souls 3 has walls, there’s no space for us between them. We are born, scarred, and forged within our boundaries, but alas, it’s no surprise the masses want games without limitations—they are incapable of seeing their own.
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