When you cover games for a living, it's sometimes easy to lose the thread of a series - even one that you love. That's been the case with me and Dark Souls, which in recent years has evolved from underdog to full-blown phenomenon. Each game has been so big, so in-depth, and so intense, that I simply haven't been able to dive into them as far as I've wanted - at least until now.
To my great surprise, Dark Souls 3 has been the game that has dragged me back into the series after what amounts to a fairly lengthy hiatus. Of all my Dark Souls-loving colleagues in the industry, I was easily the most skeptical of the latest entry in the series in the days and weeks leading up to launch. It just seemed to riff too heavily on the original Dark Souls; and after the breath of fresh air that was Bloodborne, Dark Souls 3 seemed in danger of feeling stale. After playing it at a pre-launch preview event, I openly wondered if annualization had begun to take its toll.
Still, I dutifully picked up a copy of Dark Souls 3 at launch, if nothing else so I could have a frame of reference for my podcast. And then it hit me: the atmosphere, the intense duels, the sheer amount of stuff hidden throughout the world. The next thing I knew, I was knee deep in Dark Souls 3 guides across the Internet as I researched whether I wanted to go with a strength build or a dexterity build while working to uncover its many secrets.
I don't feel like I have to go into Dark Souls' myriad strengths at this point, because they're already pretty well-established. Soulsborne is a first-rate action series with an amazing atmosphere, deep and interesting combat, and some of the best (and scariest) boss battles around. One reason it hasn't gotten old yet is its sheer quality, another is that no other game has been able to replicate its particular mix of atmosphere and extreme but ultimately balanced dfficulty. Not even Salt and Sanctuary - the critically acclaimed 2D Soulsborne-style game that launched last month - is quite the same.
Still, I found myself falling out of the series a bit after completing the original Dark Souls back in 2011. Reviewing Dark Souls was an intense experience - there was no community to speak of, no guides, and no one to help me with the likes of Ornstein and Smough or Blighttown. I had to muddle my way through Dark Souls more or less on my own; and while that was in some ways the "optimal" experience, it also made it incredibly stressful to hit deadline. When Dark Souls 2 came around a couple years later, I opted to pass on the review and wait for launch.
When I finally got around to playing it, I was surprised to find that Dark Souls 2 failed to capture my attention in the same fashion as Dark Souls. Where the open and relatively seamless world of Dark Souls had been a revelation, Dark Souls 2 felt more closed. Fair or not, Dark Souls 2's early network of caves couldn't compare to my first glimpse of the Undead Burg or my journey through Anor Londo. I intended to finish it, but other projects took away my attention, and I never got around to playing more than the first few hours.
A year later, I picked up Bloodborne, again with the best of intentions. Unlike with Dark Souls 2, I was pulled in a bit more by Bloodborne - enough so that I started researching which weapons I should try to obtain for an extended run. I was taken by the gothic artstyle and the faster-paced combat, which forced me out from the customary safety of my shield and got me to rely more on my reflexes. But then, as I was preparing to set out to take on the Blood-Starved Beast, I just... stopped. Another review pulled me away from Bloodborne - I think it might have been Xenoblade Chronicles 3DS - and I lost the thread of the game. That's just one of the drawbacks of being a reviewer, I suppose.
Despite that, Bloodborne still made a pretty substantial impression on me - enough that I was willing to believe Bob when he said that it was one of the best games of the year. I always meant to get back to it, but I was distracted by one game after another; and before I knew it, Dark Souls 3 was just around the corner.
Despite my positive experience with Bloodborne, I went into Dark Souls 3 with some trepidation. I wasn't at all certain that it had evolved enough over the past few years, or that it would compare well with Bloodborne. My skepticism was further fueled by the appearance of various well-worn Soulsborne tropes, the dragon on the parapet chief among them, which made me wonder if From Software was going through the motions.
But as I head into the Cathedral of the Deep after knocking off the Abyss Watchers and the Crystal Sage, I find to my relief and delight that I'm loving Dark Souls 3. There are just so many little aspects about the series that I had forgotten - the crash of a crate as I frantically roll away from a powerful enemy, the satisfaction of a backstab, the mute camaraderie as you salute another player before heading into a boss battle. Dark Souls 3 has had my full attention since I knocked out the first boss - an armored icy beast thing with a mace bigger than I was. In fact, the only reason I'm not further along in the same is that I've been spending a lot of time hunting down merchants, knocking out minibosses, and helping other players take down bosses I've already finished off.
As I've played, memories of my original run through Dark Souls have come flooding back. When I finished off the Vordt of the Boreal Valley, my friend who was watching commented that his lair looked a lot like the Northern Undead Asylum; and while I couldn't say for certain whether he was right, it did give me a warm surge of nostalgia. Later, I stumbled on to a Stray Demon - a classic boss from the first game - and I again smiled right before it kicked the living crap out of me (a couple guide videos later and I was able to defeat it without too much trouble). Dark Souls 3 is loaded with such callbacks, which gives it a stronger sense of continuity while lending more weight to the lore.
Obviously, there have been frustrating moment as well. It wouldn't be a Soulsborne game if I didn't, say, lose 8000 souls because I wandered into the Crystal Sage's area without paying a visit to the Firelink Shrine. But the design feels more polished, which tells me that From Software has learned a thing or two from their work with Dark Souls 2 and Bloodborne. As an example, after dreading my visit to Dark Souls 3's requisite swamp level, I was pleasantly surprised to find that it wasn't as cheap and nasty as I was expecting, with even the giant crab monsters being relatively manageable. And waiting for me at the end was the game's first really strong boss fight - a fast-paced and memorable duel that brought to mind what I originally liked about Bloodborne.
Another reason it probably feels more polished to me is that I'm playing on the PC - probably the best way to experience a Soulsborne game at this point. Playing on the PC, I've faced none of the framerate drops that have reportedly plagued the PlayStation 4 version out of the gate, nor any stability issues. What's more, the PC version of Dark Souls 3 obviously represents a huge leap in graphical quality from the PlayStation 3's Dark Souls, which was the version I played back in 2011. Granted, the original game wasn't exactly ugly; but it did have its share of framerate issues, and there's obviously no way that a PS3 game from 2011 can match a PC game in 2016. I'm not sure that it's a huge leap over Bloodborne - itself a very good looking game - but there are nevertheless a lot of memorable touches to be found, like the crash of fire as the final Abyss Watcher swings his flaming sword.
With that, I'm now at the point where I'm all in on finishing a Soulsborne game for the first time since the original Dark Souls. It's an exhilarating feeling, but an intimidating one as well. I know that I've barely scratched the surface from a difficulty standpoint - the Nameless King and all the rest still await. It'll take a pretty commitment on my part to finish out Dark Souls 3.
Thankfully, we've hit a little bit of a lull in terms of game releases - Whispers of the Old Gods and Uncharted 4 notwithstanding - so I have some time to indulge. I have to say that it feels good to be back. It's been far too long.