Dark Souls 3 got the full triple-A treatment when it was shown to members of the press last week. The event was held in a trendy Mission District bar, a Dark Souls 3 statue looming in the lobby. Rows and rows of televisions dominated the restaurant area. It was a far cry from when Demon's Souls arrived seven years ago to virtually no fanfare from the press.
Dark Souls is truly a franchise now. This is not an argument that Dark Souls is now popular, and therefore it sucks. If anything, you could argue that it's better than ever. The conversation around it has changed, though.
Every outlet has its designated Dark Souls person - someone who knows the series (and Bloodborne) inside and out and can pick up on all the little nods and references. They're tuned into the massive and influential Dark Souls community and understand the conversation around the series. Outlets need that person because Dark Souls is a mass market series that demands the highest levels of coverage, but is still extremely difficult to write about fluently if you haven't finished the rest of the sgames. Dark Souls 3 is not a game you go in and cover casually.
Hence, almost everyone at the event I attended was a diehard Souls fan - streamers, Youtube personalities, and journalists alike. They arrived with a deep and intimate knowledge of the series, and came prepared to remark on such esoteric details as the fact that Dark Souls 3 opens in the Cemetary of Ashes, where the other games in the series end in ash-covered locations. Their audience consists of a legion of hardcore fans ready to pick over every tiny detail in the game's coverage.
In short, we're well past the point of having to evangelize for the series. Now the conversation is about what's new, different, and interesting. It's the kind of conversation we have when playing any other game in a triple-A franchise.
While the conversation has changed, though, Dark Souls remains much the same. It's still hard as hell - I faced that "YOU DIED" screen more times than I could count in the three or so hours I spent with the opening hours of Dark Souls 3 - and it leans on familiar locations like the Firelink Shrine, which serves as a hub where you can travel to new locations and upgrade your character. The big changes are mostly refinements. When you die, for instance, you don't become a Hollow and lose your ability to summon NPCs and other players - the kind of change that comes with perspective born of experience.
Its most important new feature is the Weapons Arts system - which Bob does a good job of explaining in his preview from last year - that gives you some powerful new attacks and stances, but at the expense of being able to parry, which is an important technique for advanced players. It also features a mana gauge that can refilled by a new variant of Estus - flasks that have traditionally been used to recover life. It's possible to rebalance the two, so if you find yourself using Weapon Arts a lot, you can choose to take more Ash Estus at the expense of the usual Estus Flasks.
Beyond these changes, Dark Souls 3 has a creeping sense of familiarity to it. The dragon suddenly appearing on a castle parapet is a familiar Dark Souls trope; and sure enough, it's back for more in Dark Souls 3. Lost in the discussion around the new mechanics is a sense that From Software has found a formula that will allow them to keep making games on an annual basis for the forseeable future. Series director Hidetaka Miyazaki all but confirmed that Dark Souls would go on when he told GameSpot last August, "Dark Souls is my life's work. Everything I came up with for Dark Souls 3 is based on my personal preferences. However, Dark Souls 3 is also actually the turning point for the franchise." In other words, don't expect Dark Souls to go away anytime soon.
That said, while the surprise and novelty of the original game is gone, there are opportunities to be found in familiarity. There's been a lot of hype, for instance, around the revelation that Andre of Astora - the original game's grizzled blacksmith - appears to have setup shop in Dark Souls 3's Firelink Shrine, seemingly confirming that the events of the three games are connected. In the field, a boss you think you have a bead on might suddenly burst into a kind of corrupted ooze with new and more powerful attacks. Enemies in the field will occasionally do the same, forcing you to stay on your toes and not make assumptions about what you're facing. Who knows how From Software will play with expectations in the later parts of the game.
In the meantime, Dark Souls' core strengths remain intact. From Software seems to have a keen understanding of what works and what doesn't in this series, and they're more inclined to refine what works than to try to shake things up. Even the new Weapon Arts system builds on what has come before with its new stances. From Software can get away with leaning on refinement because the series continues to carry a certain cachet with hardcore gamers, and because of its sheer craftmanship. There are times when it's easy to see the seams in the engine - enemies still flop and ragdoll around on the ground after you take them out - but it's hard not to be impressed by its outstanding level design. I would have thoroughly enjoyed getting lost in its intricate levels if not for the fact that I was constantly running for my life from monsters wielding butcher knife-like swords, zombies, and evil knights.
Familiar as Dark Souls 3 might be, though, my own relationship with the series has changed. In some ways, it's become established to the point now that in some ways it feels impenetrable. In that respect, I actually found Bloodborne to be a breath of fresh air - it felt like a Dark Souls game, but it brought a lot of new elements to the table, and thus reset expectations. With Dark Souls 3, everyone pretty much knows what they're going to get, so much of the conversation has turned to the nitty gritty of discussing this change and that change. I can't imagine how a total newcomer must feel when trying to engage with this series.
For what it's worth, I like Dark Souls 3. I think the Weapon Arts adds even more depth to the already outstanding combat, and the tightly-wound atmosphere remains a high point. Really, there's still very little like it. But In terms of the hardcore Souls community, I'm very much on the outside looking in, which has made the series that much more difficult to cover.
It's going to be interesting to see how the Souls games progress going forward. With the series now firmly entrenched and the community established, From Software will have to figure out how to evolve the series, retain what works, and avoid franchise fatigue. For better or worse, it's no longer the fresh, new, and exciting experience that it was back in 2011 - it's more mature now. In that sense, the series has already reached the turning point. Now From Software needs to figure out what's next.