'Dark Souls 3' Wasn't the Height of the Series, but It Didn't Need to Be
The Ashen One may not be the smartest or strongest character of 2016, but they are the most dependable.
Welcome to the Waypoint High School Class of 2016 Yearbook. We're giving out senior superlatives to our favorite games, digging into the year's biggest stories via extracurriculars, and following our favorite characters through their adventures together in fanfic. See you in 2017!
When I finished Dark Souls, I wanted more; I hadn't played anything else like it. When I finished Dark Souls 2, I wanted more; it felt like a pale imitation of the original. When I finished Demon's Souls, I wanted more; it felt nearly as good as Dark Souls. When I finished Bloodborne, I wanted more; it was a proper, welcomed spin on the formula. But when I finished Dark Souls 3, I began to seriously question what I wanted more of in the first place.
If you ask someone about their favorite Souls game, there's a chance it's influenced by a simple question: which one did they play first? That's not a universal truth, of course; I've gotten into countless arguments with Austin over the merits of Dark Souls vs. Dark Souls 2, despite us having played them in order, and in the right mood, I'd argue Bloodborne is king.
And while defeating Ornstein and Smough, surviving Blighttown, escaping Sen's Fortress, and ringing the first bell will be etched in my psyche for years, I'll always be chasing one specific moment. Prior to becoming a convert, I poked fun at Dark Souls fans, not understanding the desire to play a game that seemed to take pleasure in their suffering. It wasn't until my wife went on a long work trip that I gave Dark Souls a shot, and I still remember when it all clicked.
A few hours into the game, you're confronted with a boss in the form of two gargoyles. You get a few minutes with one of them before the other one shows up, and it's a nightmare. I spent hours bashing my head against these assholes, making little progress towards defeating them. And yet, eventually, in a moment that will be familiar to many a Dark Souls fan, I had "the run," where I'd exhausted all of my health, patience, and mental stamina, but through a mixture of gut reaction and learned precision, my trusty axe struck them down. The gargoyles were dead, and despite streaming the game to hundreds of people on the Internet, I screamed in ecstasy.
Related, on Waypoint: Yeah. That's right. We gave the Doom "Doomguy" Slayer the "Most School Spirit" award. He deserves it.
That moment, that scream, was everything Dark Souls fans rave about, and ever since, I've been trying to recreate that feeling of raw emotion. It's why, despite being tired of Dark Souls' gothic fantasy aesthetic, I was willing to ride the dragon with designer Hidetaka Miyazaki one more time. Maybe he had another trick up his sleeve. He didn't. Dark Souls 3 is a good game, it's even one of my favorites of 2016, but that's owed more to Dark Souls than to anything genuinely new in Dark Souls 3. The Souls games have become my Call of Duty—slap on some new textures, move things around, and I'm willing to die at some giant boss for hours.
That's an admittedly low standard, but let's put it this way: Dark Souls makes me feel alive. I play games for different reasons—to visit worlds that don't exist, to challenge myself, to walk a day in another person's shoes—but few fulfill a primal urge the way Miyazaki's series does.
When I reviewed Bloodborne for Kotaku in 2015, I included this text message exchange I had with one of my colleagues, Kirk Hamilton, after beating the Shadow of Yharnam, a three-person tango where the bosses get more powerful as you kill each one, late at night.
That's pretty close to how I felt when those gargoyles went down, too. It took a few games, but Bloodborne delivered what I was looking for. That's why, despite wishing FromSoftware would move on from Dark Souls, I went down the rabbit hole. And if I'm being honest, I'd do it again.