It's taken me a few years, but I'm comfortable calling the Dark Souls games my favorite of all time.
I imported Demon's Souls, the series' predecessor, from South Korea after I read a glowing review of a weird, difficult, but incredibly rewarding combat RPG online. I was fascinated by its world, the muted browns and sick greens of a ruined medieval land, inhabited by mournful monsters and alien shapes out of Germanic nightmares and horror manga. But it was with 2011's Dark Souls that I fell in love.
I actually reviewed Dark Souls, playing it a month before its online options were turned on, and a month before any guides arrived on the internet. Without the game's innovative messaging system — internet-connected players can leave glowing orange notes for each other that shine between worlds — Dark Souls felt impossibly mysterious, less like a game I was playing and more like a real ancient world that I'd uncovered. I felt like the first living person to set foot inside its tombs and dungeons in generations; the first to contend with the legions of things that lived in its dark.
The third Dark Souls game, which launched this week on PC, Xbox One, and PS4, can't keep that same mystery. There's been a sequel since then, a good attempt to capture the magic of its predecessor that didn't quite succeed — Dark Souls II was purely expansive where Dark Souls I was intricate, and was often obtuse where its forerunner was arcane. In the five years between Dark Souls I and Dark Souls III, the series' complex mythology has already been explored, producing so many theories that Dark Souls historians have had time to become orthodox, revisionist, and post-modern in their thinking.
But while Dark Souls III doesn't have as much mystery, it does still have the Dark Souls magic. It lifts elements wholesale from its predecessors, including characters like Andre the blacksmith, but its combat feels crisper, more varied, and after spiritual successor Bloodborne did away with shields, less reliant on cowering behind a giant plank of wood. For a fantasy land of impossible monsters and molten gods, its world also feels coherent, like it's been lived in and imbued with its own secret history.
For a fantasy land, Dark Souls' world feels coherent
This is perhaps thanks to the return of series creator Hidetaka Miyazaki, who took the second Dark Souls off to complete Bloodborne, and returned only for this final entry. It's hard to quantify one person's influence in an industry as collaborative as gaming, but Miyazaki's hand is so visible in the design of the Souls games, longtime players can almost feel him watching overhead like a meeker version of Majora's Mask's moon.
My favorite story to illustrate Miyazaki's singular vision for the games in the series was how he built the world of Lordran from the original Dark Souls. A short time after that game's PC release, 3D modelers dug out the files that made up the world of Lordran and discovered a huge and unbelievably complex ants' nest of stages that somehow linked up with each other, a vast and interconnected world with Firelink Shrine at the center. To join up the thousands of dots looked like it would take a team of world builders, but according to interviews published in Dark Souls' Design Works books, Miyazaki had simply imagined it all, starting with the player's de facto home base of Firelink Shrine
Nintendo's Shigeru Miyamoto is seen as a genius because he takes an idea and simplifies it to a kernel of perfection. Miyazaki takes the opposite approach, taking a concept — the dungeon-crawling RPGs of his youth — and complicating it; extrapolating and doubling down on meaning, inference, and suggestion until his world is like folded steel, as strong and sharp as the swords its heroes use.
To give another comparison, Dark Souls III, like the other Souls and Bloodborne before it, feels like James Joyce's Ulysses. Not in the stream-of-consciousness-with-hidden-fart-jokes way, and not in the way that you'll finish it to impress your friends — though they should applaud you. Instead, it feels Miyazaki, like Joyce, wants you to experience his creation with the Cliff Notes open next to it. Luckily, you're spoiled for choice there, with hundreds of companion articles, books, and analysis videos from YouTubers like EpicNameBro and VaatiVidya.
Except it's better than Ulysses. Where Joyce's book demands you work to read it, a novel to take reading back from the masses, Miyazaki's Dark Souls games can also be enjoyed as the most pure kind of action experience: a satisfying third-person combat simulator with tight controls and more pointy weapons that you'll ever need. Strip Ulysses from college syllabuses the world over and replace it with Dark Souls III — students will get more out of it.