Let The Feast Begin
Publisher: Bandai Namco
Reviewed for: PC and PS4
Played: 100+ hours
So much has been written about Dark Souls, and the Souls series as a whole, that its really quite hard to come at it fresh. By now, we know of the series’ legendary difficulty and the impenetrable lore that is hidden so deviously throughout its massive game worlds. Its asynchronous multiplayer is unique in games, and the formula (Fromula?) that has made the series so iconic has been aped by so many games now that “Soulslike” has even become its own genre.
But even with all that said, there is just something so compelling about the complete package. The Fire Fades Edition collects Dark Souls 3 and its subsequent DLC offerings, Ashes of Ariandel and The Ringed City, into one enormous game that can easily eat up all of your free time and most of your sanity, if you let it. We are talking about dozens of areas, bosses, NPC’s, and hundreds of items and weapons and armour sets. All of this is built upon one of the most satisfying combat systems I’ve ever played, which somehow manages to keep combat encounters fresh and exciting right up until the credits roll.
This is due in part to the fantastic gameplay loop that has been the hallmark of the franchise. You as the player enter a horrifying nightmare-scape of an area, timidly encounter fearsome foes, and usually die a couple of times experimenting how best to engage said foes. As you become more proficient at foe slaying, you accumulate the souls that are used to strengthen your character and purchase items and equipment, but lose them if you die. You are given one chance to reclaim your souls, but die again and they are gone for good. And while the bonfires that act as the games checkpoint system allow for quick travel and a welcome reprieve from the oppressive kingdom of Lothric, they also cause most enemies in the game to respawn. It’s a simple loop, but its so very effective at building the tension that I find so addictive. Do I push on, for glory and untold spoils, or do I play it safe and retreat, only to have to play through an area again? Couple that with the fact that most of the time new areas can only be accessed after defeating some hideous boss creature, this element of risk and reward is incredibly engaging, and I subsequently spent most of my time playing on the very edge of my seat.
This last title takes us to the kingdom of Lothric in which, like Lordran and Drangleic before it, things have gone very much awry. As the Ashen One, an Undead who has been awoken by the tolling of bells, it is your duty to seek out the Lords of Cinder and return them to their vacant thrones, by force as it turns out. The story is really open to interpretation and a whole community has sprung up around the lore of the series. After rolling credits I immediately fell down a rabbit hole of lore videos, in particular I enjoyed Vaatividya’s analysis and would highly recommend them. But something that isn’t brought up often enough in relation to the narrative is the quality of the voice acting, which is totally off the charts. NPC’s in the Soul’s really sell this grim-dark universe, and they range from the incredibly morose to the surprisingly comedic.
What I like most about the various narrative threads and quest lines in Dark Souls 3 is that not only are most of them optional, I was in fact not even aware several story lines existed on my first playthough. It was only after failing them, for apparently no reason, that I became aware there was more going on here than meets the eye. Unless certain prerequisites are met, NPC’s can die or simply just vanish from the central hub of the game (Firelink Shrine). And while some players might find that frustrating, this is a game that lends itself to repeat playthroughs, what with its multiple endings and near infinite build options and new game plus modes. Getting to see some of the more obscure story lines play out was incredibly satisfying, even if some of the triggers for certain events will be missed by the vast majority of players.
While a lot of players may have experienced the base game at launch, myself included, From’d DLC offerings are reason enough to plan a return journey to Lothric. The first, Ashes of Ariandel, was a tad too short for my liking. It more than made up for it with its fantastic final boss fight though, which is unique amongst all bosses in the Souls series. Set inside a universe contained within a painting, Ariandel is a land of frozen forests and wild beasts that mirrors the horrors of the outside world. It has a Norse aesthetic that is used effectively, and its sombre narrative provides an interesting trail of breadcrumbs that lead directly into the second piece of DLC. I was expecting them to be self contained tales, and I was pleasantly surprised to find out how intrinsically they are linked.
The monster design is up to par with the base game, and in particular the Corvian Knights are a ferocious surprise for the unwary. Similarly, the packs of deadly wolves that prowl the opening woodlands signal to each other and hound the player relentlessly. Less impressive are the groups of Follower enemies, inspired by the Undead Legion of Farron, who just feel a little too similar to basic soldier type enemies we have seen throughout the series.
The Ringed City, conversely, nails its environments and smaller enemies encounters but somewhat drops the ball in its boss fights. The journey through the Slag Heap is exciting and provides a real challenge to players with its combination of deadly environments and Angel enemies, that had me flashing back PTSD style to the first Dark Souls Anor Londo and its infamous Silver Knight archers. Upon reaching the Ringed City proper, the DLC really hits its stride both in gameplay and from a narrative standpoint. And while I was fascinated by the lore implications of what transpires in the closing moments of The Ringed City, which really wraps up the Soul’s series as a whole, it is ultimately let down by its final boss fight. While suitably difficult, after eventually slaying this final foe, I found myself kind of confused. The encounter didn’t feel like a final boss fight, so much so that I spent another hour or so searching for a path I may have missed, and I ultimately was left feeling unsatisfied, which isn’t what you want to come away from a game feeling.
Dark Souls 3: The Fire Fades is a fantastic title that will keep players playing for hours on end, and long until the night. Ashes of Ariandel and The Ringed City complement the base game perfectly, and even if they don’t live up to it in terms of narrative and boss encounters, are a meaty addition to an already lengthy game. And it is content worth exploring, for the brave and skilled alike, and for the ash that seeketh embers.