Dark Souls 3 released in march of 2016 with critical acclaim. Since then, it received two paid expansions, Ashes of Ariandel and The Ringed City. Hidetaka Miyazaki, the director of the souls series has stated that he does not plan on returning to the series after Dark Souls 3 is finished. Although it’s sad to see the end of the series, these games have provided countless hours of entertainment.
I’ve used games in the souls series before in previous posts as examples and focuses. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that Dark Souls is one of my favorite games, if not my favorite. With this last DLC ringing in the end of the series (get it?) let’s break down what Dark Souls 3 is.
Dark Souls 3 uses a fantasy setting, drawing inspiration from European western culture. Throughout the game, we encounter many different environments, from the dilapidated walls of castles to murky swamps. Its inhabitants are long gone and only the undead, called hollows, roam the land.
Like previous titles in the series, Dark Souls 3 provides lore through descriptions of items and conversations with NPCs (non player characters). There is an opening cinematic, however, that doesn’t provide specifics. The cut scene merely sets up what is important to know before entering the realm.
This type of storytelling has its advantages and disadvantages. The level of engagement is up to the player, if they don’t care about the lore then they simply progress. This Unfortunately has the potential to come off as not having real point, other than progress for progression sake. Players can also miss the point of events that happen within the game. I know my first time through most of the story went over my head. It was through multiple playthroughs and research that I was able to get a better picture of events. The upside to this type of story is that it is very engaging if the player decides to dive in. Certain players get a sense of gratification through unraveling the mysteries around them and the role they play in the world.
For the purposes of the flavor section, we will be going through the narration of the opening cut scene, character dialog, and few item descriptions. From this, we’ll try to get a better idea of the world, and our character.
Yes, indeed, it is called Lothric, where the transitory lands of the Lords of Cinder converge. In venturing north, pilgrims discover the truth of the old words. The fire fades and the lords go without thrones. When the link of fire is threatened, the bell tolls, Unearthing the old Lords of Cinder from their graves: Aldrich Saint of the Deep, Farron’s Undead Legion, The Abyss Watchers and the reclusive lord of the profaned capital, Yhorm The Giant. Only in truth the lords will abandon their thrones and the Unkindled will rise Nameless accursed undead, Unfit even to be cinder. And so it is, That ash seeketh embers
The game then brings you to a character select menu where you finalize the looks, starting gear, and stats of your Unkindled. After you make your character you rise from a grave in the Cemetery of Ash. You fight your way past the undead inhabitants to face Iudex Gundyr, who blocks the way to the Firelink Shrine. Once inside, You are told by the Firekeeper in the Shrine that you must obtain the cinders of the four lords and link the fire yourself. Without looking too deep into the lore, we have a clear goal, bring the Lords of Cinder to their thrones, dead or alive. For some players that’s all the explanation they need to start polishing their spears, but let’s take a closer look at that cut scene.
The first thing we learn from the narration is setting. “…it is called Lothric, where the transitory lands of the Lords of Cinder converge.” We know that there are multiple kingdoms that merge into a common area known as Lothric. The second sentence tells us that Lothric is important enough for people to make pilgrimages to it, although we are not told why. “The fire fades and the lords go without thrones. When the link of fire is threatened, the bell tolls, Unearthing the old Lords of Cinder from their graves.” From this we know that the “Lords of Cinder” protect a link of fire. When this link is in peril, then the Lords will be summoned to do… something? It then goes into detail on the names of the lords. “Only in truth the lords will abandon their thrones and the Unkindled will rise. Nameless accursed undead, Unfit even to be cinder.” You play as an Unkindled, we know this because the NPCs refer to you as Unkindled, Ashen one, or the Champion on Ash. “And so it is, That ash seeketh embers” From this we get our goal, to seek ember.
This opening cinematic gives us an idea of who we are and what we are meant to do. We are the Unkindled, risen from the dead because the Lords of Cinder abandoned their thrones. We are supposed to seek embers, which turns out to be an item in the game. Since this is the item that we seek as an Unkindled, let’s look at the items description;
No Unkindled can ever truly claim the embers that burn within a champion’s bosom, which is precisely what makes their yearning for warmth so keen
Gain the strength of flame and increase max HP until death.
With the strength of fire, the summoning signs of Unkindled become visible, and seekers of embers can be summoned to join in co-operation. But beware the embers may also attract invaders
This description tells us what the item does and why we as Unkindled want it. In the game, using the ember puts you in a “kindled” state, which increases your health by 30%, allows you to summon players to aid with a level or boss. You stay in this state until you are killed. Having the extra health and the ability to summon others is a really powerful ability. But it has the risk of other players entering your game with the intent to kill you and claim your ember. The significance of the mechanical bonuses mirrors its importance to the player’s character. But this still doesn’t fully tell us why we are trying to kill the Lords of Cinder.
By now you may see a pattern in the language used; Ash, Unkindled, Lords of Cinder, ember. There is an emphasis on fire, which is also common in prior titles. Fire is at the heart of creation, and linking the fire means the continuation of existence. Countless generations of undead have given themselves to the first flame in order to continue the age of fire. This is confirmed with the item description on the Soul of the Lords;
One of the twisted souls, steeped in strength.
Use to acquire numerous souls, or transpose to extract it’s true strength.
Since Lord Gwyn, the first Lord of Cinder, many exalted lords have linked the First Flame, and it is their very souls that have manifested themselves as defender of the flame.
This is the lore of the souls, an endless cycle of undead rising up to offer them selfs to the fire, in order to continue existence. You may also choose to not link the fire, and usher in an age of comforting darkness. However, eventually the cycle will begin again, and a new flame will come into being. This was the conclusion that we came to in Dark Souls 2 but it is reinforced through this description.
Within the story of Dark Souls 3 There are also numerous characters, which have their own motivations and goals. Some are unkindled, some merely undead, some are powerful gods and demigods. Some characters are linked with each other, other have their own duties to uphold. One thing that these characters have in common, is that they are not presented to the player in an obvious way. It requires player interpretation. As an example, let’s look at the relationship between two characters, Eygon and Irina of Carim. When we first meet Eygon, he is sitting in front a locked cell door which contains Irina. If the player chooses to free Irina, she will become a merchant in the Firelink Shrine.
By now the players have exchanged dialog with both NPCs. We can start to get an idea of their personality based on how they talk. Eygon is abrasive and doesn’t think highly of Irina. He calls her a pitying creature and broken beyond repair. He says that she has failed in her duty to become a Firekeeper, which is confirmed by Irina. Irina is soft-spoken, kind, and fearful. When we first meet her, we learn that she is blind. She asks us to touch her, she is surrounded by darkness, and she says that it feels like little creatures are biting at her. From the description on an item that she drops called the “Tower Key” we learn that being a Firekeeper involves some sort of pain or sacrifice.
Greathammer bestowed upon Carim Knights who demonstrate outstanding strength and unwavering faith. Decorated by a ward of Carim Temple, and imbued with the twisted rage of Apostle Morne
We learn later from Eygon’s weapon that knights of Carim who use that weapon have demonstrated unwavering faith. We know that Eygon is charged with protecting Irina, he says so in his dialog, meaning they are part of the same covenant. With Irina being so traumatized by the Firekeeper trials yet still able to show kindness to others, why would Eygon treat her with such destain?
A deformed greatshield given to Eygon of Carim upon being conferred knighthood.
The giant woman’s face that protects Eygon is that of his sister, some years his senior.
If you continue down the rabbit hole and read the description of his shield, we find that it is unique. It has the face of his elder sister on the front. Does his shield contain the soul of his sister? We know from the mechanics in the game that powerful souls of bosses can be turned into unique gear. Could his elder sister have been sacrificed and her soul used to form this shield? When we read the item “Irina’s Ashes” it tells us that her becoming a saint is part of her “grand treachery.”
Umbral ash of Irina of Carim. With this, the shrine handmaid will prepare new items.
Irina was a frail woman. This frailty led to her becoming a saint of Carim, and to her grand treachery
All of this is gotten from interpreting how NPCs talk and through item descriptions provided in the game. It’s possible that players will overlook this and simply see a merchant that sells miracles to the player. But in digging deeper, you get a better understanding of who these characters are. To certain players, unraveling lore this way in incredibly satisfying and has sparked many discussions within the community.
I’ve talked about this in the past when discussing games in the souls series. Dark Souls is infamous for being a hard game. While it is true that this game is challenging, it’s important to note that it is not unfair. Enemy monsters have large windups that telegraph moves, and traps can be detected as long as the player is observant. These games ask the player to traverse carefully and to pay attention to their surroundings.
There are nine attributes that every character has, which can be increased by leveling up, to a maximum of 99. these stats are;
- Vigor: This increases the character HP (Health Points). It also boosts resistance to frost
- Attunement: This increases the characters FP (Focus Points), a resource used to cast spells and use weapon arts. It also gives players attunement slots or a number of different spells a character can carry.
- Endurance: This increases the character’s stamina; a resource used when sprinting, jumping, blocking, activating a spell, or attacking. It also boosts resistance to lightning and bleeding
- Vitality: This increases the amount of gear your character can handle. It also boosts resistance to poison
- Strength: This is a prerequisite for heavier weapons and armor. It also boosts fire resistance and increases damage with strength based weapons.
- Dexterity: This is a prerequisite for more agile weapons. It also boosts resistance to fall damage and increases damage with dexterity based weapons.
- Intelligence: This is a prerequisite for casting sorceries or pyromancies. It also boosts magic resistance and increases damage with intelligence-based weapons.
- Faith: This is a prerequisite for casting a miracles or pyromancies. It also boosts dark resistance and increases damage with faith-based weapons.
- Luck: This increases the item discovery rate. It also boosts cure resistance and increases the efficacy of poison and bleeding weapons.
During character creation, the player chooses a class, which will give them starting gear and a dispersion of attributes. Players also determine their character’s appearance here. After creation, however, the player is free to choose which attribute to put points into. A player gains levels by giving souls to the Firekeeper back in Firelink Shrine. Players obtain souls by killing monsters, using items, or slaying other players. Every level allows the player to increase one of their nine attributes by one. This increase the number of souls needed for the next level. This creates a metagame which is common in most RPGs. Players are given information which is not available to their character, in order to change the way the character is played. Different weapons do better with certain attributes. Using a rapier will require more finesse than a hammer so it would be better to prioritize dexterity over strength in this scenario. Additionally, you can infuse weapons with a wide variety of effects, which benefit from the player’s attributes. For example, the player can make their weapon a blessed weapon with a Blessed Gem. This will give the weapon additional damage based off of the user’s faith attribute.
There is a massive amount of variety when it comes to combat, stemming from which weapon, spells and armor the player chooses to use. Most of the attributes act as prerequisites to using different gear. A long sword, for example, requires 10 strength and 10 dexterity. Otherwise, the damage is severely reduced to the point of unusability. Weapons can be used in one hand or with two and can be swapped on the fly. Changing the handedness of a weapon increases damage, and also changes the move-set of the weapon. Each weapon has a light attack and a heavy attack as well as a weapon art. A weapon art is a unique attack that uses FP and is tied to the type of weapon used. For example, most straight swords have a stance that allows for a lunge at the cost of FP.
A player’s defensive options come down to the players preferred playstyle. If the player likes dodging then they can use a dodge roll, which provides the player with a brief moment of invincibility. The window of invincibility is more effective the lighter the player is. If the player would like to tank hits, trade blows, or block attacks with a shield then they will need to armor up at the cost of their dodge roll. Blocking is an easier method of avoiding damage, but costs investment in the vigor and stamina. There is a third type of defensive option and called parrying, although this generally only works against humanoid monsters. If the player has the correct shield or weapon in their left hand (the off hand in this game) then they can attempt to knock aside an incoming attack. For a few seconds, this leaves the attacker in a state where the defender can land a staggeringly strong attack. This is harder to execute than rolling or blocking, especially against player characters who are using a weapon you’re not familiar with. But the reward for pulling off this feat is a massive amount of damage.
This metagame has created an enthusiastic PvP (player versus player) community. Countless amounts of man hours have gone into creating effective combinations of attributes and gear, also known as “builds”. The game accommodates this by allowing players to summon others with the express interest of fighting them. These summoning signs will be red or purple and pull a hostile player into your world. There also a PvP arena that can be accessed from the Firelink Shrine bonfire later in the game.
Exploration is important to Dark Souls 3. Players scour dungeon-like levels for loot, souls, and checkpoints to progress. While combat is complex, it is used as a tool to deal with problems while exploring. Put simply, the goal of the player is to reach the next bonfire. The level design in souls games is top notch. Stages splinter into multiple routes that can loop back on themselves to make shortcuts, or lead to different stages. Players are encouraged to seek hidden paths through its use of shortcuts. The path to a boss is littered with enemies, which can be a drain on resources. However, players can find shortcuts to circumnavigate the obvious path and better pace themselves for a boss fight. In addition, rarer items are hidden in harder to reach places, or behind illusionary walls that disappear when struck.
Levels are designed around the player’s main mode of healing, the Estus Flask. Players get a certain amount of charges in their flask, based on how much they have upgraded it. These charges can be expended to heal the player, and are refilled at bonfires. Checkpoints in the early part of the game are closer together but get further and further apart once the players have access to more estus. This type of healing allows for players to make decisions on whether to progress or return home with their spoils. In the soul series, if a player dies they drop all of the souls that they have collected thus far in the place where they fell. The players have a second chance to pick up those souls, but if they die in transit to their dropped experience, then it is lost forever. Although the game allows the player a second chance, it is a devastating loss. This is why the Estus Flask is crucial to the level design. A number of charges act as pseudo lives, each mistake or bad encounter costs them a charge of their estus. If a player has no charges in their flask and doesn’t feel confident that they can make it to the next bonfire, then they can turn back. This gives them a chance to level up themselves, restock on supplies, and/or upgrade gear. The player can then return to the level, stronger than before.
In Dark Souls 3 there is a new flask on the block called the Ashen Estus Flask. This is new to the soul series, and it recovers FP, the resource to cast spells and use weapon arts. The Ashen Estus Flask is allotted charges from the normal Estus Flask and is determined by the player at Firelink Shrine. if the players want a couple ashen flask charges, then they will have to give up some of their normal estus. This comes down the player’s preference. If using a spell saves the player HP, and they want to have more access to that spell, then it might be worth it to keep a couple Ashen Estus Flask charges around.
Dark Souls 3, like its predecessors, accommodates all play styles. Players naturally choose their level of engagement in every facet of the game. If they want to immerse themselves in the world than there is massive amounts of dialog and descriptions to pour over. If the player just wants to overcome the challenges the game puts forth, then it won’t push the story onto the player.