The latest (and supposedly last) entry in the notoriously difficult "Dark Souls" series of games shuffled out into the North American market last week, and I've been at it like an intravenous drip of life-sustaining Estus. These spring snowdumps can get a bit old, but at least they've given me ample excuse to stay indoors, forego social interaction and surrender my brain to the Lords of Cinder for a few hours.
"Dark Souls 3" is about what I expected from the series. Its convoluted plot leaves more room for guesswork and inferred meaning than exposition, for spelunking towering and demented gothic architecture (cathedrals out the wazoo, yo) with interconnected nooks and crannies, and for combat. Satisfying, intricate combat. Often infuriating but admittedly fair, the core gameplay is some of the best I've seen in an action RPG.
In short, "Dark Souls 3" delivers more of what fans want — even without much new going on. Developer From Software hit on a winning formula with its cult-like success of the first "Dark Souls" (and, to a lesser extent, its predecessor "Demon's Souls"), and it has focused more on refinement than innovation. The combat feels tighter this time around and the monsters are as grotesquely well-designed as ever, but it's a formulaically linear progression — sort of like a business expanding, rather than an artist evolving.
The series could fall into Pokemon territory, with a scheduled new entry every few years, carrying a new set of beasties and towns to fiddle about in — but breaking little ground elsewhere. But really, as adored as both Pokemon and Souls games are, is giving the people what they want time and time again that much of a problem? There's certainly a financial incentive to do so; a week after release, "Dark Souls 3" has already cemented itself as publisher Namco-Bandai's fastest-selling title in company history.
From Software seems to have made up its mind in the matter, saying that "Souls 3" will be the last entry in the current franchise. That doesn't leave out the potential for a sequel to sister title "Bloodborne," which was released last year, featuring many gameplay similarities. But this is an indication that the company may be realizing its cash cow's potential for stagnation and the fan fallout it could face if it looked harder at dollar signs rather than design choices.
I can rally against market forces impeding on a fan's idealized form of developer integrity as much as I want, but truth is, I'd probably fork over some dough for a lazy cash-in title. (Hell, I still buy all the Pokemon games knowing full well I'm in it for the nostalgia and Squirtles.) It's up to From to decide if it wants to let me.
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