I feel like there was some shift in design of this games around DS2. Games before it have a simple pillar storyline about hero fighting Big Evil with small interesting sub stories in the world. After DS2 games become too meta with stories about endless cycles, pointlessness of everything and deconstruction of hero myths. And while this are interesting themes by themselves and definitely worth discussion and exploration, they are run counter to what this games are. At least what this games are for me and reasons I love them.
I love exploration. Finding out about people who lived here before and how they interacted with each other, what happened to them. But to enjoy it I need that world make sense for me. And I need to understand my place in that world to care. Earlier games give me that, I knew why I came to Boletaria and Anor Londo, what I wanted to do and what people failed to do before me. On other hand “you are a hunter - go hunt” and “you came here for no reason - want to be a king?” was too vague and did not give me what I wanted.
I love sense of accomplishment. Defeating hard boos after 20 tries, or find a bonfire when you have no estus and tiny bite of health are some of most memorable moments in my life. But what if it’s all pointless, why would I press on? Bligttown looks hard and oppressive why would I go there, or why would I kill Sif, he seems like a nice guy? I need game to convince me that I want to ring a Bell to meet cool god who explain everything, that there is something at stake. I don’t need game to convince me that playing videogames is pointless and accomplish nothing. I will struggle with that on my own time.
I love combat. Intensity of individual encounters and desire to see what monster awaits me around a corner are great and combat is more refined in latter games.
Third point is a reason why I played all souls games to completion or nearly completion. But lacking in first two is why I left latter games underwhelmed.