Dark Souls III | Principal Platforms: PC (version tested), PlayStation 4, Xbox One | Developer: FromSoftware | Publisher: FromSoftware, Bandai Namco Entertainment Interactive | Genre: RPG | Year: 2016
The Souls series has a way of making me feel small. And I’m not just talking about how the game’s themselves accomplish this feat, even if their expansive level design and outrageous difficulty do as good a job as any. More specifically it’s about what this franchise has accomplished in the five short years since the release of Dark Souls and how easy it is to feel overwhelmed by the spectacle of it all.
Owing to its multiplatform release and subsequently wider audience than Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls was an unquestionable success and prompted a reanalysis of whether “hardcore” video games still had the power to attract a mainstream audience. Its legacy has since grown and across the world you will find artists, musicians, writers, programmers, and many other talented content creators who, through their impressive works, have expanded the fandom of a video game series so unique that it has already coined the term “soulslike”.
This is what I mean when I talk about feeling small as it’s humbling to see the passion and dedication of a community so enraptured by the same series of video games that I am. I can’t offer as much. I’m not a great artist, I can’t help program a community patch or a mod, and the last thing you want to hear is one of my jumbled explanations of the Dark Souls lore…
All I really have here at CelJaded is words, but hopefully, by the end of this review, you’ll have a firmer appreciation for why Dark Souls III will be Game of the Year in 2016 and why this is also one of the greatest send-offs to one of the greatest trilogies in all of video game history.
Despite what many are currently suggesting though, I don’t believe Dark Souls III is a good entry point for newcomers. It’s true that the opening tutorial area is well made and that many of the game’s typically obtuse mechanics are explained a bit better in the early going, but the level-to-level difficulty here is perhaps the most potent it has ever been in a Souls game.
Taking its cues from Bloodborne, the speed of play has been increased dramatically and combat is a lot more stressful and punishing than it was in the first two games. Relative to a series renowned for its challenge, the earlier levels in Dark Souls III contribute to a fairly reasonable difficulty curve, but souls (the currency that allows a player to gain items and improve their character’s abilities) are kept in short supply and the hub area where they can be spent is locked away until a player “graduates” from the first boss fight.
Whereas the bosses are comparable to previous games in terms of difficulty, they’re almost upstaged by the regular enemies who attack with heightened speed and aggression at every opportunity. Long gone are the lumbering knights and club-wielding underlings of Dark Souls II, here you’re frequently accosted by bizarre horrors including crystalline beasts, demented stat-reducing jailers, and crazed demons that will literally try to rip your character’s head off!
The faster pace of play certainly makes everything better for veterans though and those who can remember the shift from Street Fighter II to Street Fighter II Turbo back in the day, will appreciate just how much accelerated gameplay can do to make a game more fun.
In terms of other big changes, Dark Souls III features a revised magic system that replaces limited spell uses with mana points. The use of mana is a success as it affords spellcasters greater fluidity in combat by allowing them to continually use the spells they feel are most appropriate to their character’s build and situation.
If you happen to prefer martial skill over that of magic though, you’ll be pleased to know that mana also allows you to activate a weapon art; a brand new feature that allows you to perform special stances, powers, and attacks depending on the weapon you have equipped. Time will tell just how significant these skills will be in the wider scope of the series, but first impressions are admittedly a bit mixed.
These skills aren’t mentioned anywhere in the opening tutorial area for one, which forced me to read an online guide that explained them. Seeing as the new weapon skill system plays a key role in a major boss battle later in the game, it would have made more sense to eschew the traditional Dark Souls tutoring methods here and actually explain how they work during the tutorial zone. Had I not been aware of the game’s advertising beforehand, it’s quite likely that weapon arts as a feature would have completely passed me by and that’s a shame because some of the powers they offer can be quite slick not to mention helpful.
Certain weapon arts, like those found on swords, allow you to enter a combat stance with access to more intricate and deadly attacks, but then a simple axe or mace might initiate a war cry that temporarily boosts your attack power. Other skills seem less impressive though. The one found on the longbow for example; a puncturing arrow that pierces shields has a slow activation time and aiming it with the first-person view is unwieldy due to the awkward combination of required button presses.
In one sense the system is quite interesting as it forces you into using many weapons two-handed before you can gain the benefit. Getting players out of the comfort zone offered by shields is no doubt the focus here – that’s great, but switching between weapons and stances is a fiddly process and it’s my guess that certain players will simply not want the bother.
Aside from these new features though, Dark Souls III is very reminiscent of past games in the series. The story concerns the four Lords of Cinder whose departure has plunged the cursed Kingdom of Lothric into chaos. Players take on the mantle of the Ashen One and must return the Lords – or at least their heads – to their “moulding thrones” so that the undead curse can be averted once and for all.
Fans of the series will be glad to know that Dark Souls III does not sell out on the qualities that have made it so successful and admired up until now. The gameplay is still tense, the environments still inspire awe, and the fragmented tapestry that makes up the game’s narrative will take many hours of decrypting in order to knit together.
There are elements that feel a bit tired; it’s only natural after so many sequels, but it’s commendable how successful FromSoftware has been in trying to keep the series feeling fresh and exciting. The boss battles are an especially good example of this. Improving on the mediocre confrontations that characterized much of Dark Souls II, here the actual number of bosses is reduced in favour of providing more honed and interesting confrontations. Dark Souls III has bosses that set a new high for the series and each one is very different in look and execution. The variety here is bolstered by several good commonalities including interesting arena design, superb backing music, and dynamic move sets.
Again similar to Bloodborne, these scenarios will dramatically change when a boss reaches 50% of its health meter and it often leads to mid-battle cutscenes and comebacks that you didn’t see coming and likely won’t forget. I would argue that at least one boss in the game proves too experimental for its own good though, mainly due to the battle itself relying on outside factors that obfuscate the challenge and tempt frustration. Similarly, the appearance of another boss ties into a some rather poor signposting that the game takes on in its later stages, which is weird.
Dark Souls III does well to introduce some circuitous level design towards the end and even though the more linear approach in the first half is focused and effective, it’s fair to say that those expecting another vast and interconnected world like the one from Dark Souls are probably going to feel a tinge of disappointment.
That’s not to say that this is a small game though as you’ll find Lothric to be a huge place that’s absolutely brimming with enemies to slay and secrets to find. It may not be as vast as Drangleic was in Dark Souls II, but Lothric does feel more packed with content and it’s a rare area indeed that doesn’t feature a satisfying verticality to it.
Another improvement upon past instalments comes in the form of the hub area once again called Firelink Shrine. Whereas returning to the Hunter’s Dream in Bloodborne was often an irritating experience bookended by long loading screens, Firelink Shrine is by and large a more interesting place to visit. Even though the feature of levelling up at bonfire is still absent, returning to Firelink Shrine never feels like a hassle. There is always another NPC to chat with here, another item to browse in the handmaiden’s store, or another mini quest to uncover amid the shrine’s hidden passageways and it makes the downtime feel satisfying and nonintrusive.
Tying into this point are the sheer number of little changes in Dark Souls III that contribute towards it being a more enjoyable game. The ability to sell items is offered from the start and the new tool belt feature makes using said items even easier. Joining and offering to Covenants has also been streamlined, the unnecessary armour levelling is gone, and the new inventory screen is more ergonomic than it has ever been. FromSoftware has also been very liberal with their placement of bonfire safe havens, but each one is intuitively labelled and because fast travelling is available from the start, getting around Lothric is made pleasantly straightforward.
In terms of the PC version specifically though, Dark Souls III is a success beyond words when compared to the ports of previous entries. The 60FPS action is fluid, the graphics are sharp, and the loading screens are so short that item descriptions will disappear before you can even finish reading them!
Conversely though, there is a tendency for the game to pause slightly when picking up items and it sometimes has trouble streaming certain areas; blocking them off behind unsightly fog barriers until they finish loading. The environments are still well designed – you can expect to see plenty of “gorgeous views ahead” – although the game as a whole is rather grey in appearance and it can be easy to miss areas and NPCs because of how well they blend into their surroundings.
My time with the PC version was smooth sailing on the whole though and I can only hope that future software updates help those players who have reported crashes and related bugs during the launch period.
In terms of performance, it’s important to state how well this game plays with regards to its multiplayer too. Whilst Dark Souls was more experimental and arguably ill-suited to serious cooperative/competitive play, the series as a whole has always been too good not to share and FromSoftware have taken steps to further improve the network code for this new release. Players can still summon human-controlled phantoms to assist in clearing out levels and bosses and the number of permitted players in each host’s world has been boosted for more team-based insanity than ever before.
Multiplayer has been a very strong focus for FromSoftware this time around and it really shows. The disastrous soul memory feature from Dark Souls II has been axed in favour of simple matchmaking rules (including a glorious password system for friends) that eliminate a lot of the undue frustration associated with summoning other players. The realms of PvP and PvE feel closely intertwined in Dark Souls III. Estus healing is quicker, combat is more nuanced, and you’ll likely find a deluge of summoning signs and invaders in every new area that you visit.
Whether they’re the hostile red phantoms that want nothing more than to kill you, the gold phantoms that want to earn medals for helping you, or the mysterious purple phantoms (God only knows what they want) entering your world, the potential for player interaction is off the charts.
FromSoftware has acted to make sure that players feel more secure in general though and Dark Souls III seems to be more protective of its PvE players as a result. Likely an attempt to curb trolling, red phantoms seem to be regularly, if not exclusively matched up with “victims” who have already summoned helpers into their world. In this way it seems that player invasions have lost some their non-hardcore appeal as a red phantom will frequently find themselves staring down multiple foes instead of just one. There are fewer easy kills to be had in this game that’s for sure.
Some covenants and key items switch up the rules and maximum player counts though, so it’s certainly is possible to witness a violent 3v3 or 4v2 struggle, it’s just that this scenario seems rare and invaders will generally need a lot of skill and cunning to murder a host before being overwhelmed. This approach could not have been more potent for the first week of release where invaded players were still finding their feet and learning the layouts of each level. I’ve been invaded whilst negotiating trap-infested catacombs, crumbling rope bridges, and toxic swamps that I barely knew and I can say that this element of the unknown makes each and every new area feel satisfyingly dangerous and well suited for aggressors looking to plan their next conquest.
Away from all this you’ll find that weapon infusion is still remarkably obtuse and confusing and there are still too many lacklustre or generic weapon sets that you probably won’t get the chance to use. The game still seems to have a greatsword fetish and a lot of the featured armour pieces have been plucked from previous games with little embellishment.
There are other signs of franchise fatigue, most noticeably in the number of callbacks and references to previous games in the series. It’s not a shock to learn that I dislike most of these nostalgic leanings, but I genuinely wonder why a series so famed for its innovation and extensive lore needs to bother with such pandering. At times the setting in Dark Souls III risks losing its sense of identity and becoming that of a mere nod to the first Dark Souls. Whilst a subtle musical cue or visual reference does hit the mark from time to time, there are too many revelations in this game that failed to surprise me because I found it easy to anticipate what was going to be another tribute.
It’s impossible to feel unsatisfied with Dark Souls III as a complete package though and you can easily expect a 50+ hour initial playthrough if you’re committed to searching every nook and cranny the game has to offer.
The game has its lesser points, but none of them are severe enough to stop it from being a fitting end to what is perhaps the greatest trilogy of video games there has ever been and I’m very excited to see what new ideas FromSoftware aggressively pursues in the future.
Much like the motif of fire and embers; a visual that permeates the game’s bosses and locations as much as it does your player character, there’s a certain warmth about Dark Souls III. It’s a familiar resplendence found in the sweaty grip of the controller after slaying a towering boss, so too is it found in the game’s deep backstory, its beautiful environments and the mystery behind its many secrets and hidden endings. The developers may have gotten a little nostalgic for this entry sure, but I’ll be damned if they didn’t earn the indulgence.
FromSoftware has been unafraid to innovative on existing systems and they’ve effortlessly upped the level-by-level challenge to a point where you’d swear they overdid it. Symmetry and so-called “fairness” may not be what Dark Souls III is about then, but as Jimmy Dugan once said:
“It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard… is what makes it great.”