Hey there, kids! Want to read a Dark Souls III Review written by someone that has only been involved with the series for half a year and hasn’t finished the most recent installment yet? No? Well do I have terrible news for you!
Let’s do a bit of preamble first as I explain where this piece will be coming from. I had heard about the awkwardly named Demon’s Souls from Japanese developer From Software and its reputation for being “punishing”, “merciless” and “incredibly difficult”. It sounded like a challenge but I didn’t own a PlayStation 3 so it was just going to be one of those games that I resolved that I would never play. It was only around 2013 that I borrowed a friend’s PS3 and tried it out. Being a filthy casuul I had a terrible time with it. I progressed just a bit more with every attempt, but it felt like a time-consuming chore and time was something I did not have a lot of, so I just played The Last of Us instead. Fast forward to August of 2015. I had just returned from a relaxing holiday and found out that Humble Bundle was currently offering a bundle of Namco Bandai games, including the first Dark Souls for a bargain price. I said “sure, why not” and after fixing the various problems I knew it had on PC, I gave it a go, convinced that I’d just abandon it like so much of my steam library. Instead I became utterly obsessed with it.
It wasn’t just the challenging gameplay that got me hooked. The game in its entirety swept me off my feet with how deep its mechanics were and how many play styles it catered to. The world and level design were works of art, especially how the various areas connected and looped back onto themselves. So I powered through, remembered the ages-old adage to git gud and each time I made an attempt I was just the tiniest bit better and got the tiniest bit further. After I was done, I took a few months break before starting with Dark Souls II, easily the most divisive among them: the combat had been rebalanced, the stats revamped and it was overall a bit more tightly designed mechanically, but along with Hidetaka Miyazaki’s departure as director from the project, the game lost a lot of its identity. Levels were far more linear and did not really relate to one another in the brilliant way that they did in the original, but what the game’s levels lacked in design, they gained in artistic direction, as every area now seemed to do its own different thing and to offer some spectacular visuals along the way.
Miyazaki’s departure was soon revealed to have been due to his taking on of a new project within the company: the critically acclaimed PS4 exclusive Souls spin-off Bloodborne. Having come into possession of a PS4, I played through and beat just weeks ago. It definitely stands firm as its own experience, encouraging a far more aggressive play style with a health regain mechanic and it’s almost utter elimination of shields and encumberance. However, for all its thematic differences, for its victorian, lovecraftian setting and enemies and its bleak gothic atmosphere in contrast to the bleak medieval dark fantasy of the core series, Bloodborne is very much a Souls game driven by the same desire to conquer challenges, designed with depth and flexibility in mind and striving (and succeeding in my opinion) to add an innovative spin on the formula.
And so we come to Dark Souls III after which I might have a bit of respite. I have only managed to play this game for 50 or so hours so far. I am probably somewhere around the halfway point of the game. So be forewarned: I’m far enough into it but have not beaten the game yet and I know some readers take issue with that. This is where this piece will be coming from. There. 800 words of context. Preamble over.
Dark Souls III: Windows PC [Reviewed], PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Developer: From Software, Inc.
Publisher: From Software, Inc., BANDAI NAMCO Entertainment
Release Date: 12 April 2016
Price: 59,99€ [Disclosure: Game Copy Provided by Developer/Publisher]
Dark Souls III – Link the fire once more
It’s going to be extremely tough to write about Dark Souls III as its own independent experience given how much it leans on previous games both thematically and mechanically. I am, however, going to bank on the assumption that by now you’ve either played through the series and know what it’s about, or you’re not that invested as to mind a few light spoilers from past installments, so be warned: light spoilers ahead, therefore try caution.
The game opens with a cinematic discussing the Lords of Cinder, who have linked the fire in ages past, who have abandoned their thrones and therefore the world is now decaying. You are an Ashen One, an Unkindled, an extinguished warrior of the flame and you are tasked with bringing them back. For those who don’t know, fire is instrumental to the lore of Dark Souls. To cut the story short, in the beginning there was nothing but infinite expanses of ash, a still lake and tall arch-trees which housed the immortal Everlasting Dragons who ruled the dead world. Then a race of proto-humanoids found the First Flame and with it brought disparity into the world. Life and Death, Heat and Cold and most importantly, Light and Dark. While the first entities to have split the First Flame among them and become gods went to the light under the leadership of Lord Gwyn, a fourth being called The Furtive Pygmy took with him the Dark Soul into the abyss and from there created humanity. The series itself is about a timeless power struggle between Light (the immortal gods who have fallen and become corrupt) and Dark (the fleeting humanity under their rule). After a while, the First Flame faded and it needed fuel to continue burning and preserve the rule of the gods, lest darkness and humanity rise up and take control. And so, every few ages, one powerful being needed to give itself to the Flame and burn, becoming a Lord of Cinder to keep the Flame alive. Dark Souls III reveals that this has happened at least several times throughout history and hints at the cycle finally coming to a close as you are tasked with returning the Lords to their abandoned thrones.
The game wears its referential style on its sleeve with numerous callbacks to the first game (but fewer to the second given its awkward position within the series) and given that Miyazaki has stated that it would be a turning point for the series, I would wager that this heavy lean on nostalgia and repetition is actually an effort to end a cycle. I’ll talk a bit more about the themes, as I perceive them, later on in the analysis section. Suffice to say that it looks and feels like a “best of” Soulsborne.
Not much has changed on the surface, mechanically, from previous installments. The combat’s flexibility has always been one of the best things about the series. Essentially, you are allowed to equip whatever you want in either of your hands. I usually play with a melee weapon (a spear, or other thrusting weapon) and a high physical resistance shield, but you can equip spellcasting implements, dual daggers, dual claymores, whips and gigantic clubs. Whatever way you prefer to play be assured, Dark Souls III has something for you. I try to equip the heaviest armour that I can wear without losing mobility (without “fat-rolling”) as it is colloquially called, but equipping lighter and less protective armour comes with its own risks and rewards, as you will move and roll faster and most importantly, regenerate stamina a lot quicker as well.
Stamina is by far your most prized resource as it is used for blocking, attacking, running, rolling, casting spells and pretty much everything else. Stamina management is arguably the most important thing you’ll have to do, and doing it well ensures you never have to worry about anything. As with previous installments, a well-timed roll is a thousand times more effective than three erratic dodges that end in a direct hit because you don’t have stamina for a fourth while keeping your shield up (my favourite tactic) is now far less viable as even low-level enemies now have up to four chained attacks that can absolutely wreck you. In general the combat has been tuned to be faster. It still highly favours methodical, defensive play as did previous installments, and not Bloodborne‘s aggressive onslaughts but enemies are by far more proactive. You still have the possibility to backstab enemies for massive damage, but they’re far less inclined to expose their succulent backsides to you. You can still parry them, but roughly 300 hours into the series I’ve yet to have gitten gud enough to do that yet. One significant difference is that the mana bar makes a return from Demon’s Souls, (now called Focus Points) and does away with spell charges. FP are also the resource used for the new mechanic called “Weapon Skills”. Essentially each weapon has one or two special attacks that are extremely helpful and can be anything from spear charges, guard breaking attacks, swift side-steps or uppercut slashes. You replenish FP by drinking from a second Estus Flask (used in prior games for healing) and you can allot charges between the two.
Dispatching enemies, as always, grants you souls which are the game’s currency used for everything from buying items to leveling up and should your health bar drop to zero and the game display the now iconic YOU DIED screen, you’ll drop and need to retrieve them. And if you’re like me, a filthy casuul, you’ll see that screen a lot. Your arsenal gets a few additions but a lot of it is still highly familiar and most weapon classes are unique in how they move and perform so you’re bound to find something you really like eventually. This is one of the reasons I never quite understood why the series is perceived as being “difficult”. It’s challenging, to be sure, and the mechanics might be obscured at first, but no other series I know of is so strict in respecting its own rules and as accommodating in terms of play style. There are people playing through the entire game naked and there are people beating it using nothing but shields in lieu of weapons. It’s tough, but fair. And if it’s too hard for you, enemies respawn each time you rest at a bonfire (checkpoint) so you can grind until you feel comfortable. Of course, you can always optimize your armour for the situation you find yourself in, but that’s not the correct way to play Dark Souls as any veteran player will tell you. The correct way to play is “Fashion Souls”, which is to say prioritizing looks over effectiveness.
Of course, the main attraction of the Dark Souls freak show is and has always been, the boss fight. We’re back to creative designs a la the first installment but similarly to Bloodborne, most bosses now have two or more phases and leave a bonfire upon death. Boss fights have always had an intimidation factor to them as the first time you encounter one you don’t know what its attacks are and how to best approach it, but most of them are incredibly easy to dispatch once you get the hang of it. And if it’s still to difficult for you, the souls games’ online component is always there to help.
While Dark Souls III is at its very core a single player game, if playing “online” you are connected to the entire community. You can write and read vague messages left on the floor that are there to either leave helpful hints or lead players into traps. This time around, though, you are encouraged to leave helpful messages, as a player upvoting your message will give you a hefty dose of health back for free. And of course, you can always activate your “ember form” which increases your health total and gives you badass smouldering streaks in your armour, but also allows you to summon other players that have opted for cooperation. With this you encounter another risk, as being embered also leaves you open to hostile player invasions, but joining the right faction can give you a hand in that situation as well. Cooperation required ahead, therefore try item.
Not that dark, but dismal and beautiful
Most obvious in Dark Souls III‘s technical capabilities is that it’s no longer held back by the a decade-old piece of hardware like its predecessors. Sure, the remastered Dark Souls II – Scholar of the First Sin had some nice lighting and effects, but the model and texture quality left some to be desired. This is even more egregious in Dark Souls I, as without third-party texture packs, fixes and some shader injection, the game runs and looks incredibly poorly by today’s standards. With the previous generation already out the door, Dark Souls III seems to use the same engine as Bloodborne with decent texture quality, beautiful dynamic lighting and absolutely gorgeous particle effects. While I absolutely adore Bloodborne‘s victorian gothic art direction and the incredible things it does with shades of gray and brown, I believe Dark Souls III to be the better looking of the two if only for the fact that it’s better lit, has more varied areas and has some fantastic vistas and draw distance on display. While there were frame rate issues at launch, especially in a certain zone that I will call “Blight Town 3.0” for those of you in the know, they have been swiftly patched out to the point where my GTX 970 runs at a steady 1080p 60 FPS with everything maxed out and only occasionally drops to around and never under 45.
The game also has a much more poignant soundtrack with epic symphonic tracks interspersed with opera chanting for boss fights. While the music is absolutely stellar, I’ve been having some issues with reaching a proper balance of NPC voices, sound effects and ambient sounds on my 5.1 system. It’s definitely nothing terrible, but it would have been nice to be able to further immerse myself in Lothric.
I played the game with an Xbox One Controller, but I made the ultimate sacrifice for you all and did try out the Mouse and Keyboard scheme (traditionally believed to be subpar) and I found it to be a lot more usable this time around. The interface, while far more intuitive than in previous installments still keeps to some of its old sins (no gear comparison when buying things at a store) and some truly helpful mechanics utterly obfuscated. Speaking of obfuscation, the story is, of course as obscure as ever and the NPCs and their side quests as cryptic and impenetrable as you’d expect. It’s probably next to impossible to do the quests the right way the first time around but that was always part of the problem as well as the charm of the series. I spoke earlier about callbacks to the previous installments and the first Dark Souls chief among them. Some people I spoke to regarded this as lazy and shameless asset reuse, but considering that Miyazaki said that this would serve as a turning point for the series, I think we may be witnessing something of a convergence of game worlds that serve as an end to the cycle.
Melancholy and closure seem to be heavy themes in Dark Souls III as everything seems to flow towards and into Lothric. The roads are strewn with dead pilgrims, there are corpses in which trees have taken root and then died and overgrowth seems to be a common environmental motif. A stray demon, covered in stone and ash stands solitary in a remote location. I almost feel sad dispatching it. A lone Knight of Catarina joyously greets me, but unlike Siegmeyer before him, he is much more capable in a fight. Maybe he can yet fulfill his desires to be a great adventurer. Andre the blacksmith continues his duty, hammering at his anvil and forging weapons for me, as he did ages ago in another land. A way too familiar zone is seamlessly merged into a new and strange one. A dark cathedral has statues that heavily remind me of Bloodborne. Everything is familiar and new at the same time as the words seem to collide. The Lords of Cinder have left their thrones, and you need to bring them back and then end this once and for all.
One disappointment I had with the game was its linearity. As I reach or have passed the half point of Dark Souls III, I never felt like I had much choice in where I was heading next and when I did it was usually just a single optional zone that was also a dead end. Dark Souls I and Bloodborne made a point out of railroading you for just the first part of the game and then offering you complete freedom of movement. You could go to whatever zone you wished and if you found it difficult just try another one on for size. You found interesting and sometimes jaw-droppingly clever shortcuts between zones that put the geography and verticality into mind-blowing perspective. It’s hard to put into words, but someone thankfully put it into imagery.
Dark Souls II went for a more visually-stunning set of environments, but preferred to give you just a handful of self-contained zones at the start and then, towards the half of the game funnel you down a linear path. At times in ways that made little sense: a solitary mill on top of a lone hill, you reach its peak, take an elevator upwards and find yourself in a fortress in the crater of a volcano. Dark Souls III is by far the most linear of the series, but at the same time it’s still cleverly laid out. While you still can’t take shortcuts between zones, the way they are positioned in relation to one another is almost always visible and there are always familiar places in the distance, places you’ve been to just a few hours ago. The zones themselves have a lot of optional and secret areas filled with loot for dedicated players that enjoy exploration, so it’s not all bad, but just a bit disappointing.
All in all Dark Souls III is a solid addition to the series. It does seem to wallow in itself from time to time, but as I’ve mentioned, I think that’s heavily tied into the theme and purpose of this installment. It’s a definite treat for fans of the series as it’s more of the same but with enough novelty to keep them invested and it’s a bit more accessible and with a more gradual difficulty curve so new players don’t feel alienated. The only thing that remains for me to do right now is to finish the game and then try to remember what life was like before. Oh yes, and to git gud.