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Disclosure: the author was provided with a review copy of the game by Bandai Namco Entertainment Europe
Publisher: Bandai Namco Entertainment
Developer: From Software
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 4 (review platform), Xbox One
The one characteristic that universally applies to the games in the Dark Souls family is difficulty. Have you heard of Dark Souls? Then you’ve heard that it’s hard. In fact, it feels rather redundant to open my review by discussing its difficulty, but I have a point I want to make about the series’ reputation. While they’re absolutely more challenging and intimidating than basically any mainstream games these days; the Souls series is not a set of digital torture devices for masochists. The YOU DIED message in bright red letters is practically an unofficial logo for the games, while the first Dark Souls had a marketing tagline constantly warning players – “Prepare to Die.” Yet this is all rather deceptive because, in all honesty, death in these games is not as bad as people expect it to be. There’s this perception that having your character die is absolute failure on the player’s part, or that the game is just too brutal for them to have survived. The truth is, you don’t actually lose much of anything when you die in these games. On the contrary, dying is just an alternative means of making progress.
Dark Souls is a challenge, and if you compete in it, you can be rewarded, because death is less punishing than you’d think. Upon dying, you aren’t booted back to the start of a level, or the game’s title screen. Your character is returned to the last bonfire checkpoint rested at, and the precious collectible souls you were holding upon death can be recovered by returning to the location where you died. So even if you’re killed by some nasty enemies, if you strive to take on this challenge once more, you’ll be able to take back what you lost – this time with some lessons learned about the situation you’re in. The giant red letters may make you think otherwise, but you’ll be constantly making progress while you continue to play. These games aren’t popular because players fail a lot. They’re popular, and well loved, because they’re a constant and engaging struggle that compels its players to keep making progress and eventually overcome its elaborate and often impressive obstacles.
This design is what made Demon’s Souls a cult hit back in 2009, and what made the bigger and better Dark Souls a popular, influential success in 2011. With last year’s Bloodborne gracing the PlayStation 4 library, and the expansion of Dark Souls into a trilogy, From Software has created 5 engrossing action RPGs out of this formula. The focus on deep gameplay means that any of these titles is a good entry point for the studio’s mini-genre, but Dark Souls III is one that’s going to be most appreciated by those who are already invested. Dark Souls II was handed off to a new team while series director Hidetaka Miyazaki worked on Bloodborne, and fans took issue almost right away. From a new healing system, to unbalanced enemies, and a slapdash story, this was a follow-up that was just not on par with the fantastic adventure that came before it. Miyazaki’s return with Dark Souls III serves to define DSII as the black sheep of the trilogy, while the new entry feels like the sequel Dark Souls truly deserves.
Right away, the spectacular opening cutscene retreads the concept of the first game’s intro – setting the scene with gorgeous CG bringing to life some fascinating dark fantasy imagery, and serving as a roll call of some of the game’s key bosses. Spend as much or as little time as you want creating your character and choosing their class, and then it’s right into the gameplay. Your role in the story is that of an ‘Unkindled’ – an undead person formed of animated ashes who is awakened from immortal slumber in order to travel the decaying kingdom of Lothric, and reunite The Lords of Cinder. While they sound like a heavy metal band, they are in fact the five keys to reaching The First Flame. This fire is about to fade, and when it does, the world will be plunged into darkness. The Lords have abandoned their thrones however, and will not aid those who would stop the coming of The Age of Darkness. The quest taken up by the player is one of hunting the Lords, and bringing their remains back to Firelink Shrine in order to open the way to the fire.
Even if you aren’t too interested in the series lore, the setting of Dark Souls III is a dark fantasy world on the brink of apocalypse, and it’s as cool as it sounds. While the series has always had a sense of hopelessness permeating throughout its worlds; the kingdom of Lothric is especially gloomy and foreboding throughout. There are dead dragons rotting on the castle walls, humanoid bodies warped into twisted trees, and there’s an area early on called the Crucifixion Woods. I’ve often seen fans joke that everything in these games looks like artwork for a metal album cover, and DSIII is no exception. I lost track of the amount of times I discovered a new area and was wowed by the first sights on display. It happens the moment you first leave Firelink Shrine and feast your eyes upon Lothric Castle, and it was still happening to me by the end of the game. It’s just a shame these initial first impressions were betrayed by levels that would somewhat under-deliver on their potential. Don’t get me wrong; the level design is still great, but there’s nothing quite as brilliantly interconnected or instantly memorable as there was in the first Dark Souls. Maybe it was due to my familiarity with From Software’s tricks, but the constant discovery of locked doors and non-functional elevators was getting on my nerves. There aren’t as many branching paths this time, and too often all you’ll find off to the side is a blatant shortcut that won’t be usable until several hours later. I just couldn’t develop the attachment to this world I felt almost immediately with the environments I explored in the original DS, which was disappointing considering how well DSIII lives up to that game otherwise.
In one of the few series that still cares to put effort into its boss battles, I managed to find the fights in Dark Souls III to be exceptional, with some enemies that rank among the most enjoyable in the series for me. Of course these battles are a joy to discover for yourself, so I won’t go into much detail here, but there’s such a wide variety of cool concepts and exciting foes to face off against. The very first battle manages to be even more threatening than the original game’s Asylum Demon, starting out as the traditional intimidating knight type, before distorting into a gigantic chaotic monster. He sets the tone perfectly for new players and old fans alike, and the lesson to be learned is that the most powerful foes are always more than meets the eye. The line-up of bosses represent everything fans value about the enemy design in these games. They’re impressive, worthy foes utilising incredible battle techniques, showing off fluid animation, and acting as some of the most incredible hurdles for players to overcome. The second boss Vordt is an early highlight of the game, while the Abyss Watchers are inspiring warriors who are violent but at the same time majestic. The game even revisits the concept of Dark Souls II‘s laughable Congregation fight and turns it into an eerie and thrilling battle against a determined horde of enemies.
The intense orchestra and choir music is of course present for these battles once more, and really do pump you up and help make these boss fights just that much more amazing. Vordt’s fight is one of the earliest in the game, and it’s the point where the soundtrack proudly shows off what it can do to make these fights exciting and dramatic. In general, the songs work in harmony with the bosses themselves, only truly kicking into gear once your foe starts taking things seriously. It’s yet another tradition of these games, and DSIII certainly doesn’t disappoint in that regard.
What’s new in terms of gameplay, though? Well there are two major new systems introduced. The first is weapon skills – a special ability activated with the left trigger when you aren’t holding a shield. These are dependent on the type of weapon you’re wielding, so for instance swords will allow you to hold a stance before performing one of two powerful new swing attacks. Meanwhile axes and maces can give you their own brief status buffs, such as stronger attacks. There’s a host of these techniques to play around with, and it’s a feature that encourages you to explore all the different varieties of weapon. Normally I’d play through an entire Souls game with a halberd, but in this one I used a sword up until the halfway point where I switched over to a great axe. The game is also quite generous with handing out weapons this time, so if you’re keen on getting your bow as soon as possible, or doing a run with a katana, then you won’t have to wait too long to find them and discover what stats you’ll need to develop. More-so than the other games in the series, DSIII is accommodating to all play-styles and allows you to truly enjoy its role-playing potential across all the various classes, magic, and equipment sets.
The other major introduction is the FP (Focus Point) meter, and its various uses. Each weapon skill uses up a small amount of FP, while magic such as miracles, sorcery, and pyromancy all consume FP now instead of being limited to a set amount of casting for each. Like HP, your FP can be restored by resting at a bonfire, but you can also recover FP through the use of the new Ashen Estus Flasks. While you can carry nothing but the standard healing Estus Flasks with you; now you have the option to instead allot an amount of your maximum Estus into the Ashen Estus Flasks instead. Just visit the blacksmith and you’ll be able to choose between carrying mainly health recovery Estus, or maybe allot more Ashen Estus if you’re a magic user. It’s a compelling little system that again encourages you to play around with the variety of abilities and character builds on offer, and you’ll be able to collect items around the world that increase your maximum uses of Estus, as well as the effectiveness of their recovery. These aren’t systems which dramatically alter the game, but they do enhance your experience and offer players way more options than before, which is far from a bad thing.
I’ve been singing the praises of Dark Souls III a lot here, but there are still some strange design choices I feel are too goofy to go unrecognised. The Firekeeper you speak to in order to level up still has 4 lines of dialogue you’ll be skipping through every time. This is despite the fact that when Dark Souls II did it, it was the butt of many jokes among fans. Firelink Shrine is also home to the traditional talking bird that trades items with you, but while past crows would ask for shiny objects or silky and smooth items, this new one cryptically only asks for “pickle-pee” and “pump-a-rum.” Your guess is as good as mine, and it creates a situation where you’ll either spend too long trying to give the bird every possible item in your inventory, or just looking it up on a wiki or in a strategy guide. There’s an important boss halfway through the game that requires the use of a certain weapon to fight. The weapon is found in the boss room, with a message on the ground explaining that the weapon can kill this boss, yet I found no hint suggesting that to actually use this weapon correctly, you have to charge it with the left trigger for 10 seconds. Cue several deaths and an unnecessary attempt by me to modify and reinforce the weapon. Bonfires meanwhile, are bizarrely close to each other this time around. A new one manifests every time you beat a boss, but most areas will have bonfires already placed not too far from the boss room, and you usually won’t be more than a single minute from the next one when you’re advancing to a new post-boss area. When it comes to area design meanwhile, there’s a disappointing instance where a later level is just reusing identical geometry from the cemetery at the start of the game, just with tougher enemies. Speaking of the cemetery – just how the hell do you pronounce the boss’ name Iudex Gundyr anyway?
Those are just minor critiques in all honesty, and the game’s design for the most part is excellent.
I am indeed excited to play the online mode when it goes live now. After the 28 hours it took me to finish the story, I have no intention of ending my time with the game. There’s the prospect of online co-operation, invasions, messages, and covenants as usual. I want to run through New Game+ and try to get the rest of the story endings, and even build new characters in different classes. Fans will be pleased to know that Dark Souls III is once again an engaging and rewarding action RPG that will hook players for multiple playthroughs. Though while I say this, I’m also starting to feel a bit tired of the formula. I really enjoy these games, yet I’m honestly content with this being the last one for a while. From Software have given us 5 compelling titles in the space of 7 years, but it’s starting to feel all too familiar despite improved gameplay mechanics or the amazing new shake-ups Bloodborne offered. It’s not a bad thing, but Dark Souls III is really just more Dark Souls and I really think it’s time to take things in a new direction, as well as take a break for a few years. This sub-genre has so much potential, yet the games run the risk of being formulaic and progressively less exciting if they keep up this pace of releases. Play Dark Souls III and maybe you’ll feel the same way. It can be hard to say goodbye, but I’m fine with these games leaving us for a while. Miyazaki and From Software will have left on a high note, and will be welcomed back with open arms when they decide they want to show us the progress they’ve made in the time that’s gone by.
These games have introduced us to a new way of doing multiplayer, invested fans in an engaging way of storytelling through lore, and provided players with a refreshing sense of challenge. Despite all the deaths, all the arrogant shouts of “get good”, and the depressing tone of the characters and atmosphere, these games caught on in a big way not just because they’re well designed, or they’re hard, but because they really encourage you to boast to or bond with other people both in-game and out. These games breed a sense of community, and let you enjoy knowing that you beat the Abyss Watchers on your first try while maybe your friends haven’t yet. The game’s challenging, but victory is something you achieve by making progress little by little, and all this has let the sub-genre grow from cult hit to blockbuster franchise. This is a series of achievements, and Dark Souls III is just another one.