The Souls series of games require a certain kind of mindset if you are to enjoy them. It’s simply not about being a good gamer as many of my highly skilled gamer friends find little joy in this series. No it’s more about overcoming the numerous, overly punishing barriers that the game throws at you. That moment when you take down the boss that’s been blocking you for hours, where you can scream obscenities and flip off your TV, is a feeling few games are able to evoke. Dark Souls III doesn’t differ much from its proven formula and, as my first true Souls game, managed to evoke that same “fuck you” attitude that drew me deep into its predecessor Bloodborne.
The age of fire is coming to an end, a time where all are able to rise from death within the flames of a bonfire. It is time for the 5 lords of cinder to come back to their thrones and link the first flame, which will prolong the age once again. However many of the lords have abandoned their posts, seeing the endless cycle of rebirth in the flames as a curse. Ashen One, you have arisen once again and have been chosen to bring the lords back to their thrones and prevent the age of dark.
Details of Dark Souls III’s graphical engine are scarce but it’s clear that there’s been a significant overhaul of the underlying engine from previous series. Whilst the graphics are no where near the cutting edge (completely maxed out settings still ran at 100+ fps on my machine) the environments are more expansive, the number of enemies on screen increased and they’ve been far more generous with the lighting effects. The greater graphical horsepower at their disposal then has been used to amplify, rather than refine, the Dark Souls experience. The aesthetic remains largely the same as it has, with the exception being the ash and ember effects that have been lavished across everything. All this being said Dark Souls III does have many screenshot worthy moments, some of which I’ll show off here.
The Souls formula hasn’t changed much in Dark Souls III with the majority of the mechanics being familiar to fans of the series. Whilst the changes are no where near as drastic as they were in Bloodborne many of the ideas have made their way across. The combat retains the Souls series essence, bringing back the shield but also making it more action oriented than previous instalments. The estus flask makes a return with a twist, it’s charges are split between HP restoration and FP (mana) restoration. Armour however has been played down somewhat with the focus now on your sword and shields as the main upgradeable items. The humanity mechanic remains however now it’s being “embered”, giving the same benefits and nice fiery glow to your character. So overall Dark Souls III is likely to feel like much of the same with a few small tweaks that were most certainly Bloodborne inspired.
Combat is, as it always in the Souls games, incredibly challenging and unabashedly unforgiving. To me Dark Souls III felt a lot easier than Bloodborne did however I’m not sure if that’s because I’m now used to the Souls’ series quirks. This is not to say I breezed through the game, far from it, indeed Dark Souls III quickly evoked the same levels of rage that Bloodborne did before. The shield mechanic certainly took some getting used to however I found it much easier to understand than Bloodborne’s gun/riposte mechanic. What was interesting to me was the sheer amount of variety, both in terms of the weapons and potential ways to build out your character. As someone who likes to min/max everything this was initially quite frustrating but after a while it became a fun little quest in developing the best character for me.
In the end I settled on a very similar build to what I used in Bloodborne: straight STR whilst focusing on the other attributes which had low soft caps. For the first quarter of the game this was pretty great however it quickly became apparent I’d have to seek out some very specific gear to make it work long term. Thankfully, after hours of farming darkwraiths, I had the required Dark Sword and a heavy gem that gave me a great scaling sword that lasted me for the rest of the game. I still had various weapons and armour to cheese some fights but I never invested much into them. Indeed I was a little annoyed that armour didn’t have as much of an impact as it did in Bloodborne however that did make it easier to switch up and adapt to fights as I needed to. If it’s not clear already the depth and breadth of Dark Souls III’s combat and gearing system is streets ahead of many similar action RPGs and should provide countless hours of replayability.
Progression comes in much the same format as it always has: you farm souls, take them back to the shrine and then spend them on attribute points. What each point will get you has been tweaked a little bit so it’s worthwhile looking up the stat curves and figuring out what you’ll need. The secondary upgrade system is your armour and shields which will use a varying array of upgrade materials found throughout the game. I rarely found myself wanting for either, especially after long item farming runs that netted me a truckload of souls. There’s also a couple tertiary upgrade items in the form of estus shards (gives you more charges) and undead bone shards (make your flasks more effective). If you do a modicum of exploring you’re not likely to miss any of these but, even if you do, they’re usually not more than a few minutes of running to find anyway. Suffice to say you won’t find yourself wanting for progression in Dark Souls III, something which helps when you’re stuck on a boss for a long period of time.
The boss fights are as challenging as they always are and for the most part are linearly scaled up in difficulty. There are, of course, a few gear/level check bosses that will likely hand your ass to you if you’re not sufficiently progressed. However you’re likely to run up against a few that are strongest where you’re weakest and vice versa, something which can provide challenge and frustration in equal amounts. These bosses will likely require you to adapt your playstyle to suit them, something which can take quite some time. Pontiff Sulyvahn and the Dancer of the Boreal Valley for instance are both bosses that can be relatively easily defeated with proper use of shield. As someone who’s used to rolling when he’s in trouble shifting my playstyle to these bosses was probably one of the most challenging things I had to do.
I chose to play my game online and I have to say that the multiplayer experience, at least at launch, was a little lacklustre. I spent hours in embered form and only got invaded once and I’m guessing they simply timed out as I never saw them. When I attempted to recruit others to help with a boss I’d often get the dreaded “Unable to summon phantom” message until I logged out and back in again. Even then I often had phantoms unable to join me in the fight, instead having them running up against the fog wall helplessly. I’m all for the lack of hand holding in the core game however when it comes to issues like this I’d like a bit more info than what was provided.
From a core game perspective Dark Souls III is well polished although like its predecessors there are some rough edges. Hit detection is fine about 95% of the time however there are a bunch of edge cases where things get really squirrelly. Enemies have retained the ability to hit through walls, even when they should be unable to see you. Walls have varying ability to stop your swing, sometimes allowing you to swing right through them and other times stopping you on a wispy branch. There’s also the whole debacle about poise working or not working something which could be easily clarified by FROM if they’d just take the time. None of these issues will stop you from completing the game however they can end an otherwise productive session, especially if these raise their ugly heads at the end of a boss fight.
Dark Souls III does a good job of setting the scene early on however, like all Souls games, it rapidly descends into vague allusions and tiny nuggets of lore hidden in all manner of places. This does make for good discussion and speculation but it does little to help drive the game forward. Dark Souls III thankfully is so strong mechanically that this doesn’t matter but I can’t help but feel it would be that much better with a little more meat in the story elements. This is probably my biggest issue with the Souls series games overall as someone who tends to favour a good story over mechanics, if given the choice. Still at the very least Dark Souls III doesn’t extol itself as a deep, story first game so it’s hard to lay criticism on it for that.
Dark Souls III brings with it much of the same with a twist of the new, much to the delight of long time fans of the series. It is as unforgiving as its predecessors were, punishing you heavily even before you begin to overextend yourself. The combat, upgrade and progression systems are all deep, complex and rewarding, gifting those who spend time to unlock their secrets with power will beyond their station. The graphics might not win any awards but they are definite steps up for the series, both in terms of quality and scale. It’s not without faults, many of which have been present in previous incarnations, and the vague story isn’t likely to be the one feature that wins you over. Despite those flaws however Dark Souls III is a challenging and rewarding title that does not care if you play it, but you should.
Dark Souls III is available on PC, XboxOne and PlayStation4 for $59.99, $89 and $89 respectively. Game was played on the PC with 32 hours of total play time and 49% of the achievements unlocked.