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. If you can only play one Dark Souls game, get the best one and enjoy it to the fullest. 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.
The Souls series never really appealed to me as it seems its target audience was a certain subsection of gamers who craved games that gave their player nothing and took from them everything. I didn’t really fit into that mould and despite the raving reviews from my friends I couldn’t bring myself to invest the time to see if there really was something to them. For some reason though Bloodborne held a mild level of intrigue for me, probably because I didn’t know it was made by the same developer. After many weeks of being told I needed to play this game I eventually relented and began my journey into the world of a genre that I’d held at arms length for many years. Now here I am, some 35 hours of game time later, and I’m wondering why I held out for so long.
It is the night of the hunt, a time when beasts and monsters roam the streets of Yharnam and terrorized the populace to no end. You are a hunter, well at least you’re told you are, sworn ally of the healing church whose duty it is to rid the streets of these foul creatures and bring about the morning. However the plague that has befallen Yharnam is not all that it first seems and it citizens ruthlessly attack you on site, saying that you’re cursed. Oh dear hunter, the challenges that lie ahead are sure to break you but do not fear; death is just another part of life here, one you will become intimately familiar with.
I’m not sure if it’s the drab colour pallette or gothic aesthetic but Bloodborne doesn’t really look like a current generation game on first pass. The combination of muted colours and strategic use of specularity certainly feel like a lot of previous generation games that came before it although there are the moments where Bloodborne does provide a visual experience I have come to expect. I think partly this is for performance reasons as Bloodborne is the first PS4 game I’ve played that’s visibly chugged during several very intense action scenes. Overall it doesn’t look bad, maybe just a little on the dated side, something which could almost be wholly attributed to its visual style which is reminiscent of previous generation games.
Bloodborne is being called an action RPG, which would put it in the same category as games like Dragon Age, but it feels like these kinds of games need their own sub-genre to more accurately define the game experience. The base elements of an action RPG are there: real time combat, levelling system and item progression, but the way the game actually plays is so far removed from other titles in the genre means the experience is vastly different. The combat relies on precise timings, reactions and understanding your enemy at a much deeper level than traditional RPGs would ask you to. Player skill plays just as much of a role as items and levels do as you can have all the gear and in the world yet still find yourself pinned to a wall by a couple choice enemies. It’s a genre that, to be frank, is actively hostile towards the player which is what makes it so rewarding when you finally get to say fuck you and beat it.
At first the combat seems relatively straightforward: enemies telegraph their moves widely and it’s up to you to figure out if you can interrupt them with your own or if you need to get out of the way before they hit you. The challenge then comes from knowing what moves an enemy can do, what the timings of those are and, should there be more than one of them, which one you should deal with first before trying to move onto another. This means that every new area you come into is a minefield of new movesets, abilities and strengths/weaknesses which have to be learnt, understood and exploited in order for you to be able to progress. It’s not so much of a learning curve as it is a learning brick wall, one the game is specifically designed around to make your life hell for the first couple hours.
Indeed the very first section of the game, the one where you need to complete a loop to unlock your first shortcut and start making meaningful progress in the game, took me a grand total of 3 hours to complete. That section. played properly, can be done in approximately 10 minutes and so I spent much of my time dying in numerous stupid and, what seemed at the time, unpredictable ways. Of course the more I died the more I began to understand the mechanics I was playing with, what I could get away with and how I should approach everything to make sure I had the best chances of surviving. Eventually, after butting my head against what felt like an impenetrable wall for far too long, I finally made it through to my first shortcut and that’s when the game started getting interesting.
You see Bloodborne, and all games that preceded it, revel in the idea of not holding your hand at all with the only tutorial coming in the form of a few notes scattered across the ground in your overworld area. How levels work, what the currencies are and what they mean, how you upgrade your weapons and how you can unlock other ways to improve your character are all things you have to discover incidentally or, like I did, Google furiously. It might surprise you to learn that I don’t count this as a negative of Bloodborne as many games I’ve played take a similar approach and the flip side to it seems to be that great communities are born out of sharing details like this. Once I had gotten to my first “safe” point I started to become intrigued about where I should go next and all roads pointed towards the first boss: The Cleric beast.
The boss battles are the ultimate goal for any hunter in Bloodborne both for their challenge and progression that they will provide you. They are, put simply, a terrifying thing to behold as they’re often several times your size and have attack patterns unlikely anything else you’ve seen before. For the most part you’ll be able to figure out what approach best suits you after a couple runs however there are some fights which will either require you to up your skill significantly or, and this can be heartbreaking, leave the fight and go and level up some more before you face them. Indeed after throwing my body at Martyr Logarius for hours on end I was forced to leave the battle to replenish my stocks of blood vials, something that made me feel so defeated that I considered just giving up then and there. I didn’t come back to that fight for a very long time but when I did the satisfaction I got from handing his ass to him is something few games have been able to give me.
The level system, whilst retaining the obtuse nature of the rest of the game, is one that requires you to balance all your requirements against each other. Being a jack of all trades will make the game incredibly difficult and will ultimately net you no benefits so you have to choose a few stats you want to excel in and then seek out the items that best suits that. Reading through some guides will help you make the right decisions early on to support the kind of playstyle you want to pursue, especially when it comes to points of diminishing returns, soft caps and hard caps on benefits that each point gives you. My Strength/Skill build seemed to work out quite well for the way I wanted to play the game and after I finished my initial playthrough I was able to start looking at dumping points into other stats to unlock certain choice weapons that I wanted to experiment with.
Bloodborne is mechanically sound for the most part however the hit detection they use does have its limits and sometimes its behaviour can be completely out of line with what you expect. I had numerous times when my sword went right through an enemy and failed to connect (no blood, sound nor enemy taking damage) and other times when enemies appeared to be able to hit me when their models were no where near me. Whilst death is an integral part of the game when they’re not the result of you getting greedy or stupid it does little to endear the game to you and indeed I stopped playing when these sorts of things happened too often. There was also the few performance slow downs I mentioned previously which were thankfully rare however in a game where timing and precision are key these sorts of things can be devastating if they happen at the wrong moment.
Bloodborne’s story is interesting although the way it’s presented, through various small bits of dialogue and vague allusions to things, makes it hard to discern whether or not it’s actually a good story. Sure you have enough to understand the motivations of certain characters but much of the lore behind the beasts, bosses and other NPCs are mostly built up out of conjecture. Sure this provides a healthy amount of discussion among the community however after reading the 100th fan theory about why the Great Ones can’t have kids you start to want a little bit more than just what everyone thinks it might be. Unfortunately it seems like closure isn’t something the developers of Bloodborne are interested in giving us so I’ll just have to say that the story is serviceable but far too vague to be much more than that.
Bloodborne is a game I honestly didn’t want to like when I started out playing it and indeed I was willing to give up very early on in the piece just so I could be done with it. However once Bloodborne got its hooks into me I couldn’t help but be intrigued as the game taunted me with ever greater challenges and the prospect of even better loot. I can remember clearly the point at which I transitioned from the terrified hunter, one who would walk around every corner, to the slayer of the night, one who feared no beast and laid waste to anyone who dared cross him. There are few games that can take you on a journey like that and make your progress feel meaningful but Bloodborne does it beautifully, all the while gnawing away in the back of your head that it could all come to a crashing end if you let your hubris get the better of you. If you’ve been putting off playing this style of game because it seems too harsh then I’d encourage you to give Bloodborne a few hours of your time as that frustration could soon turn into obsession, one that will be rewarded handsomely.
Bloodborne is available on PlayStation4 right now for $99.95. Total play time was approximately 35 hours reaching NG+.