Dark Souls III – PlayStation 4
Platform: PlayStation 4
Publisher: Bandai Namco Entertainment
Release Date: April 12, 2016
Nerd Rating: 8.5 out of 10
We’ve only just recently hit the one-year anniversary of FromSoftware’s wildly popular Blooborne and already their next title, Dark Souls III, has hit the shelves. When I first heard the news–back in June, 2015–that Dark Souls III would be releasing within the span of a year, I was incredulous. Bloodborne was only a few months old, and FromSoftware was already sitting on an almost completed game. Horrid visions of Dark Souls II, the black sheep of the Souls family, came to mind. Surely, a game pushed out so quickly couldn’t be any good, right? Sitting down now, writing this review, it’s hard not to see my past-self as foolish for thinking such things. But those were darker times for the Souls games; because Dark Souls III has burst forth in spectacular fashion, leaving this reviewer more than a little impressed.
Before we begin, I’d like to take a little time to review the history of From Software’s work. Much like Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda series, it’s hard to get a full picture of any single Souls game without considering the influence of the titles that came before it. The Souls series began in 2009 with the release of Demon’s Souls, an enigmatic,unforgiving Medieval-style action-RPG released exclusively for the PlayStation 3. After that came Dark Souls, which borrowed heavily from the structure, format, and non-straightforward storytelling of Demon’s Souls. Taking place in a completely different universe, this follow-up tightened up combat mechanics and level-up systems for a much more polished iteration. Both games were hugely popular among hardcore fans and new players alike, gaining cult followings alongside commercial success. Next came Dark Souls II, a direct sequel to the first Dark Souls. This game also met with critical acclaim, although many dedicated fans of the series consider it a poor edition to the Dark Souls family; with many players arguing that it was unfaithful to the original philosophies of the Souls series (I would tend to agree). After that came Bloodborne, a highly experimental departure in terms of gameplay and setting that still earns its place as a Souls-type game in many ways, speeding up the pace while maintaining a lot of the skill-based elements present in the earlier Souls titles. I wrote a review for it here. So where does Dark Souls III come in? Does it earn its place among the best of the Souls series? Let’s find out.
Dark Souls III is a direct sequel to Dark Souls II. Before the game even begins, the player is shown a cut scene establishing the story and a little background lore. The land of Lothric has been on the brink of an age of darkness for some time and the only ones holding it at bay is a group known as the Lords of Cinder; who have left their thrones and their duty to “link the fire” to the earthly world. Thus, the player arises as one of thousands of undead warriors whose job it is to return the lords to their forsaken thrones. I’m not big on spoilers, so let’s just say that this opening is loosely inspired by one of the possible endings of Dark Souls II. Taking control of their custom character, the player sets out on their arduous journey to find the five Lords of Cinder.
Like each of the other Souls-type games, Dark Souls III is an action-RPG. The player’s character starts off with a collection of stats that gear them toward one set of skills or another.Throughout the game they spend their experience points, known as souls, to level up and improve their abilities. Combat is real time, meaning that a combination of the player’s skill, in-game stats, and cunning is required in order to play this game properly – and boy, is it tough.
The combat system is perhaps the most central component to any Souls game, and this remains so for Dark Souls III. Combat defines a player’s ability to survive and affects your willingness to explore new areas, while adding more than a few decision-making aspects. These decisions come both in the form of strategic spur-of-the-moment combat strategies as well as larger decisions about whether to keep pushing forward in an area or retreat in order to preserve souls and level-up. The combat is by no means easy or trivial and is in fact very nuanced, requiring a thoughtful approach to every situation. This means that each new encounter, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, can potentially end in the player’s death through a simple miscalculation or careless action. But it can also end in great triumph, making you feel really good about yourself for making good decisions in the midst of combat.
Combat in Dark Souls III is governed by three main attribute bars: The player’s health, the player’s stamina, and the player’s focus power, or FP. Health lets you know how close you are to death and can make you more resilient to attacks. Stamina governs how many attacks you are allowed to perform before you become exhausted, as well as how agile you are. FP governs more context-specific attributes, such as the casting of spells or the use of specialized weapon stances. The most impressive thing about this system is that each bar can be useful for the player in at least two ways, in true role-playing fashion. For example, health can be used to absorb damage when injured or sacrificed for certain exterior benefits. Stamina can be utilized with a heavy shield to withstand punishing blows or to dodge those very same blows in spectacular fashion. FP can be used to dish out damage with spells, restore health with miracles, and break an opponent’s guard with special weapon stances. This sort of variety leads to a lot of fine tuning during the progression of a character build, resulting in an evolving combat style that feels unique and all your own.
One of my largest complaints about the Souls series has been the pacing of its combat. In general it’s fine, but historically I have found there to be a considerable slowness to it; consisting of a lot of waiting, attacking, blocking, and repeating that same formula over and over, which can get pretty boring. Bloodborne was a breath of fresh air, removing the blocking mechanic almost entirely, relying on the player’s ability to properly time dodges with the enemies’ unique rhythms. Of course, a Souls game couldn’t be based on dodging entirely; in a Medieval-style world, a little blocking and shield action is absolutely necessary and even enjoyable. At the same time, FromSoftware took more than a few pages out of Bloodborne‘s book with Dark Souls III; adding a lot of the speedier elements for a very good mix between the slow and plodding type of combat and the fast-paced, exhilarating combat. That mix makes you feel good in moments when you make the right choice between waiting for an enemy’s attack cycle to finish or rushing in to deal a ton of damage right away. This makes for a very steep learning curve, and while tough, it offers for wonderfully rewarding gameplay when you get good at it.
The weapons are a large part of the combat, and they are pretty well varied and balanced. The types range from giant, crushing great-hammers to small, piercing daggers. You’ll also find sorcery staffs, magic talismans, shields, and much more. The sheer amount of weapons in this game may be the greatest of any Souls game to date. While the number of individual weapons is huge, attack types and combos are not quite as varied as some of the previous games were. Of course, Dark Souls II had a disappointingly limited amount of weapon attacks and types, with very little depth. Bloodborne, however, sported a relatively small number of ‘trick’ weapons, yet each one had its own entirely unique set of attacks with an insane amount of polish and depth that set it apart from the rest. In Dark Souls III, each weapon belongs to a class or type, executing the same attacks for that type with little variation among different weapons, aside from stats.
While that may have been a bit of a disappointment, there is a new feature added to each weapon called the ‘skill.’ A weapon’s skill is an alternate set of attacks reminiscent of the weapon transformations from Bloodborne that allow it to alter the combat in different ways. Some skills help by breaking through an opponent’s guard or executing awesome rushing attacks that punish passive enemies. Each weapon type has at least one or two skills that go a long way toward creating a more strategic and fast-paced combat experience. I would have liked to see a little more weapon variation overall, but I’m glad the skills are in there. They’re a great addition to the series on the whole.
To complement the combat system, there is a pretty involved online component as well. Sometimes player invaders will drop into your world in order to kill you and gain special items. Other times, you can summon them to help you. This system both mitigates and at times increases the difficulty of Dark Souls III. Personally, I’m trash at player duels, so I find the invasions to be extremely annoying. On the other hand, I have enjoyed my fair share of cooperative experiences by either helping players beat bosses or using them to my own benefit. As frustrating as the online experience can be from time to time, it does lead to some pretty fun and unpredictable experiences. A lot of single-player games these days, like Metal Gear Solid V, are leaning toward this sort of pseudo-online experience, and the Souls games do it better than most.
Of course, there would be no combat system without enemies to fight, and their tight, yet varied design goes a long way toward complementing the system in place. There’s an impressive variety of enemies in Dark Souls III; from small and quick enemies that execute flurries of attacks to large giants that crush you with a single blow; this game sports it all in excellent fashion.
The small enemies contain quite a bit of variety in themselves. Some are slow to attack, while others are quick and are more likely to ambush a player at a moment’s notice. The flurry attacks characteristic of almost all of these are extremely reminiscent of the majority of enemies from Bloodborne, which is yet another testament to the game’s influence on Dark Souls III. These small enemies are dispatched relatively easily and shields are highly effective against them, however they make better use of available terrain than other enemies and can gang up on the player in unexpected ways, killing them if they’re not careful.
The larger enemies have an even greater variation; from fast, yet elegant knights to bumbling Puritan-style sorcerers, there is a healthy mix of creative and recognizable enemies in Dark Souls III. Shields are not quite as effective against these enemies, but they do their part from time to time. These enemies are harder to stagger, requiring a much greater deal of caution and timing from the player. Whenever smaller, mob-type enemies are paired with the larger enemies, the player is sure in for a challenge. The biggest issue with large enemies is that the really big ones can sometimes cause camera and lock-on issues due to their sheer size, making it harder to strategize and time movements precisely.
The coolest thing about the enemies in Dark Souls III is their thematic consistency. What I mean by this is that enemies are most often found in spaces where they make sense. For instance, skeleton-type enemies are only ever found in catacomb spaces and dungeon-like areas. Knights and similar warriors are more likely to be found in the halls of a castle than in the murky waters of a swamp. Enemies are also often found doing things, such as working on something, praying, or even fighting other enemies, based on context and location. Elements like these really help immerse the player in the world of Dark Souls III. Now, all of this is well and good, and I’m perfectly aware that Dark Souls III isn’t the first game to make use of this type of enemy placement. However, I would argue that this game goes quite a few steps further than most. There are some enemy types that are only found in a single area. For instance, there are men holding sharpened wood posts that specifically occupy a certain swamp and nowhere else, and they really look like they belong there. There is a class of ghostly knights that can only be found in a certain abandoned castle, perfectly occupying their space while adding their own character to it. The sheer amount of enemies designed for this game is astounding, so it’s doubly impressive that the development team found the time to make enemies that appear so infrequently. This sort of uniqueness adds more character, variety, and energy to the game’s levels in ways not many other RPG games are able to accomplish.
There are also player-like enemies scattered throughout the game. These enemies are relatively small in size, with weapons and move sets that mimic playable characters. Whenever they appear on a map, awesome and strategic duels are bound to occur. Fighting this enemy type is also very reminiscent of player invasions, without the added stress so I’m glad that they’re in there, since I really, really hate invasions.
As any good Souls game would, Dark Souls III sports quite a few bosses. During my first playthrough I must have faced at least ten different bosses, not to mention the optional ones that I probably missed along the way. Every single boss is difficult; with a gigantic, intimidating health bar at the bottom of the screen that instills dread and woe more often than not. Each one presents a challenge to the player in their own way, with dynamic and unique move sets that make them hard to predict. These bosses often tower far above the player, crushing them with heavy blows and magic spells that seem impossible to survive at first. But man, does it feel great when they go down.
One of my biggest complaints about the Souls series is how difficult and inaccessible the bosses can be. At the same time, their level of difficulty is never as inaccessible as it seems. Victory is always just a little bit out of the player’s reach, if only they have the tenacity to reach for ultimate victory. The heart-racing exhilaration felt after successfully felling one of these behemoths through a clever use of tactics and carefully timed attacks is simply unparalleled.
Each boss in Dark Souls III is fairly unique, with a whole host of move sets and little gimmicks that make new encounters interesting. There are wizards, towering giants, dragons, and even mob-type bosses; each requiring different thought processes and play styles to be defeated. Just like the regular enemies, they are often pretty thematically consistent and found in spaces where they make sense. Some even arrive with neat little cut-scenes from time to time that help outline their place in the lore. When I reviewed Bloodborne, my biggest grievance with the bosses was that a large majority of them were four-legged beasts. In the case of Dark Souls III, the go-to format seems to be knights with swords. Of course, where beasts were more appropriate in the world of Bloodborne, so are knights in the world of Dark Souls III, making this a bit of plus-minus. It helps the world feel a little bit more cohesive while sacrificing a few opportunities to craft more interesting boss fights.
That being said, the bosses in Dark Souls III are not perfect. At times, they’re a little too difficult. They become more tightly packed together toward the end of the game, and they become a lot more reliant on gimmicks as time goes on. Also, they’re fucking huge. Some of them will jump over the player’s head and go for crushing attacks, janking out the camera and affecting visibility due to the sheer size. This can make an otherwise trivial fight way more difficult than it needs to be. Whenever a boss fight is difficult due to the fact that the camera isn’t working properly, something needs fixing. It’s a little disappointing that FromSoftware couldn’t have tightened up the camera work during these sections, but they don’t affect every boss and aren’t always that glaring.
Aside from enemy design and combat, the last standout feature of Dark Souls III is the immersive level design. I could write pages and pages on the game’s level design alone, but since I can’t really do that here, I’ll settle with a couple of paragraphs. The level design in this game is simply phenomenal; featuring a healthy mix between open, sprawling locations and tight, cramped ones that change player progression and combat in very interesting ways.
The most amazing thing about the level design in this game is its connectivity. At roughly all times during my playthrough, I had at least three paths open to me that I could take, which would bend and weave themselves back around in creative ways that made me go “So that’s where I was this whole time!” Through the use of cleverly placed shortcuts and checkpoints, the designers at FromSoftware have managed to create one of the most cohesive and connected physical spaces in any game, period. Demon’s Souls was a very linear game, with several ‘levels’ that had clear beginnings and ends. Dark Souls flipped that on its head, taking place in one general area, with available shortcuts that would connect the different zones. Dark Souls II also did this to a large degree. When Bloodborne came around, it heavily improved on that format, adding a ridiculous number of innovative shortcuts that made the world of Yharnam feel like one giant city. It’s safe to say that Dark Souls III is at least on par with Bloodborne in this respect, if it hasn’t surpassed it entirely. One of the key components to crafting a good adventure experience is the attention paid to the world everything takes place in, and this game goes to amazing lengths to remind the player that its areas are as interconnected as any space in the real world would be. This is most exemplified by the fact that you can stand over any precipice, looking out at the skyline, realizing that you will eventually travel to and explore every location in your line of sight.
Of course, not every space is entirely new. Dark Souls III features a significant handful of repeat locations from Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls, either in spirit or ripped directly from the source material. The main hub for example, is a very close replica to the Nexus hub from Demon’s Souls. I would say that this is not entirely unwelcome for me and it feels like these areas were included due to their popularity, as if the development team thought they could do it better the second time around. It’s hard not to see some of this as pandering, but I don’t have much of an opinion on it. They’re good areas, tweaked just enough to feel at home in the world of Dark Souls III.
In terms of level design, I’d like to return to my previous idea about thematic consistency. Every space in this game feels very real, as if they were first designed with another purpose outside of their usefulness as a play space for a video game. There are very few truly symmetrical areas, since the land is war-torn and partially destroyed. Huts and villages are sprawling and unpredictable, while castles and courtyards feel very polished, with props and land layouts reminiscent of how the same spaces might look in real life. This is an awe-inspiring example of the development team opting for what is interesting and grounded before any other component comes into consideration. For example, there are one or two bosses that are fought inside churches and cathedrals. These areas tend to be square or cross-shaped, with nothing overtly interesting about them. However, they feel that much more real for it, accentuating the areas that are twisting and complicated while carving out their own place in the world of Dark Souls III.
Dark Souls III is relatively light on story and lore. Previous Souls games were extremely lore-heavy, consisting of content that was mostly gleaned through character dialogue and item descriptions. This game, however, feels sparse and a little bit empty in that respect. My best guess is that this is a result of the backlash felt from fans after the story-heavy Dark Souls II, combined with the fact that Dark Souls was never meant to have a sequel in the first place. Instead of creating new ideas, the team seemed content with rehashing a lot of older stuff, bringing back a lot (and I mean a lot) of NPC characters and concepts from the first Dark Souls. Some people have taken to calling Dark Souls III the ‘greatest hits’ collection of the franchise, and I think this is a pretty apt comparison. The biggest downside is that most of the newer characters feel pretty one-dimensional with no interesting story arcs; as if all the effort was saved for the repeat ones, which is quite a shame. The game does become a lot more lore heavy toward the end, which is a little too late in my opinion, and I really wasn’t a huge fan of the ending, or choice thereof.
As this review winds down to a close, it’s time to talk about the art design and audio. The art design is pretty solid. Enemies are well-crafted and distinguishable enough as to not be confused with any others. Dark Souls III works with perhaps the most diverse color palette I’ve ever seen in a Souls game, with lots of little patches of light and warmer colors to help offset and contrast the majority of dark and depressing spaces. There are a lot of intricate moving parts, much like in Bloodborne, that help add character and detail to the world, though I would be inclined to say it feels like they got a little lazy with polygons and textures towards the end of the game.
When it comes to audio, each enemy is expressive and distinct, helping cue the player into what’s in store for them. There is generally a grand silence that looms over the game, letting the player explore the space without musical cues to let them know what’s going on, heightening the game’s feeling of isolation and suspense. However, epic music will thunder through during boss fights, making them feel that much more important. Dark Souls III also features a healthy amount of voice acting from the NPC characters that you can talk to. The voice talent is very impressive, with a lot of gloomy dialogue. This is pretty standard for any Souls game at this point, though I feel there’s a slight over-reliance on goofy laughs that are meant to be intimidating or foreboding.
Dark Souls III is a very impressive, very well-polished game, without making it seem that way. When playing Dark Souls III, the only thing on your mind is “How am I going to do this next thing without getting myself killed?” You’re not always paying attention to how well-crafted an area is, or how the designers cleverly placed the enemies in an effort to slowly scaffold and mold you into a better player, due to how masterfully invisible the design is most of the time. Director Hidetaka Miyazaki, alongside FromSoftware, managed to craft a world that has you completely immersed, to the point where it’s sometimes hard to look at it objectively as someone else’s creation. Such is the world of Dark Souls III. It is the sort of game that is made of a collection of well-oiled parts that are put together with excellent detail, taking full advantage of their potential in ways that most games are not able to accomplish. There is no extraneous concept or mechanic in Dark Souls III that doesn’t accomplish at least two different goals. Everything was carefully planned and finely-tuned to craft the most challenging, yet attainable game possible.
In one word, Dark Souls III is efficient. The enemy types, level design, items, and perks all come together for a truly harmonious union. Of course, this game does have a few flaws, such as inexplicably cheap bosses and a surprisingly light focus on story and lore. But in the end Dark Souls III achieves something much greater than the simple sum of its parts. It’s a magical experience earning its place as the latest addition to such a fantastic series.
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