Every game in the Souls series, which is up to five now if were including Bloodborne, has always straddled the line between unique and repetitive. Dark Souls III is no different and doesn’t let the player immediately know what has changed from its predecessor. In reality however Dark Souls III learns from these previous entries in the series and blends some of the best elements of everything from Demon Souls to Bloodborne. Dark Souls III manages to pay homage to the older games but also make way for new mechanics and design that allow new players to dive straight in, making this the most accessible Souls game yet.
Every Souls game has shared one thing in common; they are some of the most rewarding video games ever created. With every game steeped in a bleak miserable atmosphere that attempts to crush all hope of success, it makes every little victory just feel ever so sweeter. This is a franchise marketed on its devastating difficulty and its ability to make even the most veteran of players admit defeat. The pure joy of victory is something Dark Souls II lacked in the most fundamental ways, with a gauntlet of bosses, far too many checkpoints and a real lack of genuine heart to the game, it felt like it undermined a lot of the key points of the original Dark Souls. However with Hidetaka Miyazaki back as the director, Dark Souls III feels like the sequel we deserved, and if nothing else a warm welcome back to the series. Even if that welcome is accompanied by hundreds of deaths along the way.
Dark Souls III isn’t accompanied by a plethora of mechanics that differentiate it from the other games however its changes are substantial enough, that especially to long-time fans, it stands apart from the rest. The action is still the tactical and patient learning experience that it has been before with every weapon having light and heavy attacks along with being able to be two-handed for more damage. The main new addition to the combat is the Focus Point gauge which is used to perform specific attacks and also acts as a mana bar for spells and miracles. These attacks can be anything from a charged slash to break your opponents guard or a quick side step to dodge attacks, there an inoffensive addition at best. While they lacked the impact I would have liked them to have on the III’s combat the usual plethora of attacks is more than enough to keep the action interesting.
The combat itself is generally faster and I felt like FromSoftware really took note of how well paced Bloodbornes combat felt and decided to ramp things up a bit. Enemies are much more aggressive, leaving you less time to react to their attack patterns, meaning you spend much more time dodging around your opponent and either wearing them down or finding the perfect time to strike. While it’s still nice that there’s an option of wielding a shield and sword and having a methodical slower paced defensive battle much like Demon Souls or Dark Souls, it’s not always going to be the most effective in the more hectic fights in Dark Souls III.
Speaking of combat, the enemy variety in this game is astounding. This is probably the greatest Souls game in regards to the types of enemies you fight and that the way you’re fighting can just change on the fly due to the new enemies you encounter. While some main stays of the series are still around such as, hollows, rats, gargoyles, and giants etc. the new types of enemies such as the life absorbing priestesses or the Frost Knights of the Boreal Valley provide fantastic variety to the combat. Not only are all of these enemies mechanically interesting there design is incredible. Dark Souls III has some of the most disgusting and grotesque monsters of the entire franchise, from the monsters of high fantasy to the more satanic, everything oozes with power and menace. The enemies in a Souls game should make you feel afraid, and not just because of the damage they can deal but because of how they look and feel, Dark Souls III nails this perfectly. While the monster designs never reach the craziness of Bloodbornes just due to its dark fantasy setting, the enemies in this game are some of my favourite and most memorable in the series so far.
The pinnacle of Dark Souls enemy design has always been its bosses and Dark Souls III does not disappoint. With the original Dark Souls soaring in popularity due to just how memorable and incredible nearly every boss encounter was, I never expected Dark Souls III to live up to that after the second failed so hard. However I was genuinely surprised at not just how unique some of the bosses are but how amazing the fights are. Every fight felt rewarding on a different level, whether it was figuring out the tactic to beat the more puzzle based bosses, or simply executing an incredible series of dodges and strikes to brute force down certain bosses. Whether it’s the hordes of the Deacons of the Deep or the Abyss Watchers which not only fight you but themselves, the bosses felt leaps and bounds above that of Dark Souls II but not quite reaching the heights of the original Dark Souls.
Like all of the games before it defeating enemies provides your characters with souls that allow you to, level up increasing certain attributes, buy items from shopkeepers and upgrade your weapons. Levelling up this time is a lot more unforgiving and with the price of each level up increasing so drastically it feels like more of a mistake to throw your points wherever, and much safer to think about every individual point. However with the increased price of levelling I was left with many more spare souls in order to experiment with the new of weapons, and there’s a lot of new weapons.
Those dissatisfied by the meagre selection of weapons in Bloodborne will fall in love with Dark Souls III’s virtual armoury. With weapons from daggers and whips to great swords and axes along with everything in-between, I was able to find the perfect weapon to fit my play style. Not only are there many more weapons there are a lot more gems to infuse your weapons with, these change the properties of the weapon meaning that there’s almost infinite possibilities of how to play through the game. These gems were plentiful along with my spare souls, meaning that unlike older games in the series I felt encouraged to experiment and ended up switching between 2-3 different types of weapons depending on the situation. Whether I was brute forcing through enemies with a heavy great sword or picking at them with a frost sword I had more than enough ways to dispatch foes throughout my journey.
Dark Souls III has streamlined some areas of the game such as the weapon upgrades which helps cater to the new player experience. Item descriptions are much clearer in letting you understand what exactly an item does without losing the mystique so associated with them and it introduces you to the concept of what a ‘Dark Souls’ boss fight is very early. However in contrast to the freedom I felt with the combat and items I felt restricted in terms of its level design.
Lothric just can’t match up to Lordran from the original Dark Souls, and loses a lot of the interconnectivity that makes the original Dark Souls a master class not only in level design but world design. If Lordran can be seen as a vertical tower with interconnected passageways, trap doors, hidden passages and a constant upward progression then Dark Souls III feels like a downward slope. The constant progression is contrasting to the original in that you progress down in into the valley below Lothric castle but instead of being an interesting tower with hidden passages and incredibly distinct areas it feels more like a linear path. I’m not saying that there are no hidden areas or interconnected locations at all but none can match the wonder of that from the first Dark Souls.
If looked at from a purely aesthetic standpoint Lothric is brilliant, it nails the dilapidated elegance that Dark Souls is known for. Lothric truly feels like a world on the brink, shattered and barely standing that would only take the smallest push to send the entire world and its inhabitants spiralling into doom. While there are incredible vistas and locations to visit throughout your time in Lothric much of it is also spent in uninspiring locations that drip with a brown, drab air to them. While Dark Souls is no stranger to the drab and boring it was also a game filled with varied locations of colour and vibrancy, something Dark Souls III forgets at times.
The one thing I can’t fault FromSoftware on is its ability to create detail from an engine that while technically inept, allows FromSoftware to show just how good they are at world design. A group of pilgrims in their final resting place unable to finish their journey, bodies twisted and mangled shoved into cages, corpses strung across a wooden bridge in a quaint village. While the game may not even be as technically good looking as something like the Witcher III there ability to create a world just dripping with history that holds a million stories in a simple static image puts them far above and beyond anyone else in the industry.
Of course all of this world design and incredible detail comes at a price, one felt heavily on the console versions of Dark Souls III. Having played on the Xbox One version of the game I felt significant drops below the thirty frames-per-second limit placed on the game, sometimes these drops feeling as low as sub twenty frames-per-second. While thirty frames-per-second has never been the preferred way to play any game, Souls has always worked at this framerate and while Dark Souls III is no different these dips break immersion heavily and can sometimes end up impacting upon the games combat. While most of these drops actually occurred in areas where I wasn’t in any immediate danger or rarely got me killed, taking on a mammoth boss fight that should feel epic is dampened when my game hitches up while trying to dodge his attacks.
While the detail of the world impacted heavily on the games stability it only helped to build upon the deep and rich lore present throughout the Souls series. Dark Souls III is a return to form in storytelling for the series, there is so much deep intrigue throughout the game that I attempted to sit down and read every description, finish every NPC quest and just dive into this lore. Of course this type of obscure storytelling isn’t for everyone and will definitely be a negative for some, but I can only look at it as a positive in my eyes. With such close ties to the original Dark Souls and even many recurring faces that played so heavily off my nostalgia for the first game I couldn’t help but love every encounter with these characters. Dark Souls III story is no less ambiguous than its predecessors but every story hint and character encounter just pushes me on further to try and tie all these links together, and just experience this universe.
I find it hard to really find anything I experienced in Dark Souls III that made me dislike it. In fact I’m sure that I love Dark Souls III almost as much as I loved the original, knowing that much of my criticisms of Dark Souls III come from what it just couldn’t do as well as the original. Despite my criticisms Dark Souls III manages to pull together key accomplishments from the previous games and create a conclusion to the series that not only feels satisfying but epic in its own right. It’s a game I will be playing for hundreds of hours more and an experience I will not soon forget. While no game has ever come close to replicating what the original Dark Souls managed to do, Dark Souls III comes pretty damn close and is all the better for it.