Oh, From Software. Time and time again you’ve punished me, sending me on perilous journeys through castles, caves and mountains, pitting me against humongous beasts that want nothing more than to feel my bones crunching in-between their toes, or even just lulling me into the false sense of security that it’s safe to cross a seemingly empty bridge only to have a dragon ignite my body into a ball of flames. Call me a sucker for punishment though, cause I keep coming back to you.
Despite first appearing back in 2009, it feels like the Souls series has been around a lot longer. With Dark Souls III we’re onto our fourth entry, though you could consider it the fifth if you’re willing to look past the fact that Bloodborne omitted the ‘Souls‘ tag from its title. Whilst Bloodborne evolved the formula in its own way, Dark Souls III sticks firmly to its roots and offers a familiar experience that only features few changes to the formula.
The Dark Souls III narrative kicks off with talk of an impending apocalypse, something that can only be survived by protecting the ‘firelink’. Fans of the series may notice the familiarity with the plot of the original Dark Souls, and rightfully so – it certainly ties into this newest entry a great deal more than Dark Souls II does and for once it feels essential to have played through a previous entry in the series to fully appreciate the story of the game.
There’s still enjoyment to be found if you’re new to the series though. In a nutshell it’s all about restoring bonfires and taking on the beastly ‘Lords of Cinder’. That’s the simplest way to explain it, though it’s probably a bit of an insult to the developers when you consider the care and attention that has gone to expanding the lore and back story of the series. Seriously, if you’re willing to explore the world of Dark Souls III and speak to its citizens you’ll discover a whole lot more depth to the tale.
Whilst I consider myself a keen fan of the Dark Souls series, it’s always been for its tight gameplay as opposed to the lore. Fans familiar with the series know what to expect when playing the game – hazardous yet beautiful lands to explore, full to the brim with enemies and bosses that want nothing more than your blood. There’s a fight waiting for you around every corner in Dark Souls III, so it’s fortunate that combat feels so damn satisfying.
Don’t be fooled by those who say that Dark Souls is an incredibly difficult game – it’s only as difficult as you let it be. It’s all about being careful, taking your time and learning your opponent’s attack pattern. From Software have mastered the art of combat, allowing you to fight in a multitude of styles. You can go for a sword and shield combination, holding your defenses whilst your opponent attacks and taking them out on the counter. Alternatively you could battle from a distance, taking your foes out with magic attacks or perhaps a crossbow. My personal favourite is the use of a huge great sword, pulverising my foes with gargantuan blows that launch them across the map with each connecting hit.
No matter how you approach combat, you’ll require patience if you’re going to survive each enemy onslaught. Dark Souls III isn’t the type of game where you can button mash your way to victory. You have to wait for an opening and take it, all whilst constantly being aware of what’s going on around you. Enemies feel quicker and more aggressive than ever this time around, attacking in groups that can easily wipe you out if you get caught in the middle of a combo. I consider myself a Souls veteran and even I found myself struggling to work through some areas of the game due to the sheer ferociousness of enemies, though perhaps some of my deaths could be owed to my cocky ‘I’m a Dark Souls pro’ attitude.
Whilst enemies have seen an increase in pace the same applies to the player. Movement speed seems to be amped up, with rolling and dodging now a more viable form of defence. This could perhaps be owed to the success of Bloodborne, a game where blocking wasn’t even an option. You can still focus on blocking if you prefer, but it’s always handy to have an extra trick up your sleeve.
An increase of pace isn’t the only new addition found in Dark Souls III. Weapons now come equipped with something called ‘Weapon Arts’, a special move that offers a unique ability or attack. The ‘Neck Swipe’ for example sends a nasty attack to your opponents throat, offering what would be considered a head shot. The ‘Oath of Sunlight’ on the other hand sees a boost in your attack and defensive capabilities. Alternatively there’s attacks like the ‘Flame Whirlwind’ that sends your character into a windmill like spin whilst unleashing fire-based attacks on nearby foes. There’s a great variety of Weapon Arts on offer and they can get you out of a few sticky situations. Of course, nothing good in life comes free and in order to use combat arts you’ll have to spend your ‘focus points’.
Besides your stamina and health there’s a new form of energy to manage now – focus points. They work in a similar way to mana, with combat arts and magic requiring a certain amount of focus points to use. You’ll have to split your ‘Estus Flask’ between your health and focus points too, the game giving you the freedom to split the ratio between the health healing ‘Estus Flask’ and focus point recovering ‘Ashen Estus Flask’ how you please. It’ll vary up depending on your play style, with my combat focused character splitting the ratio more in favour of health regeneration.
Whilst Dark Souls III has a few new gameplay additions, one thing that hasn’t carried over from Dark Souls II is the hollowing. No longer will each death hinder you further, slowly chipping away at your maximum health until you recover with the use of a ‘Human Effigy’. Each death instead sees you respawn at your last used bonfire with no consequences to your health, though you still have to try and seek out the ‘Souls’ you lost in death.
As you defeat enemies in Dark Souls III you’re rewarded souls. These souls can be used to level up your character, purchase items or even reinforce your equipment. Each time you an enemy defeats you your souls are dropped and you respawn with zero. However, if you can return to the point where you died you can recover your souls, providing you don’t die again in the mean time. It’s a system that’s been used throughout the series, and it certainly provides a massive risk and reward element to the game. You might want to save up your souls to give yourself a huge boost in levels, but if you die and don’t manage to recover them you’ll lose them all. It’s a thrill in many ways, but I was left cursing at the game when I managed to lose over thirty thousand souls at one point due to an unnecessary death…
The best way to collect souls is by taking down the series’ trademark bosses. I’ve always found the boss battles of Dark Souls games the stand out feature, so I’ll try not to spoil too much about them here. Let’s just say they’re as impressive as ever and there were certainly no boss encounters that disappointed. Be it a gigantic hideous beast or a crowd of robed men – each boss battle in Dark Souls III provides the sort of thrills fans of the series are used to.
There seemed to be more of an emphasis on bosses becoming more difficult as the battle went on this time around too. Besides using a new repertoire of moves that could often kill you in one hit, they also mutated into a nastier form that somehow managed to make them look even more vile than before. There were a few occasions where battles could feel a little unfair when the bosses started using an attack that killed you in one hit, but it’s all part of the learning process of the Dark Souls series. Each boss is beatable – it just might take you a few deaths to learn how to do it.
Akin to Bloodborne, Dark Souls III has been developed from the ground up for the modern generation of consoles. This brings with it an improved game engine that looks absolutely stunning. Seriously, the world of Dark Souls III is one of the finest I’ve seen in any video game. Each new area you visit will have you in awe of its beauty, be it through the impressive gothic architecture that lies before you or because of the stunning vistas that surround the high ground. Environments feel a lot bigger this time too, seemingly going on and on without end.
It’s a real credit to the level designers at From Software. There’s plenty of pathways to explore that offer all sorts of secrets to discover, though if you’re unlucky you could also find a particularly strong optional enemy. Whilst areas were large, I didn’t find myself straying off the beaten track too often in Dark Souls III. Previous entries in the series would often feature multiple routes that would send you to all sorts of locations, but I never found myself straying too much this time around. It’s a blessing in a way as I’d often find myself facing a boss I was clearly under-leveled for on accident in the predecessors, but it’s also a shame that the freedom previous games offered has been replaced with a more linear feeling path.
Whilst Dark Souls III feels fantastic to play and looks amazing, there were some noticeable hiccups in the Playstation 4 version of the game. Whilst it typically ran at a steady 30fps, I often found it dipping a huge amount in some areas. Whilst it didn’t last long and barely deterred from the gameplay, the frame drops happened on a very regular basis. I’m not sure if it’s something that’s going to be fixed in the long run, but given that I had the day one update installed it doesn’t seem like it’s going to be fixed in time for release day.
I went into Dark Souls III expecting the same intricate gameplay, stunning surroundings and epic boss battles that I’ve grown accustomed to over the years with the series. I wasn’t disappointed. In many ways the leap in console generations makes this the best entry in the series yet, offering a world and gameplay that’s as fantastic as ever.
The game has a few issues with its frame rate and levels don’t seem to branch off as often as before, but it doesn’t stop the game being another stunning entry in a series that keeps finding new ways to impress. It hasn’t evolved much between entries, but the truth is that Dark Souls III delivers exactly what fans want – why try to fix something that isn’t broken? There’s thrilling action, a beautifully deadly world to explore and death. Lots and lots of death. This is Dark Souls in its purest form, and it’s better than ever.
– Fantastic combat that offers a variety of ways to approach it
– Epic boss battles that offer a rewarding challenge
– The most stunning entry in the series yet
– A rich narrative and back story that requires exploration to uncover
– Frame rate issues
– Not as much freedom to explore each area in any order
– Note – online play wasn’t available during the time of review –
Developer: From Software (www.fromsoftware.jp)
Publisher: Bandai Namco (www.bandainamcoent.com)
Release Date: 12/04/2016
Format(s): Playstation 4 (Reviewed), Xbox One, PC