After what seemed like hours of soul-farming, weapon-reinforcement, and raising my stats in Dark Souls III, I left the comfort of a flickering bonfire and headed towards an ominous door. Feeling particularly proud of my prowess, I confidently stepped through the door to witness a pair of (clearly Bloodborne-inspired) enemies duking it out. After viciously thrusting his massive greatsword into the other Abyss Watcher, the remaining enemy turned his gaze to me, lifted his two blades, and swiftly charged in my direction. But, having just raised my endurance stat, I successfully dodged, rolled, and plunged my axe into his rotten flesh. Just when I thought it was going to be a piece of cake, he was joined by two of his buddies. After trading blows and chucking a ton of fire orbs, victory was finally mine…that is, until a cutscene introduced a powerful solo Abyss Watcher, wielding a punishing, flaming sword. Suffice it to say, I wasn’t prepared for the surprise and was dead in a matter of minutes. Despite my defeat, I couldn’t help but grin. This is Dark Souls and it feels good.
As I’m someone who’s played every entry in the series—as well as From Software’s Souls-esque PS4 exclusive, Bloodborne—saying I was excited for Dark Souls III would be an understatement. But with excitement also comes an itching anxiety to know whether what may very well be the last Souls game will live up to expectations, please fans, and pull new people into the fold. After putting an obscene amount of hours into the game, and seeing the credits roll, I am happy to confirm that Dark Souls III is, without a doubt, my favorite in the series.
First, I should point out that the game doesn’t put a revolutionary spin on the gameplay we’ve experienced in past entries. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, or something we were expecting the game to do, because it already boasts a great formula. Similar to the previous titles, it doesn’t hold your hand, and successfully uses death as a learning experience. Every death is your fault, and the game does a great job of getting that across to you, and allowing you to figure out the best course of action by process of elimination. Of course, while dying 12, 13, or even 15 times in a row is frustrating, finally annihilating the boss with an inch of your health remaining, claiming a massive wealth of souls, and finally being able to move on from the area, makes up for it 10 times over.
While it doesn’t quite reach the perfection that was Bloodborne, it is the cream of the crop when it comes to Dark Souls. Before you grab your pitchforks and tell me I’m wrong because the first is clearly the best, let me explain. Sure, Dark Souls was full of iconic bosses, locations, and battles, but III takes most of the same elements and makes them even better. From Demon’s Souls, it takes the separate mana meter; from Dark Souls II, it takes the ability to warp between every bonfire; and from Bloodborne, it takes the weapon transformation mechanic (which masquerades as battle skills), and the ability to password summon for online co-op. That’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to great gameplay aspects that have been folded into the game.
The lore is also as mysterious as ever, and is distributed to the player via item descriptions, NPC encounters/quests, and the surrounding environment. Familiar faces like the blacksmith Andre of Astora (who was in Dark Souls), and places like the Firelink Shrine (though it is different this time around) make glorious returns. Much like the Nexus and The Hunter’s Dream, the shrine serves as a home base where you’ll be able to level up your stats, reinforce your weapons, learn pyromancies/miracles/spells, buy items, and reflect on whats going on in the apocalyptic world.
Also, after encountering NPCs during your play through (some, you’ll really have to look for), they will ask to join your cause and appear at the shrine, often as merchants, or will show up from time to time to give you better insight into the lore and assist you during boss battles. Similar to the past, there are circumstances that will either get them killed or make them become hostile towards you. Because finishing their quest lines or finding them at all often scores you a ton of great items you won’t find anywhere else, figuring out where they’ll show up next adds another layer to the fun.
Beyond the shrine, the world is absolutely gorgeous. Unfortunately however, the frame rate still has a tendency to drop quite a bit (remember Blighttown? *shudders*) in certain areas. Though it is something I wish they’d sort out, I often found myself marveling at the brilliant architecture, lighting, and enemy design (all while trying not to die), and forgetting about the stutters instead.
The level design is neither as complex as Dark Souls, nor as linear and disconnected as Dark Souls II, but finds a happy medium somewhere in between. Winding passageways, and shortcuts link locations together, prompting the, “Wait, this is where this place is?” response from me on more than one occasion. That said, after passing the halfway point, where the locations fit into the world isn’t as obvious. On their own, the areas were fun to get lost in, and varied in terms of structure; some areas opt for a vertical layout, while others are more spread out. Finding seriously awesome (and useful) loot throughout the world, along with locating NPCs, bonfires, and shortcuts incentivizes exploring every last nook and cranny. While handing boss souls over to a new NPC named Ludleth gives you an opportunity to craft a unique weapon/spell/ring, there are a ton of great weapons, rings, and armor sets that can be found early on, and used for the remainder of the game.
Though there aren’t as many weapons as there were in Dark Souls II, the new weapon arts/battle skills tied to each weapon in Dark Souls III adds another layer of depth to the combos you can pull off in the game. While some weapons (like axes) allow you to increase your attack power, others allow you to execute a vicious spin attack, or lunge forward to break the enemy’s defenses. Though I’ve yet to test out all of the skills (some are tied to specialty weapons I haven’t found), the ones I’ve had access to add refreshing variety to the gameplay. Like spells, the moves are tied to the FP (or mana) gauge, which, like the HP gauge, doesn’t recharge. Chugging down one of the newly added Ashen Estus Flasks will replenish the bar. Speaking of the flask, you can talk to the blacksmith at any time to change how many of your flasks (there are 10 in all) replenish health, and how many replenish mana. That means you can make all of your flasks replenish health, FP, or split them equally—the choice is up to you.
The gameplay is also much quicker this time around, which means enemies/bosses are more aggressive—and oh, what a mötley crüe those baddies are. The game features some of the best enemies in the series. Returning enemies like knights, basilisks, mimics and your ordinary hollows are joined by new ones that take your expectations and flip them on their sides by doing things like transforming into something terrifying, or pulling off a surprise move when you get too close. The same can be said of the bosses. While some were disappointing, and easily bested by repeating the same move set, others change their behavior mid-fight, and often force you to break rules you’ve been following all along. A particularly memorable boss (which we won’t name) can only be beaten by using the weapon art of a recently discovered item, while another forces you to keep your distance halfway through the battle after successfully spending the first half staying up close and personal.
Luckily, weapons are easy to upgrade, and are decently balanced in terms of stat scaling. After finding items like titanite shards/slabs/scales, infusion gems, and coal, the blacksmith will reinforce and infuse your weapons. Also, with the nifty shriving stone item, removing an element from your weapon is easy. This benefits the player in two specific ways: first, it solves the unfortunate problem of accidentally infusing a weapon; and second, it gives you the flexibility to infuse your weapon early on to help you out while you’re still weak, and remove the infusion once you’ve found a better weapon and significantly raised the stat that corresponds with the weapon.
Probably my favorite thing about Dark Souls III (which might not sit well with others) is that it wears its fan-service on its sleeve. There were several moments (which I won’t spoil, because they’re best discovered on your own) that elicited responses that were somewhere along the lines of: “Oh. Wait is that…What?!” I was reunited with old friends, bonded with new ones, and discovered familiar locations, items and more. The good news is, I know there is still a ton to discover, characters to meet, and weapons to find. With NPCs and more resetting for NG+, I can’t wait to dig back in for another go.
Dark Souls III is both the best game in the series and the perfect conclusion. By streamlining the experience, keeping the elements that work, and tossing out the ones that don’t, FromSoftware has demonstrated why they continue to be the very best in the business. The gameplay they introduced back in 2009 with Demon’s Souls has evolved significantly with each iteration, which is refreshing to see. A little over six years later and we have the perfect package that’s sure to please both new and veteran players. Praise the sun!
- Level design is a happy medium between the complex paths in Dark Souls I, and linear levels in Dark Souls II
- Gameplay is fast-paced, fluid and fun. Battle Skills add an extra layer of depth
- Lore is rich, and ominous. It brings you into contact with familiar places, faces, and more.
- Enemy/boss designs, architecture, and lighting are spectacular
- Frame rate dips at times
Rating: 4.5/5 Blazing Hot Burritos
This review was completed using an Xbox One review copy of Dark Souls III provided by Bandai Namco. The game launched worldwide on PS4, Xbox One, and PC on April 12.