By Chris Byrne
After last year’s masterpiece, Bloodborne, and 2013’s slightly disappointing Dark Souls II (in the eyes of many of the fans), the question remains: Did FromSoftware deliver with Dark Souls III?
Short answer: Of course they did! In fact, if you’re a diehard souls fan, you’ve most likely bought this game already. For those who haven’t played a Soulsborne game and are on the fence about stepping in with Dark Souls III - or you're a series veteran and want to know if this is worth your time - keep reading for the long answer.
Hidetaka Miyazaki is back to direct this game, after being resigned to executive producer in Dark Souls II so he could focus on Bloodborne. His direction was sorely missed In Dark Souls II and it’s noticeable throughout this game what influence he has in making this series what it is today; most notably in level design, boss mechanics and world building.
Once you’re past the opening cut scene and character creation, the game launches you pretty much straight into the deep end. The game gives you some notes on how the combat works, but, after roughly 10 minutes of playing, you’ll most likely be at the first boss. It's refreshing to have a game give you a challenge this early, and it gives you a chance to build up your skill level for what the rest of the game will be mercilessly throwing at you in no time. Once you beat the first boss, you’ll head to Firelink Shrine, which acts as the hub from which you can spend your souls to buy weapons, upgrade your character, talk to NPC’s that gather there and so on. Arguably, this game does the hub world system the best, compared to the other games in the series. For example, Bloodborne’s Hunter’s Dream may have been a relief from the chaos of Yarnham, but it was mostly static, with only two NPC’s to talk to. From here, the game will then take you into Lothric, where the real core of the game starts.
As is the series staple, the world is foreboding, ambiguous and intimidating to step into. The first area of Lothric sets up a basic framework for the rest of the game - essentially you learn how enemies will try to attack you in each section, whether it be ambushing you, attacking from range, or if it’s a group patrol that might be more difficult to take out all at once; either way, you’re going to be surprised at every turn, so it’s key to learn these archetypes in order to proceed. Once again, these games do NOT hold your hand, at all. The satisfying thing about this though, as with all of Soulsborne series, is overcoming that difficulty, so it’s still as refreshing and exhilarating as ever to take on challenges like this and beat those odds. It’s built on the idea that yes, these games are hard, but fair, so you always feel like you can come back again, keep trying, learn from your mistakes and overcome the challenge set before you.
DS3 has taken some elements from Bloodborne in its combat, so, whilst still defensive in the way Dark Souls has been, it feels faster, placing the pacing of the combat somewhere in between Dark Souls and Bloodborne. As before, dying or resting at a bonfire to regain your Estus Flasks (AKA your healing potions) respawns most enemies in the game. This means understanding how your enemies will attack you in a section is crucial to your progression, and this is the rule for the entire game, as dying means you will drop your souls and you’ll need to return to that point in order to get them back, or lose them forever if you die again.
Bosses are where the real challenge of this game is. Most of them are both massive and aggressive. You'll spend your first few attempts on a boss learning how they will attack you and when best to dodge or attack until this all clicks. Compared to previous Dark Souls games, these bosses will attack you faster than before but, fortunately, you have more resources at your disposal to handle this. Just as before though, resource management is key. You have a limited amount of stamina to use and attacking and dodging uses this resource. Using it up means you have to wait for it regen, potentially leaving you open to attack.
Also familiar is how the levels are designed in such a way that the world has numerous shortcuts for the player to take. For example, when you reach a bonfire, you may see a locked door by it that you can’t open just yet, and ahead of you is a new area to explore. Progressing through this area and exploring, you can eventually come full circle and find that door and open it to reveal a new shortcut, mitigating the need to do a section of the game. It’s still deeply satisfying to find these shortcuts, and you'll find yourself breathing a sigh of relief most of the time you reach a new bonfire. You're also offered alternative routes to take, leading you to optional areas of the game. FromSoftware are not shy about making sections of their game hard to find or completely missable without some thorough searching, or even needing to resort to help from online resources to find these areas. I found initially in this game that it was a little harder to find alternative routes you could take through the world to reach new areas compared to Bloodborne, but you could put this down to not exploring the world as much as I should have done.
At least from an aesthetic standpoint, this is no hardship. The designers went all out to make this the best looking Souls game to date, taking you from medieval castles, to vast swamps and marshes to massive underground chasms. With enemies that are as intimidating to look at as they are to fight, it makes Lothric a world that you’ll want to explore every corner of to see what it has to offer, but at the same time progress through slowly, at a pace where you can handle what’s coming at you. An excellent soundtrack backs this up, which - whilst mostly reserved for just the boss fights in this game - is fantastically well-composed and conveys the tension and difficulty of the challenge you are about to take on, helping the boss fights feel like much more of an event. Conversely, the absence of music for large parts of the game adds a lot of tension - when all you can hear is the sound of your footsteps you find yourself jumping out of your skin when an enemy suddenly either attacks or shrieks at you.
As with all Soulsborne games, the story is ambiguous, mostly told in item descriptions, NPC’s and the environment of Lothric itself, and you’re left to piece together what’s going on in this world from those elements. The basic premise of the story is that you need to unite the Lords of Cinder and ignite the First Flame so the Age of Fire can continue, but playing through this game and understanding the elements of the story show a world more complicated than that. It’s easy for this to go over your head during gameplay.. There are, however, a vast array of content creators on YouTube who explain the stories in these games in great depth.
This is all not to say that the game is without its problems. It suffers from some technical hiccups. On PS4 at least, it retains the frame pacing problem that Bloodborne had, and, in certain sections (most notably an area towards the end of the game), the game starts to really struggle to meet its 30FPS target, and similar performance problems have been noted for both the PC and Xbox One. The camera as well suffers some issues. I often find myself whilst sprinting having to put my hand in this weird claw-like position so I can hold the circle button and use my thumb to move the camera around. After five games, I was hoping that this issue might have been fixed by now. Also, mechanically there isn’t really anything new in this game compared to its predecessors. It feels more like it’s taken the best of some of the previous games and improved upon those elements where it can, but the experience might be a little too familiar to some, to the point where you may notice similar attack patterns from previous games, both from yourself and from the enemies you fight. Additionally, whilst the game has a huge variety of weapons to use( and you get these very often in DS3, with more emphasis on enemy weapon drops than before), I felt that the weapon design and combat mechanics weren’t as interesting as what Bloodborne brought to the table, as, whilst there weren’t as many, having most of the weapons have variable modes and designs made the combat feel much more unique and interesting, and I miss that. This became a consistent problem for me; I found myself enjoying more elements of what Bloodborne did, not only mechanically, but in terms of its lore, level design and story.
Finally (and this will vary amongst fans of this franchise), having bosses where you deplete their entire health bar only to see it completely refill and force you to do the same thing again but with a much harder fight now on your hands happens a little too often for me. I liked how bosses have different phases and mastering them all was part of the enjoyment of these games, but for some reason this ended up becoming somewhat a nuisance, where you think you’ve beaten a boss, only for it to lurch back to life. Again, I preferred how Bloodborne did this, with you hitting the boss to below a certain health percentage, at which point the second/third phase would start.
Ultimately, those last two issues are more personal points, and the technical hiccups aren’t really enough to hamper the experience. Whether you compare it to the games currently being released or the Soulsborne games that have preceded this, Dark Souls III is still an excellent game, which will have you coming back to keep taking on its challenges and to keep exploring its world, trying new character builds and weapons and different quest paths with the NPC’s. I still need to try experimenting with the PVP covenants and see how this affects that aspect of the game.
What gets me though is the advertising for this game. ‘Prepare To Die’. Really? Because as far as I can tell, with Dark Souls III and its predecessors, it’s not about that; it’s about taking on these challenges, not giving up and overcoming them.
Whilst there isn’t a whole lot new in this game, it still solidifies FromSoftware and Hidetaka Miyazaki as the kings of this genre:challenging but fair combat, which has been refined over 7 years of making these games; worlds which are as intriguing as they are both depressing and ugly, but still beautiful all at the same time. As the last in the series, FromSoftware may 'praise the sun' with their last outing for the souls series (see what I did there?) and, in a Triple-A gaming industry that is often filled with mediocrity, it’s great to have games like this get the recognition they deserve, and is a fitting last hurrah to this beloved franchise.