Dark Souls III Review: Kindle the Fires Once More

Developer : From Software

Publisher: Namco Bandai

Release Date: April 12, 2016

Platforms:  PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC [Reviewed]


I’m going to lay this out there right off the bat: I’m not much of a Dark Souls fan. Though I haven’t ever played Bloodborne, the first two Souls games never quite clicked with me. It wasn’t the common complaints, either. I never found them overly difficult, and I didn’t mind the indirect method of storytelling dependent on item descriptions and NPC dialogue. It was more that I never felt connected to the world, that the most interesting aspects of the setting were completely independent from me, the character. The greatest enjoyment I gleaned from both games was, ultimately, the sense of connecting the world together. I fancied myself an archaeologist of sorts, unlocking shortcuts and becoming the vanguard of what I saw as expedited travel in the dangerous world of Lordran. Unfortunately, the second half of Dark Souls and the entirety of Dark Souls II lacked this feeling–the sense I was really contributing, at least in some small way, to improving the situation of the people around me. Maybe that’s why I find Dark Souls III my favorite game in the series by far and the first one I really like. For the first time, through the whole game, I never stopped unlocking new shortcuts, rescuing likable NPCs, and having a measurable impact on the state of the world.

Without spoiling too much of the story, Dark Souls III picks up in Lordran some time after the events of the first game. Instead of a chosen undead, you are now an unkindled, and save for a few lore tidbits, it’s basically the same thing. Embers replace Humanity as a way to restore lost maximum health while transforming from beef jerky to person, and the ultimate goal is to defeat the Lords of Cinder and light the flames. Needless to say, there’s some deja vu compared to past games. In terms of story, I found myself losing interest pretty quickly, but exploring Lordran again–and seeing how familiar locations have changed–is an exciting prospect and one that paid off at every turn. Every time I caught sight of an enemy or location I recognized from previous games, the nostalgia factor was complemented by a new twist that left me happy that From Software took this route despite my narrative quibbles.

Bridge dragons are back, of course.

Bridge dragons are back, of course.

Still, when it comes down to it, the primary draw of the Souls games is the gameplay. The familiar pillars of combat and exploration are still intact, with opportunistic foes and devilish traps waiting to sap your precious reserve of health and Estus flasks if you get impatient or reckless. You still travel from bonfire to bonfire, risking death by straying off the obvious path for the sake of items and secrets, but as I sort of touched on before, the exploration element is far more lucrative this time around. Even without the promise of gear, I repeatedly found myself risking a long run back for the sake of hunting shortcuts and hidden locations. Those I found–I’m sure I missed a few–also seemed much larger than those from the previous two games, sprawling zones in their own right. Bosses, always a critical part of these games, return in good form. While I found a slightly irritating pattern of pretty much every one of them changing phases about halfway through the fight to the point it became predictable, they’re well-designed, consistently challenging, and often visually spectacular.

The new features to combat are fairly minor but add another level of tactical management. For one thing, it shows that the game is no longer held back by cross-gen hardware. Enemies are faster and more numerous, with multiple fights involving ten or more foes rushing the player. Replacing spell uses is a ‘Focus Point’ [read: mana] bar, akin to Demon’s Souls, that can be refilled with Ashen Flasks. Ashen Flasks are obtained by dedicating a certain number of your Estus to them. For example, if you’ve found nine Estus, you can carry five for health, four Ashen for mana, or any other combination. This creates an interesting dynamic further complemented by the new weapon arts, which also consume focus points. Every weapon in the game now has a special ability performed by pressing the Parry button while two-handing it (though some shields allow you to do it one-handed). Though interesting in concept, I found most weapon arts to be pretty weak. Those that deal damage don’t seem worth the cost over basic attacks, while the more useful ones tend to be efficient, but dull, like the hand axe having a straight damage buff for ten seconds or so. This is especially egregious with the removal of power stances, one of my favorite parts of Dark Souls II, though a few special ‘dual-wield’ weapons try their best to emulate the feature. Spells suffer similarly. Thanks to the rapid pace of the combat, it can be hard to keep range and find time to fire off spells. Sorcery in particular feels very weak right now, though pyromancy and miracles seemed a little better.



The Console Difference-Xbox One

You’d be hard pressed to truly notice much of a difference between the Xbox One and PC versions of the game besides the increased frames per second on the PC version. The game is a gorgeous piece of art to behold on either platform. The gameplay is as smooth as ever, and a front runner for game of the year on any version you play.

All in all, Dark Souls III is about what you’d expect. If, like me, you enjoyed the first two Souls games, but they didn’t exactly leave a mark in your mind, 3’s newly renewed focus on quicker pacing, discovery, and the deft revival of familiar locations might sway you. If you outright disliked the other games, it is nowhere near different enough to change your mind. I have a few other minor quibbles, like the abundance of nasty surprises pretty much guaranteed to screw you over at least once and the finicky camera that resulted in a few cheesy deaths, but for the most part, FromSoft did a great job here. Whether you’re a ravenous Souls fan or someone just curious about looking into the notorious series, it’s hard to go wrong with Dark Souls III.