Cycles and disparity. When you get right down to it, that’s ultimately what the “Dark Souls” series is about. Darkness and fire. Despair and triumph. Life and death (and with these games, significantly more of the latter). While they’re known almost entirely for their borderline cruel difficulty, dense and convoluted lore, and smug fans chanting the memetic phrase “git gud,” what the dark fantasy brainchildren of Hidetaka Miyazaki should be known for is their ability to take you on emotional roller coasters. You’ll very quickly plummet to depths of rage at relentless and unforgiving enemies, only to soar to great heights of figuring out how to bring them all down. You’ll feel overwhelmed by the obstacle presented by a boss that kills you in three hits, then feel the adrenaline high of taking it down by the skin of your teeth, only to go right back to rage of the enemies in the next area. The games take you on this ride over and over again.
And thus we strap in to enjoy the ride again with “Dark Souls 3.”
“Dark Souls 3” takes us to the kingdom of Lothric, yet another broken land befuddled with an undead curse and horrible monstrosities wreaking havoc. The decrepit, yet grandiose scenes you find at every turn look amazing, as the classic “Dark Souls” aesthetic meshed well with the visual intricacy From Software used to make “Bloodborne” look so damn good. Bone-riddled catacombs, icy cathedrals, temples built into mountains, and more await your exploration. If you were hoping this game went back to the same approach the first “Dark Souls” had of every area of Lordran being a sprawling, interconnected labyrinth, you may be a bit disappointed though. Lothric takes after the “Bloodborne” and “Demon’s Souls” route, where you have a disconnected hub world to buy items, level up, interact with NPCs, and from there warp to any other location you’ve discovered.
Mechanically, this is very much the same From Software RPG experience we’ve come to know and love. The moment-to-moment gameplay is still one that revolves around patience and tactically thinking, as you constantly keep an eye on your health and stamina bar, dodge and block enemy attacks, and then strike when you know your opponents are vulnerable. “Dark Souls 3” returns to the slower, more methodical approach to combat in which shields and high armor can greatly help, as opposed to From Software’s previous outing, “Bloodborne,” which focused purely on frenetic, fast-paced aggression. However, From Software was wise to take a few of the lessons learned from their previous game, and as a result, the combat in “Dark Souls 3” feels far more fluid, swifter, and more visceral than it ever did in “Dark Souls 2.”
The classic “Dark Souls” staples of starting classes (Knight, Pyromancer, Cleric, Thief, to name a few) and options of leveling up remain mostly unchanged as well. You start off with a one of several sets of gear and distributed stats and then level those stats up to suit your play style. You may prefer to focus in Strength and crush your foes with lumbering clubs the size of entire trees, evenly mix Vitality and Faith to don the heaviest armor possible and throw lightning bolt miracles, invest in Dexterity and Endurance to throw out never-ending flurries of quick attacks, or anything else you can come up with.
And to go with all of these builds, all your favorite tools of destruction from the previous games make their return, and several new ones make their debut. Pyromancies, straight swords, curved swords, miracles, and everything else that you know and love! Each one compliments a style of play, and they all feel satisfying to use. That being said, the enemies are faster than they’ve ever been in “Dark Souls,” so often smaller and faster attacks make for a much easier time than larger and slower ones. Sorry, greatsword fans.
Like previous entries, you level these stats up with souls collected from defeated enemies, granted you make it back to the hub world in one piece to cash them in. If you die, you lose them at that fatal spot and have to fight your way back to it or lose that hard earned work forever. But don’t be too discouraged, you’ll always be able to earn more. After all, the enemies all come back to life whenever you die or take a rest at the bonfire checkpoints, so the wells of profit and frustration never run dry.
There are a few changes to the experience of character management. Most of these are only going to be noticed by the most serious of fans (like the poise system being severely cut down), but the most obvious is the introduction of the Focus Power. “Dark Souls 3” does away with the previous method of magic being restricted to charges that had a finite amount and replenished at bonfires, going back to the method originally used in From Software’s 2009 title, “Demon’s Souls.” Between the red bar for health and the green for stamina, there is now a blue bar for Focus, which is now what one spends to cast sorceries, miracles, and pyromancies. So if you want to cast your classic soul arrow spells or the handful of new uses for that pyromancy glove, then you have to manage another bar on your hud. Additionally, you’ll now have to choose how you allot your precious estus flasks, the classic restorative potions of “Dark Souls,” as you’ll need to decide how many you’ll attribute to restoring your health and how many to restore your Focus.
The utility of Focus does not end there, however. Now, nearly every weapon in the game has a form of “weapon arts,” that allow you to spend focus in order to unleash devastating super attacks, break enemy guards, or give yourself helpful buffs. It lends you even more choices in managing your character, as you can disregard the abilities entirely in favor of standard attacking, or you can plan your character around a specific weapon. You may appreciate the raw damage output of a Zweihänder, but the spinning focus attacks of the Wolf Knight Greatsword might be just too awesome to pass up.
Another thing I noticed right away was the increased difficulty in leveling up in the early portion of the game. The amount of souls needed to level up feels steeper than in previous incarnations, and the benefits of each boost in each stat feel more incremental at the beginning stages than it did in previous incarnations. As a result, it’s difficult to pump a stat or two and power through on those ability alone (min/maxing, as the cool kids call it), and you thus more encouraged to spread your stats out a little more evenly. You’re more likely to survive by becoming being well-rounded and creeping your way to the higher-end weapons, and you’ll find it a bit tougher to abandon all other stats in favor of accessing stronger material first. At the very least, the early game is designed with this in mind, with all the encounters providing challenges that don’t require high levels or powerful weaponry to persevere.
As always, you progress through each area, overcoming the many enemies and traps along your way, and if you take the time to actually look around and check every nook and cranny, you’ll be rewarded with hidden loot, secret pathways, shortcuts, new checkpoints, and even a few entirely optional areas. The famous messaging system is back, so you can leave tips and commentary for other players, or read them all yourself to give you a heads up about whatever challenges or treasures lie ahead (even if many of them are pure trolling). Oh, and be sure to really take the time to check every path you come across and read the description for every item you pick up; you never know when you’ll discover a new detail about the world or encounter one of the various NPCs to further their diverse and engaging plot lines.
All of that being said, I was disappointed that many encounters in the level design felt derivative of previous installments. Maybe I’ve just been put through From Software’s multitude of gauntlets enough over the years to know their favorite tricks, but on several instances, I felt more like I was going through the motions rather than carving my way through new, perilous terrain. A large body of murky water filled with enemies? Probably poisonous. An archer on a hill with some dogs? Probably a bunch of others hidden behind various trees. Parapets intended for walkways? Probably some of cheeky bastards with great bows trying to shoot you off. Part of the excitement (and sometimes dread) of a “Souls” game is getting to the next area to explore, only to be intimidated by the multitude of new challenges that await within. When you know what you’re getting into on your first play through, a lot of that weight and tension is removed.
The callbacks to the past don’t end there, either. Tons of items and armor sets are lifted straight out of the previous games and plopped into this one for no discernable reason other than pandering to the fanbase. Seriously, why is Smough’s fat belly suit available for purchase when Smough himself is nowhere to be found in this game? Is it because someone in the game’s world just happened to lock it away for use centuries later, or is it because From Software knows how iconic the golden executioner is to their fans? Moreover, there are several key enemies, NPCS, and even a few locations that are straight out of the first “Dark Souls,” completely going back on the “Dark Souls 2” approach of being much more vague, continuity-wise. On the one hand, it’s interesting to see the continuation and decay of the names and places that we know and love, but on the other, every return to something done before is a decision to not push the envelope in any way. Personally, I couldn’t help but feel like all of this was a bitter irony; the world of Lothric clings to the magic of old Lordran, but by including so much harkening to the past, the game itself seems to cling to the magic of the first game – reinforcing the idea that nothing will ever top it.
However, one thing I think that “Dark Souls 3” easily tops the others with is its multiplayer component. Your phantom invasions and jolly cooperation are still in place, but they’re easier to access than ever before. “Dark Souls 3” has a shared-password system where you and a friend punch in the same code in order to easily link worlds and play together, scaling down the higher level character to the lower so you can play with your friends no matter the disparity in your progress. So far, the servers have been a dream as well, with summoning and invading happening sometimes instantaneously. All the more easier to praise the sun!
Covenants make a return, and for the most part, they’re all easier to find and get started working with, whether you want to help fellow heroes defeat difficult bosses, protect various sacred grounds, or invade them so that you can rip their tongues out. All of them have their own modus operandi and rewards for your devotion to them. The beloved Warriors of Sunlight and Darkmoon Blades return to lend a helping hand, and the Watchers of Farron and Aldritch Faithful serve as the new area specific, but by far one of the highlights is the new Moundmaker covenant. Where phantom morality is pretty cut and dry between helping another player or killing them, the Moundmakers are complete wildcards. They can be summoned or choose to invade, and once they do either, they can choose to help the host clear an area of enemies, kill the host, or kill any of the host’s friendly or hostile phantoms instead. Some of the best “Souls” online interactions I’ve ever had were playing as the new purple phantoms, invading a world and locking eyes with the host, the red phantom out to kill him, and the two gold phantoms out to protect him, and then all four turning to me, none of them knowing who I’d set my sights on.
But I saved what we really want to talk about for last: the bosses. Boss battles are hands down some of the most challenging, enraging, exciting, and memorable encounters in all of “Dark Souls,” and with so many to have come before them, I was curious to see how the bosses in “Dark Souls 3” stacked up. To put it bluntly, “Dark Souls 3” has some of the absolute best and some of absolute worst of all the games. There are several bosses that boiled down to gimmicks rather than dances with death, with a few of the most terrifying and impressive foes boiling down to being hit a few times with a few key techniques, or in one egregious case, with a single hit. However, there are also a fair share of amazing encounters that make up for the lackluster ones. Some of the highlights include Abyss Watchers and their propensity to fight each other in feral madness, and even the introductory boss Iudex Gundyr, whose switches from savage halberd attacks to a monstrous deformed claw strikes. Gundyr’s transformation is just one example From Software’s best decision regarding bosses in this game: they all have a second, even more formidable form that they adopt mid-battle. This makes sure that the tensions remain high throughout the entire fight, and keeping up with the “Dark Souls” spirit of providing intense challenge. One boss in particular, who shall remain nameless, is arguably one of the toughest, most epic, and most lore-significant fights in the entire series. He will break you, time and time again, but you will come to love it. Just as it should be with “Dark Souls.”
Hidetaka Miyazaki has gone on to say that he’s finished with “Dark Souls,” bringing the series more or less to an end. But perhaps this is for the best. “Dark Souls 3” serves as a true to form experience and proper send off to the series. However, its reliance on the series’ past serves as an ill omen that further sequels would likely start to feel formulaic, and like their characters, would grow ever more hollow with each new cycle. If you’re new to the series, then you’re in for a hell of a ride that will challenge you more than anything else coming out anytime soon, and reward you with a sense of accomplishment that you’ll always remember. If you’re a veteran, the flaws and familiarity might dampen some portions of the experience, but rest assured, this is still the game to stress and obsess about, over and over again, in the ongoing quest to “git gud.”
Developer: From Software
Publisher: Bandai Namco
Format: PC, PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One
Released: April 12, 2016
Rating: 8.8 / 10