The PS4 version of Dark Souls III was primarily tested for the purpose of this review.
This review will undoubtedly spoil many aspects of Dark Souls 3 (and 1, 2 and Bloodborne now that I mention it). If you just want a general synopsis of my thoughts skip to the conclusion and the score on the bottom. Herein lies spoilers!As with most of Hidetaka Miyazaki’s work, Dark Souls 3 tells a vague story, one that you can choose to ignore completely if you prefer. Is it set after Dark Souls 1? It’s hard to tell the timeline in the setting of Lothric, whether it’s after the new age of fire or in the midst of the dark ages.
Your character is not unhollowed but rather unkindled ash (taking a sort of reverse position from bonfires), tasked to defeat and chain the Lords of Cinder to their thrones at Firelink Shrine to supposedly link the fire once again. It is this line in the opening cinematic that most alludes to this taking place BEFORE Dark Souls 1:
When the link of fire is threatened the bell tolls,
Unearthing the old Lords of Cinder from their graves.
Where Dark Souls 1’s primary goal was to ring the bells, it seems in Dark Souls 3 the bells ringing would awaken the Lords to defend the fire. However it’s still quite confusing whether this takes place before 1, before 2 or after both.
Where previous games would throw the ambiguity of your character’s actions up in the air, 3 takes a more direct approach and makes your character’s actions quite sinister and evil just in face theory. Of course, this being a Souls game, you should never judge anything from the surface.That’s all that can really be said without spoiling key elements of the later half of the game, but given Miyazaki’s reputation for delivering a story that’s unobtrusive and vague, don’t expect any hand holding here. The most surprising addition could be the inclusion of certain gravestones in game that directly provide additional lore when read.
Environments, weapons, armour, every single item in the game carries it’s own lore and it’s absolutely magnificent to see how much effort and care has been put into the background details. From should be commended on providing a hugely immersive and expansive world without feeling the need to handhold the players through it. From respects its audience, and it’s a disservice to ignore the minute details in this carefully crafted world.Dark Souls 3 is gorgeous. The art style is impeccable, environments are absolutely massive and each one is unique enough to set it apart immediately. While Miyazaki always carried a sense of fantasy and wonder into his games, it’s immediately evident here. Some areas will have you absolutely awestruck, the matte painting backgrounds in many areas had me stop and enjoy the views and the callbacks to previous games are stylistically similar enough (for better or worse) to make even the casual fan recognize them.
Enemies are also well crafted, well animated and carry a wide variety. There’s a lot of variety and it never gets boring experimenting with strategies and enemies thanks to the well crafted attack/defense system, carried by some impeccable animations and capture work.However, Dark Souls 3 does lose a bit of its own identity in crafting it’s own stand alone world. Areas feels quite disjointed (not to the extent of DS2), this is possibly due to the bonfire system that alludes more to 2 than 1. Many, many environments, NPCs and items are either direct references to the previous games or interesting offshoots of them, and while it’s absolutely wonderful to stumble upon an area or NPC that you recognize, at some points it does become a bit Deja-Vu like. However, this IS essentially the Dark Souls sequel we’ve all been clamoring for, so little can be blamed to From Software’s willingness to cater to the fans.
In terms of performance this could be the most stable launch for a Souls/Borne game ever. On the PS4 version I encountered virtually zero slowdown or jutter, especially in wide, expansive areas that would make Blighttown blush. It’s easily the best looking Souls game technically. Load times are a lot better than Bloodborne’s nightmarish waits thankfully due to the amount of travelling you’ll end up doing.
It’s hard to judge whether 3 is the most stylistically original Souls game yet. A lot of areas allude to the previous 2 and one area in particular seems ripped from Bloodborne, and Dark Souls 3 does lose a lot of it’s own identity in trying to connect and create a tangible link and ending to the Souls franchise. However technically speaking it’s easily the most stable and beautiful one yet.As a Souls fan I always played in very specific ways for my first run. I played solo/offline with absolutely zero guides (because of this, this review will not cover online and invasions), with a primarily Knight/Warrior strength build with some very basic magic backup. In Dark Souls 3 I felt this could be the most balanced game yet in terms of melee combat.
This being a Souls game it’s to be expected that the gameplay remains tight and finely crafted. It’s just a bit shocking to see how much has been improved on a seemingly near perfect system.Miyazaki claims the gameplay design follows closely from DS2, and in some ways I can see that. Three weapon/shield limit, four rings, dual wielding, group combat, in these ways it felt similar to 2. However I would claim it would almost be a bastard child of Demon’s Souls and Bloodborne. Combat is a lot tighter, thanks to cleaned up and sped up animations and hitbox detection. It feels a lot smoother and faster, and sometimes aggressive play is the best play as some enemies will transform into nigh-unstoppable beasts if left alone.
Backstabs and parries are essential as always, but there are many enemies that carry certain conditions that prevent you from implementing these critical attacks. Some enemies carry some sort of obstruction on their back preventing backstabbing, and some enemy attacks will just knock you back preventing parries. However it feels tight and focused, and nailing a backstab or parry is always pure joy.
Magic has been changed back to the old style of Demon’s Souls, where Focus Points track how many times you can cast spells. This blue bar can only be refilled via a special new Estus Flask called the Ashen Flask, and it’s a tactical element in itself on how to balance how many Flasks you can carry. Magic builds will obviously tend to choose to carry more Ashen Flasks but the importance of healing is something that never goes away.
Unhollowing is no longer a thing, instead you’re Unkindled and can consume Embers to become kindled. It’s essentially the same gameplay mechanics, but I found myself hours in before actively trying out the Embers. Of course, boss encounters will automatically restore your Ember status. It feels more in the background than Unhollowing ever was, but using an Ember will provide you with a much needed health boost and allow for summoning.
Dark Souls 3 takes a page out of Demon’s Souls and introduces the new Firelink Shrine as a hub world for leveling up and NPC’s to gather. It’s a huge improvement over Bloodborne’s hub, which I felt was a bit too obscure and devoid of life sometimes. Hub worlds need to provide tangible reason to return and Dark Souls 3 was absolutely teeming of NPCs, most of which ARE missable throughout the main game. Certain questlines can be completely avoided, and I’m about 99% sure I completely missed the pyromancer NPC in my first playthrough without actually meaning to. Nevertheless, the Firelink Shrine is a great place to return to not only level up skills and weapons and armour, but to delve into the lore a bit more and find little easter eggs and boosts that will help you on your journey.
Art attacks are a new style of combat, strong and flashy moves that are unique to certain weapon styles and cause increased damage in favour of using Focus Points. In this regards some shields are tied to either Art Attacks or parries, adding another element of strategy in gameplay styles. Art Attacks seems to add some sort of ‘finishing’ move style to the game, and I found myself not relying on many attacks due to the slow and flashy styles of these moves which open up yourself to attacks.
Adaptability has been ditched (something I’m glad of since the skill tied into the wonky hitbox detection of DS2) but Luck has been added. I only pooled a few points into Luck but it seems based on other builds that Luck has a high influence on how many items you can find on defeated enemies. The addition of Luck is something I’m a bit torn on; some items can be missed entirely due to this stat and less drops will occur without a hefty amount of points in Luck, I felt this would’ve been implemented better as a stat tied to certain armour or rings.
The camera system is still a bit wonky, and I noticed a lot of lock on issues especially in areas that required tight dodging; I noticed enemies spinning around immediately during some dodges that looked like it was tied to the lock on system. However the camera system is a marginal improvement on its predecessors and I found these issues didn’t occur enough to cause any long-term pains.Bosses are a bit of a mixed bag. The first half is littered with very easy and not very memorable bosses. It’s a lot more varied than Dark Souls 2’s never ending roster of boss in armour but there aren’t really anything in the first half that will reach my ‘most memorable bosses’. The second half suddenly jumps in quality from ‘ok’ to absolutely brilliant, and it’s a shockingly jarring change how much the quality jumps. While the combat system makes each boss fun and challenging, it’s not until the second half that the game gets really, really good.
Of course the soundtrack is wonderful once again, with longtime composer Motoi Sakuraba coming back to the fray. While some bosses weren’t memorable mechanically, the score that accompanied some of them were absolutely haunting and beautiful. There will be nothing QUITE like Sif, but a few bosses come close.
For Souls fans it’s easily the most accessible combat system yet. It’s certainly the most balanced one, which is a commendable achievement given the amount of styles that Dark Souls have in terms of combat. The quick style reminded me a lot of Bloodborne, but there are enough elements tied to the original Souls games that it carries its motifs very well.
I haven’t even begun to cover the Covenant system or the in depth upgrading system that is apparent in all Souls games, but rest assured they’re in the game, as fleshed out as its predecessors. Expect to spend a lot of time experimenting with skills, builds and weapons in what could be Dark Souls’ best combat system to date.
If this is the conclusion for Dark Souls, I can’t think of a better send off. While 3 loses a little of its own identity in trying to connect to previous installments, the gameplay is the best yet, environments are absolutely beautiful and just immersing yourself in the world of Lothric is equally joyous, horrifying and simply put, wonderful. Dark Souls 3 is a must, must play for any fan of action RPGs, and I can’t see any Dark Souls fan not love this installment.