Darkness, ash, flame, embers, familiar faces and reimagined places; Dark Souls 3 is the core, but more.
Developer: From Software
Publisher: Bandai Namco
Platforms: PC (Version Reviewed), PS4, Xbox One
Release Dates: March 24 (Japan)
This Dark Souls 3 review will avoid major plot points and other spoiler information not present in the opening cinematics, early promotional screenshots or beyond the basic plot summary.
The problem with trying to top a title like Dark Souls is…well, you’re trying to be better than Dark Souls. In trying to make a better connected, realized, difficult, complicated, deeper world, From Software ended up falling short with Dark Souls 2. Instead, with series director Hidetaka Miyazaki back at the helm, Dark Souls 3 feels like a reinvigorated attempt as cashing in on old success; rekindling the flame, as it were.
In Dark Souls 3, the player acts as the avatar for the Unkindled Ash, an entity drawn from the grave towards the Firelink Shrine. In an age of unrest, the fire is weakened, and the Lords of Cinder have left their thrones. These masterful entities are the keys to linking the flame once more and bringing rest to the land. Aldrich, the Abyss Watchers, Yhorm the Giant; in bringing them and others together will our hero have a chance to strike out and choose the fate of those seeking answers in the undying lands of Lothric.
Disonnant sounds, the stomping of heavy boots in the distance, the shrill cry of Gods-knows-what; you never know what’s around the corner.
Despite deep connections to the series’ beginnings (to be touched on later), there is an argument to be made that Dark Souls 3 learned a trick or two from the level design of Bloodborne. Different in both narrative in gameplay means, one can’t help but notice the numerous locations of Lothric resemble the twisted machinations and creatures of an antediluvian age mixed in with medieval trappings. The result is a traditional fantasy fanfare with the opportunity to present twisted creatures, environments, and bosses that bring a wider variety of possibilities to the player.
It’s how the development team toy with your mind that makes the payoff more effective. Dissonant sounds, the stomping of heavy boots in the distance, the shrill cry of Gods-knows-what; you never know what’s around the corner. By playing your sensibilities like a fiddle, Dark Souls 3 always has the player second-guessing their every move, wondering where to go next and providing faint clues through non-traditional means. It’s that sense of mystery that drives the player forward, keeping them enthralled and engaged for dozens of hours in a campaign.
Dark Souls 3 offers a natural progression towards the “end” presents a myriad of sidequests, character interactions and lore-related items that tell as much of the story as is required to complete the bare minimum of the game. What it does not present, however, is a connected world you could run from end to end to like in the series’ origins. It’s fairly disappointing, as no other game has quite captured that magic of fully realizing a world’s physical space by its proximity since. Better that than a bonfire-based travel system.
While there is a certain “correct” path, the player can reach the ending in a manner of non-linear ways, including a healthy amount of area revisitation that puts a smile on a series veteran’s face. If you’re playing fairly, you’re going to notice a ton of extra details concerning the overall plot on repeat playthroughs. It speaks to the strength of the level design that shares a certain journey that holds up no matter how far deep you immerse yourself.
…Dark Souls 3 presents a true story hiccup that weens the effectiveness of its momentum…
That said, I do have a bone to pick with certain aspects of the narrative implementation. There was a certain point in Dark Souls 3 where I needed to present an item to progress further down the non-optional path. The problem was that the item I required was only made clear of its contextual importance once you dive entire areas deeper than where you can progress. Imagine going two or three “towns” down one side in a fork on a road, only to discover that you needed something two or three towns down from the other fork. I chose the “incorrect” path on the first attempt.
Not only is it frustrating to have to derail your forward momentum with a forced trip back, but figuratively imagine the way to get back on track is by bonfiring back and turning left instead of right. Finding a new shortcut back to an old area would play more to the series’ core tenets; to nudge the player towards where they need to go. Instead, Dark Souls 3 presents a true story hiccup that weens the effectiveness of its momentum by having the player wade their way through the darkness. Thankfully, it can really only happen once, and won’t be the definitive experience for all players.
A year removed from trick weapons and dancing combat, Dark Souls 3 returns to the contemporary sword-and-board, magician, and lightfooted stealth combatant gameplay mechanics once more. With it comes dozens of swords, staves, tombs, shields, armor sets and bows, with move sets both new and familiar to the series. Better yet, due to the addition of magic as its own standing, Focus Points presents a third balancing act between health and stamina and is used for bonus features on magic, projectiles and melee-based arts and fancy combat skills.
This Focus system presents a new allocation of resources; your Estus Flask is now paired with an Ashen Estus Flask. Based on their play style, players must now balance the allotted Estus usage between both flasks, allowing for riskier magic builds that focus on magical protection and damage with lower health recovery, a pure melee focus with little to none emphasis going into magical attacks or a blend of both.
By adding this additional layer of consideration on top of equipment load, stamina, vigor, strength, dexterity, faith and intelligence, Dark Souls 3 increases the number of options players can build up their warrior to take on challenges. Offsetting risk versus reward becomes a delicate dance of wants over needs, and presents a challenge to the systems created by the team. It gives the player freedom to explore how to play their character while not hard-locking them into a certain health/magic recovery ratio that kills a character before they can even finish.
Furthermore, Dark Souls 3 returns to a time when From Software could weave an idea behind a story just by where items are placed. Honestly, after a disappointing predecessor that threw monsters and items in places that made gameplay seem arbitrary constructed, everything here has its purpose and its place. The developers have heard the feedback and have taken it to heart; build narrative depth through reasonably difficult bits of lore hidden in item descriptions, dialogue interactions and where the dead lie. There’s method to the madness this time.
Boy, did Miyazaki ever take that idea to heart. There’s a lot of retreading in Dark Souls 3, many of it being either recreations or reimaginations of Dark Souls. Not quite a remake, not quite a remaster; there is a concerted effort to intertwine the stories of the past and to carry it to the future, and in the process there is a fair bit of servicing the fans regarding the overarching lore. Not only do you get to see familiar NPC’s (indulging in their quest lines, as well), monsters, area layouts, and bosses, but even some locations will have your mouth dropping.
This game doesn’t give a fair chance to let everyone appreciate its nods towards predecessors in a way that other series’ do.
It’s not unfair to call the move very safe, but it’s not unfair to remark upon its effectiveness, either. Newcomers picking up Dark Souls 3 will be missing out on a ton of core series ideological revisits from previous entries, and in doing so, the story can lose its powerful edge in revealing them one by one. If you don’t know what a certain long-deceased body resembles, or the importance of the item it clutches, you are bound to miss out on rewarding pathos and narrative closure. Oddly enough, it plays safe by rewarding loyalty, serving the faithful while possibly keeping the unkindled in the dark.
The Dark Souls series is built upon its strong, but gated community, often rebuking criticisms and difficulties in reluctant, but understanding acceptance. This game doesn’t give a fair chance to let everyone appreciate its nods towards predecessors in a way that other series’ do. Many of whom played their first Witcher game with Wild Hunt are given opportunities to comprehend the extent of its protagonist’s characterization, his relationship with others and how this current story links up with others; the same cannot be fully said for Lothric’s tale, not with direct inclusions of past content with bare clues contextualized within its universe.
I should note, however, that it’s an implied hindrance, not an incurred one, as I thoroughly enjoyed my Dark Souls 3 experience. With the PC version in hand, I finally got to experience a naturally uncapped frame rate and a myriad of graphical options that go beyond what the developers have normally (inherently) provided. I can’t wait to see how certain file modifications (specifically, Durante’s infamous GeDoSaTo DSfix) improve the performance, but with my middle-road computer specifications, I felt that the framerate carried steadily better than the low expectations put forth.
Traps, sudden projectiles, hidden enemies and sudden bosses will make your life a living hell…
Pertaining strictly to gameplay, I feel here is where the tiny things make the big picture better. Improvements like holding down on the D-pad automatically brings you straight to the Estus flask, Titanite Lizards don’t run off cliffs to their death, HUD options can now be dynamically set to showing necessary gameplay information to avoid TV burn-in problems; it’s perfecting an excellent formula that continues to be the message of the day.
Concerning combat, however you plan to take down enemies, know that the field has an advantage over you. Traps, sudden projectiles, hidden enemies and sudden bosses will make your life a living hell, one that you will be doomed to repeat over and over. It’s a more challenging game than Dark Souls 2 only because the focus of how to take the player down relies less on “throwing tons of enemies in a tight area” and more on getting the upper hand. Patience has always been a virtue, but it’s been a while that a Dark Souls game feels both fair and punishing for the studious, cautious player.
On a final PvE concern addressed in Dark Souls; boss encounter design gets its due once more. There’s no “too many knights will spoil the broth” complaint here, as there are a plethora of different types of monstrosities that face you; big, small, numerous and singular. The traditional “circle the boss” maneuver can only be pulled off a few times, as the player will need to build strategies to take down each one in their own unique way. Certain ideas, like boss add mobs and “giant thing with two phases that will kick your butt on the second time through” are present, but not too blatant.
Player versus player combat has never been my forte, and that’s certainly true in Dark Souls 3. However, changes to the conventions of the covenants and the multitude present means easier dips in and out of allegiance. There are a multitude of player builds that will work, whether you’re taking on teams of enemies, bashing each other in a royal rumble or sliding into enemies’ proverbial DM’s and taking them out at a moment’s notice.
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It’s all in part of an excellent overall presentation, both on an audio and video perspective. Voice acting, environmental Foley and in orchestral scoring, Dark Souls 3 sounds every bit as engaging as it presents from a graphical standpoint. The myriad of locations, from dilapidated castles to disheveled swamps, to gorgeous snowy winter wonderlands, are a feast for the eyes. The From Software storytelling methods rely on these factions driving the story to show, not tell, and are perfectly effective in their usage.
A copy of this game was provided to App Trigger for the purpose of this review. All scores are ranked out of 10, with .5 increments. Click here to learn more about our Review Policy.