I’m slowly walking through a corpse-strewn village, clutching a sword tightly, ready to swing, and holding my shield high. I’m ready for battle, and gaze intently towards the doorway ahead, expecting an attack from within. It’s dark, there’s no sign of life, and even as I enter the gloom, I see no foes. No creatures baying for my blood. And then, I die.
You see, in the world of Dark Souls, it’s often not what you can see that kills you, but what you don’t, and Dark Souls III takes this to a whole new level. Why did I die? Because there were two enemies hiding behind cover, and one clinging to the ceiling. Normally they’d be so much mulch on the end of my sword, but not this time. They were small, fast, and easily able to take me down after that nasty fight I had with a rather rotund preacher woman wielding a bloody big mace. The enemies here don’t care about you and your so-called heroics. They’ll take you down, and they’ll use any method to do so.
This much I obviously knew. I’ll freely admit that From Software’s Souls series and Bloodborne are amongst my favourite games of all time. I’ve played and beaten them all, and during that time I died a lot, came close to causing myself bodily harm with rage, and I loved each and every anger-fuelled minute. Dark Souls III, therefore, was probably my most anticipated game of the year. I’m happy to reveal, I was not disappointed.
Now back under the watchful eye of series designer, Hidetaka Miyazaki, who was absent from Dark Souls II, it’s clear that he’s once again stamped his creative authority on the game, and if you’re one of the critics of Dark Souls II, and found it to be inferior to Dark Souls, you’ll be pleased by what you find here.
Right from the off Dark Souls III is much more like the first Dark Souls, both in design and feel. Although Dark Souls II was a great game, it just never had that same tone, and certainly not the same creative design. This all returns here with perhaps one of the most beautifully stoic, and gruesomely striking worlds I’ve ever seen.
The Souls series has always had superb world building, with interconnected areas and a landscape that usually allows you to visit anything you can see, and this is no exception. Dark Souls II dropped the ball a little here, with a more linear world layout, but here that’s not the case.
The dev team promised a Dark Souls that would offer much larger areas to explore, and that’s what’s delivered. The world of Lothric and its many areas is varied and always gorgeous. Whether you’re exploring the desolate streets of the city of Lothric, the gloomy swamps of Farron Keep, or the dusty catacombs, the game is always filled with atmosphere and beauty, and a level of detail the Souls games have never seen previously.
Like Bloodborne, which was a visual masterpiece by many people’s standard, Dark Souls III is a treat for the eyes, and the current gen hardware has allowed the team to deliver a high fantasy world you can’t help but become totally immersed in. Trust me, when you stumble upon some of the vistas contained within, you’ll want to print them out and mount them on your wall, they look that good.
Whereas Bloodborne often pit you again massive beasts, and to win you had to keep moving, using twitchy reactions to survive, here it’s more about observing your foe, analysing their attacks and working out their weaknesses. This slower pace allows From Software to be a little more elaborate with the boss battles, an area where I felt Bloodborne suffered. There, a lot of the bosses felt very similar, both in style and attack. In Souls games, however, there’s far more in the way of variety (even though DSII had a lot of copy and pasting), and bosses require totally different tactics to take down. Simply running in and mashing attack won’t get you anywhere. Indeed, some bosses will pretty much insta-kill you if you try this, and unlike Bloodborne, there’s no health regen for attacking, so it pays to be cautious.
Even ‘normal’ enemies that populate the world can be deadly, easily able to kill you with one or two hits, and the game thinks nothing of throwing in an uber-powerful enemy into an early game area, just for shits and giggles. I told you, Dark Souls doesn’t care about you. You either bring it, or go home.
The core combat has changed somewhat, though, but in a very good, and optional way. For one, although still slower-paced and defensive, you attack faster and more responsively than before, and are able to quickly change direction if you’re not locked on. This makes fighting groups of foes easier, something you’ll be doing a lot, as Dark Souls III really likes it’s hordes, and stacking the odds in its favour.
On top of this there’s the major new addition of weapon skills. Differing with each weapon, these skills allow greater move sets and powerful special attacks on top of the usual light and heavy attacks and dual wielding. There are even special weapon pairs that offer unique combos. These moves all have their uses, with some being larger, AoE attacks that can clear out a crowd, and others able to break through a single target’s defence. As always, some have special effects, like fire, bleeding, or poison, and others are all about raw damage. All of this can be altered using the blacksmith and the returning crafting system, which lets you use various materials to upgrade weapons and gear. Of course, those hard-to-acquire boss souls can be turned into powerful unique weapons, items and spells too.
Special moves utilise the new FP, or mana system. This is used to power your magic too, and does away with the set number of casts in favour of a Demon’s Souls-style mana bar. Spells and skills will deplete this, so you need to keep it topped up with items, or the new Ashen Estus Flask, which can replenish FP. This flask shares its charges with the healing Estus flask, and you can choose how to allocate them. If you never use the Ashen flask, you can even leave it empty and place all of your uses into the healing variant (or Sunny D, as the community has labelled it).
Speaking of health, Dark Souls III is a little more forgiving than previous games, and death isn’t the penalty it’s been in the past. The staple loss of held souls, and one-time chance to retrieve them remains, of course, but when you die you only lose health once. Subsequent deaths don’t diminish it more. As before, your character has two states, similar to previous games’ hollow status. When you’re at full power, you posses an ember. Your character has more health and increased strength, and emits a burning glow. If you die, you lose this, and have reduced health, but this doesn’t drop with further deaths. To get your ember back you can either use an ember item, beat a boss, or invade/assist someone else.
As with the human and hollow state of previous games, this also affects online interactions. If you have an ember and you’re all glowy, you can be invaded by other players, but can also summon others to help you, either for PvE or PvP, including set AI summons. Without an ember, you can’t be invaded, but can place your sign down to help others. The basic online formula hasn’t changed much, but it didn’t need to. It just works, and works well. When the servers allow, that is. This is something the devs have always struggled with, and for much of my time with the game, the servers were unavailable. Hopefully, this will be different after launch. Other online functions, such as the messaging system, and the appearance of spirits and bloodstains still offer that unique feeling of being alone, but entirely, and delivered the ever-cool ability to see dangers ahead of you by making use of other people’s misfortune. Leaving messages to help others still makes you feel warm and fuzzy, or maybe that’s just me.
“But what of the challenge?” Long-time fans may be asking. I’ve seen some hand-on impressions online claim the game is the hardest Souls game yet, and in some ways, I agree, but not in the way these claims are made. Personally, I found many of the boss fights to be quite easy, in a relative sense. There are more difficult bosses in previous games, and a couple here are total pushovers, I kid you not. A good number of them I managed to best on the first try. However, they do still demand analysis and tactics, and if you’re not as experienced with Dark Souls, you may find the challenge more difficult. Some still push you, and offer quite the fight.
What I did find more difficult was the actual adventuring and facing normal foes. Dark Souls III seems to have a much larger selection of difficult normal enemies, and almost all of them are far more aggressive than before. Some simply won’t let up and can destroy you if you make just one wrong move. Others can surprise you, as I said in opening, even killing you outright despite being lowly hollows. In fact, this is demonstrated no better than the enemies who, out of the blue, can transform into massive, gelatinous demons. Think that unarmed hollow praying to a statue is an easy mark? Think again, as it turns into a 15-foot demon that quickly swipes you out of existence.
What’s more, it seems as though the game packs in far more ambushes and scares than before, with some mini-boss fights literally coming out of nowhere, or massive beasts dropping down behind to scare the crap out of you. There was one moment just like this I very nearly needed a change of underwear. Heading into an empty room, I thought things couldn’t be so quiet, and all I heard was a loud thud behind me, and as I turned around, a huge spider-thing leaped at me, and I admit, I exclaimed – loudly. Don’t even get me started on the Dark Souls staple of mimics. Those things always creep me out, and here they’re even worse, and can kill you effortlessly. Always give those chests a quick smack before you open them, folks. Or look at the chain – pro tip.
The areas themselves, which actually are far larger than we’ve seen before in a Souls game, have many routes and traps, and the number of enemy types is impressive. Each area has a large roster of foes, with all sorts of abilities and ways to kill you. I died far more often whilst wandering around than I did to bosses. There’s a lot of complexity in some areas, with hidden routes, secret doors, and NPCs you might miss if you don’t explore. It pays to sniff around even the smallest nook and cranny. As always, if you can see a ledge or far off building, there’s every chance you can get there, and if you do, you’ll probably find something worth the effort, as well as something that wants to eat you. You may even find a way to convince otherwise hostile NPCs to aid you in some areas.
This exploration is also how you’ll find a good deal of the game’s covenants, such as the popular Sunshine Warriors (Sunbros), or the less friendly options that emphasise invasions. The covenants are similar to previous games, only with different names and lore behind some. Each has its own rewards, so it pays to try them all out. It’s also easy to switch covenants, and all you need to do it equip the required class item. There’s no need to return to a shrine or NPC to join/rejoin.
So far, so good, and not much to worry about. If I was to have one major criticism of Dark Souls III, though, it’s the easier feel, and the large number of cheeses present. So many situations and fights can be overcome by manipulating AI. Mini-boses are often easily lead to an area where they can’t chase you, letting you whittle them down with ranged attacks, and many fights are just too well telegraphed. Again, as a long-time Souls player, I can usualy guess when a boss fight is about to occur from past experience, but even a new player will venture into a large, open room, or push open a massive door and know something is about to happen
These are issues present in previous games too, but it seemed to be far more prevalent here. Very rarely outside of a main boss encounter was I forced into a fair fight, and there seemed to always be a way to win without much effort. In fact, sometimes it’s as if the game encourages it. For example, one location features huge, chained up giants, and when you first encounter them, you can safely hit them from a distance with arrows. Now, this isn’t a safe area I had to look for, or an AI glitch, it’s right there, in your face. It wasted what I thought was going to be an impressive fight, and was a bit of a damp squib. Shame.
Other than a lack of challenge in some places, there’s really little to find fault with here, save for technical issues, including annoying, and all-too common frame rate drops and general slow down. This was after the first patch too, which in fact, seemed to worsen the problem. Souls has a history of such issues, but on PS4 I was hoping it wouldn’t be a problem. That’s not the case I’m afraid. The online connectivity was also shaky, even kicking me out of the game mid-session due to a loss of server connection. This didn’t happen often, though.
The world’s physical design and layout, as good as it is is still lacking when compared to the nigh-on flawless, interconnected world of the first Dark Souls, and the well-crafted world of Bloodborne. Here it’s certainly better than Dark Souls II in terms of complexity, but there’s still a feeling of linearity, with fewer open paths and forks than in the first. What can look like a path to a large area can turn out to be a tiny space with only a couple of items. I was hoping for a return to Dark Souls intricacy, but sadly, it falls short.
What I did note that made me very happy, however, were the blatant call backs to Dark Souls. This is something Dark Souls II didn’t really do, and unless you’re a YouTube lore hunter, it could seem as though the two previous games weren’t related. From Software has always hidden the game’s story in flavour text and vague dialogue, which I appreciate, and here it’s no different, only with a clear connection to Dark Souls, right down to places and characters. From your first stroll into Firelink Shrine, you’ll be finding a lot of references, and if you’re a big fan, you’ll appreciate the fan-service.