“Dark Souls 3 is every bit the best final song to a series that has captured thousands of loyal fans.”
Dark Souls III
Platform(s): PC, PS4, Xbox One
Release Date: April 12, 2016
Publisher: Bandai Namco Games
I just finished Dark Souls 3 for a second time at around 2 o’clock this morning. I’ve actually been kind of milling about the final boss area leaving my gloriously brilliant gold summon sign to help out the various passer-bys that might need a hand (or more likely a shield and sword). I’m not one of these to berate others “for not playing it, right” and I’ll freely admit it’s quite cathartic to gang up on a boss and just pummel it into submission with friendly co-op enthusiasts. Doubly so if said boss had been whooping your ass time after time as it had been for the last hour or so.
There are a few reasons why I’m doing this but the main reason is that I’ve already beat the game and don’t feel like ascending into a New Game Plus quite yet. I also legitimately enjoy helping out other players. Even without voice chat, the various gestures and weird group-think mentality of rolling around or “dancing” with your weapons convey a sense of brotherhood or sisterhood or gamer-hood(?). Even if invaded by malicious players (at least the courteous ones) you will be greeted with a bow. See, we’re all in it together. We all enjoy this weird little series that somehow became this hugely popular thing.
I’ve been playing these games all the way back during the Demon’s Souls days when it was just a curious action-adventure title from the guys who made the Kings Field and Armored Core games for the original PlayStation. Can you actually believe that it’s been seven years since that odd, little PS3 title released? You might think I’d be a little burned out, reasoning that we’ve had three “Souls” type games in as many years. But the latest and possibly final in the series has been a wonderful send off. Dark Souls 3 is a fantastic last word in a series that has enraptured many fans.
As always, Dark Souls predicates on a design that allows players of all sorts to get through the harder parts – provided they are patient, observant, cautious, and dedicated. At its core, the “Dark Souls” series is a teaching game. Through grit or wit (usually both) this series forges players into better ones. At least better a player for more Dark Souls games.
This adapt or die attitude has served the series well. So well that it’s quite ironic that the series has hardly changed since Demon’s Souls – stick with what works, right? It’s the subtle mutations that have cleaned up the clunky UI and tightened combat and add an ever polished shine. Overall, Dark Souls 3 is iterative of the previous entries. While Dark Souls 2 may have left some fans a bit soured (I very much enjoyed it) but rest assured, Dark Souls 3 nearly reaches that perfect zenith of gaming of the first.
The familiar dance of death remains as a stalwart of gameplay. Rolling, blocking, striking, and casting match well with panicked dodging and hasty retreats. The name of the game is still patience and caution, but veteran players will feel right at home jumping into fray and coming out more or less unscathed. New players might be overwhelmed at first but as mention, Dark Souls 3 is a teaching game. You learn by failing and learn by trying. There’s a solution to every problem, even if the game doesn’t explicitly show what that is.
There have been some tweaks to playstyles though. The faithful estus flask now comes in two flavors – health and focus. Focus power is sort of a catch all for magic uses. Gone are the days of finite soul arrows and fireballs; as with Demon’s Sous you draw from a pool and get your wizardry powers in a more traditional RPG way. With the new estus flask, you can even lean hard on the magical path and role a pure sorcerer. Or you can bank FP and use the new power for weapon skills. Every sword, axe, dagger, and spear have a new set of two-handed attacks to give you boost in combat. For instance, you can two hand a broadsword and using the weapon skill break the guard of an imposing beast for a quick follow up slice. Some spear and even bows can power through shields when you employ the new skills. This adds to the already dynamic combat system in the game, even though I didn’t find all weapon skills that useful, knowing when when to bust out a swift attack proved life-saving.
Dark Souls 3 probably goes beyond the last two in plot advancement. The basic story seems a bit more open and less as an afterthought. Don’t take this as gospel, though, as most of the story is every bit a secretive affair pieced together from item and weapon descriptions. Characters you interact with have a mouthful of fanto-babble and speak in esoteric, almost poetic musings. Of course, you never get the full story in one play through, and really makes tying the threads together into a coherent narrative a community project. If you dig lore and speculation, seek out any of the myriad LPers or Youtubers out there. VaatiVidya is a perfect launchpad to dive into the abyssal and arcane plot of all things Dark Souls. You don’t necessarily need to know what’s going on to enjoy the game at its base but having those a-ha moments of discovering a key piece of lore. By placing story on the backburner, it serves to drive the curious and loyal to seek out every morsel of hidden truth.
It may get a bit fan-servcy at times with familiar faces appearing almost immediately in the Nexus-like homebase of Firelink Shrine. Covenants remain similar to past games (fellow Sunbros, where you at?) but serve to enhance the game all the same. Firelink remains the epicenter of plot development as you’re once again tasked to hunt down some pesky, duty-shirking Lords of Cinder and reignite the First Flame. As always, this is a bleak affair and you almost have no real agency as you take them down one by one. But what is the untold truth behind the flame, and is the really the final, dying ember? Perhaps the choice is up to you to finalize the age of Lords?
On the visual end of the spectrum, From expertly models a coherent and unique world. Even one mired in rotting fixtures, the varied environments you’ll wander into exposes the beauty that hides behind the grotesque. The visuals really pop as From refines the Bloodborne engine. Weighty animations grant a sense of gravity in this fantastical land as nearly every action you perform feels real. Big swords feel as if you’re swinging a hefty chunk of steel as duel wielding daggers offers fluid and speedy attacks. This perhaps the best looking game FromSoftware has made and it really shows the love they have for design. Light dances off your armor as you dive into creep cavernous catacombs. Magical attacks brilliantly burst from your wands and staves. Bosses command respect with slick moves and awesomely terrifying presence as you breathless duel to the death.
Even stuck at 30 frames, Dark Souls 3 looks just and plays great on consoles. I felt like my actions mattered. Occasionally I had some dropped frames and before the big day one patch, there were some areas that had a tough time coping with all the effects, but it seems like they’ve all been smoothed out for new-coming players.
Your ears won’t be disappointed either as the pitch perfect audio envelops and floods the world in excellent sound design. Cavernous catacombs swell with windy howls of beasts and ghosts, churches and cemeteries pulse with reverberating incantation of murmurs. Epic boss battles sting at the tune of orchestral choirs as every blow feels as if you’re the conductor. Dark Souls 3 knows when to be quiet as well, when silence and stillness let the game speak for itself. Tunes will alter and change with every new path and even familiar areas might feel strange and odd during a revisit because the music has changed.
Exploration is as rewarding as ever and I loved (mostly) getting lost in this terrifying and wondrous reality. While never quite reaching the unfathomably brilliant layout of the the first game, Dark Souls 3 continues the tradition of showing off the places you’ll visit in the future as if it’s just one massive map. Each areas loops and reconnects within itself in spite of the linearity of the maps. The game never becomes too confusing and doesn’t really open up until later as new roads become available. Individual layouts are still awe-inspiring and the fact that each have a unique feel makes it all more fun. Poison swamps (because of course) cathedrals, and crumbling one glorious architecture steeped in myth greet you at nearly every other turn. You’re eyes will never be bored and the adventurous might be well rewarded for their guile and courage.
The one blight on an otherwise remarkable title is online play. It might just be prelaunch woes with my garbage network attempting to decipher what’s happening in Japan where the game is already out. Co-oping seemed to go fairly smoothly but anytime I invaded or were on the receiving end of an intruder, combat was dodgy at best. This is par for the course, as I’ve never felt Dark Souls ever really had solid online experience. I trust that this will be ironed out over the next few days as players will get teamed up within a local server and play just fine.
I hate to repeat myself about how derivative these games can be, but really if you’ve played any of the game before then you’re pretty well equipped to jump into Dark Souls 3. This latest incarnation leaves a sliver of untold fiction to maybe eek out another sequel but with three fantastic games maybe it’s time From looks into a new direction. Not to say I wouldn’t like to play a new Souls I feel like this third entry resoundingly completes the series. Fans will have dozens of hours sniffing out every clue to solve the mystery of fire and lords as speedrunners continue to streamline their times. Dark Souls 3 is every bit the best final song to a series that has captured thousands of loyal fans.