The Dark Souls franchise is a punishing one. Through burning chasms, ruined cities, and corroded forests, some are immediately gripped. Others, however, have not relished this brutal experience – and Dark Souls 3, FromSoftware’s latest addition to the series, is no different.
In fact, this new instalment feels exactly like that: an addition to an established series. In terms of gameplay, not much has changed at all; players who were not previously gripped with titles such as Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls, or Bloodborne will find little entertainment within. The combat is an amalgamation of other FromSoftware titles: the basic core system from Dark Souls, weapon combinations from Dark Souls 2, critical charge up attacks from Bloodborne, and even a return of Demon’s Souls’ mana bar.
AESTHETICALLY, IT’S ONE OF THE BEST GAMES I HAVE EVER PLAYED
The game still teaches via closure and discipline: you simply will not be able to progress if you do not patiently observe every boss, learn their patterns, and the environments they inhabit. There is no easy mode – only a way to replay the game at an even harder difficulty. Ways to bypass sections and explore shortcuts are fraught with danger, providing an additional layer of interaction where every decision can provoke unforeseen consequences. These aspects transcend the actual gameplay, leading to feelings of joy, regret and frustration, which often mirror the atmosphere of the vividly diverse Dark Souls world.
And it must be said – what a world. This is by far the most gorgeous title FromSoftware has developed, and I found myself consistently pausing for a minute or two to take in my grandiose surroundings – be they miasma ridden sewers, refreshingly cold mountains, or the impossible castles which dwarf them. Aesthetically, it is one of the best games I have ever played. Dark Souls had you constantly descend into darkness, being wary of anything that was not hostile, whereas Dark Souls 2 featured long expanses, and denizens of questionable neutrality. This is one way in which Dark Souls 3 differs outright from its predecessors – you are constantly ascending, making progress, and meeting a whole host of friendly characters who fill incredibly important roles in the story.
However fantastically painted the Kingdom of Lothric is, its integrity does have shortcomings. Ever since Dark Souls, players have yearned for an RPG which takes place in a world even remotely as well-constructed as Lordran was – with Dark Souls 2’s main criticism being how it adopted a rather different approach, with a main hub area leading the way to fairly linear offshoots. Dark Souls 3 is similarly split up into certain areas – there can be some travel between these, but as a general rule you will be returning to the hub after every excursion, as it features all connecting paths/craftsmen NPCs. This, combined with the ability to teleport between lit bonfires from the get-go, and a much clearer overall narrative goal being present visually in the hub, sever any seamless nature; instead, we play a much more objective-based game, feeling more akin to Demon’s Souls than either of the main franchise. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and there is still plenty of room to discover new branches in quest lines or item use, but the obvious comparison to 1 does hurt the world design to some extent – especially due to many recurring characters.
NO BOSS IS STANDARD – ALL OF THEM WILL SURPRISE YOU
One set of things that certainly do not recur, are the boss mechanics. Beyond basics such as health bars, attack patterns and brutal power, the bosses in Dark Souls 3 are highly imaginative, bringing a myriad of brand new mechanics, aesthetics, dangers, and designs to the table. No boss is standard – every one of them will surprise and provoke you to react in different ways each time. Despite being one of the strongest aspects of the game, there are a few challenging opponents who straddle the line between a genuine obstacle, and artificial difficulty – this is largely due to the new stage mechanic. At certain thresholds of health, bosses will mutate or switch their styles, expanding upon past games’ related two-stage bosses. Almost all boss enemies in Dark Souls 3 feature this, and at times they seem to be detrimental to the overall enjoyment – for example, the last boss of the game swells to a size which takes up so much screen space, you cannot work out if you are being attacked or being walked towards, dodging or blocking, etc. Size is used very well for the most part, and as a whole the boss selection is wonderfully entertaining – but several encounters can leave even the most seasoned Souls player frustrated, for the wrong reasons. This is a small fault, however, and the vast variety of ways to play rivals the newfangled boss pool; aforementioned aspects such as the return of the mana bar and weapon combos allow countless class variations to come into viability.
Dark Souls 3 is, overall, in a very good place. The smooth gameplay, fantastic boss fights and overall atmosphere make it one of the best examples of what happens when Western and Japanese RPGs clash. The sheer number of paths to take is daunting, but an assured way to get your 40 quid’s worth – three play-throughs in, and I do not feel like I have scratched the surface. This is also the game’s biggest criticism: getting lost in a world you feel powerless in, then slowly acquiring resources and goals in order to conquer it, felt amazing in Dark Souls. Dark Souls 3 does it really well, although always subject to 1’s shadow. But the brilliant story telling, fluid combat and stunning visuals overpower the other titles, making Dark Souls 3 an overall progression on its predecessors – and a fantastic one at that.
Dark Souls 3 is out now for PC, Playstation 4 and Xbox One.