Blood boiling. Adrenaline spiking. My knuckles furiously rapping against my forehead. I’ve fallen to this damn boss a half dozen times, and I’m running out of patience. Only Dark Souls can upset me this much, and I love it.
As an Unkindled, you are the last hope for the people of Lothric. The fire is fading, and all in the world is crumbling to ash. To restore the First Flame, or attempt to extinguish it once and for all, you must slay the Lords of Cinder: five great champions of the realm, bewitched by the power of their souls.
Dark Souls III retains much of its heart while revitalising its core in the concluding entry of FromSoftware’s action-RPG trilogy. After a mixed response to Dark Souls II, Hidetaka Miyazaki is back at the helm of the series that brought his company from cult obscurity to household name. His presence is visible throughout, from the grotesque character and world design, to the oppressive atmosphere and tone.
Where Dark Souls II took you to a distant but somewhat reminiscent land, Dark Souls III brings back familiar names and faces to tie the games together. Beginning in a reimagined Firelink Shrine, occupied by an old Firekeeper and Andre the blacksmith, it lulls you into a sense of returning home.
In a way, the development of Dark Souls III is a returning home. Miyazaki hasn’t directed a Souls game since 2011, instead heading up another team to work on 2015’s Bloodborne. While it isn’t known how involved with the early concept work he was, with the tight timeframe between these two most recent titles suggesting that work began during the height of Bloodborne’s construction, it seems clear to me that he had no intention to merely make the same game again. Dark Souls III was to be a different beast.
The combat in Souls games have always had a tendency to lead to a more passive, defensive style—hiding behind shields and waiting for opportunities to strike. Bloodborne mixed it up by encouraging players to be more offensive, doing away with shields (and mocking the use of them) and speeding up the pace. Dark Souls III mixes things up again by changing the way you play defensively.
In a fight, your weapon’s damage is always second to how well you manage your stamina. Actions like running, dodging, blocking and attacking use up a portion of your stamina bar, and running out leaves you vulnerable. With enemies more aggressive now than in other Souls games, your stamina will drop rapidly if you try to block every hit. Dodging is risky, with only a few frames offering invulnerability, but you’ll be able to flank an enemy while their guard is down.
With practice comes mastery, and before long, you will be nimbly darting through their offenses and retaliating with your own, or pulling off a critical backstab that knocks your opponent to the floor. For me, learning to move in a defensive manner is the change that helps Dark Souls III step above its predecessors in regard to combat. Hiding behind a shield will almost guarantee a swift death now.
A new addition to combat, each weapon has an advanced function now, known as weapon arts. These are things like new stances that change your attacks, damage buffs, and a couple of other unique mechanics—and use what is ultimately a mana bar. Through my playthrough, I used the very same weapon I started with, the Sellsword Twinblades, primarily for its weapon art that spins me forward like a whirlwind of steel. Typically a close range weapon, the art allowed me to follow and close the distance on enemies that tried to roll away—absolutely key to my playstyle.
You’ll need to thoroughly grasp every strength and weakness of your weapon and playstyle if you’re going to defeat Dark Souls III’s numerous bosses. In the early portions of the game, it’s in the end-of-area boss fights that you’ll find the first true challenges. A mix of bruisers, casters, gimmicks, and everything in between stand between you and progress.
Dark Souls III offers some of the most visually spectacular encounters in FromSoftware’s history. The four Lords of Cinder, in particular, are highlights. Their character design, the arenas you find them in, and the haunting choral themes that accompany them blend to become some of the most memorable fights since the likes of Ornstein and Smough, Sif, and Gwyn.
Some of the later bosses do resort to some cheap tactics. Many will knock you flat in just one or two hits, and begin to utilise elemental attacks that will damage you despite the use of the sturdiest shields. Many also have wide arcs on their swings that can seemingly hit you from any angle—an unfortunate solution to the issue of previous games’ bosses being very susceptible to attacks from behind.
FromSoftware also prove once more that they are the masters of world-building. While the world doesn’t intertwine in the same interesting ways as Dark Souls’ Lordran, it has far more of a sense of place than Dark Souls II’s Drangleic. The different areas lead into one another in believable ways. Distant structures can be seen from high vantage points, and always having your next destinations in sight helps alleviate the feeling of traditional “levels”. No matter where you are, you can see where you’re going, and where you’ve already been.
Whether flitting between the trees of Farron Keep or descending through the Catacombs of Carthus, the overwhelming dread that defined the original (and was missing from the sequel) is ever-present. Enemies, and even the environment, will ambush and punish you for acting hastily or for your lack of observation. I held my shield up high whenever I rounded a corner, always anticipating an ambush.
It’s not just the next enemy that should be looking out for either. Souls games have never told a story in a traditional manner; key events typically happened hundreds of years beforehand, and you’re just there to pick up the pieces. Plot details are rarely fed to you, instead relying heavily on suggestion via item descriptions and environmental storytelling. You never see the demons get wiped out in the depths of the Catacombs, but the remaining corpses of black metal-clad knights suggest a by-gone conflict.
The overall arc of the story is more prevalent here, with the four unoccupied thrones of Firelink Shrine clearly directing your course. As a series in the process of transitioning from relative unknown to mainstream blockbuster, the sheer amount of mystery in previous entries would have put off various corners of a larger audience. Ultimately it means that simply fighting to the end credits should be satisfying enough an experience for most players, with the true meat of the backstory being saved for those who wish to search for it.
With this, Dark Souls III is a more rewarding game for veteran players. Drangleic was a land filled with new places, characters, items, and legends, but the kingdom of Lothric is littered with remnants of the past, intended not as sly nods to the past but as clues. From a lore standpoint, discovering old armour sets, weapons, and areas takes us back to the original story, but it also works as excellent fan service—the childish glee I felt when I met a certain knight beyond the Undead Settlement will stay with me for months.
As for the technical performance, the PC version of Dark Souls III isn’t locked to 30fps like on the consoles, running at 60fps for the near entire time. It’s not consistent throughout, as once again Dark Souls, expansive poisonous swamps, and framerates do not go hand in hand. This was the only area I encountered any issues, but I have heard that one of the final areas, Castle Lothric, has been troublesome for others. Again, not for myself (if you want to compare your PC’s spec to mine, leave a note in the comments).
Other legacy bugs like the ragdoll corpses falling through the environment are present, but aren’t enough to raise concern. There was one time though, when trying to awaken a mimic chest, that my legs became attached to one point of the floor, and I couldn’t move. Being pre-release, I imagine bugs such as this will be ironed out.
These annoyances in no way hindered my enjoyment of the game. How could they, when all the other parts of Dark Souls III excel. Bringing together everything we loved about the other entries of this series, Bloodborne, and even Demon’s Souls, FromSoftware have created the definitive Souls experience. Dark Souls is still undoubtedly a classic, but it’s slow, methodical pace now feels somewhat antiquated after the new revisions.
Miyazaki himself has stated that this will be the last Souls game “in this style”, so it makes sense that he draw influence from all of his previous work. Some may say that this is a cheap attempt to cash in on the series’ popularity instead of striving to create something new, but I welcomed and embraced Dark Souls III and the memories that it brought up with it.
Like it's world, Dark Souls III is a ferocious beast, and what every action-RPG should strive to be. You will fight hard, fall, and curse FromSoftware for their cruelty, but it’s through your own perseverance and undying will that you’ll taste the greatest sense of achievement a game has ever offered. A fitting conclusion to a series that has made a massive impact on my life, and the finest farewell I could have asked for.
DARK SOULS™ III (Reviewed on Windows)
Excellent. Look out for this one.
Like it's world, Dark Souls III is a ferocious beast, and what every action-RPG should strive to be. A rewarding experience for veteran players, the kingdom of Lothric is littered with remnants of the past. Simultaneously, it is also the most accessible for new players, with its more prevalent plot and kinder introductory stages. Dark Souls III is everything I could have wished for as a fan, and a marvellous conclusion to one of the greatest modern trilogies.