Is there any other franchise on the market whose name alone conjures feelings of dread, intimidation, and inadequacy? Both Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls made a lasting impression on a fan base that refused to back down from in the face of a challenge. In light of its numerous hardships, victory in these games brings with it feelings of exhilaration euphoria, a feeling of accomplishment greater than Luke blowing up the Death Star by firing a pair of proton torpedos into an exhaust port only two meters wide. TWO meters! In almost every regard, Dark Souls III is everything a fan would expect from the studio responsible for putting two Silver Knight archers along the path of a narrow buttress. Oh, and one of them is standing directly on the path you need to advance which is a ledge that is, like, two friggin’ inches wide. I swear to god, having to repeat this section, while running past two giant armored knights and five flying demons, eight to ten times is such an anger inducing fuck fest.
Where was I?
Dark Souls III is set an untold number of years (decades? centuries?) after the events that shaped and unfolded in both Dark Souls games. Famous locales like Anor Londo and Majula have faded into memory. In their stead lies Lothric, a mighty kingdom that has become home to the Lords of Cinder. Even though it exists so far removed from the events of the last two games, their influence can be felt as once again, the First Flame is on the verge of being extinguished. The Lords of Cinder have vacated their thrones and gone back to their lands. The Player Character is resurrected not as a savior or hero destined for greatness but as an errand boy. Given the formal title of Ashen One, many of the NPCs you’ll encounter are apt to call you by the pejorative “Unkindled.” There’s more to the story and sussing it all out depends on how deep the player wants to dig into the game’s deeply subtle lore.
Bringing back the Lords of Cinder is no easy task - it wouldn’t be Dark Souls if it was. Their dwellings and surrounding areas are rich with undead, monsters, and demons that are hungry to kill. Those who survived the franchise's previous entries will know exactly what to expect because the core gameplay hasn’t changed a bit. Combat rewards the methodical player who takes the time to analyze each enemy to learn their attack patterns and know when to back stab, parry, and riposte. Running headfirst into a zone without taking the time to scout is a grounds for a quick and fatal education. Slain enemies drop souls that operate as currency and the means to level up. The famous risk/reward system keeps the player in check and forces them into the uncomfortable dilemma of stopping to rest (which respawns all enemies except bosses and mid-bosses) or pressing forward. Souls are lost upon death but can be retrieved by reaching your character’s point of death. Die along the way and those souls are lost forever.
From Software fans are split among those who enjoyed the daunting, shortcut ridden traversal of Dark Souls and those that prefered Dark Souls II’s warp-friendly non-linearity. At some point during the discussions, Demon’s Souls fans will chime in with a list of reasons why they prefer their game over the rest. There was much fanfare after the studio announced the return of Hidetaka Miyazaki, the man responsible for the first game’s much lauded design. Those hoping for Miyazaki to bring back Dark Souls’ iconic design are in for a (possibly disappointing) surprise: Dark Souls III has firm roots in Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls II. Breaking that statement down, in this game you can warp to different areas of Lothric as you discover them. Firelink Shrine functions similarly to the Nexus in Demon’s Souls as it is cut off from the rest of the kingdom. However, areas outside of Firelink are large and riddled with shortcuts and pathways that feed into each other. I really enjoyed the sense of exploration afforded to Dark Souls’ method of traversal so I don’t feel so bad about the game’s return to an earlier form. I still get that same warm, fuzzy feeling of exploration. There’s plenty of room to roam. NPCs cross paths with the player and provide local color or opportunities to purchase equipment. Most characters will follow you back to Firelink and offer their services. Human players can be friend or foe, lending their assistance for boss battles or invading to make life a special slice of hell.
In another nod to Demon’s Souls, magic is no longer quantified by a spell’s number of uses. Instead, magic and weapon skills are managed by a mana. This puts the onus on the player to better understand their capabilities and know when to use magic because the meter cannot be refilled unless you visit a bonfire (which respawns enemies) or using the new Ashen Flasks. The amount of flasks kept on hand can be switched by visiting a blacksmith. I really like this system because it lets the player dictate how many uses each vessel gets: sorcerers and pyromancers are going to want to have lots of Ashen flasks on hand while warriors and tanks will focus primarily on Estus. For the in betweeners, there’s a nice, happy medium.
Mana also controls the usage of new weapon skills. Reminiscent of Bloodborne, these skills are secondary attacks that can buff the character and open up new combat moves. Having shields and weapons that offer such bonuses go a long way in making the character you create feel different from everyone else. It is also a means to encourage people to experiment. In previous games, it was easy to find one weapon and stick with it for the entire game especially after they’ve been reinforced and infused with special embers. This meant a lot of unused items crowding your inventory. I really love how Dark Souls III encourages you to look at gear with fresh eyes. It’s no longer just about damage output and scaling. For example, I’ve spent the majority of my game using a standard shield and an axe that grants a strength buff. To use the skill, I have to two hand the weapon and press a button to initiate the buff animation, leaving me open for an attack. During my next session, I found shield that lets me cast the buff without having to hold the axe in both hands.
There are so many things in Dark Souls III to pick apart and ruminate over, however I’ll refrain from talking about them here. What makes Dark Souls unique is a sense of discovery. It’s a lot more fun if someone doesn’t spell out every last bit of information about the game. There is a great deal of mystery here and it’s best left preserved.
Dark Souls III is beautiful in its desolation and every place tells a story. Environments are large and provide a nice, once in awhile change in scenery. That being said, I’m playing the game on PC where technical issues have forced me to drastically reduce settings to keep the game running (other reviewers have made one or two remarks about the game’s stability). This is the first time I’ve played a Dark Souls game on PC, so I was surprised to find out that if it detects a low frame rate, the game will kick you to the title screen. I’ve had this happen to me several times and while it’s annoying, I totally get it. This is the kind of game where you don't want to have frame drops (*cough Blighttown *cough*).
Like all the games before it, Dark Souls III is rich and full of content that will keep the community busy as they sift through every nook, cranny and item description in the hunt for secrets and lore. Returning Dark Souls players are going to have no problem adapting to the game’s newest challenges. It’s familiar but in a good way, like being reunited with a close friend. And the best part? It’s all new content. New places to explore, enemies to analyze, and plenty of homages to past games. Dark Souls III won’t be for everyone and it doesn’t shy away from the deserved reputation of being difficult. Persevere, however, and the rewards are plenty. I feel like I repeat myself with every release of this franchise but it’s the god’s honest truth: no other video game makes you feel so empowered and awesome. Tackling the game’s numerous obstacles, big and small, is a major accomplishment. And the pride and exhilaration one feels from a Dark Souls game is a lot like getting wrapped up in a blanket, fresh from the dryer, on a cold and rainy night.
Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.