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Dark Souls III

Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Genre: Action/Adventure
Developer: From Software
Release Date: April 12, 2016


PS4 Review - 'Dark Souls III'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on April 12, 2016 @ 2:00 a.m. PDT

A dark and brooding fantasy adventure awaits players in a vast twisted world full of fearsome beasts, devious traps and hidden secrets.

Buy Dark Souls III

Whether you're taking about the original Demon's Souls or the spiritual spin-off Bloodborne, Souls is a consistently fantastic franchise that sets the bar for hardcore action-RPG gaming. Unfortunately, Dark Souls III is supposedly the swan song for the series, with director Hidetaka Miyazaki moving on to new projects, so this may be the last time we see a traditional Souls game. Luckily, Dark Souls III is a high mark to end on, and it's a great addition to the franchise.

Dark Souls III's plot is told through visuals and subtle hints rather than dramatic cut scenes. The players awaken in the Kingdom of Lothric, and the world has been reduced to ash and death. The only hope for survival is to return the Lords of Cinders to their thrones to link with the First Flame. The actual story is more complex, and anyone who is familiar with the lore knows there is no easy answer. While Souls games are never self-explanatory, in Dark Souls III, the scant explanations mean that players are expected to keep up to fully understand the consequences of their actions.

On the surface, not a whole lot has changed from Dark Souls and Dark Souls II. The core gameplay mechanics still follow the same pattern of exploring from location to location, searching for new paths and enemies. The level design is somewhere between Dark Souls I and Dark Souls II. It has the original's winding paths and sense of interconnected atmosphere, but it tends to streamline the level design in a way that is more reminiscent of Dark Souls II. The levels are a good mix that subtly guides you without leaving you feeling unsure of where to go. This is especially true early on, where the game is careful about making sure players don't stray too far off the path.

Combat feels very similar. There are some elements of Bloodborne here, including faster-paced combat options and aggressive play being highly rewarded. Not a lot has changed, and the same basic tactics you've used before will still work in Dark Souls III, but you'll have to adjust for some minor changes to stats and mechanics. The game carries the same weighty sense of visceral violence that is central to the Souls experience. The Hollow mechanic has been replaced by the Kindled mechanic. Defeating bosses or using certain items cause you to become Kindled, so you can summon online help and get a much-needed HP boost — but dying drains it. The Kindled form is balanced as a boost, and you won't feel at a disadvantage without it. Combat is still brutal, so if you get arrogant, make a mistake, or take too many risks, you have to be prepared to trek back to recover your souls.

Enemies are also a big factor, and they're some of the deadliest yet. Dark Souls III likes to play with your expectations. Enemies shift and transform to throw you off. A regular-looking foe may suddenly change into a horrifying blob of tentacles and teeth that's eager for nothing more than your succulent flesh. The bosses are mostly excellent. There are a few I disliked because they felt like gimmicks rather than true challenges. You have to figure them out, but once you do, it's clear they're not much of a threat. Most of them are a delight to fight. The game suffers a bit in cramped quarters and against fast-moving enemies, but never quite like some of the boss fights in Bloodborne.

One of the most noteworthy features in Dark Souls III is the introduction of Focus Points. Pretty much every weapon has an associated Weapon Skill, which can include magic spells, special attacks and combat stances. Using the skills drains Focus Points, and even the more traditional Souls-style magic drains FP. This adds more flexibility and variety to weapon types. While many weapons share skills, they have enough diversity that you might use a weaker weapon for a while because it has a more useful skill. Some weapon skills can be used with stamina instead of FP, while others demand the precious resource. There's also a trade-off in that you have to two-hand a weapon to use its skill — unless your shield has a special skill that allows you to use a weapon skill with it, but in that case, you're losing the valuable ability to parry.

 Focus Points can be replenished by items, the most noteworthy of which is the Ash Estus Flask, which are pretty much like flasks for your FP instead of HP. The two share the same pool, so you have to decide how many flasks you want to dedicate to FP and how much to HP. The good news is that you can swap these at a friendly shopkeep during the game, but it lends a very interesting element of resource conservation, especially for a magical fighter. Is it worth having less healing so you can spam your spells? Would it be worth giving up healing entirely to throw out tons of fireballs? With special attacks and self-buffs also drawing from your FP pool, you might want to devote some of your resources to FP.

The Focus Point system allows for more flexibility in play styles. A lot of the weapon skills are of very specific, but I expect players will spend a lot of time finding the perfect one for their play style. I grew to love the default self-damage buff on the two-handed ax and would favor a weapon that could use it frequently. It's a straight damage boost, but when you take advantage of it, you can do crazy things like slaughtering the first boss in moments. It also means that high-end weapons feel more powerful and can get some awesome abilities that make them feel like a significant upgrade.

Of course, it wouldn't be Dark Souls without the trademark multiplayer, which is here in fine form. As in the previous games, multiplayer takes on a few different forms. Some of this is done in the form of notes and phantoms left by other players; they appear and offer vague hints about the dangers that lie ahead. Those who prefer a more active role can join other players' games, either as a helpful or harmful phantom, so long as the host is Kindled (done by defeating bosses or using an Ember item). Helpful phantoms can assist the player in taking on the boss of the area. Deadly red phantoms are able to invade other players' matches with the goal of killing that player for a reward.

Dark Souls III retains the covenant system from previous games, which allows players to join groups specifically dedicated to helping other players, stopping hostile invaders, or even becoming those invaders. There's some slight rebalancing for co-op. World enemies have more HP, and phantoms have some stat limitations to keep things fair. Fans of the franchise will be glad to know that matchmaking is easier than ever. You get the items to invade and assist very early on, and the password-matching feature from Bloodborne makes it easier to team up with specific friends. Not too much has changed from the other titles in the series, but it's easily the most polished iteration to date.

Technically, however, Dark Souls III is a bit of a mess. The graphics and visual design are phenomenal, and the game looks incredible. The breathtaking sights are enough to make me want to pause and take them in, and the monster design is excellent as always. However, as expected from the franchise at this point, its frame rate is inconsistent. Many times, it dips down to a crawl in rather empty areas, and other times, it ran smoothly despite tons of on-screen action. This isn't uncommon for the Souls series, but it's still disappointing. If you could get through the other offerings, you won't have a problem here, but be prepared for plenty of stuttering. Mercifully, the game seems to regulate the worst of the frame rate to areas with minimal combat, but it's still an annoyance. The rest of the game looks so darn good that it's easy to forgive, though. The visual and sound design are top-notch, and there are times when Dark Souls III can be scarier than any horror game.

It's worth noting that Dark Souls III is a sequel, and it hasn't really improved on any of the complaints some might have about the franchise. It's still obtuse, poorly explained and hides its secrets well. If you found the previous games unwelcoming, then Dark Souls III won't change your mind. There are places where it smoothed things out a bit, but it still runs into many of the same traps. Dark Souls vets probably won't even hit a stumbling block, but it might be an intimidating first game for newcomers, especially since it assumes you have some Dark Souls experience.

Dark Souls III's only real flaw is that it's treading uncomfortably toward expected. Bloodborne borrowed from Souls, but the new setting and significant changes to combat mechanics gave it a fresh feel. The game is fantastic, the battles are intense, and the world is a delight to explore, but four titles into the series, it's hard to deny that Dark Souls III feels safe and some of the mystery is gone from the setting and the world. There are still plenty of surprises, though. When you approach a seemingly harmless foe and see it explode into a horrifying mass of flesh and teeth, you're going to be quite surprised.

Is it fair to judge a game for being "more of the same" when it's some of the most enjoyable, exciting and well-made gameplay on the market? Dark Souls III doesn't break new ground, but it also shows that From Software hasn't lost its touch. It features the same amazing visual design and dynamic gameplay that have made the Souls franchise so beloved. From the bosses to the traps, Dark Souls III is arguably the best Souls game to date. If Dark Souls III is really the last in the series, it's a worthy send-off for an excellent series.

Score: 9.0/10

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