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Review: ‘Dark Souls III’

The final release in Hidetaka Miyazaki’s ‘Dark Souls’ series matches exciting gameplay with an intense, daunting world.

Worldwide release: April 12th, 2016

Developer: From Software

Publisher: Bandai Namco

NOTE: This was played on the PlayStation 4.

After a mess of a pre-release, where anyone with a Japanese Xbox or PlayStation account could access the game and with some countries delaying the release altogether, FromSoftware’s Dark Souls III’s release is finally here. Director Hidetaka Miyazaki returns (for the first time since the release of his PlayStation 4 exclusive, Bloodborne) with Dark Souls III, the last of the Dark Souls series. The game invites players to return to an intense, daunting world brimming with the risk of death. Following the lackluster Dark Souls II, Dark Souls III has addressed many of the previous game’s issues. However, despite excelling in certain key areas, other game features remain neglected such, as predictable boss attack patterns and the lack of varied covenants.

Dark Souls III begins with the player, the Ashen One, in the land of Lothric where he mysteriously rises from a coffin upon hearing bells chiming the distance. The journey takes the player to Firelink Shrine (a location from Dark Souls I) to be greeted by the same types of characters found in the previous game iterations. Dark Souls III’s tutorial is more user-friendly than the tutorials on previous Souls games with messages on the ground to teach the player how to backstab, parry, two-hand weapons, etc. The game also allows the player to teleport to any save point found immediately upon starting, a carryover from Dark Souls II.

The cast includes: A Fire Keeper, a maiden tied to save points called bonfires, a merchant bearing a striking resemblance to a Dark Souls II’s character, and the traditional apathetic knight character situated on the steps of the safe zone, who speaks of impending, and inevitable difficulty and failure. As the journey continues, the cast expands. You will want to recruit them to your safe zone as the different characters serve as merchants for spells, miracles and pyromancies.

Dark Souls III lives up to the NPC interaction standard the series is known for. The NPC interaction is a small part of the story and lore of Dark Souls but is just as expansive and rich as the world. The player is tasked with retrieving the Lords of Cinder – previous heroes who link the First Flame across eons - because the flame must continue burning in order to avert an apocalypse.

Like the previous Souls games, story/lore can also be found in the descriptions of weapons/spells/general items, alluding to larger themes such as arrogance and loyalty. The Dark Souls’ lore is one of the more interesting aspects of the games and players will find themselves looking into the Abyss trying to fit all the pieces together.

But the lore is only part of what makes Dark Souls III so breathtaking and exciting. The gameplay of the previous Dark Souls remains intact. The familiar backstabbing, parrying, drop attacks are all present, but with the addition of stances, faster or more powerful attacks accessed by holding L2 and then attacking. Stances differ with each weapon and are tied to a meter on the user interface (UI) that is normally reserved for magic users. It’s an addition that doesn’t alter the gameplay and more often than not, you’ll forget it’s there, but the option is nice. The Dark Souls series has always relished in giving players a variety of options in playing the game – even different subclasses of sword-wielders – and they’re all viable.

Weapons and playstyles can be mixed and matched for personalization, as the gameplay is just as tough for veterans as it is for brash and naïve newcomers. The currency used to level up and buy items is called souls and is acquired by defeating enemies and bosses. If you die, your soul amount goes to zero. You get one chance to recover the souls by going back to where you died and physically recovering them, forcing you to either play it safe or throw caution to the wind. If you die on your second chance, your souls are gone forever.

This may sound infuriating as you are potentially losing out on hundreds, if not thousands, of souls, but that’s the core philosophy of Dark Souls III and its predecessors: there is no victory without cost. That victory will only come as you best the various warriors encountered on your journey.

Some have criticized the game, saying that there are too many human-like enemies between bosses, instead of any amalgam of creatively designed beasts that opposes the player. But I believe that this works in the game’s more approachable mantra so that new players (even players coming from Bloodborne) can understand the gameplay mechanics. Instead, I contest that the bosses are actually the weakest element of Dark Souls III. The boss design is perfectly serviceable and the designs for the bosses maintain the high levels of interest but they do have a similar way of interacting with the player, starting from the word go.

When fighting a boss in Dark Souls III and lowering their health to between 40%-50%, they reveal a true form. This form becomes more aggressive or adds more moves to their attack repertoire. Bosses that all react the same way - usually just adding flame attacks - when their health goes down grows tiresome very quickly, especially when you consider that other bosses in the Dark Souls series never did that. The Taurus Demon and Chaos Witch Quelaag in Dark Souls I didn’t need to add more moves or show their truer, final form but were intimidating and daunting from the get-go. Not all bosses conform to this, such as High Lord Wolnir and The Deacons of the Deep, but a good number of them do.

The world is another disappointing aspect of Dark Souls II improved upon in Dark Souls III (but it is nowhere near as interconnected as Dark Souls or Bloodborne). A strength of Dark Souls was when spotting a location in the distance, chances are you were going to end up there; the journey made sense in the world’s geography. Dark Souls II suffered by not implementing this design philosophy, especially with illogical, disjointed locations like a lava area on top of a poison mill all connected by an elevator. Dark Souls III takes the best of both games - allowing the player to fast travel – but there is no sense of travel through an interconnected world when you can just travel everywhere.

Dark Souls III’s environments tell a story outside of the main plot. In an area found early on in the game, there is a settlement for the undead. When you get there however, there are bodies wrapped in bags and strung up by their feet. Other undead pray to charred corpses, burned on massive pyres in an effort to make peace with the ever-extinguishing fire. The environment encourages the player to explore as they travel. If you don’t get your bearings quickly, you may wander into a pit or a trap, both of which are bountiful. But the fun of the Dark Souls series is to let your curiosity and drive push you through but still maintain a level of caution that so many games lack.

Depending on your perception, as you play Dark Souls III, you may or may not be bothered by the fact the game panders hard to the Souls series community. Characters and locations found in the previous Souls games appear and are referenced throughout the game. These connections strengthen the intricately crafted world’s lore, but they can also come off as desperate. Messages on the ground – left by other players – will point them out for you. To put it in another context, it’s like watching a Marvel film with a knowledgeable fan; there are references being made to both past and future films which the fan will point out to you rather than letting you immerse yourself.  

Other players leave messages that can be either helpful or detrimental but are rather easy to interpret. If there’s a message on the edge of a cliff, don’t jump. You are also able to summon players into your world to help with a tricky boss or area. However, other players can also invade your world, killing you to increase their own standing in what are called Covenants - Dark Souls’ multiplayer component. A Covenant is a group that you can align yourself with for items or abilities. For example, the Mound Makers Covenant allows players to help or attack the host of the world at any point they choose - adding yet another layer of uncertainty to the game. Other Covenants summon others when nefarious players invade your world. Disappointingly, there are some that take longer to invade another player’s world than others so choose wisely.

Dark Souls III is the conclusion to an epic trilogy of immaculately designed games. Where most games hold your hand and tell you where to go, Dark Souls III trusts the player enough to make decisions on their own. When the player is about to fight a boss, Dark Souls III gives no handouts of ammunition or health, assuming instead that you have been moderating your own health and ammunition. More games need to follow Dark Souls III’s example of trusting the player’s abilities and not to pander to them as children.