When FromSoftware’s Demon’s Souls was released exclusively for the Playstation 3 in Japan on 5 February 2009, it received very little fanfare.
Seeing it as a niche title of little interest to the West, Sony did not intend to publish it outside of Japan, but luckily, the game had legs and its growing popularity eventually led to a US release on 6 October by Atlus. However, things were looking bleak for us Europeans, and whilst it did eventually get released in Europe by Namco Bandai some six months later, many gamers, myself included, were too impatient to wait and imported a copy to see what all the fuss was about. It was a good decision to make.
Upon starting the game I was impressed by the dark, foreboding atmosphere and the wonderfully grotesque graphics, enticing you to explore an eerie medieval environment. As I found my feet in the hostile world that I had entered, I discovered a deep and punishing combat system that rewarded patience and skill, requiring me to approach my battles with care and consideration for my environment. Most pertinently though, after dying more times than I care to remember, I realised that death was a learning process; a harsh reminder that I either screwed up or that I simply wasn’t strong enough to tackle the foe before me. Despite this harshness however, I always felt compelled to battle on. What seemed like an impenetrable brick wall could be toppled if I applied a bit of preparation and dedication, or failing that, some serious character development. Demon’s Souls was a revolution for the action RPG genre; in an age where games were being streamlined and simplified to cater to the masses, it was stoic, unwilling to give the player an easy journey through its mysterious world.
With the Demon’s Souls IP owned by Sony, if FromSoftware wanted to capitalise on the game’s success by taking the formula multi-format they had only one option: create a new world and further refine the gameplay to make a game that felt like Demon’s Souls, but not so much that it would appear as a direct copy. Thankfully, with Dark Souls they managed to do just that with aplomb. Keeping the core hard-as-nails gameplay but changing the tone of the game from grotesque horror to a more traditional medieval setting, as well as doing away with the old fashioned level-based structure in favour of a singular interconnected environment, Dark Souls felt like a whole new game thematically, but was comfortably familiar to those that had previously played Demon’s Souls. Unsurprisingly it was a hit, and after a successful sequel and some lashings of DLC content, here we are with the third and perhaps final release in the series; Dark Souls 3.
So you’re probably thinking that it’s taken me a long time to even mention the name of the game that you’re reading a review for, and to be honest you’re right, but there’s a reason for it: I want to tell you as little about Dark Souls 3 as possible whilst also letting you know that it is easily the best in the series yet. You see, the little backstory I’ve just given you about the series’ conception is relevant, because to me, Dark Souls 3 feels like FromSoftware have once again gone back to the drawing board after developing the hugely successful PS4 exclusive Bloodborne and taken what works from each of their titles to create the best entry in the Dark Souls series they could possibly make. That is to say then, that whilst the core concept of Dark Souls remains intact within Dark Souls 3, the environment and enemy design often feels reminiscent of Demon’s Souls, and the increased pace and ferocity of combat is surely the result of Miyazaki’s work on Bloodborne. The result is that Dark Souls 3 feels familiar but fresh, as well as fair but gruelling.
So what will I tell you specifically about Dark Souls 3? For a start, I’ll tell you that it looks absolutely gorgeous. You could take a snapshot of Dark Souls 3 at nearly any moment and it wouldn’t look out of place if used as cover artwork for a heavy metal album. Environments are dripping with atmosphere and are superbly lit, whilst enemies are fantastically detailed and for the most part horrifically grotesque. Sure, there’s the odd occasion where a shoddy texture or two lets it down, but Dark Souls 3’s visuals on the whole will certainly impress. What’s even better is that as well as looking great, the framerate is pleasingly stable too. Playing the Xbox One version, there has of course been the occasional framerate hiccup or two, but general performance is consistently a step up from previous last gen entries in the series and at no point does it plummet to the horrendous depths witnessed in Blighttown. Supporting the stunning visuals is also an absolutely rousing soundtrack that is undoubtedly the best in the series.
As good as the audio and visuals are however, what really takes Dark Souls 3 one step beyond its predecessors is its amazingly realised world that is coherent and ingeniously connected. Whilst the route through Dark Souls 3 is fairly linear, you’ll encounter many branching paths and open areas that will reward those that take the time to explore. Your journeys into the unknown will be filled with trepidation as you cautiously progress, ever knowing that your next encounter could result in your death if you don’t keep your wits about you. That’s the wonder of the Souls games though; the mystery and danger of the world and its inhabitants around you make it feel all the more special when you find a bonfire or shortcut that grants you a brief moment of safety and convenience. You’ll be glad for the brief instances where you feel safe too, as despite Dark Souls 3 possibly having the gentlest starting areas in the series to date, the difficulty soon ramps up. Enemies are faster and more aggressive than ever before and are often found in greater numbers, challenging all character builds to be quicker on their feet and more efficient with their attacks. It’s a welcome move that revitalises the combat, especially with the addition of the new weapon skills, but players that focus on spellcasting may feel short-changed; with casting times seemingly not reduced to take into account the faster moving enemies, their job has just got that bit harder.
The series’ signature online functionality is probably just about the only thing that hasn’t been tampered with, meaning it’s as helpful or frustrating as it’s ever been. Whilst being able to summon other players to assist with taking down a pesky boss that been haunting you for days is always welcome, being invaded whilst you’re in the middle of hairy situation or by a player that is clearly stronger than you is not. Luckily, for players like myself that prefer to tackle bosses without assistance and explore with only computer controlled enemies to worry about, the game can be set to offline.
I could honestly write so much about Dark Souls 3, but by doing so I’d be doing you a disservice. A game like Dark Souls 3 is best gone into blind so as to heighten the sense of wonder and accomplishment you feel when you discover things for yourself, and I don’t want to rob you of that. All you need to know is that without any shadow of a doubt, I believe Dark Souls 3 is the finest game in the Souls series to date. It looks amazing, sounds amazing, plays amazing; the only things that let it down are the minor technical issues and perhaps the sometimes inconsistent difficulty level. There’s simply no other series out there that is capable of giving you the same shot of adrenaline you experience when you take on an epic boss and emerge victorious, or the feeling of achievement that washes over you when you successfully navigate through a tough area and plunder all its loot without the help of a strategy guide, and with Dark Souls 3, FromSoftware have mastered the art.