Dark Souls III pulls you into its grasp and coils itself around you.
It plunges you into a world that’s crumbled into ruin, as ash crunches under hollowed foot and undead worship ancient wyverns long perished. Progression suffocates as Dark Souls III constricts, granting you passage into its lair before cutting off your oxygen supply. The more time you spend twisting and turning through its shadowy recesses, pulling levers and gorging on estus, the more you sink further into a realm haplessly consumed by darkness. A visual-masterpiece; a true test of resolve. This is the most visceral Souls yet.
Even with everything seemingly in place and promises made to return to what made the first so great, there was still reason to be highly sceptical. Wouldn’t this formula begin to show its age and tire? The answer is no. In many ways Dark Souls III presents itself as the intended Souls experience after so many years. Miyazaki reportedly wasn’t entirely happy with the first, and the second saw a change in development that released to a mixed response. This third iteration takes much inspiration from the gothic majesty of Bloodborne, but still retains its Souls identity. Not only are shields encouraged, but a more tentative approach is rewarded. Patient play is key, and mindless swinging is punished.
They’ve stripped away much of Dark Souls II – even down to the bone. The animations have vanished and the lean towards a more linear structure has been toppled in favour of the first Dark Souls. Dark Souls III doesn’t reinvent or surprise with a slew of brand new features. It takes the original as its forefather, plucking what it can from the second and paying attention to the notes it took from Bloodborne and general fan feedback. Dark Souls I is the fabric, and interwoven are strands from everything that’s come before and after. Refining, not re-defining. And that’s why it feels so familiar when you make your way through the first few minutes of the tutorial area. I found myself recoiling slightly as I dodge-rolled away from an enemy attack. Soon enough my body’s muscle memory kicked in and all my experience came flooding back. It felt good; there’s nothing quite like knowing you have a brand new Souls world to explore, chock-full of secrets and face-scrunching close calls.
And it was this world that made a point of capturing my attention early on, practically standing up and yelling, “Take it in son, take it in”. I remember cautiously approaching a cliff edge having noticed a small rocky path that scooted around to the left. As I stepped forwards and steeled myself for an ambush, all anxiety left my body as I couldn’t help but divert all my attention to the sheer scale on show. Before me, a jagged mountainous canvas spread far into the distance. Brilliant white ash coated the peaks as the wind bellowed and the grass swayed in response. I could see the scattered perforations in my armour, the little nails holding my shield together and the sun muffled by the thick clouds that swirled above me. But directly in the centre loomed a structure that caused me to splutter in shock. FromSoftware are masters of crafting a world that immerses, to the point where certain aspects of their Souls universe have become so iconic that any established connection evokes a swell of deep emotion. I’d explored that structure before in a distant past, and seeing it again was something very special indeed.
Thanks to their next gen engine (Bloodborne‘s) FromSoftware are able to add a new level of vibrancy and polish to the game that extends into each and every corner of the world. As with all Souls games the plot isn’t handed to you on a plate through a series of talkative cutscenes and blinking sign posts. You can enter Dark Souls III and leave without any notion or inkling of what you’d just accomplished, and that’s why players are sometimes disillusioned with the franchise. The environment plays a huge role in storytelling, and if you make time to scour every nook and cranny, it pays dividends. Often you’ll encounter something that sparks your curiosity, provoking you to stand there and take a moment to think. Why is it here? What does it represent? Who could it be? Have I seen that before? I remember dropping into a pitch black room and quickly whipping out my torch to regain my bearings and prevent a sudden, unwelcome bladder response. As the flames flickered and the light shone around me I was left shocked and unnerved by what I saw. It completely altered my perspective of the area I’d explored, as clearly there were secrets lying beneath the surface and I’d just unearthed the dark truth. There’s simply no junk littering environments creating an illusion of density (apart from the barrels, which are arguably necessary). Paintings on walls require a second glance, or even a screenshot just so you can study them and draw your own conclusions. Statues may catch you by surprise as they depict mysterious figures or grotesque animations alluding to events ranging far wider than you could ever have imagined. Even enemies and characters you meet in certain areas will have taken on frightening manifestations of past occupations or drop items that expand upon their place in this troubled world. Everyone you encounter and everything around you has a significance and that’s because Dark Souls III cares about the minute details.
If Dark Souls III had a tube map, it would be a stupidly dense array of coloured lines and bonfire icons. With Miyazaki’s return comes his impeccable level design and his emphasis on verticality. Dark Souls II shed verticality in order to increase the scope of the world. It followed a linear path but attempted to compensate with a greater number of locales – this has vanished somewhat. The world is smaller but there’s far more to it. Straight away you’ll be climbing ladders, scampering across rooftops and descending into the unknown. There’s a staggering amount packed into each area and you’re bound to miss a great deal unless you diligently keep your eyes peeled for any pathways hidden in the most devious of places. You might find a set of keys that suddenly remind you of the locked door you encountered earlier on. Perhaps you’ll kick a ladder to create a shortcut, for it descend into a bonfire that you’d encountered right at the beginning of the area: “It was there the whole time?” In many ways it captures some of the magic from Dark Souls I in making the world seem restrictive in its initial state. Almost like an intricate puzzle that gradually opens up as you pull levers and defeat the challenges it has in store for you, the world is as cunning and alive as the terrifying creatures that inhabit it.
The world and its environments are some of the most spectacular yet. Dark Souls III deliberately shows off its vistas knowing that when you step outside you’ll be knocked for six, and it effectively becomes a privilege to even fight through such painstakingly crafted zones. Whilst it feels great to explore a tightly packed world, I can’t help but feel that the ability to teleport between bonfires mars my relationship with it. Zipping between zones is useful, I get it. Yes, it’s nice. I get it. In Dark Souls I you grafted and grafted, parting waters and moving mountains to earn your private jet. This in turn forced you to run everywhere, and much like moving house to unfamiliar territory, you learnt how to get around. I had to think about how I was going to get to a certain area and there were always multiple routes to pick from. I knew the ins and outs of the world, the optimal routes and the risky paths. I didn’t have the luxury of fast-travel and this is why Lordran remains so vividly in my memory. Looking back on my time with Dark Souls III I could probably name a great number of locations, but whether they remain truly memorable to me or not is another factor. Although it’s far more accessible, it deconstructs the world into a set of “titles”.
Speaking of which, taking my Dark Souls III bonfire map out of my swanky new armour set (cost an inordinate amount of souls from the old lady), I know I can quickly zip off to “that” location before doing a little bit of exploring in “this” location. It begins to feel like I’m whizzing around without a care in the world and that I’ve never got my feet planted firmly on the ground. Every time I hit a bonfire I know I’ve got another place I can flit to and from, but with Dark Souls I every bonfire I lit felt vital. Until you’d earned the right to fast-travel, each bonfire became your crux, the one safe place to rest in a ghastly and nightmarish area. I was acutely aware of where I was within the world, whether I was in the bowels of the Catacombs or the dizzying heights of the Duke’s Archives having somehow survived Anor Londo; there was almost a tangible physical connection as I knew where things were in relation to me at all times. In this sense, Dark Souls I felt entirely interconnected as one cohesive map of death that required extensive homework and patience. In comparison Dark Souls III marries density with accessibility, meaning that it doesn’t have to be as cohesive and actually lacks the impeccable verticality of the predecessor that it’s taking so much inspiration from. It’s still an enthralling world – and one which FromSoftware intended to create in the first instance – but my place within it didn’t feel as weighty or discernible.
One aspect of Souls which sees a definitive improvement is the character design that falls under the spectrum of NPCs, enemies and bosses. On your journey you’ll encounter a number of NPCs, all of which you feel an immediate tie to. That’s because they’re on a journey similar to yours and talking to them reveals details that might prove invaluable to your progression. There’s a wide array of NPCs that you’ll either stumble into or find in very specific situations. They might be in a spot of bother or simply lounging at a bonfire over in the distance. Perhaps the most exceptional aspect of their design is the way they posture themselves and the voice acting that accompanies this. Characters might ooze arrogance as they perch casually or seethe with anger as they tightly clench their fists, leering at you as they spit their words out. And it’s through their stance that they emanate an aura that pleads for help or begs for solitude. Meanwhile, a hearty chuckle can warm spirits displaying a stoic, carefree attitude that cuts through the most difficult of situations, whilst a hollow cackle is enough to tell me that a traveller’s soul is sinking into an emptiness that’s far beyond saving.
There’s a unique clarity to interactions that’s synonymous with the Souls series. Listening to individuals is captivating, as the masterful voice acting and immediacy of speech springs from the speakers and resonates in your mind. I found myself relishing interaction as it doesn’t come around often, and it made each encounter feel special. You might happen to cross paths with a character more than a few times and it’s most likely that you’ve kickstarted a questline. I have to tread lightly, but they’ll entail a bit more than chatter and it’s remarkable how invested in a companionship you become.
At some points during my adventure I came face to face with enemies that I’m certain I’d slain in Bloodborne. Some of the models are pretty close to the abominations I faced in Yharnam and that’s no bad thing. Lanky, languid workers clothed in ragged overalls lunged at me with pitchforks and screeching undead maidens rang bells to alert every bastard in the vicinity. Hulking undead brandishing two-handed axes tottered in my direction, but the way they leaned and trudged forwards with intent as their eyes met yours was intimidating to say the least. Dark Souls III constantly surprises, as you may have easily fought your way through a whole host of mobs and realised that the next area seems a bit quieter. Turning a corner you might spot the glistening steel armour of a knight. As he turns you’ll notice he has these glowing red eyes that practically fry any confidence you’d just started to accumulate. The way his cape rolls with the wind, the sheen of his armour, the shrivelled prune of a face hidden inside the ornate helmet. He’s unrelenting in his attacks and he’ll eventually snap you like the pathetic twig you are. Come back when you actually get good.
Colossal fire-breathing monstrosities stomp about, manes ablaze and highly unfriendly. Basilisks coated in brilliant blue crystals slumber until you give them a resounding tink on the back. Ogres wrapped in rusted chains sweep you aside (crushing you in the process), whilst a baby-faced and deathly pale Gollum cranes his spindly neck and showers you in an icy blast. There’s never been so much variety, and because you can’t second guess what’s going to hit you next, there’s a constant stream of thrilling battles that crushes any sense of monotony you might’ve experienced with bland cannon fodder in other games.
Of course it wouldn’t be Souls without the bosses. There’s a real sense of scale to every boss encounter, both in terms of size and occasion. FromSoftware have outdone themselves with the boss designs; they’re mesmerising to watch and spectacles to behold. You feel scared, you feel confused, you feel dread, and that’s just by taking a moment to soak up their outward appearance.
Quaking in your boots, face aghast – you still have to muster the courage to fight. Combat in Dark Souls III takes cues from Bloodborne’s faster pace but mixes it with the more measured style of Souls. In the end you get a fluid, visceral style of combat that’s faster but still requires the same amount of patience. It’s about learning when to strike and taking note of your errors in order to triumph next time. And with far more aggressive enemies closing the distance quickly, you have to adapt faster. Managing your stamina is as important as ever and I found the need to dodge-roll increase dramatically. A greater sense of speed did allow me to dictate the flow of combat more, taking advantage of my surroundings and punishing my opponents in a quick flurry of strikes before dashing out of the way. Hammers crash down on foes with a satisfying clunk and swords create this juicy slicing noise as they carve through demon flesh. There’s a weight and force behind each and every swing.
Unfortunately, issues of vulnerability plague poor souls who wish to go down the spell-caster route. With enemies launching themselves at you, it’s pretty tricky to stand rooted to spot and take the time to wave your arms about. As a glass-cannon I found myself getting overwhelmed if I wanted to fire off some magic, and in the end spellcasting seemed to suit more of a utility role than something I’d commit to fully.
In a way, Dark Souls III’s faster combat may limit your playstyle depending on the skills you’ve chosen. I had no trouble as a nifty knight or dextrous sell-sword, and let’s not forget bow and arrow which has been upgraded somewhat. Now you can fire off a quick ‘double tap’ whilst rolling and dodging, implementing freedom of movement into a mechanic that was once so rigid, but it’s a shame this couldn’t quite translate to magic fully.
“Weapon Arts” have been introduced to add greater variety to swinging and prodding but they’re only useful in very specific situations. To me, they felt more like a novelty than a game-changer; there’s rarely a time you’ll want to use one, as when you actually bother it leaves you too vulnerable. You don’t need to utilise Weapon Arts for variety though; Dark Souls III has many weapons you can use. Oh so many. In fact, there’s more of everything including armour. It won’t be long before you’re picking up whips that eviscerate flesh or hoisting great hammers that are great for crushing those chunky armoured folks. Armour is harder to come by but it’s there, you just need to search for it, or earn it in some cases. Rings, trinkets and other essential oddities are in stashed in nifty, hard to get to areas. It’s the most liberal Dark Souls has ever been, and it’s great in allowing players to switch things up when a different approach is needed.
The need to view a fight from a different angle is a skill you’ll acquire from repeated deaths and close-calls. These moments of elation and dizzying dopamine rushes are unique to Souls and they’re present here. Getting there is an anguish laden, battering ram of shittery to the body – but the happiness and relief that could shatter a universe is something you’ll only experience in a FromSoftware game. The bosses don’t just look pretty, they’ve got a set of moves wonderfully designed and curated to brutally murder you. I remember bringing a boss down to a small, tantalising slice of his HP. Heart-pounding; pulse-racing; I rolled away behind a pillar and quickly crunched an ember that replenished my health and then some. With full HP I smirked with confidence and licked my lips as I emerged from behind cover, this was now a piece of cake. I’d familiarised myself with his move-set, and there’s nothing he can do to stop me. Wrong. I saw the usual opening and lowered my guard for a split second thinking I could career forwards and plunge my longsword into his flank. My sword swished limply in the air. He’d sidestepped and completely taken me by surprise, with a move he’d never done before. I then took a deep breath and turned off my PC for a while.
However, whilst the boss design is spectacular, I found many of the encounters a little too easy. For me, it wasn’t one smooth incline and a notoriously challenging peak at the end. It was a gradual climb, with spikes of difficulty. I had a tough time with one boss before breezing through a great portion and encountering another tricky foe further down the line. It seemed odd that a boss towards the middle of the game could be harder than some far later on. Perhaps the most head-scratching revelation was my discovery that a particular optional boss is one of the hardest encounters. It felt somewhat bewildering that I’d essentially breezed through what were meant to be the momentous crescendos of pain and suffering. Of course I had my fair share of suffering with a select few, but almighty elation might be harder to come by for the more experienced of us.
On PC I had no issues with summoning people in to fight with or against. And framerates juddered here and there but nothing too substantial. I’m using a budget rig that just meets the recommended criteria to play on high to maximum settings and I never needed to tone them down. But if your PC was to struggle in producing frames, they’ve added far more options for you to tweak allowing you to settle on the graphics that suit your rig so you can get straight back into the action.
The main slew of issues seemed to be with invasions. Some invaders were invisible as I frantically jabbed the air hoping to get a hit on them, whilst one crimson challenger resembled a bumper car as he slid into me repeatedly until I died. The only other issue I had on PC was a minor game crash during a boss fight. Otherwise things ran smoothly without horrendous problems, and even if there were many that hadn’t plagued my PC, but had plagued yours, they’re most likely going to be patched out over time.
On a slight side note, online play remains much the same. It’s one hilarious, controlled mess of invasions and covenants. There’s unofficial PVP areas that people like to fight in, and one in particular has a band of fighters named after a particularly popular film and internet sensation who seek to protect their water-logged territory. It’s also here that “Weapon Arts” and the increased pace of the game truly come to fruition. There’s a number of elusive mechanics that aren’t essential in single-player, but become indispensable when facing a human adversary. Suddenly every move you make counts as two brains tango trying to predict eachother’s moves. It never fails to be an exhilarating moment as you do battle with someone else, and it’s as much of a learning experience as the single player component.
Dark Souls III is riveting, emotional, stunning and menacing. It immerses you in a fully realised world packed with secrets and backed by a sublime soundtrack. It’s jaw-dropping throughout and it’s an honour to have experienced. In so many ways it succeeds, but its increased accessibility strips it of the spark that existed in the game that underpins it. Its framework is supported so strongly by Dark Souls I that at times I sensed the game desperately wished to recapture the sacred “something” of its predecessor. Having to stand on the shoulders of such a giant is a tough task that Dark Souls III does tremendously well and it provides a fitting conclusion to such a decorated series. I’ve seen many reviews and general comments saying this is the best Souls yet. It’s not as clear cut for me, but it’s still an unmissable experience that’ll make other games pale in comparison.