Solid, but maybe a bit 'soulless'
During the course of just seven years, the name “Dark Souls” has nearly become as much of a recognizable name as “Mario” or “GTA.” I honestly think it’s to the point that it’s become a franchise that needs next to no introduction. It’s a series that constantly strives to screw you over at every turn and, of course, it’s gained a reputation of being very difficult. Thanks to an insanely dedicated fanbase, the franchise has spawned a total of five games, three of them under the Dark Souls title. Dark Souls III is now arguably the most complete and expansive full game FromSoftware has crafted yet, but it may come at a cost for you.
Dark Souls III actually entered development in the middle of Dark Souls II’s production. The project was immediately set to be headed by Demon’s Souls and original Dark Souls director Hidetaka Miyazaki, who did not take a significant part in the process of Dark Souls II. As a result, he soon found himself fronting the development of two games simultaneously, with the other being Bloodborne. However, Dark Souls III also brought over the co-directors of Dark Souls II, Isamu Okano and Yui Tanimura, to initiate lead development as well. As a result, the combination of these three creative minds crafted a sort of “greatest hits” of the Souls franchise. Throughout the game you can see some references to the previous titles that even people like me, who is by no means an expert on the specifics of the Souls series, will find the similarities interesting. Miyazaki even brought over elements he introduced in Bloodborne, specifically broadening the scope of weapon variants as well as general enemy and map design. Incredibly, the team managed to meet their release date yet again with their third game in three years. Although it was met with a rather strange English workaround only for the Xbox One after an early launch for Japan, it successfully reached its desired worldwide date in April of 2016.
Rise Ashen One, because it’s time to dive into the lore of a Dark Souls game; I’ll admit up front that I have never been one to invest into this world. The story isn’t fed to you, and can only be obtained through environmental detailing and item descriptions, but it comes at the cost for someone like me, because it’s very easy to overlook what’s being told as a result. A simple search for “Dark Souls III lore” will give all you want and more, but for the time being I’ll try my best to provide what’s going on here. As the Ashen One, you roam through an extremely varied and rather enriched set of land masses in order to maintain the Age of Fire. Your ultimate goal is to return the souls of the three previous Lords of Cinder (heroes who have linked a powerful flame across the world), as well as the current Lord Prince Lothris, back to the original throne in order maintain the link within the FIrelink Shrine. It’s an interesting, if a bit too abstract, outline for a world’s background that fits the franchise perfectly. Although, my somewhat brief Wikipedia paraphrase could never do what is actually going on justice; I highly recommend you dig deeper into the lore if you find any of that intriguing enough.
Dark Souls III continues the trend of establishing its trademark difficult gameplay. It’s strategic, it’s precise...and it’s kind of the same thing it’s always been. Now don’t get me wrong, the evolution from Demon’s Souls to Dark Souls III shows obvious alterations from along the way, but if you’ve been following these games for these seven years, fatigue on the formula could definitely raise questions. Not to mention that the rise of Souls-inspired material such as Lords of the Fallen and Salt and Sanctuary have made this once completely unique franchise not quite as novel as once was.
All that said, the possibility for fatigue is Dark Souls III’s biggest flaw, because FromSoftware has really crafted a solid game here. As briefly hinted at earlier, the variety of playstyles and weaponry has been extended way more than it ever has. As per usual, you can customize your class to whatever you want; because I tend to suck at games, I stuck with the boring and typical sword/shield combination just so I had a chance to beat this game. Yes, it is still a very hard game, especially for someone who hasn’t played this series to the extent that others had like me. For those unfamiliar, the difficulty of a Souls game has always originated from its mechanics. Animations mean everything, from your dodges to the very act of swinging your weapon, but what makes it fair is that every commonplace enemy and boss has those exact restrictions as well. Granted, size might not be as proportionate, but conquering these larger tribulations is what provides some of the best satisfaction in all of gaming. That said, you are still meant to die; a lot. Every enemy you kill drops “souls” which acts as both your currency and criteria for leveling your character. When you die, you lose all those souls regardless of how many you’ve amounted, and you get one chance to reclaim them; die again, and they will be gone forever. It’s just another backbone of what balances between brutal difficulty and fair play.
I didn’t play Bloodborne, but I got about two-thirds of the way through Dark Souls II before I put it down, mostly because I didn’t find the level design to my liking. Yes, I am aware that Dark Souls II was polarizing to begin with, but it didn’t help that I felt the middle sections of that game suffered from poor dungeons and annoying enemy placement. My biggest fear before diving into Dark Souls III was whether or not something like that would happen again. Fortunately, Dark Souls III just has generally more appealing approaches to level design, bringing back some of the elements of Metroidvanias that was somewhat absent in its predecessor. However, that still doesn’t change the fact that the best that this game has to offer is definitely those near the beginning and near the end. That’s not to say that these parts are particularly bad in the middle, they’re certainly better than those later portions of Dark Souls II, but just expect some weaker environments. I actually put this game down for over a month before I was able to get back into the swing of things, just because the middle sections drug on at times
As par for the course, Dark Souls III presents a variety of large and overbearing boss fights to challenge you as you proceed throughout the world. These have always been the most challenging and rewarding aspects of the series, and this game is no different. Some of the creature and general entity design is astonishingly well done. Not to mention that each and every one requires specific strategy and tactics in order to gain the upperhand. These will be the portions of the game in which you die the most, but finally conquering your large opponent is part of what makes these games work as well as they do. Some of them require gimmicks that I can’t entirely get behind, in that a boss may almost require a certain weapon to be beaten, but it was still a strong aspect of the game.
We’ve already seen games released in 2016 that look a bit better than Dark Souls III, but that doesn’t mean the game looks bad. I personally think the environments look good, if a bit more vacant than we’ve grown accustomed to. On every platform, its visual style is definitely serviceable; it’s technical performance has varied results though. The frame rate can be rough on every platform, though I strangely only had drops in the hub area for some reason, so it wasn’t too bothersome for me. Crashing has been somewhat of a prevalent issue for some on PC, but I will say that it only happened once for me. Maybe dig a little deeper into information for the version you’d get before picking it up; perhaps aspects such as the frame rate problems will be gone by then.
Dark Souls III is perhaps the least surprising release you can get. It’s essentially a summation of several different mechanisms that FromSoftware has developed since 2009, and as a result you have a fairly by-the-books Dark Souls title. If you’re in it for the traditional and raw gameplay, then this will be just as enjoyable as the previous games were for you. However, if pure intrigue is what drives you through these journeys, then be prepared to be a bit let down. For whatever it’s worth, this is actually the first Souls game I actually finished; maybe that means this will be a fine starting point for a new player? Regardless, it’s hard to argue with the notion that Dark Souls III is an objectively solid game. As long as you’re alright with the game’s outline going in, you’ll enjoy your time with Dark Souls III the same way I did, but for longtime veterans, it may be a bit of a “soulless” conclusion.