Is the Noid really the villain this time? Or is he the true hero we all need?
Special thanks to fellow Souls fans Scott and Austin for kicking my ass and helping get this review in shape.
As I begin this review, I’ve got something of a confession to make. It’s the kind of thing that I kept hidden deep down inside me; a dark doubt expressed only to my closest of friends in the deadest hours of the night. This creeping feeling eventually grew to be a specter, hanging over me at all hours of the day and poisoning any positive thoughts I had about the game in question. The game, of course, was Dark Souls III, and the idea I had was that this newest installment…might not actually be good.
Why did I start thinking these terrible thoughts? There’s a lot of reasons, actually. A few of these include Bandai-Namco’s bungled pre-release of the game, the release date barely a year out from Bloodborne, and my own lackluster experience with Dark Souls II. In the end, this plethora of second-guesses coalesced into a trepidation that convinced me I’d rather not play the game than have it be a disappointment.
But thankfully, as soon as I started playing, as soon as the opening cutscene rolled, even, I was proven wrong. Blissfully, happily wrong. My fears were, as I had feared such fears to be, completely unjustified. It’s not that anyone should’ve expected From Software to drop the ball on Dark Souls III, but it’s still a relief that the game is so enjoyable.
Dark Souls III kicks off with a story hook befitting a follow-up to the first Dark Souls– the Lords of Cinder have gone absent, and you’ve gotta go find them. There’s definitely a deeper lore in the game apparent in its opening moments, something the ambiguous intros of Dark Souls II and Bloodborne always felt like they were lacking. It’s a good way to get players into the game almost immediately, and it assures lore-hounding fans of the previous games that there’s going to be plenty to dig through. Don’t worry- you’ll still have to piece together the story from NPCs and item descriptions.
That being said, it’s difficult to talk about Dark Souls III without drawing references to From Software’s previous games. In terms of Bloodborne, the comparison is simple. Despite the two games being produced at the same time, Dark Souls III is nothing like From’s 2015 title. While Bloodborne touted a faster and more dynamic combat system, DSIII retains the slower, more defensive combat of its predecessors (including Demon’s Souls!). It’s easy to learn for anyone who’s picking up the series for the first time, and it’s muscle memory for people like me who’ve played the Souls games time and time again.
In addition to the well-worn gameplay, Dark Souls III still plays to the strengths established by the series. Although some of the world areas will feel almost depressingly familiar, such as the game’s Undead Settlement area that’s the spitting image of Bloodborne’s rural villages, the game’s character and item design is top-notch as always. The bosses are as recognizable and as iconic as anything else in the Souls games. These games have always provided plenty of medieval eye-candy in terms of armor and weapons, and Dark Souls III is no exception. As well as taking some of the more iconic items from previous games, DSIII pulls it’s own weight in terms of unique equipment that makes me think, damn, that’s cool. As for those previous Souls games, Dark Souls III really does feel like an amalgamation of the most successful aspects of its three direct progenitors.
Demon’s Souls‘ mana bar makes a return, and strains of that game’s world design leak in at every corner. The echoes of characters and lore from Dark Souls are peppered everywhere throughout the game. There are a few spare references to Dark Souls II, but overall DSIII feels like the direct sequel to Dark Souls that never happened. There’s not much retained from DSII in terms of gameplay, either. The dual-wielding powerstance mechanic has been removed, replaced by special dual-wielding weapons akin to the Blade of Mercy from Bloodborne. Dark Souls III’s mechanical innovation comes in the form of weapon skills, which allow players to consume mana for unique weapon moves. It’s a neat trick, but the game is playable without ever using them, especially if you’re a butcher who strong-arms their way through the game with a strength build like me.
With all that said, there isn’t much hard negative criticism to be aimed at Dark Souls III. The most that comes to mind is the generally shaky quality of the graphics on the PS4- my first round of gameplay was riddled with occasional framerate stutters and noticeable swathes of texture popping in before my eyes. Even though most of this was fixed in the day one patch, the game still isn’t quite as visually stunning as Bloodborne, although this could be chalked up to a number of reasons, such as the fact Bloodborne is probably better optimized for the PS4 due to its console-exclusive nature.
However, on the other hand…there isn’t much that’s particularly mind-blowing about Dark Souls III either. It’s nice seeing all the callbacks to the previous titles, and the world and characters are as incredibly well-designed as ever, but there’s nothing that really signals a watershed for the series. Aside from the weapon skills, there’s no mechanics that haven’t already shown up in the series in some form, and there’s nothing particularly shocking about the game’s level of difficulty. Despite touting claims this would be “the hardest Dark Souls,” people like me who have experience with the earlier titles will find Dark Souls III to be business as usual.
And that’s the problem- Dark Souls III is simply business as usual. Fans of the previous games might get a kick out of seeing echoes of characters and such from Dark Souls and Demon’s Souls, but others will probably want something a little more singular and unique. It’s not that Dark Souls III isn’t a good sequel, but some of it feels patched together and secondhand, occasionally relying too heavily on generating thrills based on player’s memories of the previous games. Instead of creating a whole stable of new, likable characters unique to its narrative, Dark Souls III tends to make altered versions of previous fan-favorites, which are fun at first but eventually start to feel a little bit ”hollow”.
There’s nothing too surprising about the pacing and progression of the game either. If anything, it’s generally more linear and less branching than the original Dark Souls. Anyone who’s played one of the Souls games will have a good idea about the kind of steps needed to move through the world. There’ll be bonfires, shortcuts you can open to make exploration easier, boss-type enemies that become regular enemies later, optional bosses that only exist for lore-purposes, NPCs in jail cells, NPCs that laugh creepily after their dialogue, and an area where everything is poison… the list goes on. If you can name five things from any of the other Souls games, at least three will be here in some form.
It might be a paradox to wish for something new in a series that’s always been self-reflexive, but everything has to reach a breaking point eventually. I wouldn’t say my desire to see something truly new ruined my time with the game, but much like that initial doubt, it always loomed over me while playing. So I guess, in the end, I was a little disappointed by Dark Souls III after all, but not enough to rescind a hearty recommendation. Most long-time fans of the series will get plenty of mileage from the game, and its comparatively accessible nature makes it a good entry point for new players. Dark Souls III is a worthy sequel and a fun experience, but I’ll leave prospective players with one warning: expect the expected.