Dark Souls III has a lot of weight on its shoulders. Not a lot of people liked Dark Souls II, and Bloodborne’s look-and-feel was incredibly divisive amongst the fanbase. So, how does FromSoftware’s latest punishingly hard action-RPG hold up?
Just fine, as it turns out.
Dark Souls III doesn’t reinvent the wheel, because it doesn’t have to. Its worldbuilding is still some of the most evocative in the industry, and the combat is as bone-crunching and tight as ever. Some new gameplay systems seem like rushed, vestigial design decisions, but their inclusion doesn’t detract from the base formula. The game also has some of the biggest call-backs to previous entries in the series, but your mileage may vary on the inclusion of these elements.
The game is set in Lothric, a long-dead kingdom that is being eroded by an undead curse. The only way to reverse it? Return the Lords of Cinder from their tyrannical escapades, back to their thrones – through any means necessary. The developers do a good job of making your quest feel suitably epic and treacherous, by constantly reminding you of your progress. Any time you go back to your hub-world to recuperate, you’re treated to the image of looming, empty thrones, each with their own dark, unique aesthetic.
Over your time with the game, you’ll go from decaying gothic cities, swamps filled with pitiable inhabitants carrying crosses on their backs, to boreal landscapes with snow gently wafting through the air, and auroras twinkling in the sky. The artistic range of environments is impressive, although structurally Dark Souls III may be one of the more linear games in the series. There are very few branching points that go off into entirely different zones.
The discrete areas themselves, however, are full of secret passages and shortcuts that wrap back around to earlier areas. The one dig against the world design is that there often isn’t that sense of wanderlust and trepidation helping to link the zones. Rarely is there another environment visible on the horizon, teasing you to push on in your journey, amidst all the deaths and setbacks you’re almost certainly undergoing.
If you’ve played any of FromSoftware’s titles in the last seven-or-so years, then you’ll be comfortable with the basics. Dark Souls III is a challenging action role playing game that sees players engage in combat with all manner of deranged and deformed creatures. The melee encounters are all based around resource management, as attacks with your weapon drain your stamina. Run out of stamina, and you can’t block attacks, nor swing your sword – leaving you vulnerable until you briefly wait for it to replenish.
Magic has seen a change since previous games, moving back to a system more like the one seen in Demon’s Souls. Gone are spell slots that are refreshed each time you reach a new bonfire. Replacing them is Focus Points (or FP), a finite resource that will decrease every time you cast a spell.
Also utilising FP are weapon skills: a new system that gives you a range of melee attacks to accompany your regular light and heavy swings. Skills are broken up into categories, based on the type of weapon you’re using; thrusting swords all have skills that sweep under an enemy’s guard, for example, while greatswords often let you slam the weapon into the ground to steady yourself.
Using your skills eats into your FP meter, and the only way to restore it is through Ash Estus flasks – a potion analogue to regular Estus flasks, which restore health. At any one time, you can only carry a finite amount of either on your person. If you’re a big magic fan – or skill-user – the game allows you to carry fewer Estus flasks, so you can carry more Ash Estus flasks, or vice versa.
While this seems like a tactical trade-off, the mechanical arithmetic was incredibly easy for me to solve. Why carry flasks for a resource that only lets me do a few attacks at a time, when I could instead carry more healing ones that will keep me alive for longer? I managed to finish Dark Souls III without carrying any Ash Estus flasks, and I rarely engaged with the weapon skills at all.
Dark Souls III also feels like the most referential in the series – sometimes to its detriment. Initially it’s cool to run into familiar-looking environments or characters from previous games, but that very quickly begins to feel like pandering, or fan service. This is strange for a series that’s prided itself on being vague and inscrutable, and having these very identifiable throughlines undoes a lot of that mystery.
The places that punctuate the world of Dark Souls III are beautiful, haunting, and desolate. While the new skill system feels like something rushed out of a design meeting, the game’s core combat is still as hard-hitting and pleasurable as ever. Despite narrative tie-ins that detract from the sense of mystery surrounding it, Dark Souls III is still an incredible game.