FromSoftwares unforgiving action role-playing games have really picked up momentum in just a couple of years. Even the mention of a new instalment and they jump straight to the top of any hardcore gamers wishist. These are games that are famed for being brutally difficult with limited healing abilities, a precious but perishable currency system and extraordinarily extravagant boss fights. So does Dark Souls III live up to the reputation of the first two?
I think it’s only appropriate that before I start this review that I should give some fair warning; I have never played a FromSoftwares title before. Don’t get me wrong I’ve always had an interest in them, but I’m a gamer who would rather through caution to the wind, charging headstrong into groups of enemy’s sword swinging. My philosophy is hit them before they hit you, dodge and guard are completely optional. However after two hours and 30 odd deaths I came to realise that these games were as tough as I’d heard, and I’d have to change my ways if I was conquer the decaying world of Lothric. Any new players looking at this game should prepare themselves for a steep learning curve.
Dark gothic streets, bleak mediaeval castles and enormous fire breathing Dragons. This stunning, melancholy world is the land of Lothric. You come into this world as an undead Warrior, the Ashen One, with the task of averting an oncoming apocalypse. To achieve this you have to hunt down and defeat all of this worlds previous heroes; The Lords of Cinder. However actually unlocking the plot is hard itself as you’re only given vague pieces of information from the eccentric NPC’s, item descriptions and from exploring the lay of the land. From what I’ve heard that’s pretty normal for a Souls game, from a newcomers view I found this a very interesting way of story-telling, encouraging exploration as you try to soak in every piece of lore this world has to offer. My knowledge of past titles is very limited but I could tell when the game was making call-backs to previous instalments. Newcomers aren’t likely to appreciate all of these little references but I’m sure there’s more than enough here to keep series veterans digging around.
Before setting out you’ll need to create your champion and assign them a starting character class, anything from a heavy set Knight, a speedy Thief, or a fire wielding Pyromancer. You aren’t stuck with that set for the rest of your adventure but the equipment and stats are enough to get you on your way. Each desolate location you visit contains its fair share of secrets, weapons and loot to find. The most crucial resource for progressing though is the souls of your enemies, which is both your experience and your currency. At death you retain all the spoils from your looting sprees; however souls are left where you last died. You can collect them again but it’ll mean retracing enemy territory, which raises the biggest dilemma; do you hurriedly go back for them knowing that one death will leave those souls lost forever. It’s a very interesting risk reward mechanic as enemies are typically stingy with the amount of souls they carry, and levelling up requires more each time, rising at quite a steep pace so you’ll try to cling to every scrap you can get.
Bonfires are your checkpoints, reach one and it’ll refill your Estus (health drink) and you’ll be able to return to any previously visited fires or head back to Firelink Shrine, the games central hub. It’s here that you’re able to spend your hard earned souls on boosting stats, reinforcing weaponry or purchasing new equipment. So first reaction when you approach one is to return with your stock pile of souls however there is a catch. All monsters respawn and roam the world once you sit at one. This means that you’re constantly have to re-tread enemy ground which can be very frustrating and tedious but there’s a strong sense of achievement each time you make it a little further. It also adds to the whole risk reward element in that it asks the question to you press ahead to the next bonfire or retreat with all of your hard earned souls but face fighting enemies over again.
Combat is surprisingly robust. Movement is fluid and exciting with dodge rolls and swings being able to be rapid stitched together to quickly escape danger, or deal short flurries of swings quickly. Each weapon also comes with a number of different stances you can switch between quickly depending on the situation you got yourself into. One moment you could be wielding a dagger and shield, the next a pair of twin blades, or go ahead and skip the second weapon entirely, gripping a weapon with two hands to deal higher damage and send your foes flying. Lastly there are special skills known as ‘Weapon Arts’ that can unleash some devastating attacks such as the axes large sweeping Chain Spin or Darkdrifts shield piercing lunges. These skill come at the cost of magic or FP though and the way of acquiring more is through an alternative Estus bottle. However bottles are shared between health and MP so there’s another question to think about; do you trade healing items for magic healing items? There’s no questioning this action RPG’s difficulty (something I’ll come to in a moment) but setting up your characters builds feels like half the challenge.
Dark Souls III is devilishly hard, even a single Hollow can be enough to punish the smallest of mistakes. Each encounter will require you to think more laterally, such as luring enemies away from large groups with arrows, or switching defensive items for more stagger effective attacks. Dodge and parry (as I came to learn) is your greatest tactic. This is a game that will require you to sit back and observe enemy attacks and techniques before you can move in to exploit the gaps in their strikes. From what I found the best way of going about things is to get right up in monsters face, as a lot lack any good up close tactics and it’s easier to abuse your dodge rolls few invincibility frames. All that aside though, some of the games difficulty does come down to simply dirty tricks. Gaps and pitfalls hidden in the environment, mimics and traps to put you on constant edge and enemies with seemingly endless stamina. Being defeated by a zombie with a pitchfork is one thing losing your progress because you take a wrong turning into a open pit is a new level of frustration.
Online play is a major feature in Dark Souls III. There’s no typical co-op mode, instead in this players leave there Sigel’s in specific locations and wait to be summoned to another’s world as a spirit. You can of course play completely solo but some of the later bosses can be a real chore to defeat so having some assistance here can be much appreciated. Doing so can also net players additional souls and loot so it’s definitely worth traveling with allies. Then again you don’t have to help each other out. You could, if you so wished, be a menace and invade other player’s worlds as a Phantom; you get the same perks but you’ll also have to deal with that world’s champion. As they are player characters they’ll have access to all sorts of weaponry, tools, and healing items so battles with them can be more taxing then the games signature boss battles. It’s a fantastic way of adding a competitive distraction away from the main story scenario. The other online addition is the function to leave messages around the world for other players to discover. You could leave players hand hints on where to go and warnings of impending traps or alternatively lead them on wild goose chases and mislead them in to no win battles.
Dark Souls III certainly lives up to the brutal difficulty levels of its predecessors. It constantly gets you to push your boundaries as you’re encouraged to press deeper in each run, plus the tension and challenge very rarely lets up, even if it does occasionally resort to cheap tricks. It’s robust, exciting combat is by far the most appealing element of this game, offering many ways to fight, allowing players a great deal of depth to character building and giving them many choices on how they would like to proceed through this melancholy world.
This review is based off a review copy of Dark Souls III provided by Bandai Namco Entertainment Europe.
This review was originally published on the site GamersFTW which unfortunately has now been taken down. It’s been published on my personal blog, DanielVaughanReviews, out of respect for the developers/publishers that were kind enough to give me review copy of their game.