While my relationship with the series has been a little rocky, I have developed a fondness for the Dark Souls titles over the years, and with the series going full circle with a remaster of the first game, I figured now is as good at time as ever to catch up and finish off my tenure with this series, before inevitably being pulled back with the afformented remaster that is.
Dark Souls III Review
Platforms: PC(Reviewed), PS4, Xbox One
Publisher: Bandai Namco
As should be expected for the Souls series at this point, the proper storyline of Dark Souls III is kept rather minimalistic. With hints and bits of lore being dropped and offered as the player progresses through the game, but in-depth exposition being a rarity. Much like the prior games, the main character is some sort of chosen individual tasked with travelling across the world in order to defeat a series of powerful bosses that stand between the protagonist and the tools they need to either elongate the life of the perpetually dying world of the Dark Souls series, or simply obtain more power.
More specifically, the protagonist is the Ashen One, who needs to defeat the four lords in order to fight the Lord of Cinder in an attempt to elongate the age of fire and prevent the age of darkness… if they want to. I have previously criticized this series for its approach to storytelling, which requires either immense devotion or outside information in order to decipher, as neither are particularly enjoyable ways for me to take in a story. Though, I will admit here that the modus operandi of the protagonist is made rather clear, and the numerous callbacks and references to the first Dark Souls made it all feel a bit easier to follow.
Meanwhile, the core mechanics that have come to define the Souls series are also reprised here. It is a methodical and at times demanding action RPG where attacks need to be carefully avoided and planned, enemies can easily overwhelm, and reckless behavior is punished with a swift death. Which really is a core appeal of the game. It requires patience, practice, and a calm mentality to be adopted in order for the player to succeed, and even though the game obnoxiously states the obvious whenever the player character perishes, death itself is seen as an inevitability and learning experience for what the player needs to do to next time… for the most part anyways.
This resulted in the game gaining a reputation for being difficult, and while it is notably more challenging than a lot of games, especially in the modern era, it is often overstated, and the key to both having a good time with and progressing through a Souls game is based more on determination, persistence, and the exploitation of some of its mechanics. There are inevitably a few instances where the skill jump is a bit intense and the game established a metaphorical wall for the player to traverse to progress, and a handful where, well, the game is just being cheap (especially with the revised mimics). But it is ultimately a solid challenge that regularly has the player triumphing with every new item they obtain, every time they light a bonfire, this game’s form of checkpoints, and every boss they defeated.
It is a sense of achievement made all the more meaningful due to the mechanics the player has to contend with, from managing their stamina as they attack, defend, and evade, to needing to carefully time when they restore their health with their estus flask, as doing so leaves them momentarily vulnerable. It is a game that demands the player do well, and as such, doing just that is both satisfying and, to a certain extent, inspiring. But if things are ever too overbearing, there almost certainly exist ways to circumvent the challenges. From the ability to upgrade weapons, change equipment sets, grind out a few levels, or summon an game or player controlled ally to help out with some of the more challenging sections of the game, mostly boss battles, which continue to be the most foreboding aspect of the game.
It is all further enhanced by a solid foundation of mechanics that I really do appreciate. From the aforementioned stamina system, to the inclusion of a variety of magic, to the estus flasks that may be upgraded and are restored at each bonfire, to the titular souls. Souls are awarded for defeating enemies and bosses, and can be used for two basic things. Gradually leveling up the protagonist through individually marginal stat boosts, or to purchase new equipment and items from the many merchants that reside in the main hub of the game. If the protagonist dies however, they lose the souls they accrued, but have the opportunity to retrieve them if they arrive to the point where they perished. It instills a sense of duty in the player, and causes an additional sense of satisfaction when their souls are regained. If they are lost by dying again however, well, players can always get more souls, as enemies respawn indefinitely every time the protagonist rests at a bonfire.
In addition with these returning mechanics, Dark Souls III also introduced a few shake ups to the established formula, but unlike some of the… detrimental changes introduced in DS2, I actually appreciate all of the major ones introduced here. For one, armor is no longer upgradable, which saves on both upgrade materials and encourages the player to focus more on looking cooler, rather than wearing an outfit because it brings forth the best stats.
The magic system switched from spell specific charges to an point system, as represented by a Focus meter. Combined with the introduction of Focus refilling estus flasks, this change actually makes magic far more viable, and arguably overpowered, than it ever was before. This is especially true for Pyromancy, which is made far more viable than it was in prior games, to the point where I barely even bothered with my usual sorcery. The focus meter may also be used to perform Arts, weapon specific abilities that I never used very much, but they at least appear to be a versatile addition to the series and that can make for more layered combat.
Meanwhile, the Humanity system of prior games has been replaced with the Ember system. It is similarly used to allow the player to both summon and be invaded by other players/characters, but also comes with the added boon of 30% additional health. Unlike in Dark Souls II and the original Demon’s Souls, this change is very clearly reflected in the player’s stats and HUD, where the Ember form is completely additive, and losing the Ember form means losing a buff, rather than losing what the game and HUD are communicating to be one’s regular health. It also looks cool, with the protagonist’s body constantly emitting small embers.
It’s all well and good, but Dark Souls II kind of broke me when it came to the very idea of using Humanity, so I rarely ever used an Ember, and only entered this form as a reward for defeating bosses. I also did not really get to reap the benefits of the form as, well, I did not actually play this game online. I fully blame myself for this, but in DS2, the player can be invaded even when they lack Humanity, and I assumed it worked the same way in DS3, so I stayed offline to not be invaded. I did not figure out that it in fact did not work that way, and that the player needed to be in Ember form to be invaded until about 70% of the way through the game.
Speaking of incredibly petty things, Dark Souls III also introduces more established questlines for the gaggle of friends that the protagonist acquires at their hub area. A hub that despite being named the Firelink Shrine, does not resemble the one from the first title, at all. Anyways, the questlines do add for more developed characters to appear, and I do like how it results in the player acquiring a group of friendly merchants and possible allies. However, the actual parameters of the quests are so vague and difficult to determine that I would encourage the use of a guide, but even with a guide, some of these questlines require such leaps in logic that they seem cryptic even by the standards of the Souls series.
The biggest offender of this is the Yuria questline of this game, which is used to reach a specific ending, and requires so many elongated steps that I am almost impressed at the developer’s audacity with it. It involves recruiting a character positioned in an innocuous and wide open location, not killing him even though he begs for death, allowing him to bestow a curse upon the protagonist, dying, and then being replaced by another character named Yuria. Yuria will start calling the protagonist a lord, insinuating that they will marry a character by the name of Anri, and sets off a questline that the player is very poorly informed about and, from what I could tell by reading ahead, sounded like it was not a good plan, because Yuria is a pretty transparently bad person.
There exists an alternative questline to Yuria’s, but finding it involves defending Anri from an invisible assassin positioned in an innocuous room, while the player is not given any indication of their presence, either from the environment or from Yuria herself. If the player does not kill them, Anri will die. Yet if the player kills the assassin, Yuria will leave the game for this cycle, and because I thought her outfit looked cool, I simply could not have that. So I wound up killing Yuria and the assassin, saving Anri in the process, but after helping him battle one boss a while later Anri ends up dying anyways. Oh, and it turned out that my decision to divert from the questline to begin with was actually a pretty bad idea, since it meant I lost the one summon available for the final boss… which has two phases.
There is also another questline centering around the merchant thief Greirat, who requests to pillage through an area around the same point in the game as when Anri’s assassin comes up. According to the guides I used, I would have needed to trigger the quest with another character to ensure his safety and, if that did not work, request assistance from another NPC after sending him away. I tried to do both, neither worked, and Greirat died. I had to look through multiple sources to figure out what I did wrong, and the answer is… baffling. The NPC responsible for saving Greirat changes his location based on what locations the player discovered. I discovered the next area, simply to activate its bonfire, and because of that, the NPC moved locations. I made too much progress in the game, and that caused me to fail this quest.
It is little nebulous things such as this, the complicated weapon upgrading, and the many under-explained mechanics that prevent me from ever fully falling in love with these games as I feel other people have. Even though I still thoroughly enjoy my time with them, even Dark Souls II to an extent, I continuously feel that the series could benefit from a series of small yet crucial improvements to make the process more encouraging, streamlined, and inviting, while keeping the more horror-esque elements of its atmosphere intact and maintaining the tone found in the aesthetics and gameplay of the series.
As for the presentation, the Souls series has always thrived with its morose yet gorgeous worlds and high production values, and Dark Souls III is no exception. The environments are vividly detailed, animations are fluid and easy to read, and the ultimate art direction on display here successfully create a dilapidated yet beautiful world with numerous locations that are nothing short of gorgeous. Yet it has a problem with creating and portraying truly unique environments, with the majority of locations in Dark Souls III being some form of gothic castle or oppressive catacomb, to the point where many new locations lost the initial wow factor, coming off more like an expansion of previous areas, but with a slightly different color overlay placed on top of everything.
The worst example of this to me is the new Firelink Shrine, which does away with the calming tranquil nature locales of the first game, or the beautiful sunset locale of its equivalent in DS2, in favor of a dark blue castle designed to accommodate the various merchants the player recruits. It all feels so disconnected from the rest of the world, not made any better by the loading fog that blocks off entry into the exterior of the shrine. Speaking of which, these environments are certainly not the interconnected worlds of Dark Souls I, with areas rarely crossing over with one another.
As their own environments, they still house numerous small secrets to uncover, and often self-contained shortcuts, but nothing that approaches the almost metroidvania structure of the first title. It is a really minor aspect, but it lended greatly to the cohesiveness of the world and making it feel like a real place. With DS3, there are instance where prior areas can be observed from a distance, but it always feels like they were assembled separately first, and then thrown together after the fact. Still, looking at things more narrowly, the general artistry put into each room and the designs of the enemies cannot be understated, and the game manages to look nothing short of gorgeous most of the time.
In conclusion, much like what came before it, Dark Souls III is an action RPG with daunting and riveting exploration, intense and demanding boss encounters, and excellent, if a bit obtuse, mechanics running through every facet, all set in a gorgeous, morose, and slightly repetitive world. Like all games in its series, it has its fair share of shortcomings, yet the title still stands head and shoulders above many others.