Dark Souls is a franchise notorious for its difficulty, yet its fan base has only been growing over the years. The first Dark Souls was largely inspired by 2009’s Demon’s Souls, which in turn was a ‘spiritual successor’ to an older series, King’s Field. After taking a departure from the series to create a PS 4 exclusive Bloodborne (2015), FromSoftware is back on track with the third entry to the series.
Does Dark Souls III live up to the expectations, or is it a disappointment like some consider DS 2 to be?
From the beginning, the influence from Demon’s Souls and Bloodborne became noticeable. As opposed to DS 2’s clumsy movement and slow recovery times, the animations and combat feel quick and responsive, much like FromSoftware’s last release. On the other hand, a blue focus gauge that expands whenever you cast spells is pulled straight from DeS.
This focus gauge is one of the features new to DS 3. In addition to serving as a mana bar, it can also be used to activate weapons’ special skills, which range from unique attacks and parries to powerful full-draw bow shots and temporary buffs.
After watching the intro cut scene, you are invited to adjust the look of your character and pick a class. The classes have various starting equipment and stats, but don’t really matter in the long run — unless you’re aiming for a very specific character build. The game starts off with your character waking up in a coffin in a small tutorial area, with messages on the ground explaining the basic mechanics. Once you get accustomed to the gameplay and defeat the first boss, you will reach Firelink Shrine, which serves as a hub area. There you can level up, buy items from a merchant and improve your equipment with the help of the blacksmith.
From that point, the world opens up for exploration.
Aside from a few lines from a non-player character explaining your goal, there’s not much to guide you other than an occasional bonfire or a boss encounter. While it’s possible to get lost at times, the exploration aspect is very rewarding once you dedicate yourself to it.
Overall, a veteran of Souls games should feel right at home, but the game still provides plenty of challenge even to the most die-hard fans. Old tactics don’t cut it anymore — each new location and enemy require a unique approach and some time to learn. There’s a lot of variety in enemy design, too; it’s not just undead soldiers and armor-clad knights. On your hunt for the lords of cinder you will encounter winged forest furies, claymore-wielding gnomes, eldritch horrors and giant crabs.
Bosses also have a lot of creativity put in their designs. In the first hours of game play you will face a hideous mutated knight, a mace-wielding armored frog and a giant living tree. Most fights have two phases, with the boss gaining new attacks and becoming much more dangerous once they’re down to half-health or less.
The environments are larger in scale, some of them looping back on themselves with shortcuts. While the game offers some breathtaking views, the design of most areas retraces the themes that were already done in the series before: a medieval castle, old ruins, swamp, forest, catacombs.
The online features also make a comeback.
When playing online, you will see messages left by other players, sometimes even their transparent phantoms – and sometimes, the bloodstains they left when they died. The world of the game may certainly be intimidating, but if it gets too tough, you have an option to summon other players to take on the challenge side-by-side. However, they can also invade your world uninvited, in which case they will be hostile and will try to hunt you down.
Dark Souls 3 is the type of game that requires dedication and a certain level of skill, but if you persevere through the challenges, the pay-off is worth it. There’s a ton of replay value as well; it’s almost impossible to find all the secrets and explore every nook and cranny of the expansive, detailed world on the first play-through. There are also endless possibilities for various character builds. With swords and axes, maces and bows, magic, miracles and fire-based pyromancy, there are plenty of options to play the way you want.
Dark Souls 3 combines the best ideas from the previous games and throws in just enough new additions to stay distinct. It feels both familiar and fresh at the same time. And for new players, it strikes a level of difficulty to serve as a good entry point into the franchise.
This review is based on approximately 9 hours of gameplay of PlayStation 4 version of the game.