Dark Souls 3 is the third entry in the much revered Souls series by developers From Software that kicked off with Dark Souls back in 2011. The series is well known among the gaming populace as being a brutally difficult and challenging one, with little to no handholding. Dark Souls 3 is no exception in this regard and playing through this game will force players to accept certain things: that death is inevitable and patience is key. A game that punishes you brutally for your mistakes but also delivers a sense of achievement and satisfaction rarely found in other games.
However, the release of the game was rather unexpected as fans felt that From would take their time with this one, considering Bloodborne was released just over a year back and Dark Souls 2 before it in 2014. So has the game been in any way adversely affected by the tight release schedule? Does it live up to the grandiose expectations of fans?
This Dark Souls 3 review looks into what makes Dark Souls 3 a true Souls game and at the same time a bit disappointing.
Let’s get the technicalities out of the way first. Dark Souls 3 runs reasonably well on PC. The game has a plethora of options to adjust to get the right balance between performance and graphical fidelity from anti-aliasing to shader quality. However anti-aliasing is a binary choice between on and off with no mention of what method it uses. Also missing is anisotropic filtering, a standard option found in many games.
The game manages to stay at 60 frames per second majority of the time but drops to around 40 in denser places like the swamp and even sometimes, confusingly, around bonfires. There have been a torrent of complaints on steam over crashing near the first bonfire and at random places during gameplay. While a temporary fix has been making rounds the problem persists for many out there. There have also been reports of massive frame rate drops and the game outright refusing to launch. Fortunately other than the random fame drops I didn’t run into any major issues during my playtime.
The game uses the Bloodborne engine and though not suffering from the terribly long loading times of that game, the game does have texture and object rendering delays, with objects popping into existence on getting closer to an area or while panning the mouse around. Also all button prompts are for the Xbox controller in the pc version with no possibility of changing it. This being the third game in the Souls franchise to be released on PC you would think the developers could have patched in keyboard and mouse prompts into the game.
The game puts you in the shoes of one of several “Unkindled”, an undead warrior whose fate it is to “link the fire” by bringing back the Lords of Cinder, who linked the fire before, to their thrones. As always the intro sets up the basic premise of the game and you are then dropped into the gorgeous and richly detailed land of Lothric. The world is hauntingly beautiful, with its rising towers and enormous castles to the deep underground ruins and cavernous dungeons all giving off the vibe of a once beautiful world slowly crumbling away into oblivion. Ironically, both horror and beauty co-exist in Lothric.
Now unlike most games out there Dark Souls 3 has its own unique form of storytelling. Instead of depending on cut scenes and easily found journals to tell the story, it hides bits of lore behind item descriptions and in form of environmental cues. It gives you the pieces of the puzzle and expects you to piece them together. If the player doesn’t go actively looking for the necessary lore items and overlooks important environmental details, much of what happened in Lothric will remain a mystery. However, at no point did I feel that I had to play through previous games to understand the lore or the story.
NPCs are much more dynamic and interesting this time around in comparison to those in Dark Souls 2 where I felt they were uninteresting and barely contributed to the game. NPC dialogues are a lot less vague too and they not only give you lore tidbits but also helpful directions. They have their own quest lines majority of which are easily miss able on the first play through.
I felt like NPCs should have been a little less vague about their intended path of travel in the world which would encourage the player to actively search them out. It also encourages players to pursue their quest lines and witness the consequences of doing so first time instead of having to go through the game multiple times.
The level design here is a significant step up from Dark Souls 2, where area transitions felt jarring and the game world felt disconnected as a whole. Every area contains shortcuts that the player can open up while traveling through them. These shortcuts allow shorter and less dangerous paths to areas that previously required extensive traveling. They also contain hidden entrances to new areas that harbor their own fair share of secrets and hideous enemies. The game world as such feels logically connected. From any high vantage point in the world one can easily trace the connectivity of the various areas.
The game does recycle old ideas in the sense that it lifts certain areas straight from previous titles with a visual facelift. It contains the usual Souls mainstays like swamps, castles and catacombs and Souls veterans will find very few new surprises here in comparison to previous games. However, each area feels unique and expansive, with its own set of secrets and loot to discover and treacherous enemies to take on. The game has a dark and foreboding atmosphere which will feel strikingly familiar to anyone who has played Bloodborne.
However, unlike in the original Dark Souls, the layout is such that it makes bonfire warping a necessity and the main hub itself – the only place where the player can level up and upgrade equipment – is disconnected from the rest of the game world. This requires constant warping back and forth between areas that can seem tedious. However this mechanic also allows for easy travelling between areas that would otherwise require significant amount of backtracking.
So how does the gameplay hold up in comparison to previous entries? The game retains the tactical combat system of previous entries while dialing up the speed a bit. The combat is much faster than in previous Souls entries, clearly inspired by Bloodborne but not quite on the level of the latter. The movement and animations are swifter here and also much more elegant and natural, possessing none of the clunky nature of the previous titles.
A few additions have been made to shake things up. A new mechanic called weapon arts has been introduced which allows players to perform powerful, weapon specific attacks that deal greater damage than normal attacks. These can be used for crowd control and in one on one encounters, but have long wind up times leaving the player exposed to enemy attacks. These also consume focus points – which work similar to mana – and also a good chunk of stamina.
Magic and pyromancy also consumes focus points besides the weapon arts. Focus points can be regained by resting at a bonfire or consuming Ashen Estus Flasks. The amount of Estus and Ashen Estus Flasks players can carry at any time can be changed in the main hub of the game. However, health replenishment will take precedence most of the time and Ashen Flasks will prove useful mostly for magic and pyromancy builds, and not much for strength or tank ones.
Another change is that parrying now is restricted to small shields due to the introduction of weapon arts. As far as my experience is concerned, parrying is a little difficult to pull off due to the increased speed of the enemies and parry timings can vary quite a lot from enemy to enemy. Also, back stab is now similar to how it worked back in Dark Souls and is much easier to pull off than in Dark Souls 2.
One thing to note is that mage builds are going to have a tough time in this game. The enemies are much more aggressive and fast than in previous titles, so hanging back and casting spells can be difficult. Also such magic builds will rely more on the intelligence stat and less on strength and vigor resulting in them not being able to wield powerful weapons or wear heavier armor. Defensive options are certainly going to be more limited for magic focused characters.
The developers have clearly learnt their lesson from Dark Souls 2, which was criticized for having uninspired enemy and boss designs. Each enemy feels unique and different and have their own movesets that require careful observation. Incredible amount of detail has been put into each monstrosity and they all vary from one area to another. Rarely will the player come across an enemy that feels out of place or illogically placed in the game world.
Bosses too are some of the best the series has ever seen, all unique in their designs, movesets and behavior. Unlike Dark Souls 2 where most bosses were just straight up lifted from previous Souls games, they feel much more original and varied here. All of them require different strategies and approach and using the same tactic over and over again won’t work. Also these bosses challenge the player’s mastery over their skills like parrying, blocking and dodging and so players are required to hone such skills before attempting a particularly tough fight.
There are a few problems though. Firstly, a number of enemies in the game can be handled by using specific tricks again and again. The same goes for the bosses as well. These bosses are still pretty challenging and some of them can be very tough, but Souls veterans will most likely find the boss fights in this game a tad easier. The same tricks that worked for early bosses can still be used effectively against some of the late game ones. This isn’t going to be a major concern for many, but hardcore players may be left slightly disappointed.
Secondly, despite a lot of the boss fights being unique they still consist of certain cheap mechanics. Some can one shot players with magic arrows, others can revive themselves if killed and a couple of bosses even spawn clones resulting in annoying gank fights. Such fights cease to be entertaining and become downright frustrating. Instead of feeling a sense of overwhelming satisfaction on beating them, players will end up feeling they just got lucky.
The same can be said of the enemies as well. In later areas of the game, large groups of enemies will engage you all at once and the combat system in such scenarios doesn’t hold up well. Despite the increase in speed, the enemies can easily overwhelm you with their long combos and high damage output resulting in many cheap deaths.
Despite some flaws that tarnish the experience somewhat, Dark Souls 3 is an enjoyable game. It’s about pushing through obstacles, conquering the impossible, and feeling a sense of overwhelming satisfaction at the end of it all. It’s similar to a roller coaster ride, where you are nervous and a bit scared, but also feel that sense of joy and excitement that it has to provide. It’s exhilarating and fun, and easily one of the best gaming experiences of this year.