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April 12, 2016

'Dark Souls 3' Review: A Triumphant Return To Form

Dark Souls III is a return to form for the series, and a rival for “best Souls game ever” in my ever-jostling rankings of the franchise.

Whereas Dark Souls II left much to be desired, Dark Souls III feels very much like coming home. And what a brutal homecoming it is.

I mean this both in terms of pure quality, and in terms of what you find along your journey. Familiar faces, locations, and loot will make you fondly reminisce about your adventures long ago, in Lordran. There’s also some tips of the helm to Demon’s Souls, and even Dark Souls II.

Note: This is a spoiler-free review, though I do talk about changes to mechanics and new ways certain NPC’s and areas function. No spoiler details for story, boss names, item descriptions, etc. follow. There are some screenshots from my playthrough however. I will write spoiler-filled pieces and post videos after launch.

There’s much less of Bloodborne here than the early screenshots and previews led us to believe. Sure, some of the Gothic towers off in the distance have a bit of that feel, but otherwise it’s a game that shares almost nothing in common with the PS4 exclusive. Combat is much more akin to Dark Souls than anything, though a new Skills system gives a lot more variety and flexibility to gameplay. This should be especially interesting in PvP.

Skills are basically magical abilities that use your “FP” or magic points. Each weapon has one, though sometimes it’s little more than a charge or special attack. Other times it’s quite literally magical, bursting a sword into flame or casting a healing spell.

I’ll be honest, though: I mostly don’t use the Skills for my weapons. That’s partly out of habit. I simply don’t remember they’re there. At times, however, they come in really handy—one boss fight in particular is almost impossible without a special weapon’s special skill. I suppose I may use them more over time, in the many subsequent playthroughs I’m sure I’ll play in this delightful game.

Dark Souls III (Credit: From Software)

Dark Souls III (Credit: From Software)

Other Changes, Great and Small

There are other changes to the formula. The Firelink Shrine serves more as a Nexus than it did in the first game, for instance. You can teleport to any bonfire you find right off the bat, which really changes the traversal of the game compared to the original. But you still collect your NPC’s and they come back to the Firelink Shrine to help you along your journey, as merchants mostly, and sometimes as NPC’s with elaborate, opaque questlines, which lead to tough fights, summon signs, and usually loot.

Merchants function quite a bit differently than they have in the past. Magic (and Faith and Pyromancy) teachers require you to bring them magical tomes in order to expand the spell list they can teach you. The blacksmith requires special Coals that you’ll find here and there about the world, in order to infuse weapons with various stones (which provide various changes to your weapons, imbuing them with magic or fire or a better leveling stat in strength or dexterity and so forth.) And the first merchant in the Firelink Shrine asks you to bring her Ashes to expand her inventory. (There are other merchants that ask to go off in search of better loot, and will leave the cave for a time if you allow it.)

The teleportation element does change the way the world is built to some degree. While Dark Souls III does a far, far better job at creating an interconnected world than its predecessor, I still feel that some of the magic of the original is missing. There are shortcuts, but fewer of them. They’re simply not as necessary when a closer bonfire can be teleported to. That’s a shame. Nevertheless, there have been moments I’ve opened a door that’s wrapped all the way around to a much earlier stage, or glanced over a sheer castle wall to stare down hundreds of feet at an area I cleared three hours previously. In terms of vistas and scope, the game feels even grander and more epic than any of From Software’s other Souls titles.

Dark Souls III (Credit: From Software)

Dark Souls III (Credit: From Software)

It’s also very challenging, though I’ve come to a point where I feel that this is harder to judge than before. I’ve gotten better as a player over the years. I don’t think this game is as hard as Dark Souls or Dark Souls II, and some of Bloodborne’s boss fights—especially in the DLC—felt harder than this as well, though Bloodborne’s different mechanics threw me for a long loop. In a lot of ways, Dark Souls III isn’t as hard as the rest of the games. Either that, or I’ve simply gotten better and more savvy about how to beat these games. The truth is, I don’t exactly know.

There were two or three boss fights I beat on my first try, though one of those I summoned an NPC to help. Almost all of the boss fights I’ve fought solo. Only once did I summon other players (it’s practically impossible before launch with the relatively empty servers once you get to later stages of the game) and they both died before I died. Useless!

A couple boss fights stumped me two or three times before I figured out the trick to winning. A few others took four or five deaths before I emerged victorious. But not once have I been stymied for so long that I rage quit, which has definitely happened in BloodborneDark Souls II, Demon’s Souls, and the original Dark Souls. We’ll see if this changes in NG+.

Other observations:

  • There are magic Estus flasks now. You can allot how many regular and how many magical flasks you’d like to bring with you at the blacksmith. Estus shards are back from Dark Souls II.
  • Dual-wielding is a big deal this time around, with lots of different weapons that are designed to be wielded one in each hand.
  • The music is absolutely gorgeous throughout. I have the OST on CD of all things, and I listen to it while I drive. Gives me shivers.
  • Toxic is back, but it’s not as bad as before. Curse is back, and it’s not as bad either though it’s worse than in Dark Souls II.
  • The game feels strong and solid throughout, rather than bogged down by a poor third act. I suppose not everyone will agree with me here.
  • I will need to play through this game a few more times before I have a solid grip on everything. Forgive me if I’ve left important details out of this review. Partly that’s also to avoid spoilers.

Beyond this, the game is simply wonderful. There’s tons of new weapons and armor sets, and some familiar ones. The same goes for spells. There is no pesky Agility stat, and dodging and rolling work exactly how they did in Dark Souls, the iFrames intact. Combat feels tight and smooth and wonderful.

I love that there are more humanoid enemies this time around, as well. None of the NPC’s I’ve fought are as tough as some of the Hunters in Bloodborne, but they’re on par with previous Souls games. The more monstrous beasts are all terrifying and satisfying as well.

The stage design is extremely good, too, with tons of secrets to be unearthed (and many I’m sure I’ve missed) and a great aesthetic that really hearkens back to Dark Souls. There’s that wonderful, horrible sense of dilapidation and decay everywhere. Ruins overrun by vines or sinking into swamps. Gorgeous views around every deadly turn. It simply feels like Dark Souls ought to feel, in a way that the sequel never did.

Performance-wise, the game runs pretty well on both PC and console, though PC has some weird errors and framerate issues and I’ve heard tell that it doesn’t run great for everybody. Welcome to PC gaming.

Only the character creation screen dipped into unplayable frame-rates for me. On console and PC, there are certain stages that perform much worse than the rest. But I suppose every From Software game needs its Blighttown, no?

Still, I’ve heard from colleagues who have had far worse luck with the PC version than I have, with rigs that should have much better performance. So that could present an issue for some gamers. For me, I’ve hovered around the 60 fps mark most of the time.

I have run into other issues, however. Occasionally the load screen will take forever launching the game. Loads in game are pretty quick. I also experienced some really frustrating Steam connectivity issues for a while, though that seems to have cleared up (and could have been on Steam’s end, or my own, for that matter, rather than a fault of Dark Souls III.)


Credit: Dark Souls III

Credit: Dark Souls III

Dark Souls III never quite captures the magic of the original, but that’s probably simply an issue of virginity. I lost mine to Dark Souls, before moving on to Demon’s Souls, and now that I’ve played so many of these games it’s pretty much impossible to tap into that sense of “Oh my god I’ve never experienced anything like this before!” that hit me so powerfully in the Undead Burg.

Instead, Dark Souls III does everything really, really well. It is the best looking Souls game hands-down. It’s built with care and attention to detail, and all its systems work flawlessly. (Though I am refraining from a real discussion of its online components until everyone is playing together.)

Beyond that, Dark Souls III is a game that harnesses nostalgia masterfully. There’s no doubt that this is a game that’s as much love letter to fans as anything else. There’s a bit more exposition, tons of familiar faces and nods to the original game, and a sense that we’re travelling back to a place we haven’t been in a long time. There’s a sadness to this adventure, but also a kind of joy.

I can’t wait for all of you to come play it as well, so we can talk about it together.

Obviously, I give the game an enthusiastic Buy on my Buy/Hold/Sell scale. For newcomers and old Souls fans alike, there’s plenty to love here.

P.S. I have some Let’s Play videos up on my YouTube channel if you’d like to check those out. More to come as well.

Dark Souls III

Platform: PC, PS4, Xbox One (mostly tested on PC)

Developer: From Software

Publisher: Bandai Namco

Released: April 12th, 2016

Price: $59.99

Score: 10/10

A review code was provided for the purposes of this review.


Text by Forbes

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