Prepare To Die One Last Time
Dark Souls III marks the culmination of FromSoftware’s difficult, grand, fantasy RPG. Both loved and loathed for its unforgiving and punishing gameplay, its dark twisted fantasy universe was fun to explore and held many hidden secrets and details. The boss battles were breathtaking, frustrating, and eventually cathartic once you finally felled your foe. Dark Souls III has these FromSoftware standards, as well as some punishing new features that make it a worthy conclusion to one of gaming’s most memorable trilogies.
As with all trilogies, both in cinema and gaming, the third entry is inevitably compared to its predecessors. Thankfully, Dark Souls III is not the Godfather III of the trilogy. Rather, it’s much like Raiders of the Lost Ark (significantly better than the second, arguably as good as the first). Dark Souls III is superior to Dark Souls II in every way. Comparing it to the first Dark Souls is much more difficult. The game tries so hard to remind players of the first game that Dark Souls III sometimes ends up feeling like Dark Souls Remastered. This is both a good and bad quality (more on that later).
Dark Souls III is set in the decaying world of Lothric. The fire has faded because the four Lords of Cinder have abandoned their thrones. Lothric is full of decay, death, ash, and misery. You play as a Chosen Unkindled who has been prophesied to restore the Lords to their thrones (I guess by killing them). It’s basically the same plot as the others, except they’ve replaced Undead with Unkindled. This is entirely unsurprising, since according to the lore, everything is cyclical. The world always begins happy in the age of light, then falls to curses and darkness when the fire fades. You always begin in the unhappy age and fight to restore the light and break the Undead Curse. Truthfully, while the story and world are beautiful and has plenty of depth should you search for secrets and read all item descriptions, it’s always taken a backseat to the punishing gameplay.
And wow, Dark Souls III is difficult. FromSoftware must have heard all the complaints about Dark Souls II being too “casual” and doubled down on the difficulty. If you haven’t played Bloodborne, then you’re in for a nasty surprise. All attack animations, both yours and your enemies, are significantly faster. It’s much harder to hide behind a heavy shield and slowly tank you’re way through the game. Enemies are often in large hordes and can overwhelm you quickly if you’re unprepared. I had to roll and dodge much more frequently than in previous entries. Rolling behind enemies and quickly back-stabbing them became a life-saving tactic. Finally, Dark Souls III has some more artificial difficulty than the other two games. For instance, Dark Souls II lowered your number of estus flasks (healing potions) to begin the game, but gave you lots of healing items to help you out. Dark Souls III lowers your estus flasks to three, but doesn’t give you healing items. Yes, there are hidden items that increase your number of flasks and they’re not too hard to find, but it’s still annoying running into initial boss battles with only three or four estus flasks. Especially when you remember that Dark Souls gave you ten!
Bloodborne heavily influences Dark Souls III. More often than not, I felt like I was playing a horror game. Enemies lurk behind shadows and hide in corners to surprise you. Irritating little creatures called thralls hide on ceilings and drop down on you when you least expect it. Of course, there’s always mimics. It seemed that every time I explored a new area, I was always ambushed by a foe I was incapable of seeing and either instantly died or lost a chunk of my health. This horror aspect isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it just doesn’t feel very Souls-like. The random ambushes felt like gimmicks because there was no way to prepare yourself for them. I was jump-scared more often in Dark Souls III than in the the other two entries combined.
Bloodborne makes its heaviest contribution to the boss battles. Like in Bloodborne, every boss has multiple stages. At around half health, every boss gains extra powers, new attacks, or recharges its full health. These transformations make every boss battle, with the exception of a few, insanely difficult. It becomes spirit-breaking when you run out of healing potions trying to survive the first stage, but you know that it’s practically pointless because there’s no way you’ll survive the second stage. Every boss begins to feel like Ornstein and Smough.
Don’t get me wrong. The boss battles are tremendous. Nearly every boss is epic, awe-inspiring, unique, and ridiculously difficult. Each battle is its own experience and ranges wildly in design, attacks, and strength. There’s a gigantic tree, a knight that transforms into a hideous serpent, a series of knights that turn the area into a gladiatorial arena, a sage that copies herself and fills the area with soul piercing magic – and that’s just a few. I complained in my Dark Souls II review that the bosses were forgettable. Well, Dark Souls III crushes that ball over the fence. Every boss is memorable, and you feel such joy and relief when you stab them for the final time.
Multiplayer is back and only slightly altered. Players leave messages to either help or troll players in other games. If you’re enkindled (human), you can leave summon signs to go assist other players, or summon other players into your world to help you. PvP’s pretty much the same. You can invade other players’ worlds or defend other players from other worlds. There are covenants that reward you for both, as well as helping players defeat bosses. My favorite covenant was the moundmaker covenant. Moundmakers leave a purple summon sign. They can be summoned into a world and have the option of either helping a player or turning on them and killing them for their embers (humanity). It leads to some hilarious trolling and seriously angry moments. Because you help a player kill the enemies, guide him down the right path, then when he’s least expecting it, betray him Littlefinger style. It’s a nice twist on an already solid multiplayer.
The game is beautifully designed and the soundtrack is gorgeous. The title theme sets the tone for the whole game. The music complements the game well because there’s only music for boss battles. So whenever you hear the music begin thundering, you know you’re in for a tough fight. The world is certainly less linear than Dark Souls II but doesn’t quite reach the same spiderweb feel of Dark Souls. There also isn’t the same sense of wonder I felt with Dark Souls. Even though Dark Souls was also set in a dying world, it at least had some color. The lush Darkroot Garden, the poisonous bog, the deadly castle, and the other areas all had some kind of life to them. Dark Souls III areas all start to blend together after a while. All the ashy cemeteries and dark castles start to blur together. Even the forest doesn’t feel lush or vibrant, and the poisonous bog is just muddy and filled with horrific monstrosities. Bonfires feels randomly dispersed. Some areas will be overflowing with bonfires, while others are frustratingly scarce. One area has a bonfire right next to another one, whereas the merciless catacombs has only one bonfire, and it’s really hard to find. I stumbled on it by chance, and it’s very difficult to defeat the area boss without finding that bonfire.
My last point is that Dark Souls III sometimes feels like its pandering to the hardcore Dark Souls fans. Dark Souls II hinted that Drangleic was the same world as Lordran but never explicitly stated it. There were clues scattered about that linked the two worlds, and certain areas looked suspiciously like past areas (looking at you Heide’s Tower of Flame), but it was never explicitly stated. Dark Souls III throws Dark Souls references at you left and right. Even at the very beginning, when you first enter your hub, it’s Firelink Shrine. You can even hear the pounding of a very familiar blacksmith. One area near the middle of the game has the exact layout and name as a Dark Souls level. The same NPCs from Dark Souls appear in Dark Souls III. I won’t name any to avoid spoilers, but I slowly began to transition from warm nostalgia to indifference. Again, I really liked Dark Souls III, just like I really enjoyed The Force Awakens, but both sometimes felt like they were rehashing a lot of their old material instead of trying anything new. I state again, I thoroughly enjoyed Dark Souls III, but I often felt like I was playing a really long DLC to Dark Souls or a remastering of Dark Souls than an entirely new game.
Dark Souls III is absolutely worth the price tag. You can easily drop hundreds of hours into it and still be enjoying the experience. It’s worth noting that the game is significantly more difficult than Dark Souls II and slightly more difficult than Dark Souls. This is probably because of all the Bloodborne elements thrown in. The transforming bosses are frustratingly difficult, and, because of the speed of your enemies, one little mistake is a death sentence. The horror elements only add to this difficulty. Yet it’s by far the best game of 2016. Dark Souls III perches like a wyvern atop a castle tower, the charred skulls of The Division, Quantum Break, and Far Cry Primal at its feet, triumphantly defending its title as both the most challenging game and best game of the year. We’ll have to see if Nathan Drake’s smile or the vastness of No Man Sky’s universe can knock it from its tower, but my guess is no.