As fans and observers of the Dark Souls series know, Dark Souls games are not like other games. While the series consists of easily identifiable game design – things like a third-person camera, RPG stat-investment, inventory management, and large explorable areas – it also has an ineffable quality about it; a mixture of mystery, trepidation and awe that makes the Dark Souls games as harrowing as they are rewarding for those who take the plunge. This has what has propelled Dark Souls from an obscure exercise in masochism to a well-known landmark in today’s gaming landscape.
As a result of the proven uniqueness and intensely high quality of the Dark Souls games, they are more often compared to other games in their own series rather than to other games in general, which is what this review will mostly be about. Dark Souls 3 is now upon us, and it has big shoes to fill. Following in the footsteps of the oft-praised Dark Souls, the controversial Dark Souls 2, and the otherworldly Bloodborne puts Dark Souls 3 in a delicate position. Longtime fans of the Souls series understandably wanted the third installment to coalesce around the best components of both Dark Souls games but also carry some of that next-gen magic from Bloodborne. With series progenitor Hidetaka Miyazaki at the helm, it seemed that absolute perfection was at hand.
Does it deliver? Yes and no. As someone who has beaten every FromSoft game from Dark Souls onwards to death, Dark Souls 3 has very clear advantages and disadvantages over other games in the FromSoftware lineup. It places itself in close proximity to some games in the series and farther away from others, leading to an understandable, if imbalanced representation of the series as a whole. To be less cryptic (as is standard Dark Souls protocol), the game is pretty damn good, but not a home run.
Let’s start with some series context. Dark Souls is beloved by its community for its jaw-dropping introduction to the Souls universe. Its dramatically vertical world design inspired awe with its sheer scale and ingenious use of shortcuts to tie various areas together. It also represents the jumping off point into an intimidatingly deep pool of lore to decipher and apply to one’s experience of the game. Dark Souls 2, which wasn’t led by the same director or team as Dark Souls, turned out a bit differently. While the combat, build variety and player-versus-player gameplay all got noticeable facelifts, the level design, atmosphere and general approach seemed lacking. It was a textbook case of a sequel that took two steps backward for every meager step forward.
Dark Souls 3 skews heavily towards the Dark Souls school of thought, for good and for ill. Though the central hub of Dark Souls 3 is isolated from most of the world like that of Demon’s Souls, each area of the game is complex and branching in its own way. One of the earliest locations, the Undead Settlement, is a great example. There are several forks in the road to consider, each with different destinations and encounters, and strategic vistas to observe where you’ve been and where you’re going. This makes exploring each area exciting, and later stages don’t lose that feeling. As is standard fare with Dark Souls games, you’ll progress through a fantastically gothic and medieval world with an enormous variety of treacherous lairs and fearsome enemies. Tenacious exploration will lead you to useful items or perhaps even a secret path hidden behind an illusory wall.
The combat is also almost identical to Dark Souls. The animations for backtabs, parries, and ripostes all mirror those of Dark Souls, but the pace of fights is definitely faster (Not Bloodborne fast, mind you; you’ll still have your shield up while you roll through attacks in many instances). The gameplay of Dark Souls 3 does feel excellent though, and the new Weapon Art system – which grants every weapon a class-specific or unique ability at the cost of “FP,” or Focus Points – is a welcome addition that breathes new life into the familiar gameplay. For example, the weapon art for most short-sword class weapons is a lunging attack that can knock away the shield of a guarding enemy. This attack uses FP, which is represented by a blue bar underneath the health bar, and must be replenished using a new kind of Estus Flask called the Ashen Estus Flask. Playing the game is also less encumbering that ever, thanks to smart user-interface tweaks and menus that let you move items in bulk much more quickly. Lastly, the dazzling graphics are definitely a major plus for Dark Souls 3. Whether you’re playing on PC, Xbox One or PlayStation 4, there are lots of little details to examine, such as how little sparks fly off your character when in Ember mode.
Where Dark Souls 3 stumbles is a bit tricky to describe, not just because it has to do with segments of the game that ought not be spoiled for those who haven’t played them, but because it sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. As I stated earlier, Dark Souls 3 is clearly aligned with Dark Souls. This is true for the lore of the game as well. Though Dark Souls 3 has plenty of new, never-before-seen environments, enemies, weapons and armor, fans of the series will quickly spot references to past characters, areas, bosses and weapons from Lordran with exhausting frequency. As someone who enjoyed Dark Souls very much, I found these references to be quite rewarding at some times, but shallow at others.
As the final entry in the Dark Souls series, I fully expected that Dark Souls 3 would aim to come full-circle from the events of Dark Souls. What I didn’t expect is the degree to which Dark Souls 3 would lean on its older brother instead of standing on its own two feet. Other Dark Souls fans might find that Dark Souls 3 tickles their nostalgia without exploiting their fond memories, but not me. The amount of familiarity I felt at times was disorienting, since it extinguishes one of the central pillars of the Dark Souls experience: mystery. Ironically, Dark Souls 3 is one of the few games I could consider possibly being more fun if you haven’t played its previous iterations.
Unfortunately, this seems like a logical reaction by FromSoft, given the intense backlash that Dark Souls 2 received upon release. Fans made it apparent how much they loved Dark Souls and hated Dark Souls 2, so naturally FromSoft’s last stab at the series is much more reminiscent of the former. This is a shame, because while Dark Souls 2 did have glaring problems (I’m thinking of the elevator up to Iron Keep), it also introduced worthwhile features that are now absent from Dark Souls 3, such as parrying with ultra-great weapons, infusing boss weapons with additional properties, various covenants, and an entire dueling arena. The same is true for the lore. While Dark Souls gets endless references, Dark Souls 2 only gets a couple of items and one or two enemy types that reference Drangleic at all. I find this odd since the stories of Vendrick, Aldia and the Three Crowns seemed very consequential to the Dark Souls universe as a whole. I should also mention that Dark Souls 2 still has arguably the broadest build diversity and weapon viability for PvP of the series thus far. Dark Souls 3‘s PvP has a much smaller pile of weapons and armor to choose from, and is currently suffering some problems with summoning people in certain covenants (however, we should wait until Dark Souls 3 has had a couple patches and DLC to deliver final judgment on its PvP scene).
Perhaps this shouldn’t come as a surprise. We’ve been demanding perfection from FromSoft for years since their games are already so elating, and they delivered what they felt was asked of them. Fans often exclaim, with a mixture of joy and disappointment, that the Dark Souls series has ruined gaming for them.
Once they’ve played these games, they find they can’t go back to a time before bonfires, Estus Flasks and summoning the willpower to defeat the next boss. Though each game might have hiccups or even significant issues, we still look out on the gaming horizon and decide we could be doing much worse than giving our Dark Souls games another spin. Dark Souls 3 is no different. Though it feels somewhat captive to its predecessors, it will challenge you, lift you to new heights of euphoric victory and leave you defeated in turns. We’ve done this song and dance before, but damn if it isn’t one of the best songs and dances out there. Long live Dark Souls.