Dark Souls 3 review
In Dark Souls 3, death paves the way for progress. In that regard, it’s business as usual for fans of FromSoftware’s sleeper-hit series. But digging deeper into its core, it’s the boldest, most approachable game that the company has ever created.
For those who haven’t yet dipped their toes into this proverbial pool of piranhas, let me paint a picture.
At any moment, the rug could slip from under you. Then, said rug will proceed to beat the shit out of you. That never-relenting tension makes a crossroads out of every move. You will die…a lot. But each failure is a learning experience, calling for a change in perspective and tactics. Progress comes slow, but it’s an absolute blast to play.
That unique brand of fear is back in the latest installment of Dark Souls, along with the rest of the winning formula that the series is known best for: A haunting, mysterious story that’s nestled deeply into several environments, each aged and damned in their own right. Third-person combat that’s easy enough to learn, but nearly impossible for the average gamer to master without flaw.
As similar as it may be to its predecessors, Dark Souls 3 is not a mere carbon copy.
A not-so-subtle BloodBorne shout out
FromSoftware brought BloodBorne to life last year on the PS4. And it’s no coincidence to see that some of its blood has been injected into the already-wicked Souls concoction.
Its ravenously fast gameplay has found a new home in Dark Souls 3. While unchanged from the standard “lock-on and attack” action in previous entries, Lothric’s foes are particularly ferocious out of the gate and will present a fresh challenge for new players and veterans alike. Oftentimes, you’ll think you know how an enemy or boss is going to act, only to end up both surprised and dead.
Some of the settings even appear to be Victorian Gothic-inspired, which begs the question: am I trekking through uncharted territory, or have I been here before? That’s better left for you to discover.
Lastly, the new battle arts mechanic is a riff of sorts on BloodBorne’s dual-purpose weapons. In case you aren’t familiar, each weapon in that game could be stylishly transformed into a second variation with a flick of a button, offering its own unique moves and thus, more variety to mix up your strategy.
In a similar way, battle arts lets you do more with your favorite weapons and magical staffs in Dark Souls 3. Your character will strike an intimidating pose, ready to fire off some disarming attacks on anyone (or anything) that crosses your path. These are particularly handy to try when you’re up against an opponent with a tricky defense or a group of smaller enemies.
I’m most comfortable with basic katana move sets, but incorporating battle arts into my strategy required new tactics, patience, and a whole lot of ashen estus flasks, a new flask type that allows you to refill the green focus points (FP) meter. Both magic and battle arts moves now feed from this meter and you can easily adjust the number of regular vs ashen estus flasks you carry in your inventory.
So yeah, BloodBorne’s impact on the Souls series is pretty obvious at times, but the melding of these two horrid universes brings nothing but good for players.
The Souls you know and love (with some changes)
Dark Souls 3 gets the little things right. On its surface, the game targets –and meets more often than not– a fluid 60 frames per second that really brings Lothric to life, for better or worse. It all loads relatively quickly, and oh yeah, the wobbly physics that inhabit the dead are back from the first title, which I’m probably too happy about. I enjoy the satisfaction of pushing slain opponents off the ledge, or just twisting them around for comedic effect in an otherwise dark world.
The bleak-as-hell atmosphere follows FromSoftware tradition and the soul-wrenching orchestral pieces that fill the air in each zone add a lot of intensity to battles, both big and small.
The user interface, while still pretty dense with info, is more streamlined than before. For instance, the pause menu (which doesn’t actually pause the game) is now home to some extra item slots.
This is perfect for frequently used items that aren’t necessary in battle, like the Homeward Bone or White Sign Soapstone. It’s a smart way of giving you access to more of the essentials without cluttering the screen.
In addition to making menus and combat mechanics more intuitive and easy to use, Dark Souls 3 also broadens its accessibility by being a bit more loose-lipped than before.
These titles have a reputation for being incredibly cryptic, both in the way they deliver story and how they steer you (or don’t) to your objectives as you traverse the land. Looking back, it’s very easy as a first-time player to get totally lost in Dark Souls or Dark Souls 2. That’s not really the case anymore, or at least, the fog is a little less dense this time around.
Many Dark Souls players (myself included) value the sense of discovery in these games very highly. Figuring out the lay of the land’s enemies, items and bosses is a puzzle in itself and will require a staggering amount of patience, determination and time. Finally opening shortcuts that connect far-reaching places of the game’s world feels so good.
Seasoned Souls veterans know that the beginning of each game is paved in tutorial notes and that’s probably all the hand-holding you’re going to get. In Dark Souls 3, that’s not the end of it. Sure, you see less of these developer-created messages as you proceed into tougher areas, but it sometimes extends a hand when I didn’t want it.
For example, you’ll reach an impasse near the game’s halfway point. Previous Souls games would have let you suffer until you figured it out, but this game goes ahead and tells you that you need an item to proceed. Not just that, it tells you what item you need, too. For some, this is really not a big deal, but many others enjoy figuring out the mystery themselves.
Death isn’t the end
Death, as a core mechanic in the Dark Souls franchise, brings more than just a respawn. When you die, all of the souls (the game’s form of currency. Sick, right?) gathered from beasts you’ve killed are dropped where you breathed your last. Whatever the game’s objective is immediately takes a backseat to your new mission: get the souls back.
However, if you die on your way to retrieving your dropped souls, you’ll lose them. All of them. Experienced Souls players know the amazingly fun risk-and-reward dilemma presented in retrieving them, as well as the crushing feeling of losing them all to bloated confidence. Simply put, this game will test your vocabulary of curse words.
But let’s say you die, losing your souls isn’t all that happens. You become ashen. It’s a status effect, similar to losing humanity in previous Souls games, that essentially reduces you to a fraction of your former self. You’ll have less health and lose the ability to summon AI or human helpers in the online component of the game. Embers can bring you back to speed, but they’re rare, one-time-use items that are finite in supply and…oops, you died again? Your ember is gone.
It feels incredibly harsh at times in Dark Souls 3, as it always has, but works to nail in my earlier message that every move, whether it be physical or using up an item, is a crossroads. Sometimes, the consequences of your actions are irrevocable. Yeah, it’s a bummer when you realize you’ve done something that you can’t reverse, but it’s what gives these games teeth, as well as a hell of a lot of replay value.
How’s the online play?
Dark Souls 3 is a single-player game that can be experienced fully in offline mode. But where it really shines (praise the sun!) is as a multi-player game. With online mode on, it isn’t just a bunch of players running around willy-nilly in the same world. Instead, you’ll see ghosts of other players running around the land. Players (including yourself) can scribe messages on the ground along the journey to offer help, or if you’re a stinker, to misguide others.
You can always see these messages, but in order to summon others into your world, you must use an ember. Since you become ashen after you die, you’ll want to make the best of every go-around with a summoned player, especially when you encounter a boss fight.
Conversely, to join another someone else’s game, you don’t need an ember to put down your own summon sign. And sometimes, the rewards for helping out others can be huge. Not only will you earn the souls you nab in other players’ worlds, but if you’re lucky, you might get an ember for your cooperation.
During my time with Dark Souls 3, I was able to be summoned once, but due to the small amount of people online, I couldn’t find any human players to call into my game. I played for a few minutes with a group of others, but the leader of the pack quickly died, which resulted in me being sent back to my world.
Running around a pre-launch universe is weird. The world’s locales are, understandably, way more sparse than what players will see when the game launches. Of course, I don’t anticipate having a tough time finding people to summon when the game is widely available, nor will I be surprised when I’m invaded by hostile opponents on a regular basis.
As a result of the near non-existent player base, I was forced out of my comfort zone and left to play the game all alone. “Boo-hoo” some of you are saying. Most hardcore players prefer to plow through a Souls game by themselves before calling in others for help. Not me! No shame. I love the game’s difficulty, but I also really enjoy playing this sort of game with others.
So, you beat it. Right?
Unfortunately, I didn’t. And I’m oddly excited by that. My fear in booting up the game for the first time was that I was going to start this review with a line something like “Souls veterans, this isn’t the game you’ve been waiting for” or “Souls sells out for a bigger audience.” But that’s not the case.
It’s definitely true that this game makes itself more approachable in ways that I’ve described above, but in no way does it stoop below the difficulty that helped the series establish such a notorious reputation among the gaming community.
In one week, I was able to sink in over 30 hours into the game. I reached level 54, have beaten about 10 bosses and discovered about 30 bonfires. And I feel like I’m only about halfway through the game. Of course, I had planned on beating the game, partly to best a short deadline and a masochistic personal goal. But also to instill confidence in you that I can fairly assess it.
Just in the past few months, I finally beat both Dark Souls 1 and 2 to prepare to die some more in the next entry. Before that, those games sat filed away for quite some time in my Steam backlog under the category “I’ll never beat these”. Thanks to some encouragement (and a whole lot of dying,) I found a character build that jives with my play style and starting making progress. It was never easy, but by-golly, I did it.
And I thought I could do it in a week with Dark Souls 3. I’ve technically failed that goal, but unlike most games, you can beat a Dark Souls game without seeing a large majority of the good stuff. Stuff that’s hidden around corners, deep within murky depths and the like. And in my time, I’ve seen a ton of that. Instead of speedrunning my way through, I opted to squeeze the most out of every location, just like I would if I weren’t under pressure.
Sure, I could have played all-day long for five days in a row, but that’s not how I want to play a Souls game.
I know that I’ll beat Dark Souls 3 soon, maybe even before it releases. But during my time with it, I was able to see for myself that this game accomplishes a lot. The story treads on both new and familiar territory and I really can’t wait to see how it concludes.
Verdict: Play it
The highest accolade that I can give Dark Souls 3 is that it’s the best since the original Dark Souls. But is it better? In some ways, it’s absolutely no contest. But FromSoftware’s latest isn’t after the throne. If anything, its just building upon the legacy, with a mix of old and new to move the series forward.
If this is your first Souls game, welcome, and secondly, don’t give up. It’ll take a little time until it hooks you. You’ll get it, but you won’t get it. You might even feel the need to restart completely a few times just because you wanted to do something a bit differently. And that’s totally okay. Actually, I encourage it.
Before you know it, you’ll be thinking about this game, even when you aren’t playing it. Running through the world’s paths in your dreams, trying to solidify your knowledge of each shortcut. Maybe even looking at bystanders a little differently, waiting for them to ambush when you walk by.
When the news hit that Dark Souls 3 would more accessible, I initially felt happy that a new audience would get into the series. Then, that gave way to the fear that it would result in a game that was too easy. Nope, this is the game you’ve been waiting for. FromSoftware has delivered yet another incredible game that’s more than worth the price of admission.
Editors note: FromSoftware provided techradar with a review build of Dark Souls 3, which is content complete in terms of being able to start a new game and finish it. That said, a planned Day One patch will arrive on the worldwide launch date, April 12, that will enable multiplayer servers for the greater public outside of Japan and hopefully fix some minor frame rate issues that I’ve noticed on my somewhat competent PC build.
This game was reviewed on PC.
Techradar’s review system scores games as ‘Don’t Play It’, ‘Play It’ and ‘Play It Now’, the last of which is the highest score we can give. A ‘Play It’ score suggests a solid game with some flaws, but the written review will reveal the exact justifications.
- Quantum Break was also awarded our “Play It” score
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