The Souls series and any of the games associated with it have been known as the ultimate endurance challenge for years. Dark Souls 3 has the potential to embrace this status like never before with a brand new thrilling adventure from Bandai Namco and developer FromSoftware.
At its rotten undead heart, this is still the same Dark Souls that became infamous for causing many players to lose their patience and even sanity to a certain extent. For the uninitiated, the basic concept behind Dark Souls is to face against the hordes of different enemies and bosses in the hopes of defeating them. Defeating an enemy will result in earning the series’ staple souls currency. These souls are then used to level up different character stats, purchase items, upgrade weapons and they also have some other functions. The classic twist is that dying whilst holding souls results in losing them. Dying again without collecting them from the spot where the character died results in losing them forever.
Scattered all over the land of Lothric, where the game takes place, are bonfires that the character needs to activate. Dying will result in being returned to the last bonfire used. In Dark Souls 2, there were so many bonfires that it became less risky to explore and potentially lose any collected souls – essentially making it not as thrilling. The level design in this new entry returns to the same concept from the original title. The number of bonfires found has decreased and most of them are not near the increasingly challenging boss sections or if they are it is required to find shortcuts. It’s exhilarating to come across a shortcut that makes it a lot easier to return to a bonfire or even find another one closer to a boss.
In order to defeat enemies it is necessary to have a decent weapon, armor and at the very least a basic strategy. It’s possible to choose from one of many classes when starting the game. Choose wisely because this decision can change the way the game is played. Each class is adapted to suit a certain play style such as the knight that works best with close combat. Although it is still possible for a character to learn new skills, such as pyromancy fire spells, which depends on the attributes a player chooses to level up. The beauty of this is that the player has the freedom to decide how the adventure plays out.
Initially, the path set out for the character feels somewhat constricted. There are some bosses that must be eliminated before truly getting a sense of the size of the game’s map. Get through this initial challenge, which shouldn’t prove that difficult for seasoned players, and many more areas become available. Once again there are all sorts of bosses and regular enemies to find and eventually defeat. What is so fascinating is finding all the different paths that connect the many areas. Even better is eventually finding ways to connect some of these areas by means of previously closed doors, fake walls and other contraptions.
Each of these areas never feels out of place and it’s not uncommon to stop at times to take in some of the views and witness just how far the character has come. Literally, since most of the areas are easily viewed in the distance from certain places in other areas. It easily makes for some of the best level design seen in the video-games industry and it’s humbling to imagine how many hours were spent painstakingly ensuring each area was connected to the others in often surprising and thoughtful ways. In a way, Dark Souls isn’t just a game about fighting against the increasingly challenging odds. It’s also an escape from the real world to a fantastical place simultaneously filled with dreadful and wonderful sights – in a way similar to the world of Fillory depicted in the Magicians books trilogy and TV show.
The architecture and environment itself has a way of telling players tales of the areas found that text or even cut-scenes could not. Once proud towns now desolate and falling apart. Dungeons filled with scorched bodies and skeletons easily give an idea of the atrocities that took place there. Dark Souls 3 isn’t concerned with dazzling players with wondrous tales of heroic deeds. Instead, it continues to rely on players to use their own initiative to learn more about what happened – imagination is a powerful tool that shouldn’t be underestimated.
Scattered all over the world are other characters to interact with as they continue their own journeys or even agree to aid the player. There are item descriptions that give players tantalizing insights of what happened to warrant making a third Souls title. But best of all is that in this cruel world where pretty much everything is trying to kill you, these on-going developments make it seem less desolate. The Firelink Shrine hub where the character levels up and interacts with other characters is a perfect example of this. Frequently visiting the hub will result in observing these often eccentric characters change as their own individuals and that gives the feeling that Dark Souls 3 isn’t just about what happens to the main character. Checking up on these characters is surprisingly interesting or at least it is for those inclined to do so. Again, it shows that there are many ways to play the game without ever feeling forced to do anything besides defeating the bosses for story progression purposes.
As with other titles, there is plenty to do in this one. There are covenants to join and partake in specific tasks and even the fan favourite Warriors of Sunlight covenant makes an appearance. This ties in with the whole social aspect of the series where the player can invade or invite the worlds of other players with the intention of helping or defeating their characters. There are also many items to look out for and although it might seem like armour and other equipment is lacking in variety early on, this is certainly not the case once being able to forge weapons from special items and even finding rare items. The world of Dark Souls 3 is as intricate as the player wants it to be. What is most fascinating is how it all works extremely well without ever breaking the careful balance put in place, since none of it ever feels forced.
The combat itself is similar to that found in the other titles. Depending on the play style, it’s possible to equip a weapon and a shield or even just make use of a bow or perhaps magic. These tools of battle can be reinforced so they do even more damage. Now the real trick is to use them in an efficient manner. Go into a fight mindlessly using a weapon and the character’s stamina bar will be depleted and it will most likely result in death. Obviously, death is a part of the whole learning experience and more so with tougher bosses where each attempt could result in finding that elusive weak spot. Fighting in Dark Souls 3 feels best when checking the enemy’s attacks and attacking when the time feels right. Obviously, this isn’t the only rule to adhere to since it’s necessary to react instantly when swarmed by enemies or caught off guard. The ability to dodge out of the way to evade enemies is still just as essential. However, what matters is that the combat mechanics never feel like the reason for dying or being stuck in an area.
The open nature of Dark Souls 3 means that when it’s too challenging to defeat one boss, it’s surely because there are other less challenging bosses to take care of. Given the abundance of enemies, it isn’t difficult to also just defeat a few whilst exploring other paths that potentially lead to new areas, in order to gain enough souls to level up or upgrade equipment.
It’s clear that the release of Bloodborne has given Dark Souls 3 one major advantage over the previous titles. This is that it’s easily the best looking title in the series. Every area has some unique detail that makes it stand out, from the snowy area leading up to an iconic location players will recognize to the initial castle town. Dark Souls 3 definitely feels like it’s rewarding long time fans of the original with more than a few familiar sights. Some of these even show the fate of some of the more prominent characters from previous titles. It’s the sort of detail that FromSoftware is so good and it makes it worth checking every nook and cranny to find some of these.
What fans might find is how forgiving Dark Souls 3 can be at times. The original had a sadistic nature to it that almost felt like it got a kick out of tormenting players. Whilst Dark Souls 3 still provides plenty of challenging surprises, it never feels quite like they are there just to torture players. Yet, this also means that those who played the original are always expecting the worse and that is probably a good mindset to have in order to survive in this entry.
As for the boss battles, these feel inventive and like the development team has learned a few new tricks from working on Bloodborne. Most bosses change tactics halfway through the battle and some even come back from the dead for another round. This ensures that battles feel thrilling and players can’t just stick to exploiting the same weakness. The thrill that comes from defeating some of the more challenging bosses is a feeling that not many games can claim to have stimulated. It’s deeply satisfying to defeat every boss and more so for those of us who aren’t quite as skilled as those proficient in the ways of these titles, who always seem to know every tidbit of information to gain the upper hand. The thrill isn’t just about defeating another formidable foe, but realizing that in doing so means being able to explore more areas and that is really exciting.
There is so much to discuss in a way that mirrors the release of the original. Yet, it’s interesting to think that the first proper main Souls title on current generation is able to make players feel the same way that the original did. It offers an unforgettable adventure that will have fans fine combing every area for details for months to come. Whilst it does feel familiar, there is no denying that this is another formidable entry in the series and the right successor to the throne occupied by the original.