Absorb the hit with your shield then strike; roll away and compliment that roll with a fluid lunge – so goes the mental process when engaging in Souls series combat. The fevered, tense circling, sweaty palms gripping the controller almost to breaking point, arched back and stoic concentration waiting for an opening in your enemy’s defence: these are the hallmarks Japanese developer From Software have been cultivating for almost a decade and players both new and old can rest assured; this is the Souls game you have been waiting for. Dark Souls 3 is the ultimate amalgamation of the best features of Souls games to date. From the use of Estus flasks replacing consumables, exploration and sprawling level design to Bloodborne‘s
fluid and fast paced combat, the most beloved features from past games have been pulled together into one package, albeit with a few omissions.
DS3 presents a more pulled back and tasteful approach to lore continuation than DS2, which complements the refined gameplay and allows for a satisfying conclusion to the story. Many veteran players may experience a feeling of déjà vu with the story once again focusing on the journey of the chosen undead, or in this instance ‘unkindled one’ who must hunt down the Lords of Cinder whose embers must be restored to their thrones in a new hub retaining the name of Firelink Shrine from Dark Souls. Whilst this serves as brilliant fan service to veteran players, it does feel like the game itself loses a sense of its own identity and voice through sticking so close to themes and items of the last game. Although in most instances it is done tastefully and is meshed together well with characters like Andre the blacksmith from Dark Souls fitting in perfectly in his new surroundings, so much so, that even his animations remain unchanged.
Unfortunately, the honeycombed level design of Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls is largely absent. Areas are largely linear, although they do branch back in on one another but this doesn’t detract from the feeling that each new area feels like an entirely separate place without much interconnectivity with the last. With the ability to warp freely between bonfires as a permanent feature introduced in DS2, the added challenge of having to trek between them found in the original Dark Souls is absent. It is made up for, however, with incredibly detailed environments and items tucked away in every corner rewarding keen observation and exploration with new items and gorgeous vistas to gaze at. Slow and steady combat, a cornerstone of the Souls experience, is now a delicious hybrid with the speed of Bloodborne and the huge weapon variety of Dark Souls.
Arguably the biggest change in the series comes from the introduction of weapon arts, which give every weapon an additional set of moves that drain your mana bar – an addition which covers both combat and spell usage. When I first saw this mechanic in demos prior to the game’s release I thought it was an excellent way to get more mileage out of the weapons and encourage player experimentation. However, personally when I had time to play through the game properly, I found myself resorting back to instinct and found I rarely used the mana bar for weapon arts during combat.
Using boss weapons in the late game however allows for far flashier move sets that I enjoyed using on my second playthrough once I knew what challenges lay ahead. In addition you now have an Estus flask purely to replenish mana and can toggle the number you have to favour a certain play style. In my first playthrough I chose to play as the mercenary opting to eventually forgo mana repletion in favour of an additional Estus flask to replenish health but a similarly contrasting play style would work just as well. This balancing act, and space for players to make their own choice is what makes this series so special and allows for endless replayability.
If you feel don’t feel confident enough to venture through this terrifying world of distorted Cthulhu-esque nightmares, then fear not for it is easier than ever to call upon the various covenants in the game to provide a helping hand. In this journey, humanity has been replaced with embers, and its through consumption, players gain back their full health bar, but also run the risk of random invasions. It also gives the ability to summon help for bosses or a particularly difficult zone. As if random invasions weren’t enough, a new colour has joined the macabre spectrum – purple represents the new and chaotic mound-maker’s covenant. These summon signs appear friendly at first – helping fight back the forces of darkness – but watch your back, for at any moment this invader has the power to turn on the host and enter into a PvP match which adds a disturbing new level of paranoia to your journey.
Unfortunately some tropes of the series still remain – dragons being one, which at this point have outstayed their welcome. With all the wonderfully inventive enemy design present in the game, it’s a shame there couldn’t have been a concerted effort to make something different.
Dragons will inevitably feature due to lore implications, but I feel like Dark Souls’ undead dragon types were a step in the right direction for a sense of variety which DS3 missed an opportunity to build on.
One welcome change was the ease with which Titanite – an essential item for use in weapon upgrades – was dropped by enemies. In previous games, grinding was essential in order to upgrade weapons to their maximum efficiency and gave an added sense of satisfaction to finally upgrading your favourite weapon, in addition to having to wisely upgrade certain weapons over others.
The ease of availability of these items takes this effort away, which may lead to new players breathing a sigh of relief but takes away an additional layer of challenge which made Dark Souls so infamous. In addition the devilish AI of the crystal lizards luring players off the edge of cliffs has been toned down. What we have instead is a lethargic descendent that barely puts up a fight. I managed to kill every lizard I came across with relative ease which made getting ‘twinkling titanite’ (one of the more rare items in the game) that much easier and diminished a layer of additional challenge that I relished in previous titles.
System performance in the Souls games has always been an issue since Dark Souls’ infamous PC port problems and sadly Dark Souls 3 is no different. Dark Souls 2, for all its faults, had the right idea, allotting more time to work solely on the PC version resulting in the most stable port to date. Dark Souls 3 was mired in a crash issue from day one, with PC players approaching any bonfire resulting in an immediate crash. This could be worked around by tinkering with the graphics options but was still a disappointment. In addition network connectivity issues plagued my experience. I was often half way through a level only to be removed because the game ‘lost connection to Steam’.
These issues will eventually be resolved but it is a shame they could not have done so prior to its release date. Performance issues aside, Dark Souls 3 serves as a greatest hits of the Souls series, pulling together fluid combat, a gothic, dystopian setting and intricate level design into one 60-70 hour experience. Whilst it often felt like I was re-treading a path laid down by previous entries, it was a familiarity I was happy to embrace and ultimately it resulted in a fitting conclusion to a series that is starting to show its age.
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