From Software’s Dark Souls series has to be the most enjoyable form of digital masochism in the world that’s experienced on such a wide commercial scale. While we’re loathe to imagine other forms of “entertainment” that can best it, it’s still amazing to think about how Dark Souls 3 can beat you down so much, so quickly and still push you to come back. Dark Souls 3 is that crazy ex-girlfriend you just can’t ignore; who makes life hard for you but always has you returning for more, like a bad Maroon 5 song.
"A cycle has been in play for years now and that very cycle is being repeated in Dark Souls 3. What is the connection to the past? That’s up to the player to discover on their own."
If you haven’t played a Dark Souls title, then the premise – especially this time around – is simple. You’re an Unkindled or Ashen One, an undead creature tasked with slaying the Lords of Cinder. Throughout the story, you’ll meet numerous entities such as yourself, all befallen with the curse of the Unkindled. Will slaying the Lords finally allow you to die? What has happened to the kingdom of Lothric? Dark Souls 3 is amazing for its abstract yet accessibly dense lore. A cycle has been in play for years now and that very cycle is being repeated in Dark Souls 3. What is the connection to the past? That’s up to the player to discover on their own.
The majority of others will be busy grappling with the brutal combat. Dark Souls 3 feels more fluid and fast than its predecessor. You can equip a variety of weapons as before but have to keep equipment load in mind, lest you slow your movement. Multiple classes from the start let you take charge of a knight armed with a sword and shield, a mage who focuses on spells, a thief armed with a bow and arrow, and many more. A “naked” class of sorts is also available, promising true customization and the character builder has been significantly expanded upon from before.
Once you decide on your class, you’re plunked down into the world and immediately set to gathering souls. Some enemies are easy fodder, though their main purpose is chipping away your health and they can be fatal in packs. Others, like the noble warriors who have fallen to the darkness, can dodge, heal and weave around their environments like you, inflicting massive amounts of damage. Then there are the fiendish, hulking monsters that can shred you instantly. Dark Souls 3 has a variety of foes that can and will wear you down physically as well as mentally. You’ll fear losing the souls you’ve gathered. At times, venturing ahead and risking everything could either reap great rewards or spell doom for you.
"While Dark Souls 3 gives you a few avenues for staying alive – keep that Estus Flask warm for healing – fighting enemies is ultimately about making even fewer mistakes."
Combat in Dark Souls 3 is easy to get into but difficult to master. Blocking with a shield is good for damage mitigation but dodging will be your key asset of survival, especially for classes that shouldn’t be using shields. Equipment load determines your movement so while you may be interested in higher defense, it can result in slower movement. Overall combat feels more fluid and fast-paced but your stamina ultimately determines how much dodging you’ll be doing. New to Dark Souls 3 are Weapon Arts, special movies that utilize the new magic meter and can give you an edge in fights. Their effects vary, from granting increased attack to new, more powerful heavy attacks.
Enemy patterns have to be understood, mastered and accurately avoided. While Dark Souls 3 gives you a few avenues for staying alive – keep that Estus Flask warm for healing – fighting enemies is ultimately about making even fewer mistakes. Should you go for the quick, successive strikes? Should you smash an enemy with a heavy attack, taking longer to ready yourself? Could you probably get behind your enemy and back-stab them (which is noticeably better than in Dark Souls 2)?
This is where the frustration and key appeal of Dark Souls 3 arises. When you take down a particularly difficult enemy, you’ll feel like a monster yourself…until you encounter the next awful behemoth that tears you a new one. Collecting Souls will upgrade your character but all the grinding in the world won’t substitute for skill. And when you die, you lose those souls unless you can make your way back to your bloodstain. In this way, Dark Souls pushes you to keep going, to try again, if only to retrieve those souls and to learn from your mistakes and become better. Running is an option but you’ll just die tired. The boss fights, from the opening dual to the massive behemoths you chip away at mercilessly, are some of the series’ best yet. If any one aspect of Dark Souls 3 could irk me, it’s that its targeting would sometimes ignore the foe two feet away. This causes your camera to swing around and when you’re primed for combat, it’s not exactly the best frustration in a game full of them.
"On testing the game on different configurations with other AMD and Nvidia GPUs, we encountered much better performance. Frame rate stutters still came up from time to time though."
Speaking of frustrations, the PC version had some…interesting performance issues. An Nvidia GTX 770, Intel Core i5-4440 and 8 GB of RAM delivered excellent 60 FPS performance at High settings. That is until reaching the Road of Sacrifices. The game proceeded to hang repeatedly, requiring force quits. These issues eventually subsided at Farron Keep but the frame rate had halved and stayed less than stable. On testing the game on different configurations with other AMD and Nvidia GPUs, we encountered much better performance. Frame rate stutters still came up from time to time though. The point is: Your performance may vary. From Software will have a Day One patch so expect improved optimization come launch day but if you’re gaming on PC, you have been warned.
Conniptions at technical issues aside, it’s incredible just how beautiful Dark Souls 3 looks. The world of Lothric is grisly, disturbed and painted in blood and gore. The swamps are crawling with disease, dotted in sacrificial totem poles. Bodies lay everywhere, both armour and blood rusting over. Do some assets bear a resemblance to the previous game? Sure but that’s to be expected. Is Dark Souls 3 the most beautiful game ever? No, but it is the most visually pleasing game in the franchise. It may not be as aesthetically unique as Bloodborne‘s Victorian macabre but this is a Souls game and you’ll be reminded of it at every turn.
That constant reminder tends to seep into the overall gameplay. For all the improvements that Dark Souls 3 has seen, it still feels inherently familiar. Maybe it’s too familiar to the second game and maybe it hasn’t changed enough. That wouldn’t normally be a problem but Bloodborne evolved the formula so much that one can’t help but feel a tinge of remembrance for the PS4 exclusive. Dark Souls 3 has its own charm though.
"It’ll constantly find ways to make your punishment more severe but it’s worth every single moment of fire you can muster to rise to the occasion."
You don’t start off Hollowed and if you do opt for that path, it’s a more complex system that inherently powers you up while sacrificing your humanity. Embers can be gathered to increase your max health and provide an edge to your overall survival. Various items exist to be acquired and used for their own ends. Maybe that Young White Branch will help win over that large beast you talk to.
Maybe you’ll find a Great Soul that can be forged into a more powerful weapon down the line. Maybe that annoying Uchigatana-wielding warrior has a treat that could make your struggles a little lighter. Dark Souls 3 is jam-packed with secrets, nuances and things to do. The world doesn’t feel much larger but it feels significantly more alive (or undead to be more specific). And if you want an even greater challenge after dozens of hours of heart-break, then New Game Plus is available to lay on even more hurt.
Dark Souls 3 may not break new ground but it doesn’t have to. It’s a well-paced experience with multiple layers of difficulty, exploration and beauty that just taunts you to get lost, emerging as a tormented but ultimately stronger player in the end. Performance snafus for this particular reviewer, Dark Souls 3 is highly recommended for new and old players alike. It’ll constantly find ways to make your punishment more severe but it’s worth every single moment of fire you can muster to rise to the occasion.
This game was reviewed on the PC.
Classic, difficult combat feels more fluid and responsive. Excellent art direction and visuals. Foreboding soundtrack immerses you in the world of Lothric. Improved character builder and class diversity. Best boss battles in the series.
Some inconsistent performance on PC; frame stutters even on powerful configurations at times. Very familiar to Dark Souls 2, despite new additions to combat. Slight targeting issues at times.