"...at the end of the day, it's more Dark Souls — which is exactly what we want."
As I am not a PS+ member, I was unable to use any online functionality. As such, there is no critique of it in this review.
When Dark Souls kills me, I wonder why it is I'm always so compelled to stand back up at the nearest bonfire and give it another shot. In most other games, I'm done for the day after a few deaths at the same place. Is it stubbornness? Maybe it's knowing that feeling of "I did it!" is just around the corner. Perhaps I just prepare myself mentally. Whatever the reason, I went back to Dark Souls III again and again after each death, certain that with "just one more" attempt I could take down that boss or successfully leap across that gap. Surprisingly, however, Dark Souls III is gentler and less insidious than its older siblings.
Oh yes, I died, and I died often. Bosses stomped me, enemies crept up on me, I fell from precarious plateaus and slowly died from poisoning in toxic swamps. Is Dark Souls III a challenging game? Absolutely. Unless you decide to dust off your NES, then it's likely the hardest game you'll play all year. Still, and perhaps it's just my ever-increasing experience with the series, I felt more comfortable in Dark Souls III. Many bosses looked utterly terrifying after pushing through a fog gate, but were pushovers* once the fight began. Fellow editor and Dark Souls expert Robert Steinman blazed through the game as a melee powerhouse in less than 25 hours, though at the time of writing this I'm nearly at 40, with likely considerably more deaths, as a sorcerer. In the interests of full disclosure, I have not yet beaten the game, but I am only a few bosses away. The enticing challenge the series is known for is still there, and I'm sure that if this is your first Souls game then you'll be overwhelmed by the difficulty, but experts may find it less intense (and fortunately, less frustrating) than its predecessors.
I won't even attempt to explain the story, because it's as vague to me as all the other entries in the series. The important takeaway is that you must explore the world, defeat the creepy bosses and light bonfires as you go. There are some subtle and not-so-subtle nods to the first Dark Souls game that any fans, myself included, will appreciate, including a revisit to a couple of key locations. I'm sure those better versed in Souls lore will find plenty to enjoy in the story, but for the rest of us there's still the terrific and decidedly mysterious atmosphere that is a treat to experience. There are still framerate issues too, though they're not as pronounced as in the last-gen entries, at least on PlayStation 4.
Dark Souls III takes place over a dozen or so locations that are joined together in a linear fashion that sits somewhere between Demon's Souls and Dark Souls I styles. Almost every area in the game is linked physically, but typically only at either end which makes walking an unattractive option. Fortunately, you can teleport between bonfires (which, for the uninitiated, function as checkpoints) from almost the beginning, so the game feels more like individual levels than a single open-world. Also like Demon's Souls, there are decidedly fewer bonfires but more shortcuts, meaning that you open faster paths through levels even if you're often returning to the same bonfire each time. Functionally, this approach makes little difference to the gameplay, but it does link areas like a cohesive whole rather than long linear paths. In a couple of locations, however, the constant maze of shortcuts had me lost more than a few times. There's little in the environment that we haven't seen before: castles, cathedrals, swamps and dark dungeons abound, but with plenty of hidden secrets and interesting features I found the environments more enjoyable to explore than the mess of level design in Dark Souls II.
Building your character has always been an important part of the Souls games, and it returns in III largely untouched. When the game begins, you choose a "class" to play, but really these just serve to determine your starting gear and stats to build off. Killing enemies rewards you with souls that serve as both the experience and currency of the game. On level-up you allocate a single point to one of your stats (RPG staples like strength, dexterity, intelligence, and so on) which requires an ever-increasing number of souls. When you die, you drop all the souls you carry in a bloodstain. To retrieve them you must physically go and pick them up, but if you die again before you do so, they're gone forever. This adds an extra layer of difficulty (and sometimes frustration) to the proceedings.
Character builds are flexible in Dark Souls, and you can easily create a spell-slinging wizard who walks around in heavy armour or a lightly armoured swordsman who approaches fights with hit-and-run tactics. There is considerable complexity to characters, largely because of the insane number of stats used to monitor everything from thrust defence to bleed resistance to fire damage and beyond. For some this will likely seem an impenetrable wall of numbers, but it also allows for a great variety of play styles. Unfortunately, in Dark Souls III not all builds are created equal. I spent most of the game as a pure sorcerer: lightly armoured and relying on my spells to get me through, but that stopped being a viable choice as I approached the end. Sadly, a number of late-game bosses seem specifically designed to frustrate casters and reward melee characters, and they often feel cheap and frustrating.
On the plus side, the best new magic-related feature is the introduction of an MP (called FP) bar. No longer are spell casts restricted as if they were semi-consumable items: wielders of sorceries, miracles and pyromancies can now cast as many spells as their MP (and new magic-restoring Estus flasks) allow. This was an excellent decision on the part of From Software and allows for new flexibility when preparing and casting spells. You can even set your ratio of health to magic restoring Estus flasks as often as you like. As always, you can wield magic in one hand and a blade in the other for all sorts of fun hybrid character builds. There are a few new spells this time around, and hexes are notably absent, but the essential bread-and-butter of damage, healing and utility spells remain.
Combat remains as fun and difficult as it has always been. You can hold one item in each hand at a time in any combination you like: sword and shield, sword and torch, magic staff and sword, axe and axe, bow and shield, a weapon in two hands and so on. Blocking and dodging are vital parts of combat, and both are often needed with expert timing to take down the more challenging encounters the game throws at you. There's a good variety of bosses on show, similar but just different enough to those we've seen before. An early boss with specific weak points is an early highlight, as is a later encounter that dances around you with its blades. While regular enemies may look different from past games, there's little in their melee-or-magic combat style veterans won't have seen before. Still, exploring the world is a joy, and it's a wonderful feeling when you finally develop a good strategy to take down a foe.
The sounds of silence accompany you for most of your journey, as there's not much of a soundtrack playing in most areas. The quality of sound effects is still disappointingly low, and slashes and spurts of blood sound over-the-top and oddly out of place at times. A number of times I thought I could hear the footsteps of a distant enemy, only to discover they were just my own. Only short conversations with NPCs appear in Dark Souls III, but they're all voiced and generally spoken well. Boss music is the highlight, though. Soaring orchestral music and haunting choirs pierce the boss fights and bring an epic quality to every major encounter. The score is intense, dramatic and fits perfectly thematically.
If you love Dark Souls, then III is an easy recommendation. There are a few streamlined features such as the MP bar, improved dialogue options and new special skills to be found on every weapon, but at the end of the day, it's more Dark Souls — which is exactly what we want. For new players, Dark Souls III actually may be a good place to start with its arguably easier difficulty. Still, if you've never liked the series, there won't be much here to change your mind. Now excuse me while I go finish my playthrough and start New Game+.
*When I say
pushover, I mean I still died nearly half a dozen times or so to the easiest of them. If Dark Souls has proved challenging for you in the present or past, perhaps this How To video from Bandai Namco will give you a hand.