Dark Souls 3 doesn’t stand completely tall, but still achedly shambles ahead the series in a few key areas.
Lands of ash and dust seem easy to drop into games as lifeless backdrops for your heroic endeavors. Areas that tackle the other side of the coin project paintings of huge villas as jungles of activity, equally easy to imagine in the over-simplified equation of death equals death and life equals life. From Software is one of the few companies – now officially steeped as one of the elite crews developing games today – that throws that rationale to the wolves. Their games walk the line between life and death, showing an insatiable struggle to hold to both at once and balance the thinnest blade possible between the two. Dark Souls 3 illustrates this through every level of its design like no other Souls game has, but leaves behind some of the series’ lively spices in the process.
From the beginning area, you can feel the elephant in the room that is the influence of Bloodborne on the traditional formula. Your Undead’s animations are almost cartoonish in their speed while enemy aggression levels are at the series’ peak here. Most of the tweaks work around one another sublimely with the enemy’s aggression dousing a Bloodborne ‘attack-attack-attack’ mindset. Defense via shields and parries is a viable, highly recommended approach, as are ranged attacks and abilities. Another huge trade-off is the Ember system that takes out Humanity. Crushing one of these consumables increases your health greatly and puts you on the online radar for summons and invasions. Extra health, as a new addition, creates a benefit for taking this risky step, especially with the presence of constant invasions.
At the ashen core, this is still Dark Souls complete with more trade-offs than ever. One of the most pivotal changes is the tightening of the souls belt, making levels feel both more and less significant until you really ramp up certain areas. Around trait level 20 is where you really feel the difference, and you could realistically go through to the end boss without even hitting level 70. For comparison, my Undead that just swept up a first round of Scholar of the First Sin is sitting at level 170 and still requires less souls to level up than his Dark Souls 3 counterpart (around level 80).
Purpose is given to the 90 percent of weapons you won’t be using for their stats through their special skills, encouraging exploration in a way that hasn’t been there before. Some weapons may be especially adept at taking out one enemy while others are your tried-and-true dealers, and your play style decisions shift into your weapon choice in a way that feels beyond upgrades. Boss soul weapons have especially devastating effects that, given the proper builds, could rule the online world.
Unfortunately, there are online problems preventing a lot of would-be conquerors. Summon signs will automatically report failure, massive frame rate drops litter battles, and a more constricted number of available battle zones don’t make online play favorable currently. There are plenty of offline technical hiccups as well, a few of which seriously hamper progress and gameplay. One later game boss fight has a frame rate that chugs hard, and one mini-boss decided to fly above the roof, never to be seen again and denying access to his special soul. Rebalances will happen, as is the appreciated pattern with From Software, but this moment shows holes in the execution.
One aspect that hamstrings Dark Souls 3 hard, and another hold over from Bloodborne, is the lack of armor upgrades. You can infuse, reinforce, and repair your weapons at will and with a record number of options, but armor is left to factory settings. This actively takes away from the game in that you now have fewer options to push yourself past a troubling area, especially with the extreme scarcity of souls in this entry. If you already have the strongest armor you can find and still get squashed, you have fewer ways to swing the fight back to your side. This is a streamline that diminishes the game, turning a former avenue of infusion into nothing more than a trip to Google.
Lothric and its areas feel like the most tightly wound, congested areas you’ll ever find. The trade here is that there are also relatively few areas to discover, but their content is perfectly themed from enemy drops on up. The very first area is filled with grave robbing ghouls that don’t take much effort to dispatch, and their drops demonstrate this weakness with Fading Souls – the lowest kind in the game. You’re set immediately into the wavelength of the area from struggle to weariness to secretive, and this all comes not from NPC dialogue or plastered tabloids; the world tells you its own state through its inhabitants and the way in which it crumbles. This continues straight through the game to the statues of prayer in one snowy area and those of fearful pleading in another, and the stories told here are some of the saddest in the series with so many just looking for a way to survive the dying flame.
For many, the story in Dark Souls is not a priority, but as a part of this game and this series, it seems like a fan’s dream. Most of the stories outside this timeline are delivered the usual Souls way (read: items) vis-à-vis the state of the world and its inhabitants with the world around you just telling the state of things at the moment. You may come across a Stray Demon, which are usually fire-spewing hell beasts, that is bereft of flame and doesn’t hit as hard as you may recall. That’s a story in the moment whereas most of the history can be pieced together somewhere else through items with that mixture continuing a level of engagement that’s second to none.
In a fascinating twist, this is the first Souls game to really introduce the idea of a villain, albeit lightly. The Lords of Cinder – those that have linked the fire in former ages – have abandoned their posts for their own gain, and it’s your job to bring them back in pieces or otherwise. Without going into spoilers, it’s in their reasons for abandonment where you see the light sprinklings of villainy that feel new to the series, giving one boss kill in particular a little extra kick of satisfaction as they dissipate. Dark Souls 3 has callbacks galore as well, each reshuffled into the deck in a different way that ultimate fits, especially with the overarching story. This is actually where quite a few fan theories are either rejected or confirmed, but whether these answers really needed to be spelled out so completely is certainly up for debate amongst the fan base.
Individual stories from NPCs have never involved so many steps and required you to be at the proper spot at the proper time. In my playthrough, maybe a single quest line was complete out of at least half-a-dozen that I could find. That ties into a mound of secrets from illusory walls to the horde of Mimic chests, hidden gestures, hidden items, hidden endings and areas that help drive you back for another round of ash. Finding how these NPCs end their respective plows through the ashen storm is a tasty hook that will surely bring another playthrough or two, not to mention an intriguing ending to the game that went unfound.
For the most part, boss fights are used as pace-shuffling set pieces, adding in some gimmicks that may not please everyone. However, every change of pace feels appreciatively dripped in lore and meaning, not just pulled from nowhere ala Dark Souls’ Chaos Bed. The new approaches to victory are all completely inside your character’s wheelhouse with the solutions pretty obvious with observation, which players of this series should be used to. Fewer zones equal fewer boss fights and time inside a single playthrough though; my file sits at 26 hours with no walkthrough, only one boss not taken down, and the areas pretty well combed through. All the quality is still present, just not in the spades of previous Souls.
Dark Souls 3 doesn’t feel old or repetitive for a single second, walking that tenuous line between light and dark as each area adds a new chapter to the lore or brings you a new challenge to tackle. Even more, the focus on weaponry with skills and the massive infusion rabbit hole reinvigorates each new acquisition with possibility. That same feeling doesn’t spread to armor or currently the online play, but it does accentuate who your Undead is as a fighter. Some of the best gameplay moments in the life of this console generation can be found in Dark Souls 3, and that’s just in interactions with “normal” enemies. Perhaps it is time to discover a new application for this classic formula, but should From Software rekindle elsewhere, at least this third Souls game goes out dancing in masterful new directions, not whimpering into the darkness.