Release Date: April 12, 2015Platform: PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One, PCDeveloper: From SoftwarePublisher: Bandai NamcoGenre: Action role-playing
Prepare to die again, quite possibly for the last time. Dark Souls III marks the return of series creator Hidetaka Miyazaki to the director chair, after focusing his attention on the brilliant PS4 exclusive, Bloodborne, and the result is a sharp and condensed crawl through a desolate world that is sure to engulf both new and returning fans of the series. The story involves seeking out the remaining Lords of Cinder, in one of a few direct callbacks to the original Dark Souls, and a big reason why Dark Souls III feels like an ending of sorts, with much of the promotional material focusing on the last dying embers of a regal flame. Miyazaki’s influence is felt almost immediately in the quiet simplicity of the opening area, the Cemetery of Ash, which introduces the game’s gorgeous panoramas of foggy, distant structures and gloomy tranquility that is hiding an incredible unease from somewhere deep within. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here: This is Dark Souls III.
In the context of having Bloodborne precede it, Dark Souls III can be seen as a reintroduction of sorts. Whereas Bloodborne instilled a frenzied sense of urgency to its combat, with guns replacing shields and a health replenishing system that encouraged aggressiveness, I found myself having to quickly relearn the more patient footwork of Souls games past in this new opening hour. As I partook in these careful patterns of movement, more pieces of the Souls puzzle slid into place: the defining soul retrieval system; the innovative PvP and co-op components, with new Ember items taking over the role of Humanity, further emboldening the cinder themes. But Dark Souls III has a few tricks up its sleeve to liven up this storied song and dance, including fundamental tweaks to the stats system which can amount to massive player health pools fairly early on.
Another central change is the blue magic bar used for casting spells with Focus Points, or FP, which are linked to their very own Ashen Estus Flask. For melee-focused characters like mine, Focus Points can also be used to pull off devastating special attacks with your weapons, which is a thrilling answer to Bloodborne’s transformative arsenal. One of my favorite new features is the ability to transfer the number of uses between both the Estus Flask and Ashen Estus Flask according to how you favor your playing style, which adds another crucial element to those trademark pre-battle preparations. These adjustments can be made within the circular corridors of the Firelink Shrink, which is even more reminiscent of the Nexus from Demon’s Souls than the Hunter’s Dream was in Bloodborne.
As with Bloodborne and its masochistic DLC, The Old Hunters, most bosses in Dark Souls III feature magnificent and unexpected phase changes over time as their health bars get depleted. Some of these simply result in expanded attack patterns, while others are breathtakingly transformative, with evolving arenas and other clever tricks that warp your initial perception of the fight. I encountered my first example twenty minutes into the game, and halfway through the tutorial boss, Iudex Gundyr. Shock turned to panic, which quickly turned to remorse for celebrating a victory before it was fully achieved, as Iudex Gundyr unleashed his fury in a frightening new form. For newcomers to the series, this will be their first taste of an important lesson in the Dark Souls universe: Nothing is for certain.
The masterful boss designs are somewhat at odds with their difficulty, though. It may be a byproduct of my years of experience playing these games, but Dark Souls III features some of the easiest boss fights in the entire series, Bloodborne included. The primary reason for this, it seems, is that many bosses have lower health pools than in previous installments of the series. With a decently upgraded weapon and Estus Flask, I was often able to solo most of the early and mid-game bosses after only one or two tries, whereas in Dark Souls II, I was constantly clamoring for help from co-op partners. The success of killing bosses still tastes oh so sweet, but it doesn’t quite deliver the same pulse-pounding adrenaline rush that accompanies felling a boss after thirty or more failed attempts of methodically building a viable strategy.
But don’t let the tamer difficulty detract you from the actual boss designs themselves, which are utterly fantastic and include some of the most carefully plotted and grandiose scopes in the entire series. With the reallocated HP of bosses, these become much faster and blistering affairs. In fact, that’s the genius of it: you’re facing a massive beast with the speed of a Bloodborne boss, but now you’ve got the shield and non-regenerative health of a Souls warrior. It’s you or them, and these do-or-die clashes often reach a bloody, frantic conclusion within a mere minute or two. It makes me look forward to subsequent New Game+ playthroughs, when deeper strategies will rise out of necessity and secondary phases will carry greater weight. If Bloodborne was not the accessible introduction to From Software that newcomers needed, then Dark Souls III will carry that torch well.
This same sense of newcomer accessibility is found lurking in the expert pacing and meticulous construct of the world. The locations in Dark Souls III are much more focused and controlled than the somewhat bloated Dark Souls II, and boss placement is smart and logical, with areas constantly alternating between vast open environments and claustrophobic maze-like interiors. In the first dozen or so hours, Souls veterans will retread some familiar thematic territory, from a decrepit castle and hazy forest to a poisonous swamp and network of sewers, but these latest iterations are still vibrant with new ideas and unexpected twists lurking around every bend (not to mention the jaw-dropping vistas that crop up in the second half of the game).
Self-discovery has always been one of the series’ strong suits, and Dark Souls III offers plenty of rewarding exploration and secrets to find, although the king of mind-blowing interconnectivity of different areas still goes to the original Dark Souls. Dark Souls III is a bit more generous with the number of bonfires and their proximity to one another, but the relief of stumbling onto a new one when you most need it remains unchanged, and it effectively plays off the feeling of constantly being propelled forward to conquer uncertain new ground. Fast travel between bonfires is also readily available from the beginning, but everything flows together in a natural progression from one area to another, and suffice it to say, these merging landscapes serve as another reminder of why we fell in love with this series in the first place, beyond its notorious challenge: Dark Souls III is absolutely gorgeous in every sense of the word, and is easily the best-looking Souls game to date (and oh, that sweeping new soundtrack!). I did encounter a few noticeable framerate drops in designated early game areas, however, but nothing that ever reached Blighttown levels.
The impassioned creativity extends to the enemy designs as well. Again, we see another small touch of the familiar, with reused assets in minor enemies like rats and poison frogs, but others are chillingly original, like shambling scarecrows with pitchforks, giant mutated crabs, and larger-than-life trolls that would have been an end-game bosses in earlier installments. You are never safe when exploring in Dark Souls III, and even enemies who seem a cakewalk from afar, like the large gentleman carrying a big clay pot, can unleash an unsettling and ruthless potential, like when the aforementioned gentleman repeatedly smashed his pot over my skull with impossible vigor and force. The inclusion of idle enemy mobs sitting in prayer heightens the tension of never knowing which ones will stand up to attack, which ones will remain sedentary, or which ones are actually friendly NPCs in hiding. Should you sneak by or attack them while they’re still unaware?
All of these aspects culminate in a dark and brooding piece of art that manages to terrify and awe in equal measure. Everything else aside, Dark Souls III instills a sense of primal magic in the player that few other titles come close to achieving, in both its rewarding exploration and calculated pacing. A few new changes revitalize the formula just enough for veterans to rethink their footing, while also working in favor of newcomers to this foreboding experience. Although the bosses may fall a little too easily at times, their thrilling execution and unexpected phase changes catapult them among the upper tiers of memorable encounters. So whether Dark Souls III is indeed the final installment in name, or as Miyazaki most recently defined it, a new turning point for From Software, players will be mesmerized to stoke the pretty flames, trying to keep that one last ember alive for just a little while longer.
Joe Jasko is a staff writer.