‘Dark Souls III’ Review—Praise the Setting Sun

‘Dark Souls III
Developed by: FromSoftware, Inc.
Published by: Bandai Namco Entertainment
Available on: PC via Steam (reviewed), PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One
Release Date: April 12th, 2016

The Dark Souls franchise essentially began with the seminal Demon’s Souls on PlayStation 3 in 2009, and quickly became a larger-scale cultural phenomenon than anyone would have expected out of FromSoftware, a venerable workhorse developer responsible for the Armored Core, Otogi, and King’s Field franchises, amongst others. Despite an unusual and rather dense concept, Demon’s Souls became a cult classic. As word of mouth spread about the old-school, brutally difficult action RPG gameplay, it became clear that FromSoftware had a hit on their hands.

There's not shortage of grand sights in FromSoftware's latest.
There’s no shortage of grand sights in FromSoftware’s latest.

Dark Souls aimed to capitalize on that growing popularity, its change in title necessitated by Sony’s ownership of the original IP, and released to the world two years later. By 2015, it would reach more than 5 million players, and another 3 million from both editions of its sequel, Dark Souls II. Sony also announced that Bloodborne, a subsequent FromSoftware game which held to the Souls formula, sold more than 2 million copies within the first six months of its release as a PlayStation 4 exclusive.

Seven years out from the franchise’s humble beginnings, we finally have Dark Souls III in our hands, described by returning director Hidetaka Miyazaki as the end of the trilogy. So what exactly does the finale of this long and illustrious cycle have in store for us? Has the flame already faded, or does it still burn brightly?

Metaphorically, the flame rages with unchecked vigor. In terms of the world we find ourselves in, it seems to flicker lower than ever before. The theme of ash is prevalent, a concept inextricably linked to the flame itself. The world of Dark Souls III is sickly, dying, and drained of color in a way that begs the question, has the flame simply burned too long for the world to sustain it? This stark atmosphere is impeccable. One of the game’s greatest strengths is the overall presentation, with sweeping vistas dropped behind the imperious facades of stone buildings, sunsets framed by mountains of gravestones, and alleyways slinking from upended streets into gaping chasms in the earth. Though there’s more thematic variety on display here, the environments are vivid and impacting in much the same way Bloodborne’s were. Being in the gameworld, it’s hard not to imagine the humidity of a forgotten swamp or the brisk air of an Irithyllian evening. These environments are a treacherous joy to explore, cradling an array of combat scenarios with reverent adherence to the world’s design.

Dark Souls 3 has an interesting cast of characters, even if a few could use a bit more dialog.
Dark Souls III has an interesting cast of characters, even if a few could use a bit more dialog.

Level construction stays true to expectations of the formula while doing things in its own way. The environment isn’t quite as open as Dark Souls, and is a bit more linear, but there are interesting nuances to individual locations, with loopbacks and shortcuts popping up regularly. Even after 80 hours of play, being very thorough to find every area of the game—including those hidden behind arcane secrets—I still ran across small things that I’d missed or forgotten in the course of my earlier explorations. Dark Souls III feels like a hybrid of the first two games, offering a limited number of directions at any given time, but an interesting sense of movement and inter-connectivity in the world at large. (See Tettix’s excellent, if exaggerated, visualization on Twitter for an artful example.)

These vibrant backdrops, despite their visual intricacy, are in many ways just the stages on which the drama unfolds, and most of that drama comes in the form of combat. Despite being a deep RPG with a considerable amount of story, the Souls storytelling methodology is rather unorthodox, eschewing traditional exposition in favor of doling out small parcels of information via the text descriptions of items. Consequently, the stories in these games aren’t always the easiest things to stitch together, and that goes all the more for Dark Souls III, which makes more direct references to past games than its predecessors did. Which is not to say that it’s all references; much of what it provides is new, with fresh mysteries to discover and debate.

The combat that frames the drama, however, takes center stage with the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” adage firmly in mind. There’s nothing wrong with the combat, but there haven’t been many substantial changes to the formula. The biggest addition comes in the form of Weapon Arts, in which different weapon types have unique special attacks that use Focus Points—essentially a mana reserve. In addition to special attacks, spells and miracles now draw from this refillable resource, and you can choose what ratio your regular healing flasks and the new, FP-fueling Ashen Estus Flasks have to one another.

Good use of verticality makes for expansive locations.
Good use of verticality makes for expansive locations.

Beyond these systems, Dark Souls III plays much like its predecessors. There is a staggering supply of weapons and armor to choose from, but ultimately the combat feels like it always has, and is thus visceral, deliberate, and familiar. It maintains the same high bar without doing a lot to raise it. Players will find themselves fighting emaciated corpses with huge weapons atop castle ramparts, dodging clouds of unsettling magic from the catalysts of rotting wizards, and looking for ambushes as they navigate the aisles of ancient libraries or subterranean ruins. Veterans will feel thoroughly equipped to handle the provided challenges, yet newcomers shouldn’t feel more overwhelmed than in past series entries. The core gameplay is didactic in nature, teaching players gradually through their failures and successes, with shorter, more average combats against “normal” enemies offering lessons that can be carried into the game’s epic, heart-pounding boss encounters.

Surprisingly, despite FromSoftware having issued nearly 100 boss battles in this same style between Demon’s Souls, the first two Dark Souls games, and Bloodborne, Dark Souls III still manages to impress. While not every fight is of the same caliber, and not all of them aim to be hyper-challenging, there are several fights here that could rank in the top 5 most difficult of the series, and there are plenty of others that impress through fun and creative design if not sheer difficulty, with audiovisual spectacles that are truly unique. Though much could be said about every one of these glorious encounters, they are better left to player discovery. Suffice it to say, every one of them offers something worthwhile, be it from exaggerated scale, impressive design, or simply the thrill of the fight.

Sound design, like the combat, is also very familiar, though slightly less compelling due to the reuse of many iconic assets from prior games. The nostalgia factor works both for and against them, as their familiarity can feel off-putting in a world so strange, but ultimately this does little to undermine the larger framework. Sound remains important, as many bosses have audio cues that aid in identifying attack patterns, and the game’s sense of atmosphere often hinges on ambient environmental noise rather than music.

Even the earliest enemies will still punish the poor timing of the unwary.
Even the earliest enemies will still punish poor timing.

Motoi Sakuraba and Yuka Kitamura both return for the soundtrack (with one very memorable track by Tsukasa Saito). Kitamura bears the larger portion of it with aplomb, but all the compositions are a veritable feast of melancholy delights. The weight of Sakuraba’s eerie dissonance calls to mind limited shades of Shunsuke Kida’s work on Demon’s Souls, and contrasts wonderfully with Kitamura’s more graceful elegance. The composers provide tonal breadth that infuses every major encounter with as much life as the characters themselves, and each plays to their strengths, painting aural backgrounds for the characters to which their music seems best suited. It’s easy for pieces to lose their identity when every encounter needs to feel epic (as happened too often with Dark Souls II), yet each of these new recordings is memorable on its own merits compositionally and through the contributions of the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra. This is an eminently accomplished soundtrack, and one that pays homage to its predecessors even as it manages to outdo them.

For that matter, the writing and acting also exceed the perilously high expectations set for them. Frognation’s English localization and casting choices provide the same believable characters they have in the past, some that even make use of archaic English without affectation, stuffiness, or feeling overwrought.

The only problem is that many of these characters simply don’t have enough dialog. While the quality of everything presented is excellent, and there are a variety of different NPCs who make appearances over the course of the experience, very few are as talkative as those from the previous games. It’s a bit disappointing to return to the primary hub area only to discover that NPCs are repeating their last lines of dialog instead of responding to advances in the story’s progression. Yet the characters remain vivid and interesting, the only disappointment being that they weren’t quite used to their fullest potential, even within the confines of the terse Souls formula.

New Game + runs offer new challenges and new rewards for existing characters.
New Game + runs offer new challenges and new rewards for existing characters.

Contrastingly, Dark Souls III has more direct references to its sister titles than any of those that came before it. Some of these feel like simple fan-service nods that have little impact on the fiction, some implicate the larger body of knowledge that is Souls lore, and still others are actually central to the core progression of the game proper. Whether any of these things are strengths or weaknesses will depend on the preferences of the individual player, but for my part, I found the fan-servicey references inoffensive, if inessential, and the rest was a welcome influx of new information while still providing plenty of mystery as regards questions both old and new. I was also surprised by nods to both Demon’s Souls and Bloodborne, the former which (arguably) go far enough to be construed as intending to tie Demon’s Souls to the same universe. Needless to say, despite the presence of the familiar, Dark Souls III is still full of surprises.

The multiplayer aspects of the franchise make a triumphant return, being more of a focal point than they were in Bloodborne, and more active than they were in Dark Souls II. The covenant system continues to be interesting, rewarding cooperative play and player-versus-player combat from both antagonistic and altruistic vantage points. The netcode present is imperfect, but doesn’t ruin the experience. The vast majority of my sessions with the PC version were reasonably free of lag, though connections periodically dropped, prevented me from entering boss rooms with a host, or caused the animations of other players and bosses to stop working properly. These problems were the exception, however, and even sessions with 4 or 5 players worked far more often than they didn’t.

Things were similar with the performance of the game engine on PC. While I exceeded the recommended hardware requirements on all fronts, and often sat at 60 FPS, inexplicable dips occurred several times a minute, seemingly unaltered by lowering graphics settings. I didn’t run into a ton of crashes, but did experience 5 in the course of my aforementioned 80 hours of game time. 2 of these were hard crashes, while the other 3 were merely dumps back to the desktop, and none of them prevented me from picking up right where I left off. There are reports of more serious and consistent bugs for some people (including unfortunate softbans from online play due to an overzealous cheat prevention system that has targeted players claiming innocence), but these unfortunate players seem to be part of a small minority. As it stands, the PC version of the game has room for improvement where optimization is concerned, but generally looks and performs better than its console counterparts, though the PS4 version is an entirely viable choice if you don’t have the ability (or desire) to play on a PC. Some initial bugs and performance problems were ironed out with a day-one patch for all platforms.

Some areas feature long stretches between checkpoints, keeping the tension extremely high.
Some areas feature long stretches between checkpoints, keeping the tension extremely high.

Dark Souls III has a monolithic legacy to live up to, and does so with enthusiasm and endurance—no small feat given its lineage. It does have rough edges: there are spotty aspects to the multiplayer connectivity, the optimization of the PC port isn’t perfect, and the relative dearth of NPC dialog remains a slight disappointment. That said, these are tiny blemishes on the face of a stunning work of art. With exhilarating combat, brilliant level and boss design, and plenty of information for the most dedicated lore hunters, Dark Souls III is a worthy end to a well-loved trilogy.

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