From Software’s run of sequels and spiritual successors has remained largely happy with gentle iteration since the company struck gold with cult hit Demon’s Souls in 2009. Even Bloodborne, with its departure from High Fantasy to Victorian Cosmic Horror and emphasis on fast-paced, shield-less action, remained a recognisable face of the From family. Dark Souls 3 marks a familiar return to the formula that made From’s name while paying respects to its predecessors, but does so with more brains and heart than that concept might have yielded in less skilled hands.
Dark Souls 3 is set thousands of years after the original Dark Souls, where the protagonist canonically “linked the fire”, extending the life of the dying magical flame whose passing marked the land’s fall from grace. There have been many cycles of the fire failing since then, and each time a hero has risen to link it again. In the land that now calls itself Lothric, you are the Ashen One, an undead with the potential to link the fire, rejuvenating the world anew. Instead of having the ability to regain your humanity for power and special abilities, like in previous Dark Souls games, you can now become kindled by empowering yourself with a fragment of the flame’s grace.
Dark Souls 3 is, well, Dark Souls. In terms of core gameplay mechanics and loop, it’s largely identical to previous instalments. Swings of your weapon, casting spells, and dodge-rolls temporarily deplete a rapidly-refilling stamina bar at the cost of your character’s exertion. You carry a limited number of healing items, Estus Flasks, that replenish when you rest at bonfires that double up as checkpoints and fast-travel portals. Defeating enemies that you come across in the world awards you with Souls, a currency for merchants as well as levelling up. Should you die (you will), you have one chance to return to the spot of your death to reclaim your hard-earned Souls; dying before touching your bloodstain means you’ll lose those souls forever.
You’ll need those Souls, too, because Dark Souls 3 retains the character progression system from previous Souls games. Levelling up requires almost as much active strategy as your foes, since you select which specific character attributes to boost. It’s a delicate balancing act: do you you boost your strength for more damage, endurance for more stamina, or vigour for a blip of extra HP? As ever, Dark Souls is a min-maxer’s paradise, and people with a predilection for stats and optimisation will revel in selecting the most efficient paths to potency in battle.
And that battle is good. From’s combat systems rely on a formula of forethought, observation, and calculated reaction, and it all takes place in a world that’s designed with a keen sense of occupation for the player. There’s a real sense of weight and presence as you tried beaten paths and engage each foe, and (aside from the occasional glitch), hit-boxes nail the connection between weapon and enemy, as well as hostile attacks on your person.
The only exception to this is when you dodge-roll. Rolling triggers player-character invincibility for some frames of the animation, which means that if you time the action effectively, you can roll through attacks without taking damage. This mechanic works for both offensive and defensive approaches, and you’ll often find it’s better to roll towards enemies through their attacks to better exploit their weaknesses. It’s not a new feature to Dark Souls 3, but it’s worth mentioning because enemies are designed to prompt you to exploit different nooks and crannies of the combat and traversal systems that the game has on offer.
Another feature that returns, albeit from way back in Demon’s Souls, is the Focus meter, which is for all intents and purposes a mana bar. Spells are no longer limited to a defined number of uses; each incantation costs a certain amount of Focus Points (FP), which you can replenish with Ashen Estus flasks. You always hold the same amount of Estus Flasks, but you can decide on the proportion of your flasks that will be Ashen or vanilla healing varieties. I really love playing with the trade-off between healing and casting potential.
Focus points still have a use if you’re melee only, though. Each weapon now has access to Weapon Arts, which range from alternative light and heavy attacks to buffs and charge attacks. These skills drain your FP and they’re sometimes really useful for getting you out of tight situations, so Ashen Estus flasks aren’t to be sniffed at if you’ve favoured brawn in your character build.
Every weapon feels different too, and most feel viable for the right character build; it’s up to individuals where they want to sacrifice reach, speed, or power. Dark Souls 3’s inventory and equipment menus might feel like a handful for new players, but for experienced Souls players they’ve never been cleaner or faster to navigate. Each weapon features different stat requirements and scaling, and it’s a relative breeze to work out the specifics of each tool at your disposal, right down to just how many points of damage your dexterity stat adds to your katana. That said, though, newcomers would do well to take a look at the game manual when first working out the game’s menus; to trained eyes they’re intuitive, but there’s a lot of information onscreen for the uninitiated.
The rhythms of conflict are ingrained in you from the get-go as you ration your actions against your stamina pool and feel out the best way to deal with each enemy and each situation. An important part of Dark Souls 3’s gameplay is that From doesn’t necessarily distinguish exploration and combat; they merge and twist them together in a way that makes the world feel alive and deadly, rather than a gauntlet scattered with enemies, that tests your wits and application of all available techniques.
Of course, the most frequent test comes in the form of the myriad enemies you’ll come across in your journey through Lothric. True to its lineage, Dark Souls 3’s world features some truly devious denizens; even the weakest enemies are capable of overpowering you if you allow yourself to be surrounded or taken by surprise. You’re forced to really look at enemies, their attack patterns and animations, dancing on the fringe of their range until you’re certain of how you should best exploit their weaknesses.
It’s almost impossible to talk about Dark Souls without mentioning difficulty nowadays. Even the series’ PR campaigns have revolved around its challenge. The game is certainly hard; it doesn’t suffer fools, punishing the unwary with swift death. That said, when you’ve learned to play the game on its own terms, it’s really not as difficult as some might make it out to be. Where rashness is discouraged, patience and preparation are rewarded, and if you’re just finding an area or encounter too difficult, you can always summon help. There’s even a covenant that summons someone to guard you should an invading player trespass upon your world.
That’s not to say that Dark Souls 3 doesn’t have a number of tricks up its sleeve to make you lose composure. I won’t spoil anything, but let’s just say that not all enemies, or environments for that matter, are how they initially appear. Expect to be surprised. But even the most ridiculous, initially-overwhelming hurdles can be overcome with patience and a little bit of practice. No matter how much the game pounds your senses to disorient you occasionally.
Speaking of senses, Dark Souls 3 is an audiovisual delight. A graphical upgrade that’s accompanied the generation hop since Dark Souls 2 has been put to good use. The particle effects that embellish your character when kindled crackle and burn, adding a flourish of colour to highlight your power. Architecture and nature alike seethe with wild, lost grandeur. Character models from friends to foes to bosses are dripping with the classic From Software touch; it’s delightful to see that even in the fifth instalment of this spiritual series, From still hasn’t lost the ability to evoke that trademark disturbed awe. I’m appreciative of varied enemy designs, and Dark Souls 3 offers a fine menagerie of horrors to face off against, from mad villagers to hulking demons and creeping abominations.
Environments are great, too, offering a grand diversity of locales to traverse. There’s a Dark Souls 1-esque feeling to Lothric as a world, which is sure to please those that favoured its tangled, deep world design over Dark Souls 2’s more linear layout. There’s not quite that sense of complex interconnectedness here, but it’s still a joy to stumble across clever intersections and shortcuts between areas.
While you work through Dark Souls 3, it’s increasingly apparent that the game is very aware of its ancestry. I’d go as far as to say it’s almost a kind of “remix album” of the Souls series: in places artistic assets are outright lifted from previous games, although there’s always a clever twist or subversion to proceedings. There’s a consistent sense of dilapidation to Lothric’s locations. Not in the same sense of magnificent decay that’s the hallmark of the series, but a more muted, tired kind of erosion that speaks volumes about the context of your quest: you’re fighting to save a world that’s endured perhaps countless apocalypses, only to always fall into the same horrors again and again. This worn-out world maybe doesn’t have another cycle left in it. Maybe the magic that has sustained the world for so long isn’t the force it once was. I really liked that about Dark Souls 3. It’s not afraid to hint at these massive, terrible themes, using old assets ingeniously as it does so. The major caveat to my endorsement of this approach is that you simply can’t get the most out the the experience if you haven’t played at the very least the first Dark Souls, otherwise those revelations of reference and subversion are lost.
As fond as I am of From Software’s very particular brand of game, Dark Souls 3 does suffer from many of the issues that have always plagued the series. Chief of all is the issue of communication. From the stuffed menus that I mentioned earlier to intricacies of side-quest requirements, Dark Souls 3 continues the series trend of esotericism. For instance, a vital NPC- a sorcery vendor (important to me since I went for a sorcery/dexterity character build)- disappeared permanently midway through my game, seemingly at random. After a quick google, I found that this was because I’d neglected to give him a magic scroll before beating a specific number of bosses. This isn’t something that I was made aware of at all until it was too late, and it’s forced me to re-spec my character to account for the fact that I have no-one to teach me high-end sorceries now.
The other main problems that plague Dark Souls 3 are of the technical variety. I find that one of the most interesting parts of Souls games is the online elements, from messages to invaders to jolly co-operation. Unfortunately, each time I boot up Dark Souls 3 I might sit through minutes and minutes of failed server calibrations. The fix that I found to somehow work was to set up an active download before signing into the game. I’ve never had those issues with previous instalments of the series, so I’m confused about how From have set up the system differently this time. The silver lining is that when you’re in the game, Dark Souls 3’s online elements are largely reliable, and there’s now a password-mediated matchmaking system that helps you pair up with friends more easily.
Some people have reported frequent crashes, especially in the PC version of the game. I’ve only encountered one hard crash myself on the Xbox One, although occasionally I’m stuck on endless loading screens for ages before resetting the game. This tends to happen in conjunction with server hiccups, like when a summon attempt fails for some reason. Otherwise, I had a fairly plain- sailing experience, although it’s worth noting that there are some prevalent issues being reported in the community to look out for.
Dark Souls 3 is a game that knows and smartly leverages its lineage to great and intelligent effect. It’s a solid, broad improvement upon its predecessors in the mechanical department that’s got the brains to take an already expansive, absorbing lore in fascinating directions. While it doesn’t have the impact of the original Dark Souls, Dark Souls 3 is every bit as fascinating-a puzzle to uncover, explore, and conquer.