DARK SOULS III Review
I figured this one would be a doozy, given that I’ve never actually completed a Souls game in the past. That’s not to say I haven’t gotten close (after all, I did reach one of the possible final bosses in BLOODBORNE), but knowing the Souls series’s penchant for brutal game design and unflappable foes, I was wondering if I’d be able to pull it together for a review of DARK SOULS III. And yet, my fears turned out to be for naught, as I progressed through the latest exercise in masochism out of From Software quite handily, with nary a tip from a guide nor a friend or two at my side. DARK SOULS III is certainly a change of pace in the series, and after playing it, the only other thing I can say with certainty is just how ambivalent I feel about that.
DARK SOULS III is by all means a great game. The bosses are bigger and scarier than ever, and the weapons have never been as fun to use. The level of production is higher than what we’ve come to expect of the series, and it’s never been as approachable. Yet coming from the perspective of a franchise veteran, it just feels off. For the first time, a Souls game didn’t live up to the infamy that comes with that trademark, never making me feel like screaming and throwing my controller at the TV. It was simply . . . enjoyable, which is an odd thing to complain about for just about any other title, but perhaps not for one that has established certain expectations for itself.
-“You expect me to have fun playing your game?”
-“No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!”
And that expectation that exists for DARK SOULS is that it is supposed to be an exceptional challenge, a novelty in a market that caters more and more to be as welcoming to newcomers as possible. The elation of success that came from slaying a boss in DARK SOULS was only made possible by the amount of hardship that went into achieving it. Ornstein and Smough, the bane of my and many others’ existence in the first DARK SOULS, weren’t a hard fight due to their size or abilities alone. Rather, upon falling to them, the player had to fight past a respawned horde of giants and gargoyles before they could even make another attempt, a process that took minutes even if you tried to rush past combat, and was often just as challenging a battle as the upcoming bosses if they stopped to engage.
This is a layer of artificial difficulty, a challenge upon a challenge, that simply doesn’t exist in DARK SOULS III. Sure, gauntlets of lesser foes and environmental hazards exist, but never to the point where I felt like I was being challenged beyond my capabilities. Added to that, the bosses in DARK SOULS III, while the most impressive to look at, are easily the least challenging of the bunch, at least in relation to earlier incarnations. It’d be easy to chalk this up to my improved prowess at the Souls formula, yet upon going back to investigate, the likes of Ornstein and Blood Starved Beast continue to vex me in ways that flashy newcomers like Curse Rotted Greatwood, High Lord Wolnir, and Yhorm the Giant never will.
Yeah, it’s for babies now
Mechanically, DARK SOULS III is a massive improvement, with From learning many a valuable lesson from BLOODBORNE. Weapons are more versatile with the added secondary abilities each now has, making each sword, axe, and polearm, even at lower levels, handle with a distinctly personalized feel. Taking an additional cue from BLOODBORNE, DARK SOULS III plays much faster than its predecessors. Defensive sword fighting with a shield, par for the course in previous Souls games, is discouraged this time around, as two-handed weapons and techniques have received massive buffs. This philosophy extends beyond combat as well, with bonfires now acting as fast travel points, much like the lanterns in BLOODBORNE. This removes the tedium of backtracking that previously defined the series, yet with it, it also erases the danger and peril that came with traversing from one end of the world to the other. Though the intrinsically essential elements of minute-to-minute play have been polished to a keen edge, the overarching design has been dumbed down as a result.
Not every simplification is a bad thing, however. DARK SOULS III continues the series tradition of telling its esoteric backstory through miscellaneous item descriptions, yet the basic concepts of the narrative are laid out more clearly than returning fans will have come to expect. The kingdom of Lothric has fallen to madness, and the only way to restore balance is to slay the three undead Lords of Cinder and return them to their thrones. It’s basic but effective, cluing players in early on what exactly they’ll be doing during the game, rather than wander aimlessly for the majority of the experience like in previous Souls games. The establishment of situation is an innocuous yet impactful improvement on the formula, creating a sense of purpose while maintaining that trademark aura of mystery.
It’s shit like this why we’re not allowed to throw parties anymore.
After all is said and done, DARK SOULS III remains a highly enjoyable experience. Both PVP and cooperative player covenants are made available much earlier than in previous titles and lack any humanity requirements, meaning that DARK SOULS III’s multiplayer content is much more readily accessible than ever before. In fact, DARK SOULS III felt like the first title I’ve played in the series where the multiplayer meta wasn’t hidden behind endless layers of obfuscation and requirement walls, despite having been active during both BLOODBORNE and the original DARK SOULS’ online lifespans. DARK SOULS III’s world, though now easily traversable through teleportation, feels the most natural in layout of any From has created. Though Lothric doesn’t approach the aesthetic heights of Yharnam, it stands out as the most fun I’ve had exploring a map from this studio.
DARK SOULS III has proven to be one of the most conflicting titles I’ve played this decade. By every meaning of the word, the series is the most user-friendly it’s ever been, without making any concessions mechanically. Though this would be a miracle anywhere else, it feels distinctly out of place within DARK SOULS III. Yes, I had an immense amount of fun playing DARK SOULS III, and yes, the series has never run better, yet I worry too much identity has been lost in this installment for From’s later titles to continue to carry the same pedigree of quality that they’ve enjoyed in the past. Everyone should play DARK SOULS III for the merits of its own construction, yet they should do so outside of the context of the Dark Souls franchise, lest they believe this game to be something it merely carries the name of.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4, also available on Xbox One and PC.