I wrote two articles on the first Dark Souls game in 2012. I’ve become a better gamer and better writer since then, so I hope I can articulate why I enjoy this game. In this review, I will mostly compare and contrast Dark Souls III to previous games in the series (I’ve not played Bloodborne, and only played Demon’s Souls a small amount). But if you are unfamiliar with the other games in the Souls series, this review should still be comprehensible and enjoyable.
The appeal of the Dark Souls games is that they are challenging and rewarding. The people playing the Dark Souls games, though, will offer differing opinions on the details. Are severe punishments for death a suitable challenge or an irritant? How much randomness and customization should be allowed in combat? How much value should be given to each stat? Is the riposting system a fine prize for dedicated players who memorize enemy movements or unnecessary trial-and-error tedium? Are groups of enemies too overwhelming or are they a death-defying challenge?
You’ll see all of these things in the Dark Souls games, but you’ll rarely see two gamers agree on the specifics of what makes the game good. This makes each new Dark Souls game (including 2015’s Bloodborne, and don’t forget that 2009’s Demon’s Souls was the first) not necessarily an improvement over the previous entries, but a definite attempt at refinement, not a mere rehash.
Another caveat is that the game is famously very hard. You have to learn the mechanics or you will lose. But it’s not unrelentingly brutal; there’re a lot of buffs and different items you can use to help with tough levels or bosses, but your fundamentals have to improve or you won’t get far. It’s especially entertaining to see the frustration of San Francisco hipster game reviewers who have little gaming skill because they only play walking simulators but nonetheless have to play a Dark Souls game and say good things about it because it’s popular or they’ll lose their jobs.
As with previous Souls games, you can play for the first time with or without a walkthrough. Both are enjoyable for different reasons. Playing without a walkthrough means no distractions, a more meaningful sense of discovery, and the accomplishment of solving things on your own. Playing with a walkthrough, conversely, means less frustration and getting lost, more items in your inventory, and beating bosses in five attempts instead of thirty. And, of course, you could play the game multiple times for both. It’s up to you to decide what kind of experience you want to have, and the game is quite different based on whether you spoil yourself.
The first thing I noticed after playing Dark Souls III blind (aside from the fact that my old video card couldn’t run the game and I needed to wait a week to order a replacement in the mail) was that the game is more linear. The hub area near the start has much fewer paths to travel than the first Dark Souls, though it mercifully has all of the shopkeepers in one spot rather than scattering them across the game world. There are still plenty of branching paths to explore new areas, but these paths are decidedly fewer in number than in previous Souls games. The first game in particular had a gargantuan labyrinth of intertwined areas. Chris Wagar goes into more detail about the series’ varied linearity here.
There was one point where the game explicitly told me I needed an item to continue. So I could have either 1. Backtracked through every corner of every area I had been to for the next three or four hours, risking death the whole time, until I found the item; or 2. Opened up a wiki and found where to go in 30 seconds, a place I had overlooked the first time. For people who like digging through every corner of the game world, you can do that, but at times I wished that Dark Souls III–as relatively linear as it is–wasn’t so vague in regard to travel directions. This game needs an in-game map.
In the Dark Souls games, combat is slow, methodical, ponderous. You have to make your movements count, and button mashing will get you killed. You need to evaluate how long your attacks take versus your opponents’ and whether it’s safe to commit. As Chris Wagar says, the game is about greed management, about “can I get a hit in?”
You can’t just hold to block button and expect to remain unscathed all of the time; blocked enemy attacks take a heavy toll on your stamina meter, and many monsters have unblockable attacks or flurries of blows that come rapidly enough to break through your defenses. And not all shields block 100% of incoming physical damage, and none of them can block all elemental damage. So any competent player should to learn to dodge (mandatory) and riposte (optional) or put huge amounts of points into the endurance stat (discussed below). Dodging moves your character out of the way of enemy attacks and grants invinciblity frames based on your dexterity stat. Riposting is much more complicated, though. Much like parrying in fighting games, it involves performing a risky move at the instant an enemy strikes. If you perform a riposte successfully, you knock your enemy off balance and their guard is wide open. However, it takes a lot of practice and trial and error to get this right, and since the enemies are so varied, the skills you learned in riposting their attacks will become useless in the next area. A lot of enemy attacks are also impossible to riposte, adding further difficulty to this system.
When you get behind an enemy and backstab them, you get a short cutscene where your character impales/cuts/bashes them in the back (depending on your weapon) and hurls them to the ground, giving you time to recover stamina, drink a healing potion, run, or press your advantage, as they cannot defend while they get to their feet. During backstabs, your character is also invincible to other enemies’ attacks. You can even do this to some human-sized bosses, and it’s practically essential for beating some of the more powerful knight mini-bosses. This is an improvement over backstabs from previous games and a welcome addition.
In Dark Souls III, endurance is a near-worthless stat dump. You need high endurance (which increases your maximum stamina) to be able to do anything, as all attacks, blocks, dodges, spells, and running will quickly drain this meter and you are nearly helpless when it’s empty. But, as opposed to other Souls games, putting points into endurance gives such puny results that you might as well not bother. Did they nerf that stat in this game because it was too good in previous ones? It’s unfortunate, because that nerf renders the stat useless and somewhat limits your possible builds. Poise is a heavily nerfed stat in this sequel, too. I’m blaming the PvP players for this.
There was one enemy that filled the entire screen. It was a Resident Evil 4-esque enemy that looked like a zombie until you got close, then it exploded into a gigantic parasitical beast. But when I got close enough to take a swing at it, it filled one hundred percent of my screen with its bulk. In a game where footwork and terrain in combat are so important, this led to me being absolutely unable to do anything against this foe, dying to something I knew I had the skill to beat if I could zoom the camera out slightly. The much-improved-from-previous-entries lock-on system doesn’t help here. Mercifully, you can prevent them from transforming if you can kill them in under a second, but that shouldn’t be required. I know the standard retard response is “git gud”, but this was one of the new enemies in the game that was badly made.
I’m going to commit Dark Souls blasphemy here: I don’t like losing souls upon death. All it does in ensure I go back to base and level up constantly so my combination money/exp resource doesn’t go to waste. Given the unconventional level layouts and the lack of an in-game map, it’s entirely possible to lose your way back to your bloodstain and die a second time to entirely different circumstances, including enemies you’ve fought a hundred times before. The real-life time lost upon death is punishment enough for players with day jobs. This isn’t enough to ruin the game–I know it’s supposed to be hard and punishing–but I personally don’t like it. But at least this game rewards you more for staying alive than it does punish you for dying.
What’s more is that it kicks you while you’re down in what David Sirlin called gaming’s “slippery slope”. If you’re less skilled at Dark Souls, you will die more and won’t level up as much, making the game harder, making you die more. You could grind more to make up for this, but level ups aren’t as momentous in the Dark Souls series. In some other RPG or action-RPG, a level up will probably increase all of your stats and make fights significantly easier. In Dark Souls games, a level up increases one stat of your choice by one point. And the game is so deliberately difficult that you need to improve lots of different stats that vary based on your build. Either that or get better at the game.
You have the new option of exchanging health potions (restored at every save point) for the desired number of mana potions at save points, as long as you end up with the same amount of overall potions. While useful and flexible, this doesn’t change the fact that wizard builds are limited because spells are still underpowered and your mana is going to run out sooner than you think. A pure magic-user build is probably not possible, as you need a backup melee weapon no matter what.
On the plus side, weapons have more moves than in previous games. Even ordinary, non-enchanted weapons offer a bigger variety than light attack/heavy attack now, and the game actually gives you a move list (the menus in this game are much more helpful than in previous entries, which offered a puzzling series of hieroglyphs with no explanation). And much like in Dark Souls II, weapon degradation is so slow as to be easily ignored. In the first Dark Souls, I lived in constant fear of my weapon breaking from overuse and had to keep several viable backups. I even had to weigh the need to attack chests to check for mimics (I was unaware until today that the mimics disguised as chests in all three Dark Souls games will breathe and have slightly different-looking chains) with my need to not break my sword. That was an interesting mechanic, but probably one better discarded. Weapon degradation has never helped any game that I’ve seen.
I haven’t played multiplayer. PvP doesn’t interest me, and I love the challenge of fighting bosses on my own instead of in a group.
There’s a level that’s a dungeon. Not dungeon as in “medieval game’s level”, but it has rows of barred cells and stone walls and torture devices and it’s filled with warped bodies of the damned and their jailers. There’s a frequent hideous squealing noise that sounds like a baby dying. I wasn’t sure at first if it was from a monster I could fight or the dungeon’s ambient sounds (it was the former), but it’s disturbing and drives home that this is a dungeon where only suffering occurs. One of the monsters in this dungeon is a jailer witch with a branding iron. When they see you, they put a curse on you that steadily reduces your max hp down to a sliver and stops if you kill them and slowly recovers. They have regular attacks, too, but the curse happens on eye contact with no indication other than a heartbeat sound and the dropping HP meter. The first time I saw my HP meter decreasing it freaked me out. This is an expertly crafted level in an overall great game.
One returning complaint I have is the lack of in-game map. It’s very easy to get lost in the asymmetric levels that are filled with bizarre layouts, dead ends, broken stairs, pitfalls, and garbage strewn everywhere by the levels’ inhabitants. Another unique thing about this game is there is no video game OSHA compliance. Most areas are crumbling ruins full of ramshackle buildings, cliffs, holes in the floors, and piles of debris that render it impressively common to fall to your death simply as you walk around the mapless levels. On the other hand, the lack of map forces you to memorize the layouts of the levels. Dying a lot and repeatedly replaying the same locations helps in that regard, too. There’s an item you can get that is just glowing pebbles. You drop them to mark your way. Unfortunately, they disappear if you die or leave the area. Good idea ruined.
For some reason fans of the Souls games love to see new players play with no prior knowledge. Blind run/first time players of these games are very popular on Twitch.tv. Even if you’re not good at it, fans of the games love to see new players discover what’s inside.
The game couldn’t run on my old video card on the lowest settings, though I don’t see any significant different in the visuals compared to the first two games. They probably assumed that every player will have a computer more modern than the one I built on the cheap in 2012. Then again, I was able to run The Witcher III at full speed on medium settings on that rig, so maybe Dark Souls III just has bad optimization.
I’ll momentarily touch on plot and aesthetics. The plot in Dark Souls III is the same as in previous games: Vague, ill-defined, and told mostly through the scenery. This isn’t a bad thing–in fact, I enjoy how refreshing it is to not have to sit through endless streams of dialogue–but after five games of the same mysterious dark phantoms in place of a linear and understandable plot, the players who care about video game stories might be annoyed by now and want some straight answers. You won’t find any here. You get the same broken, moldering, used-up world whose glory days are thousands of years in its past. But you shouldn’t judge games by their plots.
The monsters in this series are unique looking and always grotesque. The ten foot tall things with the deformed heads and primitive weapons (pictured above) are particularly nasty looking, especially in motion. Most areas are appropriately foreboding and mysterious, though some are recycled from previous games. The music is also the same fare you got in previous games: Dark orchestras with tons and tons of ominous pseudo-Latin chanting. It fits, and it’s never irritating, but it’s not interesting.
Dark Souls III is a big improvement over II. From Software finally worked out the kinks and made a streamlined, powerful, enthralling game. Get it.
Special thanks to Chris Wagar for fixing a lot of my errors in the first draft of this article.