Ashes in your mouth
It’s been seven years since Demon’s Souls released, introducing players to what has become one of the most celebrated and sadistic series in modern videogames. Developer FromSoftware are no strangers to crushing players’ spirits, having delivered the notoriously challenging dungeon-crawler King’s Field to the PlayStation some 15 years before, but while that series never quite emerged from its niche status, fading into obscurity in recent generations, Demon’s Souls was nothing short of lightning in a bottle – or better yet, an Estus Flask – teaching a new generation to love the taste of crushing defeat.
Now, after a pair of sequels and the stellar spin-off title Bloodborne, the Souls trilogy has reached its conclusion with Dark Souls III. While this final journey into the dank and crumbling corridors of Lothric may feel a bit too familiar at times, it still serves as a spectacular sendoff for the franchise that no fan of the series should miss.
Dark Souls III’s story is set against the backdrop of Lothric, a land that feels quite a bit like an amalgamation of Dark Souls II’s Drangleic and Bloodborne’s Yharnam with its crumbling castle ruins, corpse-laden streets, and raging pyres. The Lords of Cinder, mighty beings tasked with keeping the world-sustaining First Flame ablaze, have abandoned their duties. This act of mutiny threatens to send the world spiraling into absolute darkness. Players assume the role of “The Unkindled,” and must return the fallen Lords to their thrones and restore the flame. Of course, in order to do so, you’ll have to scour Lothric’s labyrinthine ruins, topple towering bosses and consume their souls to become ever more powerful.
Yes, it all feels very familiar, but FromSoftware has learned some new tricks since the last entry in the series, introducing a few new mechanics into Dark Souls III’s fold to keep things interesting. The most notable of these additions is the Focus Points system, which adds a blue bar in the upper left corner of the screen between your Health Gauge and Stamina Gauge. This meter, which you can level up in the same way you do the rest of your gauges, powers your magical spells and other buffs. Additionally, each weapon in the game features its own unique attacks which can be used at the cost of both stamina and FP, but deal impressive damage to your enemies and can break through even their best defenses. You can replenish FP through the new Ashen Estus Flask, and your supply of Estus and Ashen Estus must be divided from the same stock, meaning you’ll have to take careful consideration of whether to prioritize a healthy supply of health-restoring Estus – there are no grasses or life gems to be found in this entry, after all – or Ashen Estus to fuel your more powerful techniques. Overall, the FP system isn’t a real game changer, but it definitely adds a welcome layer of depth to Dark Souls III’s package.
While Dark Souls III is very much a “Souls” game, hints of Bloodborne do seep to the surface when it comes to the game’s combat system. Things feel a bit speedier this time around than in previous entries in the series, and the melees pack a bit more weight as well. Additionally, the ever-useful kicks have returned, and it feels fantastic having a shield once again after being denied one in Bloodeborne. Parrying and riposting, or sliding your sword into the spine of an unaware ghoul feels absolutely fantastic. Additionally, the game’s wide array of magical abilities leaves plenty of room to develop your own strategies, making each character class tremendously fun to experiment with. Simply put, Dark Souls III’s mechanics have been sharpened to a razor’s edge, and easily feel like the most refined yet.
That’s not to say things are perfect, as old ghosts still haunt the experience from time to time. The lock-on system, while somewhat improved over previous games in the series, still manages to lose track of targets during certain animations, which can be a bit maddening. The camera can also become obscured during the worst possible times, which can quickly turn what felt like certain victory into humiliating defeat almost instantly.
Those who found themselves lost in previous entries in the series will be happy to know that Dark Souls III feels a bit more linear in its progression than its predecessors. Certainly, you’ll find hidden paths here or there scattered throughout the world of Lothric, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that the game is shepherding players on a largely predetermined path as you work your way towards its inevitable conclusion. Even still, seeing Lothric’s grand castle creep ever closer on the horizon as you topple the Twisted Souls that stand between you and your ultimate goal is undeniably satisfying. And, if previous games in the series are any indication, players will surely be discovering tucked away secrets and Easter eggs for years to come.
If there’s one thing I really enjoyed about the Souls games, it’s their distinctly dark and twisted aesthetic style that gave each area its own unique flavor. Sadly, the macabre and imaginative locales that have served as the settings for From Software’s previous releases are a bit less awe-inspiring this time around. Dark Souls III seldom shakes the dilapidated castle aesthetic throughout its experience, which makes many areas start to feel far too similar to one another. And even when the game manages to break free of these bastions of battered battlements and crumbling cobblestone, you’ll still be trudging through environments that feel a bit too similar to ones you’ve traveled in other games in the series such as toxic bogs, ominous sewers, and haunted tombs.
Thankfully, the menagerie of horrors you’ll encounter when trekking through these familiar landscapes is more varied than ever, with each area introducing its own unique monsters, along with some of the most intricate and intimidating boss creatures yet. These abominations look fantastic and sport some truly impressive animations that really bring them to life. One of my personal favorites are the Corvians, harpy-like creatures who huddle like cowards until you approach, then violently sprout wings and begin attacking with erratic swipes. Skeletal soldiers will also form before your eyes from heaps of bones on the ground, often in varying degrees of completion. Seeing an army of undead warriors charge at you, some without heads or arms is a sight you won’t soon forget.
Of course, it wouldn’t be Dark Souls without multiplayer, and it’s just as solid as ever this time around. Using the game’s summoning mechanic, players can join your session to lend a hand against the game’s challenging bosses. Summoning other players is quick and easy, and they can prove to be an invaluable help when you’re up against some of the game’s more menacing monsters. You’ll also have to keep an eye out for players who take on the role of invading Phantoms as they seek to make your life a living hell. These PVP bouts are addicting as ever, and there are few things more rewarding as sending an invading player scurrying away with his tail between his legs, or successfully executing a hapless adventurer with a sword to the back after invading their game before they knew what hit them.
Dark Souls III may not reinvent the wheel, but it doesn’t really need to. FromSoftware has ultimately managed to deliver a fine farewell for fans of the series. Sure, it may feel a bit too familiar at times, but Dark Souls III‘s incredibly polished combat system, unbelievable boss encounters and unrelenting challenge more than make up for the finale’s lack of originality. If you’ve been a fan of the series and are looking for one last bloody hurrah, Dark Souls III will not disappoint.
Praise the sun!
Final Verdict: 4.5/5
Available on: PC (Reviewed) Xbox One, PlayStation 4 ; Publisher: Bandai Namco Entertainment ; Developer: FromSoftware Inc. ; Released: April 11, 2016 ; ESRB: M for Mature ; MSRP: $59.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a review code provided by the publisher.