In-keeping with Dark Souls’ central themes of entropy, diminishing cycles, and doomed protagonists stoically railing against their fates, it can be a struggle in itself to accept that no sequel will ever fully recapture the thrill of a person’s first Souls title. Particularly if that game was the first Dark Souls, a release that (with all respect to the pioneering strides made by Demon’s) is now emblazoned as one of this medium’s rare masterpieces.
A release in the Souls series is now a major videogame event for a much greater audience; a success which is entirely well-earned and deserved, but which inevitably diminishes the sense of mystery that surrounded earlier titles. There’s now a cottage industry of serious YouTube lore-voice narrations, an extensive network of community wikis already cataloguing a game that’s not even out yet in most territories, and enough of a marketing push for a cavalcade of idiotic promotional tie-ins. The brilliantly enigmatic has gradually become a familiar brilliance.
That Dark Souls 3 even comes close to achieving the near-impossible task of re-forging that familiarity and fusing it to new wonders is a sign of its outstanding quality.
It’s a game which fully embraces the world created by the first Dark Souls, expanding upon its themes in a much more overt way than Dark Souls 2. That said, there are plenty of things Dark Souls 3 owes to its direct predecessor; ‘quality of life’ aspects like consuming multiple soul items at once, relatively consistent and stable online play, and the existence of a decent PC version. The direct references and narrative thrust trend towards the first Dark Souls (though there are a few characters and items from 2 as well), while mechanical influences are plucked evenly from both previous games.
To alleviate any fears that may have arisen from that last sentence, no, Adaptability is not returning as a character stat. There’s a hard cut-off of a 70% equipment load for ‘fat-rolling,’ with anything below that limit allowing a faster dodge. As the equip load decreases, that dodge gradually increases in distance. As in Dark Souls 2, dodging is omnidirectional, rather than being on a fixed axis.
What’s curious, and may end up a detriment to the creativity of competitive multiplayer builds if it remains as-is, is that stamina regeneration appears unaffected by equip load differences under 70%. At present, someone at 69% will regen at the exact same rate as someone wearing nothing and carrying a dagger.
Thanks to the unfortunate, staggered nature of this game’s release, there’s been much early discussion and debate about the structure of Dark Souls 3’s world and level design. There was much (justified) praise for the tight-knit, interconnected world found in Dark Souls, but it’s worth remembering that this was, in part, in harmony with the decision to withhold bonfire warping during the first half of the game. Parts of the world had to connect and reconnect to one another in elaborate ways to make travel by foot feasible (albeit delightfully challenging, often enough) no matter where the player had roamed.
Dark Souls 3, like every other Souls game before and since, allows bonfire warping from the very start. The progressional structure is such that there are no zonal revelations quite as incredible as discovering that Valley of the Drakes serves as a sort of crossroads for Darkroot Garden, Blighttown and New Londo. There are certainly branching paths, points where the player must make a choice which direction to pursue next, and area shortcuts (some of which still manage to evoke a sense of “wow, this took me back here”), but on the whole Dark Souls 3 puts its focus on crafting large, complex areas with self-contained intricacies. These connect in a very natural way, but also in a more straightforward manner than the ingenious web of Lordran.
Without ruining any specific reveals or surprises, the broad path of the player’s progress takes them down from the walls of Lothric castle, into a valley, and through a thoroughly Souls-like travelogue of swamps, dungeons, and other assorted places of unpleasantness. This entry in the series probably has more gorgeous vantage points than any other, taking advantage of a greater draw distance to give you an elevated view across your destinations and prior trails. Progression feels a lot like Bloodborne, where each zone has a lot of geometric depth and hidden secrets, but (barring choices like whether to do Hemwick Lane or Vicar Amilia first) there is a definite main sequence of travel.
However, as was the case with Bloodborne, Dark Souls 3 has several (at least three, that I’ve found) terrific hidden areas with optional bosses. There is also at least one major sequence breaking event, allowing skilled (or highly tenacious) players access to late-game equipment and items. It’s possible there are others, but the more direct layout of the overall world makes it unlikely. This is a slight shame, but shouldn’t detract from the fantastic variety of viable weaponry, outfits, and magical abilities found throughout ‘normal’ progress in the game. Each of which will allow for multiple play-throughs with some significantly diverse characters.
The only thing more diverse, perhaps, is Dark Souls 3’s sprawling cast of nightmare creatures. Some of these are returning foes like knights and hollowed warriors (occasionally with a move-set make-over, or dangerous new equipment), mimics, or pile-driving ninja skeletons. Others seem to owe their lineage to Bloodborne and carry a touch of the twisted body-horror found in that game. All of them are faster, more aggressive, and far less prone to immediately giving up the chase if you duck through a nearby doorway (though this can still work to some extent). There are what feel like periodic hitbox oddities (particularly on grab attacks), but these are rare. While many of the foes now have cunning delayed swings and a certain amount of player-tracking on attacks, there’s nothing nearly as absurd as the Dragon Shrine knights from Dark Souls 2 with their 360 degree infinite stamina poundings.
Crucially, players can match these newly energised enemies for speed and dexterity. Massive greatswords are obviously still slow to swing, but a reduced stamina cost for dodging and ultra-rapid options like duel daggers mean it’s possible to play as an outrageously nimble (if fragile) death-whirler. That may sound a little like Bloodborne too, yet combat still resides firmly within the Dark Souls realm, where shields are a thoroughly viable choice and heavily armoured knights can benefit from poise and damage reduction.
In fact, armour qualities feel more meaningful in general. It’s no longer possible to upgrade armour pieces with titanite, but the base attributes now have more impact. Facing fire-damage enemies with fire reducing gear equipped, for example, will have a noticeable effect.
Perhaps the most substantial mechanical addition made by Dark Souls 3 is the introduction of ‘weapon arts’ and the inclusion of a third resource bar for Focus Points (FP). Spellcasting (including miracles, pyromancy and so on) eats up a chunk of FP, as does using any of the special weapon arts on more traditional blades, axes and the like. Said arts are fancy, weapon-specific moves (usually tied to the type of weapon; straight sword, spear, etc) that can help you out in specific confrontations. Regular swords have a sweeping strike that can knock a shield aside and leave someone open for a riposte, and certain bows get a rapid arrow-flurry move. Weapons crafted from boss souls provide even more specialised attacks and buffs.
Weapon arts create an interesting dynamic with shields. If a shield permits a standard parry move, then weapon arts can only be performed when two-handing. Other shields forgo the parry, but allow one-handed weapon arts. This can force a tactical choice between going with the tried and trusted parry, or delving into the newer move-sets. A similar “stick with the old, or experiment with the new” dilemma can be found in the distribution of Estus flasks. Focus Points now have their own replenishing flask, and the ratio of health Estus to FP Estus is set at an NPC in your main bonfire hub. For those pursuing a magic-reliant character, finding the right balance between health back-ups and (effectively) more spell-casting will be an important task.
While on the subject of magic, sorcery is by no means the ‘easier’ mode it once was in Dark Souls. Casting times at low dexterity can leave you thoroughly exposed for a counter attack, and there’s evidence to suggest that sorcery and miracles don’t start scaling particularly well until a major statistical investment in Intellect/Faith. Whether this is intentional or a pre-release balance issue is not entirely clear, but it’s notable that Pyromancy doesn’t appear to suffer from such issues and is as merrily destructive as ever.
Also as destructive as ever are the menagerie of towering, swooping, crushing bosses that stand in the way of your hardy protagonist. These ramp up in difficulty fairly gently, with the first four or five unlikely to cause major problems to Souls professionals. Their designs and move-sets are fine, and you never truly know which bosses will stump people, but it’s a few hours before a serious road-block akin to Capra Demon or Father Gascoigne shows up. From that point onwards, some real bastards lay ahead. Dark Souls 3 can perhaps be chided for leaning a little too heavily on the ‘fast humanoid with a flaming sword’ model, but it’s difficult to argue with this when the most memorable fights in the series (Artorias, Sir Alonne, Maria) have more or less followed that pattern.
A couple of more puzzle-based encounters sneak in along the way, but the tricks in these fights make quite a bit more sense (and are far less aggravating than) the Bed of Chaos. Of all the boss battles in Dark Souls 3 only one truly qualifies as a bit rubbish, but it almost redeems itself by being endearingly silly. In honour of Pinwheel and the Prowling Magus, it’s practically a series tradition to have one boss that’s just a bit inept.
At the other end of the scale, three or four of this new hierarchy are likely to start interchangeably showing up in people’s lists of Top 10 Souls Bosses. These particular creations manage to combine splendid visual imagery with challenging moves, striking you down time and again (especially if you show up with a low health stat and risk being killed in a single, powerful hit) until you master their patterns. Or the camera performs an arcane Dark Souls ritual and decides you’d rather look at a wall or some flailing appendage textures than towards the boss. That can still happen a bit too frequently.
Since all of my 40-odd hours have been spent with a pre-launch version of the game (albeit one that’s said to be the 1.01 release build), there hasn’t been a huge amount of multiplayer activity to engage in. Covenants pepper the land in Dark Souls 3, and (thanks to another quality of life change) can be joined and left at will through your inventory menu. No more chatting with the covenant leader every time you want to switch out. There’s also a dedicated slot for your covenant item now, so it doesn’t take up a valuable ring space.
The usual invasion and co-op mechanics return for Dark Souls 3, as do the ‘blue defender’ types introduced in Dark Souls 2. Invaders will be happy to learn that an infinite use Red Eye Orb can be nabbed within a couple of hours of play, though may be less happy to discover that their targets can be wandering around with three friendly phantoms in certain circumstances. At least three (and probably more) area-specific defensive covenants akin to the Forest or Bell guys from prior titles are available to join, and there’s a terrific new “wild card” group to sign on with too. These chaps are denoted as mad, show up as purple phantoms, and may help or hinder the host at their own whim.
I’m not delusional enough to try to predict how the Player-vs-Player scene will adapt to the subtle (and not so subtle) changes to things like the aforementioned stamina regeneration, but will say that the abundance of covenant options means matters could get wonderfully chaotic. The prospect of a host, blue defender, purple wild card, and red invader all sparring with one another is joyously anarchic, and almost certainly lacking in anything remotely resembling frivolities like balance.
This time around, an Ember item must be used to make summon signs show up (and also provides a helpful boost to health). Fellow Dark Souls 3 traveller and PC Invasion scribe Tim McDonald was able to summon me for a spot of co-op play, which worked surprisingly well despite the transatlantic ping. A few early moments where Tim’s character appeared to be skating along on the soles of her feet (but was otherwise motionless) aside, the PC servers seemed to hold up just fine.
The online messaging system is as expansive as it’s ever been, providing more ways (and gestures) than ever to leave absurd or mischievously misleading guidance for others.
This review has stayed away from narrative and lore specifics by choice, because it would be unreasonable to spoil any of that stuff ahead of launch. From’s series has mastered the art of majestic sadness, and Dark Souls 3 possesses just as many minimalist tales of tragic commitment to duty, fragments of hope in a doomed world of abomination, and environmental tableaux which demonstrate the studio’s (often under-rated) love of offbeat humour. A host of NPCs, who variously offer a glum prognosis of your fate, bilk you for souls in exchange for goods, or provide moments of warm optimism, are also present, and written in just as frugal a manner as players have come to expect.
Dark Souls 3 has a feel and approach that is, after the triumphant success of the series, undeniably familiar. But when this is a familiar feeling of incredible, last-ditch victories over relentless bosses, delight at the peculiar mannerisms of a new NPC, or gazing in satisfaction over a fabulous vista hinting at pathways through extensive and incredibly rewarding levels, it’s a familiarity you want to kindle and cherish like a burgeoning flame. If this is really to be the point where the Dark Souls trilogy concludes, it’s doing so with a magnificent, immolating flourish.