Gaming: Dark Souls 3 Reviewed

We might be a little bit behind on this, but Justin Wicker knocks out a stellar review of Dark Souls III.

Dark Souls 3 is simultaneously a carefully composed love letter to Dark Souls fanboys, and the most approachable entry point into the series for new players. 

It balances the continuing iteration of the series’ systems and combat with nods and story beats often directly referential to the past games, sometimes even in a very not Souls-like fashion. It uses a more linear progression of areas and bosses, but still manages to return to the interconnected world feel of the original Dark Souls wherein the second entry of the series did not. The game is absolutely gorgeous, and manages to find beauty even in the dark corners of dungeons and dilapidated villages of the bygone age of fire. While the references can be a bit ham-fisted, at least in the context of a series with such a history of inscrutability, and though the PC version had some technical issues at launch, Dark Souls 3 is rapidly becoming my favorite entry into the series.

If you come to Dark Souls 3 having bounced off other Souls games in the past, you will likely find a few nuances that change your mind, but as a whole Dark Souls 3 is still rooted in what gives the series its unique character. The combat maintains its slow and plodding pace where every hit counts, and any enemy is a serious threat. The systems and character statistics are still obfuscated, often requiring online research or personal testing to determine things like the effects of new equipment or stat changes. The story is still told in as cryptic a fashion as ever, putting the onus on the player to read item descriptions, be scrupulous with exploration, closely observe the environments, listen to NPCs, and piece it all together in their mind.

Friendly players can still be summoned for “Jolly Cooperation”

All that notwithstanding, Dark Souls 3 has made a vast array of improvements to the gameplay that warrant the aforementioned title of “most approachable.” Moreso than ever, Dark Souls 3 offers the player actual direction as to where to go, and some NPCs even have straightforward hints about systems or locations (practically nonexistent in previous titles). Within a short period of time after starting, the player already has access to a hub area with NPCs to talk to, vendors, and even an introduction to the main quest of the player. This is not a novel concept; action games and RPGs have been doing such things for decades, but the idea of this in a Dark Souls game was a surprise to me as a longtime fan. I was able to talk to the blacksmith, and instead of getting a few sentences of cryptic nonsense and uneasy laughs, he told me about some special items to watch out for, and what to do if my equipment broke. Some folks in the community may brush this off as an unnecessary or a negative addition to the game, but despite the information being less useful to me personally, I think it's a welcome addition to the often impenetrable series.

Another new addition to Dark Souls 3 is the focus point system for magic and special abilities. This time around, they included something akin to a ‘mana bar’ that is used for things like spells and abilities. In lieu of the systems in Dark Souls and Dark Souls 2, wherein spells had a fixed number of charges between resting, all of these spells are now fueled by the power of focus points. This was a bit of a personal cause of concern when I first heard about it; having a wide variety of spells in the past would allow for many casts between bonfires, and I didn’t want to be more limited by the use of a new resource.  Fortunately, the design combats this concern directly by introducing another new mechanic into the mix called the Ashen Estus Flask, a new reusable potion equivalent that allows you to refill your focus points. Conceptually, this is a simple addition to the game that just allows for additional ability uses, but adds a whole new mechanic that allows the player to make a decision as to how they want to allot their flasks between healing health and refilling focus points. This freedom to allot as many of your flasks to focus as you would like enables a wide variety of character builds for the game, allowing players to go all-in on a pure spellcasting strategy, or mix it up with physical combat too.

The environment and tone is still as gritty and bleak as ever

Sword-swingers out there, don’t fret: From Software learned a thing or two from the design of Bloodborne, and added weapon abilities to the game that also use focus points. Non-magic-users still get a multitude of abilities ranging from temporary player buffs and weapon enhancements to new fighting stances and special attacks. All weapons in the game have an activated ability that uses the focus points in one way or another, some of which can completely define a weapon’s playstyle. Some types of weapons share an ability, for example most of the axes in the game activate a war cry that temporarily increases your attack, but special and uncommon weapons have their own unique abilities as well. This is especially nice for keeping the gameplay fresh, adding more variety in a series that is well treaded.

This ‘freshness’ was something that From Software was obviously concerned about when developing Dark Souls 3. Coming off 2015’s Bloodborne, a lot of the community was disappointed in the lack of variety of character builds and weapons available. Dark Souls 3 combats this immediately, and has options for weapons in spades. Within just the first few hours I had dozens of weapons in multiple different sizes and categories. Every player is bound to find something with a moveset and style they enjoy. To encourage this variety and experimentation, I also noticed that upgrade materials were more abundant, especially early in the game. This choice of allowing the player to upgrade and test out new weapons without punishment is a welcomed change in a series where materials are often scarce. An above-average amount of ranged weapons was available sooner as well, and the newer and slightly faster style of combat even support builds around bows and ranged weapons more so than the series ever has in the past.

These positive changes unfortunately do not come without a cost. Despite my praise, Dark Souls 3 has some issues familiar to those of us who played Souls games in the past, and some unexpected problems that certainly did not go unnoticed. A lot of outlets got review copies of Dark Souls 3 a few weeks early, and many of them had reported issues with crashes, especially near the beginning of the game. This is understandable to an extent, as a lot of games have issues pre-release, and with tight shipping schedules often many of these bugs are not resolved until the ever-present ‘day one patch’. The problem here was that said issues were not fixed for everyone at launch. While the issues were not widespread, many PC users had issues with hard crashes and performance issues, especially those with 700 Series nVidia video cards. I have not been able to find any information as to whether this is completely fixed, but it's the sort of issue I was not expecting considering how big of a release Dark Souls 3 was. Performance problems were not unique to PC, either; the console releases may not have struggled with the same crashing issues, but they had their own struggles with framerate like many other modern console titles. The console versions run at a mostly consistent 30fps, but it just wouldn’t be a Dark Souls game without a swampy area that suffers from frequent framerate dips.

Well I’ll just light a torch to check this out… NOPE

While the gameplay as a whole has been one of the best in the series, it was also not without flaws. I struggled with a few problems throughout my playthroughs of the game, the biggest one being problems with the camera. Camera issues have been plaguing 3D, especially third-person, games since their inception, but in my experience this seemed to be more problematic than expected. While it wasn't uncommon in the past games of the series, Dark Souls 3 still suffers from the occasional camera freakout when backed into a corner, traveling through narrow corridors, or fighting particularly large monsters. It wasn’t a glaring negative in my experience, but worth noting in an effort to always expect more from your video games. Similarly, the lock-on targeting feature that fixes the camera didn't seem to operate on a consistent basis, and I would often lose targeting at random even when targeting enemies that aren't moving or were close by. This was especially frustrating as someone who played through the game the first time as a magic-centric character that relies on locking-on due to the lack of aiming reticle. This was also a contributing factor to my general feeling throughout most of the game that magic felt a bit underpowered. There were a lot of trade-offs that needed to be made to increase magic damage to equal the levels of my axe or club-wielding counterparts, and I never really felt like I got into a good rhythm and statistical parity with magic until very late in the game.

I have no qualms in recommending Dark Souls 3 to a new player with piqued interest, and for fans of the series it's a must have. I have already put dozens of hours into it,  and I look fondly forward to making new characters, continuing through New Game+, experimenting with PVP, and adding Dark Souls 3 to my short list of games to regularly revisit (hopefully with some new story dlc). My experience with it has been overwhelmingly positive outside of the handful of issues, and I don’t think I could come up with a better way to conclude a franchise with as much love and passion behind it as Dark Souls.

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-Justin Wicker