By David Fernandes / April 12th, 2016
|Title||Dark Souls III
|Release Date||April 12, 2016|
|Platform||PS4, Xbox One, PC|
Hype can be a double edged sword and I certainly felt the cut of that sword when Dark Souls II was released after a spectacular reveal. Make no mistake, Dark Souls II was a good game. However, it fell short on its promises and left a bad aftertaste with how poorly it was handled in marketing and gameplay footage to demonstrate the game, with most of what we saw not appearing in the final release despite interviews, screenshots and even a stress beta that claimed otherwise. So with the reveal of Dark Souls III at last year’s E3 it was no wonder there wasn’t a huge fanfare. But with the release of Bloodborne and with Miyazaki back in the director’s chair, less questions about who was to blame for Dark Souls II were being asked. The question now was whether the Souls series could reclaim its former glory? I can safely say yes, though this dog hasn’t learned a ton of new tricks in the transition back to the fantasy genre.
The game begins with the opening monologue that the fire is once again running out and with it the Age of Fire being put in jeopardy. The bell toll brings forth the Lord of Cinders to act as catalysts to rekindle the flame, however, four of the five Lord of Cinders: The Abyss Watchers, Aldrich, Yhorm, and Lothric, instead go back to their homelands to which they previously resided. So as an unkindled you wake up from a stone coffin ready to uphold your duty along with other unkindled ones for one purpose, which is to locate and bring back the Lord of Cinders. Since this is a dark fantasy similar to its predecessors, you do so in a grim fashion of finding and slaying them, essentially forcing them to return to enact their roles.
Like with any Souls game, Dark Souls III has that knack of obscure storytelling where nothing is outright told to you. Instead it’s up to the player to ascertain lore given from item descriptions and piece together a puzzle using any and all world building elements the game provides; that includes set pieces, design of enemies and bosses and their placement in the world. Not only that, you’ll have to look beneath the surface of the simple objective and not take everything at face value, which includes what little exposition NPCs spout and of course the vague endings. Because of how it handles its narrative or lack thereof, it hard to truly criticize it. However, like Dark Souls II, one of the biggest issues I have with the story is not the lack of any interesting characters, but instead lacking its own identity. Even with such lofty sidequests it didn’t fill the void of what made the original Dark Souls so captivating.
Dark Souls III tried so hard to fill in the blanks of the most important aspect of its predecessor, but instead just felt like it was relying too heavily upon its bearings instead of crafting anything new to call its own. Its bad enough to find characters return under new names, but almost everything is influenced from past acts, including character motivations, so nothing truly felt new here besides a few exceptions. Its a sequel and needs to connect them, I get that, but it just becomes too much when even entire areas that were deemed lost in time return in some form with, again, a new name, but the lore says it all; coating some new paint doesn’t change that in a story perspective. I’m glad some lingering questions were finally answered, I just wished they were more proactive with making an entirely unique plot and lore and instead of unearthing old corpses for explanations.
Upholding to its roots, Dark Souls III isn’t much of a game changer, but a few key elements have either been streamlined or altered with a new guise. Humanity has been replaced with Embers that allow you to enter ‘Lord of Cinder mode’ which not only allows you to summon other players but give you a health boost. A hub location has returned, though not entirely in the same vein as Demon’s Souls. Instead it’s more of a gathering place like the original Fire Link shrine, but with a bit more life to it containing vendors as well as the Fire Keeper who is the go-to NPC for leveling up. You no longer need to power up multiple bonfires, instead only a single one in the middle of the hub, as well as handing in shards to the blacksmith to increase the number of flasks. I say flasks as two new mechanics were introduced that coincide with other established elements. The first is now you can carry a blue type estus flask which refills your FP; this acts as MP so no longer are there a number of usages to Miracles, Sorcery, Pyromancy and Hexes and the number you can carry can be customized with the blacksmith.
The second is the introduction of weapon based skills for each weapon and shield; like a two handed sword could either use a stance for countering; or used to charge up an attack that swings it multiple times for crowd control; or a very strong attack against shield enemies. Outside of that, it’s more or less the same good ole Souls game you remember with more balancing taken into account. For instance, the complaints of Sorcery and Pyromanacy being too overpowered before. So they rectified that with how much damage they can unleash and stat allocations now being trimmed down, so goodbye agility. However, they also switched things around so the latter now uses both Intelligence and Faith in scaling. The combat feels less finicky than Dark Souls II with better hit boxes as well as a more fast-paced combat, which clearly shows the developers learning from their experience in developing Bloodborne; shame they couldn’t bring over Visceral Attack and replace Back Stabbing, but I suppose that is asking for too much.
As FromSoftware have stated a year ago, there are less areas but most of the areas in the game are quite vast, with multiple paths that hold many secrets and shortcuts. This is a step in the right direction as many, including myself, think the first half of Dark Souls is superior because of the intricacies of the level designs. They seamlessly exhibited relieving players when they found that next bonfire, but also that gratifying sense of exploration from you going so far and away from an entrance to a level, only to get back to it due to finding an elevator or finally unlocking that gate. That level of nuance can be felt here and I adore most of the areas in the game from a design standpoint because of it; those instances aren’t randomly thrown in there, but have a sense of purpose and actually make sense in a world view. The interconnecting areas are great, though there are at times a bit too many bonfire spots, which stole a bit of that tension of fear of losing and/or risking going further with a abundance of souls in hand.
In searching for the four lords, you will traverse a variety of environments, from lush forests to claustrophobic castle interiors, all of which have that atmospheric tone of silence and dread, some exhibiting that ominous perpetual darkness. Treacherous paths that take you to the highest of rooftops, to walking through poisonous swaps, all rippling with traps and ambushes. Enemies that are quite menacing and more threatening than most of the bosses themselves, which include NPC invaders who are on a whole new level of annoyance. From the sounds of nature in the background to horrifying cries of the enemies, all of the work from the game’s atmosphere was punctuated by that feeling of isolation. While the bosses weren’t as challenging as I hoped, they were at least beautifully designed, with a couple of throwbacks tossed in the mix, which at least kept things fresh even if they were, again, repeating old gimmicks.
With Bloodborne being developed solely for one console, it doesn’t quite match up in graphical fidelity, but visually it’s still a beautiful looking game. Seeing better texture work for reused assets from returning armor and areas, to all new locals like Lothric Castle and Irithyll are a sight to behold, with the scenic vistas and draw distance of areas you may or may not have visited in the background. Along with the wonderful looking bosses and the attention to detail on normal fodder, with better crisp animations than ever before, I’m impressed they were able to keep most of what they showed before intact in its final release this time across multiple platforms.
The sound design is excellent as always with FromSoftware knowing when to incorporate music and utter silence to their highest potential. This includes the boss tracks which are on par with Bloodborne‘s bombastic boss tracks. The composition from Yuka Kitamura allows the series to reach new heights. After it was all said and done, I listened to the entirety of the soundtrack with no interruption and I’m enamored by it — they have truly outdone themselves. That isn’t to say it’s flawless in this department, with at times long load times and pop ins, which show they could have used a bit more time in polishing it. That isn’t including all the bugs and glitches I came across that will hopefully be addressed in future patches.
The game is more than just an apology or a case of sequelitis to tie up any loose ends. Instead it’s a culmination of everything the developers have learned since Demon’s Souls. A love letter to all the games prior while possibly the last Dark Souls title. At the same time, they relied so heavily on old tricks that it felt like a retread on old grounds. That doesn’t take away what the game accomplishes. What is more important to me in a game is its gameplay and Dark Souls III is rock solid in that regard. I do want an amazing story and fantastic gameplay in a single package, that will never change. But if the gameplay succeeds to such a degree that in ways it surpasses the pedigree of what is now considered one of the most important games of the last generation, then in my opinion, I think its more than deserving of some high praise alongside any strong criticism I levy at it. With over 40 hours poured into fighting every boss, encountering every NPC and doing most if not all the sidequests it had to offer, while finding as many secrets as possible, Dark Souls III is a visceral experience that no fans should miss out on and I can’t wait to go back for more.
Review Copy Provided by Publisher
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