Dark Souls III Review

Award of Excellence

So I work in a high school. You didn't think this was my only gig, did you? Anyway, when my students caught wind that I got an early copy of Dark Souls III for review, the questions about the game definitely outnumbered any related to their actual studies. Apparently "spoilers" isn't a word or concept they are too concerned with, as they wanted me to ruin everything for them, even with the game only days away from release. Their reaction is, of course, typical; Dark Souls is one of the most beloved modern series out there, and the series' first "next gen (current now)" outing has been the recipient of more hype than pretty much any game coming in the first half of this year. After finishing the game myself (this review missed launch day by a little less than a week - sorry), I can say for sure that the hype is well-deserved. Dark Souls III is not just the best game in the Dark Souls series, it is the first to outperform, in my eyes anyway, the original Souls game, Demon Souls. New player or series vet, Dark Souls III is the game that needs to be in your PS4, and probably already is.

This final adventure in the Dark Souls series (we'll see, right?) brings us to Lorthic, and sees the Lords of Cinder back and working to defend the fire links established in the previous games' worlds. So, of course, they become your main targets as you trudge through the series' biggest and most expansive world yet, a world chock full of all the hideous monsters and seemingly unbeatable foes that everyone knows and loves. Its obvious right off the bat the From Software has strived to make this the most accessible Souls game for new players (more on this in a minute), which makes the story a bit of a conundrum. Fans, especially those who have played and replayed the original Dark Souls, will see a lot of the same plot points hit in part 3, but, on the flipside, I can't see Souls virgins getting as much from the plot as those who have extensive knowledge of the previous games. So fans end up getting more from the tale than non-fans, but are bound to have some raised eyebrows by a feeling of "been there, done that" during some of the plot progression. Beyond that, though, the game does wrap up a lot of the hanging questions and ideas left over from the first two, providing a fitting end to the series. Is it really the last Dark Souls game we'll ever see? Despite the finality of it all, something tells me we haven't seen the last warrior praise the sun.

On the presentation front, things are predictably amazing. The first two games, especially part two, were visual and audio feasts on the PS3, but Dark Souls III more than benefits from the more powerful PS4 hardware. Everything here is plainly unbelievable; the animations, the characters, the environments, the bosses, even the smallest details - even the eye-poppingly beautiful Bloodborne takes a backseat to Dark Souls III's visual mastery. The two most striking bits, though, are the NPCs and the environments. I always felt the NPCs in previous games were a little wooden, even those with a larger role to play, but here they are every bit as detailed and expressive as your warrior and his enemies. But the visual aspect that had my jaw hanging slack is the environment. The small details, mold, smoke, etc. make the world feel more alive than ever, but the expansiveness of some of the areas knocks it out of the park. You will, more often than not, find yourself in areas that are absolutely huge. Like open world, GTA huge (sure Dark Souls is "open world," but never like this). I'll touch on this a bit more in the gameplay sections, but the presentation of these areas dwarfs you, making the whole "you against freaking everyone" feeling more tangible and crushing. The first time you stroll into one of these huge expanses, you'll instantly see how far the game has come graphically, but also be faced with what the hell you are supposed to do next.

I probably don't need to spend much time of the audio as Dark Souls has mastered the dichotomy between absolute silence and swirling background score. Dark Souls III is no different. You won't necessarily be humming any of these bleak orchestral selections, but they work so well that you may not even realize how much the score adds to the adventure. And, as always, the voice acting is spot-on; hearing what various characters moan about (there isn't much happiness to go around here) only reinforces that unbelievable emersion.

Speaking of NPCs, let's hop right into the gameplay part of the review and start with them. These poor souls and their quests have a much, much bigger part to play in this entry, and received the best dialogue and personality yet seen in the franchise. With the bump in sound and visuals, you'll become more easily emotionally invested in these folks and their needs. Sometimes, especially in part two, I dreaded having to chat up another boring local, but three takes that drawback and turns it on its head. Following their progression has become as entertaining and integral as the main story, and it is a very, very good thing.

From Software didn't stop after making the NPCs interesting, oh, no; they have churned out tons of little tweaks and improvements to not just refine the experience, but make it easier for newcomers to deal with the series' trademark claim to fame, the brutally high difficulty. The first and most obvious of these are the Weapon Arts system. This new wrinkle allows you to assign certain actions to certain weapons, making changing stance and fighting in general a deeper experience than ever before. Admittedly, this new addition had me baffled at first, but a little experimentation and patience makes it one of, if not the best addition to the formula.

For everything made easier, though, there exists something to keep that difficulty right up there. For example, warping from activated bonfire to activated bonfire instantly makes most backtracking a thing of the past, but your magic points don't regenerate automatically like in previous games. The pace of the battles has been cranked up to 11, a double edged sword, because while makes combat more action and fluid, it's also more difficult to perfect.

The way death is handled has been switched up as well, with a so-called ember system. If you died in previous games, you had one chance to make it back to where you fell to get your items, a task easier said than done. If you die in Dark Souls III, however, you get a portion of your lifebar knocked off and online play is disabled. By collecting or buying embers, you can restore yourself to full life, much like we did in Demon's Souls. In the previous games, the death/rebirth system was much more, and some might say unnecessarily, punitive, and this switch back to the roots eases the frustration and provides a good jumping off point for beginners.

So, I can hear you asking, is Dark Souls III easier than the others? Unfortunately, I can't really answer that one way or another. Things feel easier early on, for the first 4-5 boss encounters or so, but take a big difficulty spike a little bit afterward. It isn't that the enemies or game is easier, rather, it seems the streamlining of how things are done has been cleaned up to the point that everything feels more natural and fluid. You spend less time fighting with menus and nailing down new concepts and more time actually fighting, Questionable difficulty notwithstanding, though, the bosses here will no doubt stomp mudholes in your spirit and easily rip you to shreds, especially as you go into the game's final stretch. My wishy-washy conclusion is that From Software's drive to make things more accessible doesn't correlate with a dumbing down of the difficulty, but there are still a few fights that feel a bit undercooked.

One last thing before moving on - Dark Souls III feels far less linear than its predecessors, especially Dark Souls II. Remember what I said about those huge areas? When you find your way into these places, you rarely have much clue where to go or what to do next. And that's the way the developers wanting things; Dark Souls III, more than any other game in the series, pushes you to explore above pretty much everything else. If you are trying to tear through the game as quickly as possible, you'll no doubt see this emphasis as an annoyance. For everyone else, though, having to find and figure out things on your own in such massive expanses forges a much stronger connection between game and player.

Author's Note: Online play was restricted during the review process due to a small bug, which seems to have been fixed by launch. As such, I didn't spend as much time with the online portion as I might have otherwise.

The online multiplayer changes things up, too. A new matchmaking service has been brought in, complete with optional passwords, and it serves to really streamline things. It feels easier than ever to invade another's game or vice versa, and the change is welcome, even by someone who doesn't have much use for multiplayer of any kind. Dark Souls has never really felt like an online game to me personally, more a single player story with online ornaments hanging from the main experience, and this latest entry, even with the new rules, is about the same in my eyes. Some people love this aspect of the franchise, and they will be pleased, but I've never seen it as much more than a distraction.

Last week, someone on Reddit posted a photo of the "new edition to their family." A look at the thumbnail showed what you might have though was another photo of two parents holding a newborn. Closer inspection revealed, however, a copy of Dark Souls III in those swaddling clothes. Funny, sure, but the joke reveals how a lot of fans feel about this series: they love it like they would a child. Lucky for them that the latest and final (?) entry in the series lives up to and exceeds expectations. As always, the gameplay and boss fights are among the best in any game for any system, and the PS4's power makes this sequel one of the best looking games on the system or anywhere. Parts of the story may seem a little too familiar to longtime Dark Souls players, and From Software's attempts at making things more accessible to new players will no doubt be controversial, but the bottom line is that Dark Souls III is the best game in the highly regarded series, and the first real contender for Game of the Year 2016. As a gamer, you really owe it to yourself to play this one through, whether you are new to the series or you've been around since Demon's Souls came out and shocked the world. Now quit reading this, go out and praise the sun!

Final Rating: 97% - The Dark Souls games just keep getting better.

 

Note: A review code for this game was provided by the publisher.