I remember back in 2009 when I was first introduced to the world of Hidetaka Miyazaki and his PlayStation 3 exclusive, Demon’s Souls, from Atlus. It was a game that promised to be as punishing as it was rewarding, a game rich with lore and fraught with failure and death. It promised to be a game unlike any other I had ever played, especially in a time when few video games chose to take such calculated risks and punish their players. It was a time when Call of Duty, Assassin’s Creed, Uncharted, and Guitar Hero reigned supreme. This game was none of those.
Fast forward two years. Miyazaki brought his Souls series out from the shadows of PlayStation 3 exclusivity and unleashed it upon the world for all consoles with Dark Souls, from Bandai Namco, the spiritual successor to Demon’s Souls. It made all the promises that first game had kept and more. It promised a large, expansive open world that Demon’s Souls lacked. It also promised that you would die. A lot. So much death, in fact, the game’s official slogan became “Prepare to Die.” After relinquishing control of the sequel, 2014’s Dark Souls II, to game directors Tomohiro Shibuya and Yui Tanimura, Miyazaki returned to the franchise to work on the PlayStation 4 exclusive game Bloodborne (the next Souls spiritual successor).
The year is now 2016. And if the recently released Dark Souls III is the final game of the franchise, it certainly will go out on one hell of a high note.
First Things First
The premise of the game centers around a young unkindled undead (you) who is destined to become the next Lord of Cinder, but in order to do that, you must first reunite all the previous Lords of Cinders upon their thrones. Along your quest you will encounter several nonplayer characters ranging from Crestfallen Warriors to merchants and a Fire Keeper, who will be your most invaluable ally throughout your adventure through Lothric. Like previous installments in the Souls series, what makes this game particularly challenging is that it uses souls, which you receive from fallen enemies, as both a form of currency with vendors for purchasing armor, weaponsmithing, and spells (magic, miracles, dark, and pyromancy) as well as a means of leveling up your character through the Fire Keeper. If you die while holding on to any these souls, you drop them at the location of your death and you are given one chance to get back to reclaim them there. Should you die before you reach and collect your souls, those souls are gone forever.
Even though the game is primarily a single-player experience, that doesn’t stop it from including several key online components into the gameplay. These various interactions range from seeing the echoes of other players running around in the world to viewing the bloodstains where other players have fallen. Players can also leave helpful (or not-so-helpful) hints for other gamers to find, sharing secrets of illusory walls and treasure or trolling someone to roll off a cliff to their death. You can also co-op with other players if you’re having difficulty with any particular boss by using an ember, a finite item that reverses hollowing and expands your health, allowing you to engage in co-operative play. Using an ember, however, isn’t without its risks. Should you use one while playing online, there is a chance that a red phantom may invade your world, whereupon you will be forced to engage into a PvP battle with the invader.
Also, the game limits the amount of healing items you can have in the form of Estus Flasks. You start off with three, but you can find Estus Shards throughout the game, and you can end up with as many as 15 Estus Flasks and even upgrade said flasks with Bone Shards, which are also scattered throughout the world. However, a new addition in Dark Souls III as compared to past games is that you are now able to reallocate how many Estus Flasks you can carry and exchange them for a new item called an Ashen Estus Flask, which can replenish your mana.
Prepare to Die
So, let’s go ahead and get the obvious out of the way first. Dark Souls III is a punishing game, and IGN has even called it “the hardest Dark Souls yet.” But is that necessarily true?
The answer is both yes and no.
On your first playthrough of Dark Souls III, chances are you will die a lot, and that is true for even the most experienced of Souls fans. The combat has been refined from the first two games while also incorporating the swiftness and aggression of Bloodborne. This aggression from bosses, and even the standard trash mobs, forces the player to engage in encounters with an increased sense of urgency and vigilance. There will be moments that become a race to bring down an enemy before you run out of your healing Estus Flasks, as some attacks are almost a guarantee to deal damage.
Your second playthrough should, however, go much more smoothly. Sure, the enemies deal significantly more damage than in your original playthrough, but so do you. You can retain all the levels you earned on your first playthrough, as well as all your armor, weapons, and weapon upgrades. I’m just over halfway through my second playthrough and have only died once, compared to the likely hundreds of times during my first. It’s not that the game became easier—I became more accustomed to the combat, pacing, and even enemy move sets.
But with all this emphasis on the game’s difficulty, it’s easy to overlook the depth of lore this franchise has built over the past several years in the form of locales, recurring enemies, and even heroes. Familiar friendly faces will once again grace your screen—from the armorsmith, Andre, who made his debut in the original Dark Souls, to the Onion Knight known as Siegward of Catarina. Then there’s that asshole merchant, Patches, who keeps trying to fuck you over time and again by either kicking you down holes or locking you in towers to die. Patches (seriously, though, fuck that guy) has been featured in every Souls game, including Demon’s Souls, a game that isn’t even officially cannon in the Dark Souls series. There are even several locations from the original Dark Souls that you can revisit in the third installment, but I won’t spoil what those are.
For those who are interested in seeing a more comprehensive (and spoilerish) list of connections between the first and third games, I would recommend checking out IGN’s article, which gets into much more detail.
Graphically, the game is the best that that any Souls series has seen thus far. Aesthetically, it resembles the original Dark Souls more than Dark Souls II, with the return of rag-doll effects with corpses. (YES!) However, not every console can run the game equally well. According to Digital Foundry, the PlayStation 4 version of Dark Souls III ran consistently at the targeted 30 frames per second (fps) with a resolution of 1080p, whereas the Xbox One version seems to struggle by dropping to roughly 25 fps while running at a disappointing 900p resolution. However, despite running at a higher resolution and meeting the targeted frame rate on the PS4, the game still suffers from the occasional lag or stutter, something that was also a problem in 2011’s original and even in last year’s Bloodborne.
The Bottom Line
Dark Souls III is an experience that is both exhilarating and wrought with tension and dread. While the game has benefited from implementing the improved combat system from Dark Souls II, it also benefits from the accelerated combat inherited from Bloodborne. The boss fights for the game are easily some of the most challenging in any of the series, giving 2016 its first contender for game of the year. While the Xbox One version of the game does suffer from the occasional frame-rate drops, the drop that I experienced on the PlayStation 4 version seldom, if ever, pulled me from the game.
Final Score: 10 out of 10 on PS4, 9.8 out of 10 on Xbox One