Other than a fleeting affair with Bloodborne and Dark Souls II, my relationship with the uber-hard action RPG genre has been one of avoidance. Life is harsh, why would I wish to stack cruelty upon cruelty by inflicting these games upon gaming routine?
In spite of my prejudice, Dark Souls III has made a convert of me. Rest assured, this sequel is undoubtedly what the series' fans have been hankering after. I just wish that the final Dark Souls entry was more willing to explore new territory outside of its sub-genre.
Dark Souls III’s reluctance to do so keeps it tethered to a very narrow, if very enjoyable, vision of the action RPG.
Hidetaka Miyazaki’s games are now infamous for their twisted visual designs. The Japanese director whose CV includes Bloodborne as well as the original Dark Souls has a penchant for the disturbing, and Dark Souls III is no exception.
From pustule-ridden trees to towering chimeras, the game’s menagerie possesses a vile beauty which is both breathtaking and, to be quite honest, pretty gross. Miyazaki himself has been keen to stress in addition to visual splendour, monsters and bosses feature a more ‘organic’ movement and attack patterns this time around.
This boast held true throughout my playthrough - animations are littered with tiny nuances and cues which allow players to intuit what swung or thrust is coming next. It’s a bit more complicated than watching, taking notes, and then changing strategy because attacks don’t always happen in set order. It’s more like spending time with a wild animal and getting to know its moods, which is far more spontaneous.
Equally impressive is how Dark Souls III encourages experimentation. As is the way with the series, I would become stuck before a gaggle of seemingly unstoppable enemies, only to discover that luring them toward another, even more intimidating group would lead to collateral damage. Drawing the undead into the clutches of a metacrab, or sub-zero geckosaur (not FromSoftware sanctioned names, my own inventions) became a go-to strategy when faced with the unbeatable.
Of course, this also often lead me to an untimely death at the hands of a mob I myself had amassed, but Dark Souls III encourages players to reach out and grab whatever advantage is at hand, whether this is a restorative ember or a conveniently placed ledge for sneak attacks. The learning curve is extremely steep, but once you’re over the principle hump, the possibilities become ever more visible.
The numbers game
Technically there are 10 starting classes in Dark Souls III, including the Wandering Knight (tank), Northern Warrior (damage brawler), Sorcerer (spellcaster), and Pyromancer (ranged/melee hybrid).
However, as per usual, classes function differently to the those in traditional RPGs. The selection of 10 classes at the game’s outset decide the distribution of a player’s attributes, such a strength and vigor, and their initial item set, but nothing more. For instance, it’s perfectly possible for your warrior to learn pyromancy, as mine did, part way through the game.
This system offers ample customisation for, allowing players to sink their collected souls into whatever attributes they need, some of which open up the option to use new weapons or wield magics. The stats page may initially look intimidating to some, but its splayed array of numbers actually looks far more complicated than the system it represents.
Rhythm of the knife
The difference between each class comes down to these numbers and the weapon carried. FromSoftware has done a superb job of making each weapon handle uniquely, each requiring its own unique rhythm be learned before players can master it.
More than ever before, a player’s weapon defines their fighting style. When equipped two-handed, weapons can now engage special abilities known as ‘weapon arts’. Axe-bearers for instance can now increase their damage temporarily with a primal scream. These are unique to every weapon type and are designed to bolster that specific fighting style.
Such gentle tweaks are just the tip of the iceberg. Mechanically speaking, melee combat in Dark Souls III is a triumph, requiring a mixture of dexterity and careful planning. The inevitable influence of Bloodborne has ensured faster-paced encounters, but this hasn’t come at the cost of depth.
Where the game is less successful is in its spells and ranged combat, which feel altogether clunkier and less nuanced than fighting up close and personal. Most spells for the sorcerer are some kind of riff on the soul arrow, a magic projectile, and when fighting bosses using the ranged technique, it’s a case of ‘fire, roll, fire, roll’ over and over until the health bar has been whittled downward.
It would have been nice to see Dark Souls III embrace spell types from other RPGs that would transform its magic-users into more mobile, dynamic threats with the ability to teleport or summon physical obstacles, but this aspect of combat has one foot stranded firmly in the past. For a game which is so fond of kinetic melee combat, it’s a shame that ranged attacks have been left to languish, and as a result several of the allotted classes feel antiquated. Dark Souls III’s puritanism about its mechanics sometimes holds it back.
There and back again
This same strictness also applies to the world of Dark Souls III, which is separated into a dozen separate domains. Each one is a vast maze which can be traversed in several different ways. Unlike Dragon Age: Inquisition or The Witcher III, here there are no maps and very little signposting to guide players forward. Instead, players must simply plough in whatever given direction they choose until they stumble upon a boss, a bonfire, or a clear sign of the way forward.
Miyazaki himself has stated that this is a deliberate design choice in order that Dark Souls III feels more like a ‘journey of discovery’ than previous games. For the most part, knotted design of these levels work to the game’s advantage - I was constantly searching for new passages to gaggles of enemies, not wanting to miss any potential encounters before moving forward. The game’s open areas often afford views of distant valleys, or unreachable doors, causing me to ponder how to reach them.
Those lacking patience, however, will likely find the environment’s complete unwillingness to leave a trail of breadcrumbs infuriating. If you’re an impatient person by nature, I advise that you stop reading this review, open our list of the Most Anticipated Games of 2016, and never think on Dark Souls again.
Get out of my game
So that's Dark Souls III's single-player experience, and it's brutally enthralling. Alas, the same can't be said for its multiplayer mode. It just doesn't mesh with the game's core identity. The mechanics work almost identically to Bloodborne’s multiplayer mode with certain items enabling players to transition into one another’s games as allied or enemy phantoms - the former set-up allowing co-op play, the latter pitting one player against the other.
Friendly phantoms are inevitably met with sighs of relief, and are a useful method for allowing less-able players to call on assistance. Hostile players, however, which tend to spawn in your game at singularly inopportune moments, are a frustrating complication which feel unfair - a criticism I wouldn’t level at the rest of the game, even in its most difficult moments. Dropping a hefty clump of souls because DanDYLion9000 has decided it’s the perfect time to piss on someone's bonfire only leads to uncontrollable gamer rage.
Dark Souls III verdict
Ultimately, the Dark Souls series is about repetition. Cycles of death, revival, and constant strategic tweaks form an endless loop in which some players thrive and others see nothing but toil. In many ways Dark Souls III also feels like a repeat - its modest tweaks and next-gen updates do little to alter the game’s core.
But what a repeat this is. Few games are so revered for their mechanics, and Dark Souls III offers just enough carrot and stick to keep you coming back for more. After mastering a class, the temptation to start all over again, and begin learning the intricacies of another, is strong indeed.
So no gold star for ingenuity here, but top marks for improvements to the familiar.