A lot of old, and a lot of new.
Warning: while this article does not contain any major spoilers, it does mention a particular location and character that appear very early in the game. If you wish to go into Dark Souls III completely blind, I recommend avoiding reading this article altogether.
After spending 25 hours in the world of Dark Souls III, I just can’t get enough of it. As has been the case with all of From Software’s ‘Soulsborne’ games, Dark Souls III has my attention. I am engrossed, and right now I’d rather be playing more of it than writing this impressions piece.
As the final chapter to the Dark Souls series, and the end of an era of sorts, Dark Souls III is grim, even grimmer and darker than usual. I haven’t beaten the game yet, though I think I’m getting close, but I can’t shake the feeling that the game’s just been trying to make me comfortable before pulling the rug out from under my feet. Thankfully, the numerous callbacks in Dark Souls III so far have been much more tastefully executed than in Dark Souls II. The reintroduction of Firelink Shrine, the return of Andre the blacksmith, and the reappearances of familiar faces and items all feel too familiar. It feels like Lordran all over again, it feels like home. And yet, there’s something sinister bubbling just beneath the surface of all this familiarity, but I can’t quite put my finger on it.
The first few hours of any Souls game is always the toughest for most players. You have to reacquaint yourself with the controls, the flow of the gameplay, and it takes time to get into the rhythm of things. Prior to playing Dark Souls III, I tried to prepare myself by replaying the first two games, just to get used to the gameplay again and brush up on my Souls lore. But Dark Souls III feels like a whole new brand of difficulty. From the first hour with the game, it was easy to tell that FromSoft has incorporated quite a bit of Bloodborne into this third chapter. Dark Souls III feels a lot smoother and faster; enemies are much more aggressive and proactive, and boss attacks are fluid and a little less telegraphed. By mixing the traditional Dark Souls formula with the speed of Bloodborne, Dark Souls III is a whole new beast for players to wrestle with.
Fishing for backstabs isn’t quite as simple as rolling behind an enemy and hitting R1 to watch your foe awkwardly slide into place for the backstab animation anymore; you have to bait attacks more carefully, and keep a close eye on your stamina to make sure you’re not overexerting yourself. The NPC invaders are a lot more aggressive too; aside from not being able to heal, they almost feel like actual players. These NPCs will bait out your attacks, parry you, and break your guard to pull off a sweet riposte.
While the 11 bosses I’ve defeated so far have been nothing short of unique and challenging, I’ve found that the mini bosses of the game are far more of a threat simply because you never know when they’ll spring up on you. These dangerous foes have large pools of health, high damage output, and they’re not afraid to get up in your face and send you back to the last bonfire. I’ve encountered quite a few of these tough enemies, and many times I’ve had to run away, and could only come back to beat them for good after I’d gotten a little stronger.
That’s not to say the bosses aren’t tough though; out of the 11 that I’d beaten, I’ve spent quite a few hours stumped with at least three of them. The bosses are dynamic, and they often gain new moves and behave a little more unpredictable when you enter the second phase of the fight. Your hands still shake whenever you beat a particularly tough boss, barely scraping through that last fight.
Fans will be happy to know that the bonfires seem to be evenly spread out as well. Exploring a forest and running out of Estus Flasks creates genuine worry within the player, and raises the age-old dilemma: do you go all the way back to the first bonfire to spend your souls, or do you push ahead, hoping for a new bonfire or shortcut right around the corner? The rush of unlocking a shortcut or discovering a new bonfire is still present, and the level design is incredibly well laid out, just as it was in the first game. While the level design isn’t quite as dense as it was in the original game, the game does still allow you to fight certain bosses and access certain areas out of order. Getting from one area to the next is rather linear, but there are plenty of areas you can skip for the time being if you want to pursue another path of progression.
Dark Souls III will also allow you to respec your character with the use of a certain item – a welcome addition, considering that levels are very hard to come by in this game, and it can be difficult to switch play styles in the middle of your run because of the sheer amount of souls it’ll cost to put points into another stat.
It’s worth mentioning that I’m currently playing the Japanese version on PS4, and there have been some worrying performance issues. The game stutters a little whenever I move too fast, and the framerate frequently dips below the promised 30. I’ve also heard of other troubling bugs where players would invade other players, be sent back to their own world, only to find out that they’re still red phantoms in their world, unable to engage enemies or progress. Players have reported that this bug is easily fixed by resetting their console, but it’s still an annoyance, to say the least.
One last thing I’d like to note about Dark Souls III is that while the gameplay feels smoother and more polished than ever, ironically it’s the story and the lore that’s keeping me engaged this time around. Dark Souls III is doing a damn fine job of sending you out on an epic adventure, throwing you revelations and rediscoveries of items and places you thought you were so familiar with. Game director Hidetaka Miyazaki knows that players want answers to the questions they’ve been asking all through the first two games, and he’s giving them out, slow and tantalizing, egging the player to keep pushing forward, to keep making new discoveries.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Souls game if there weren’t even more perplexing mysteries to unearth either. The lore is rich in this one, the NPCs are ever colorful, and even though I’m a little more than halfway through the game, I know there are tons of secrets I must have missed already, all of those missed secrets just waiting for me in my inevitable New Game Plus.
I’ll have a full review for Dark Souls III up after the official English release. Right now, I’d just like to get back to playing.