Dark Souls 3 is the kind of game you dream about. Every death is a story of regret. Each unexplored area holds a tangled web of treasure, traps, and trails that twist into trials unknown and challenging. There is something about the cycle of exploring, looting, dying, and fighting, that stays with a player long after they have turned the game off. What From Software has created with the Soulsborne franchise is a storytelling experience that encourages the players to create their own unique adventure, and Dark Souls 3 is their crowning achievement. It is the best parts and pieces of its brothers and sisters all spun into a game entirely its own. The gameplay is a blend of the fast and ruthless Bloodborne but the strategy and RPG elements take inspiration from the Souls games that came before it. Dark Souls 3 is one of the best sequels I have ever played. It takes the raw, unfulfilled potential of the games that came before it and refines it into something that can only be described as perfect. As the supposed “last entry” in the world of Souls, it is a worthy end to a now legendary franchise.
A World Of Nightmares
Before anything else, Dark Souls 3 is beautiful. It is like the developers tore their game from the fabric of nightmares; seamlessly rendered in a detail that far surpasses its peers and predecessors and the tone is just right. Everywhere you look there is something to stop and drool over, from the vaulted walls of a fortress-like cathedral to the black murky abyss just below it, there is an unparalleled visual diversity on display.
The game is a feast for the senses and the best part is, none of that variety is just for show. Every single piece of breathtaking scenery is actually out there waiting to be explored. Sometimes I would just stop moving and walk over to a cliff, simply to enjoy the sight and see where I was going and how far I had come. The world design is such that the environments you play through are woven together like fine thread. Each place is connected both in theme and physical location. There are no load times or transitional screens, the world is just there and you are given full freedom to explore it. Which gives life to the world in a way few games ever manage to achieve. There is this sense of inter-connectivity that makes it feel as if the world is a place where real people might live as opposed to a digitally rendered set. The simple fact that every castle I see towering in the distance is a place I can go constantly reminds the player how vast and winding the the map is. The world feels and looks real and it is that suspension of disbelief that fuels some of the most satisfying exploration I have ever experienced in a game.
Magic and the Might of Swords
Combat is the driving force in any Soulsborne game. The stories, the beautiful worlds, these are secondary features when compared to the franchise’s life long promise of challenging gameplay and brutal boss fights. They are why we build our characters and scour the world for loot and armor. And I am happy to relay that in DS3 they are better than ever. The combat is silky smooth. It is a Grade A mixture of the lightning fast gameplay featured in Bloodborne and the slower tactical approach of the previous Souls. In BB there was no shield so most of the gameplay revolved around being fast. If you were going to get hit you had better be doing one of two things, either dodging that incoming attack, or swinging your greatsword in an attempt to trade damage with the enemy. It was all Attack! Dodge! Attack! Attack! Attack! In the previous Souls games the gameplay was more shield and magic based. You could stand back and sling spells, dodging when you needed. Or you could simply tank up, putting all your skill points in shields and armor, essentially becoming a walking piece of iron. Dark Souls 3 cuts a line between the two. Enemies are overall more aggressive in their attack patterns and the dodge roll has become as important and useful as a shield. But playing defensive is still very important and blocking is still a huge factor in survival. That said the tempo has slightly shifted from the franchise’s traditionally slower gameplay to something more fast paced and aggressive.
The first change of pace comes in the form of something called Weapon Arts. They are the cool attack patterns that you see bosses do but have so far never been able to replicate. By holding the L2 button and then swinging your weapon your character begins a combo attack whose pattern depends on the weapon. These attacks are both more powerful than your normal heavy attacks and also benefit from what is called hyper armor. Meaning that you can not be interrupted while in the middle of your swing. They are From Software’s way of telling the player to go on the offensive, to put caution to the wind and fight like you really mean it. While at first all of that sounds super cool these new “Arts” can sometimes be more pompous flash than show. The problem with most of them is that they are slow, beautiful to watch, but your gonna have a sword in your ass before the animation finishes. Which is a problem when fighting some of the swift, hard hitting, enemies introduced in this entry of the series. In the older games killing difficult enemies was often a matter of slowing down and analyzing the situation. In Dark Souls 3 this is still the case but the answer often lies in taking initiative. The developers want you to get close and personal and they want you to take risks. Don’t take this to mean that the game is any easier than before. It is not. Enemies have gotten a similar treatment. They will destroy you if your timing is off and some of them will stand tall against your offensive onslaught and smack you down, mid saber swing, hyper armor isn’t just unique to you after all. As far as overall difficulty goes, Dark Souls 3 is probably one of the harder games in the franchise.
A Dragon and Its Fangs
Just like every other element of combat in the game, bosses have received a face-lift. Most bosses now have distinct phases and as these phases tick down both their appearance and attack patterns change. They get faster, tougher, bigger, and most important of all, a hell of a lot more deadly. A mere five minutes into the game most players will face the tutorial boss, Ludex. The Ludex fight starts simple enough. He is a knight with a giant halberd. His attack patterns are swift and he has a range that forces players to stay close. As long as most people stay tight on their dodge rolls chipping him down to 50% health is not an issue. The problem is what happens after that. At 50% HP his body explodes outward as giant streams of black ooze shoot from his face and arms. He gets bigger, a lot bigger, and his attack patterns now include a close range sweep and a slam that has his giant ooze hand crushing your body into the bricks. His second form is far more dangerous than his first. With this change his attack damage is doubled and the safe spaces where you could once roll and dodge are now missing. And this is only the beginning; Ludex is one of the easiest bosses in the game and doesn’t even begin to hold a candle to the horrors that wait silently closer to the end. Dark Souls 3 has some of the most memorable boss battles out of any game I have ever played. While sounding gimmicky at first the transforming mechanic is far more than the simple change you see in your fight with Ludex. From Software gets quite creative in Dark Souls 3 and like always, prepare to die.
Player Kills Player, Praise The Sun!
Perhaps one of the biggest surprises to come out of Dark Souls 3 is how engaging PVP has become with the inclusion of another color Covenant. For those who do not know or who may be playing a Souls game for the first time, Covenants are factions in the game. They mostly relate to PVP and co-op and they offer players a variety of ways to interact with each other online. In the past few games that interaction has been limited to Blue, Red, Gold. Red represents the invasion factions. Invaders can forcibly enter your game and fight you at any time and if they kill you they get points accordingly. Blue represents the defenders, they are summoned when a Red invades a player and they can help the player vanquish the invader. Gold is a more general cooperative faction that is meant to help the player progress through the game. In Dark Souls 3 there is a new color on the board and it is Purple. The Purple covenant represents the mad. They are wild cards that can either help a player like a gold or blue or they can choose to kill the player like a red. The Purple faction is one of the coolest aspects of the entire game. Their mere presence encourages players to interact with each other online and sets up story lines that are unforgettable and hilarious. I summoned one on accident and it led to one of the best stories of my Souls career.
I was in the Cathedral of the Deep and I was summoning Reds and fighting them when I accidentally pushed a purple summon sign on the floor. Immediately I got a message across the screen saying that I had summoned a player named “Scrotal Devastator”. Scrotal immediately appeared and before I knew it he and I are duking it out. Throwing flames, swinging swords, we had a fantastic time of it. Finally, after what seemed like hours, I cornered him and was about to finish him off when a Red invaded my game. Scrotal seeing that he is about to die rolls out of the way of my blade and proceeds to attack the red phantom in what I can only assume was a peace offering. Seeing this as a temporary sign I help him out and together we killed the invader. After this I squared up again to fight and he emotes forgiveness by getting on his knees. Feeling generous I choose not to kill him and he and I go on playing through the game together. Working as a team we clear the entire area in about 20 minutes and arrive at the boss door. Being the idiot I am, I turn my back to him and open the boss door thinking, “This has been amazing. Scrotal turned out to be a good guy/gal,” when he proceeds to immediately, and without conscience, backstab me. Doing this causes your hit to be an automatic critical hit, which means half of my health was gone before I could react. Needless to say, I died… After which he emotes laughter and my screen goes to black.
The entire scenario was so quintessentially Souls that I couldn’t really be mad. In fact all I could think about was how genius the addition of the Purple Faction is. I mean, Soulsborne games are hard enough that adding in a wild card PvP mechanic seems insane. And yet not only does it work, but it creates its own stories and motivation for playing. It is because of these risks that Dark Soul 3 is so successful. From the very first game, until the fourth game in the franchise, From Software has never stopped taking risks in the pursuit of their vision; and Dark Souls 3 is the culmination of all that experimentation and tweaking. It could have skated by on its reputation and history alone and yet it didn’t. It continued on in the tradition of its predecessors innovating. What we are left with is a game that takes every idea to its logical, and sometimes illogical ends. It is the best looking, best playing, and most strategically deep Soulsborne game ever created, and it is a fitting end to a series that has lasted more than a decade.