Before we begin, let's talk spoilers.
Souls game players exist upon a spectrum between two types of gamer — explorers and tourists. Certainly these archetypes exist in all facets of gaming — witness the mad geniuses who to this day plumb the depths of what is possible in Super Mario — but they are explicit in their existence with Dark Souls games.
Explorers are in it for the experience of discovery. They want to find everything, to piece together the puzzles, to solve the bosses without any help. They want to be that guy, the one their friends ask for help when stuck. And they will more often than not respond with 'are you sure you want me to tell you?'
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Tourists want the experience itself. They want to jump on wikidot and read about what to do next, where to go so as to not miss anything. They want their explorer friends to tell them the trick to the boss, they want to know about a cheesy strat to earn an early game sword of great value.
Neither part of the spectrum is 'right' in any sense. Both groups get different things out of the game, and both complement one another beautifully. Tourists are better off with explorers available to them, and vice versa. The point I'm driving at here, however, is that explorers want to go in blind. Explorers don't want to know anything about the game at all, while Tourists have probably already watched the entire game be played on Twitch (Explorers probably bought the game via the Xbox One Marketplace trick). If you consider yourself an Explorer, go no further with this review. Information dwells within which will spoil your experience, because any knowledge can be too much when you're trying to go into something blind.
The review itself can be considered spoiler free though. As much as I'd like to wank on about the final boss (and a few of the others alongside it) I won't. You'll learn information about enemies, areas and items, but if you're in this for the tourism you're better off heading to wikidot. Anyway, with the longest ever spoiler warning finished, let's jump in.
Nobody is semi-into Dark Souls, because the series doesn't allow that sort of half-assed commitment. Dark Souls is the Everest climbing of videogames. Nobody drops all that money, sleeps in those temperatures and gets that hypoxic and tells you it was anything other than the best thing they ever did. And nobody finishes a FromSoftware Souls game and tells you it was anything other than brilliant, amazing, spectacular.
Neither group really details their pain, their struggles. Neither party wants to explain the anguish. Everyone knows Souls games are hard, right? Everyone knows Everest is cold, and high altitude, and statistically one of the most dangerous endeavours a human can make, right? So when Dark Souls players proselytise for their favourite game ever, it never seems odd. It just seems like par for the course. But people on the outside, looking in, they struggle to understand the appeal.
If you're into Dark Souls games, I can tell you right now that Dark Souls 3 will probably be your game of the year. It's exactly what you want from a Dark Souls game. It's a lot of Dark Souls with a touch of Bloodborne, a dash of Dark Souls II and a hint of Demon's Souls. It's, admittedly, not a lot of anything new. But it's brilliant nonetheless.
My chief concern about Dark Souls III is about how familiar it all feels. Dark Souls is a horror series more than anything else, and familiarity robs the game of a degree of tension. Curse frogs — officially Basilisks, but they're frogs which cast Curse, so... — are a terrifying remnant of previous games, capable of killing you despite brilliant dodging and blocking. But you dealt with them in previous Souls games, so they're a little bit less terrifying.
With that said, there are definitely new enemies lurking within DS3. There are some terrible new foes hiding in about the old ones, capable of awful things. Giant crabs, with no visible weakspots you can attack for massive damage. Creepy priestesses whose gaze itself reduces not just your health, but your maximum health pool. Swamp horrors, ghostly arms, possessed armour, there's plenty in DS3 which is horrifying. But the mechanics, the ideas, the essence of Dark Souls 3 is all by the book; all seen before.
If it isn't your first Souls game, you can sense when an ambush is coming, because you've seen it before. You don't get a sense of impending doom, rather an expectant feeling of trouble. If this isn't your first Souls game, you never feel worried about what might be around the next corner. In a way it's like you've played through it once already. The second time you play a Souls game it's still tough, you still have trouble with some bosses, and lapses in concentration result in unforced deaths. But it's unlikely that the same tricks will get you again — the ambush which killed you last time might still kill you, but it won't be due to your being caught unaware.
And in a way, Dark Souls III makes this work. It's a game built around the idea that you have played it before. It still tries to hide things from you, still tries to trick you. If you've played a Dark Souls game before and I tell you — just as an example — that there are more mimics than chests, your initial reaction might be "so what?" But it will eat at you. You'll work your way through the game ever knowing my callous advice, and every chest you find will imbue a sense of dread. Mimics aren't even that difficult to beat, but how could that possibly matter? If you've played a Dark Souls game before you probably already take a swipe at every chest you find, but that's not really good enough, is it? Knowing that it's more likely to be a mimic than a chest, you need to be careful about when you try to open it. If you hit it while fighting other mobs, you're in trouble. If you slash carelessly and trigger two mimics at once, you're in trouble.
Even without the benefit of anything utterly alien to the dedicated Dark Souls player, Dark Souls III can still incite terror, because they use what you already know against you. Curse frogs aren't that big a deal. But what if seven of them attack you in a narrow corridor just after you triggered a mimic? Your best option is probably to just homeward bone and then return so you can trigger each enemy in an orderly fashion, but in a panicked state you won't make that move. Instead you might shriek and roll and slash and roll and run and pray that the curse doesn't build up enough, and maybe your idiot strategy works and maybe it doesn't.
Dark Souls III does this a lot. It plays with you. It sees you roll your eyes as you angle the camera around a blind corner instead of rushing for the item conspicuously placed on the ground, and after you've decided it's safe to walk forward it reveals that the ground before the item never was, and you would have noticed if not for a clever trick of perspective. After you've run back from the bonfire (the fall doesn't kill you, but the toxic sludge on the ground and the four enemies below do) you notice that from the other side the hole is readily apparent.
It definitely straddles the line between meta and derivative, but it does so well. The lore is what nails it for me. Little story elements seep through to remind you not just of where you've been in this game, but in all three Dark Souls games. The world has a real sense of history, something more than just in-jokes like Patches (although he's absolutely around). It's a complaint many had about Dark Souls 2, that it seemed very little like the Lordran they knew, and it's been rectified with vigour here.
The world design also utterly nails this philosophy. Areas that don't outright return strongly resemble the dilapidated ruins of areas long gone. The world design in Dark Souls III is generally brilliant (not including some damp spots). There's this verticality about each area which makes them ultra dense. While Dark Souls fans will be disappointed that the game doesn't have the pretzel type of connectivity of the first game (opting instead for the linear-style areas of the second) the areas themselves are twisted and layered in a way which still gives off that old-school feeling.
Weapons return, if you know where to look, so that you can still acquire the Chaos Blade (which damages the wielder with each strike) or the Crystal Moon Greatsword (a huge Claymore for mages). Item descriptions describe events long past, events you might not have even taken part in — just heard of. Locations you've explored before return in glorious ways, terrifying and exhilarating to remember at once.
The game feels like Dark Souls more than it does DS2, probably thanks to the elimination of the Adaptability stat. In Dark Souls II, Adaptability increased the amount of i-frames a dodge-roll possessed — that is to say, the amount of frames during a dodge during which your player character was invincible. In Dark Souls III that number appears to be capped, but dodge-roll i-frames seem ultra forgiving, maybe even on par with Bloodborne, which means you get away with some extremely relaxed dodging. Despite resembling DS1 more than DS2's rolls, the roll anywhere from DS2 has been adapted to the game, so you can roll in circles if you like.
Another element borrowed from Dark Souls II is the dual wielding — although slight modifications have been made. You no longer power stance by holding Y or Triangle to activate special dual wielding moves. Instead all weapons can use special Weapon Arts, and two-handing some involves an attack from both hands. My favourites were a pair of hammers which reminded me of power-stanced clubs from DS2 and the Dancer's Enchanted Swords, a pair of blades created from the soul of the Dancer of the Boreal Valley (featured in the E3 build).
Weapon Arts are a funny thing. Some of them feel like the Trick Weapons from Bloodborne, augmenting a weapon to make it something utterly new, but most simply deliver an inconsequential buff. The best Arts exist on Boss Weapons, but that's where they seem old hat — boss weapons have often created fireballs or arced lightning, so it's not new for them to do it in Dark Souls III. The uchigatana puts the player into a samurai style stance and has them wait, weapon sheathed, before allowing them to deliver extremely quick attacks. On the other hand, the Morning Star lets you buff yourself to increase your poise — a stat which seems nearly inconsequential in DSIII.
Poise and Durability both seem wasted in Dark Souls III. Poise is supposed to save players from being staggered when hit. It's an important stat to have when you attack at the same time as your foe, because if they hit first and you aren't staggered, you can still do damage. If you do get staggered, you'll be left open to massive damage and you won't do anything to them. At best, Poise seemed like a stat primarily suited to PVP, as AI enemies of all types seem to be able to stagger you no matter what.
Durability is an odd duck in DSIII as well. You can repair a damaged but not broken weapon simply by resting at a bonfire, which is as it was in Dark Souls II, but not even the most fragile seeming weapons really had a problem with breaking to necessitate this anyway. An odd addition — the moment a weapon declares it is 'at risk' is the moment when it does reduced damage like a broken weapon might. So you'd never continue to use a weapon which has entered the "at risk" state because bashing with a shield probably does more damage than using a technically broken sword.
Armour can't be upgraded or degraded in Dark Souls III, which is an odd decision. It renders armour almost to the realm of fashion souls only, as apart from balancing equip loads there is little reason to change armour. Except for a brief stint involving running over lava, I never felt changing armour to maximise resistances to be a necessity. If you aren't over 70% equip load (after which you begin to do fat rolls) you might as well wear whatever makes you feel pretty. Or heck, deal with fat rolls and go for it anyway.
What this results in is a complete lack of consequence for players who stay out in the world longer than they should. Even if your weapon becomes 'at risk', you can just use some cheap repair powder to return it to full durability without needing to return to a bonfire. For me, the impact durability had on previous games was significant — it gave the decision to press deeper into enemy territory weight. The idea of 'at risk' has real meaning there as well, because when your armour breaks in the older games, you really are at risk. I have a big issue with this.
Weapon upgrades are a different matter altogether. There are 12 different available weapon infusions in Dark Souls III, giving players ample opportunity to create a weapon with the perfect utility. The usuals are there — Fire, Lightning and so on — but now you can infuse your weapon to scale with Faith, to amplify Strength or Dex scaling or to even scale with Luck. It gives the game a personalisation that I think will make for some extremely interesting PVP builds.
I've mentioned PVP a few times now, but sadly I've barely experienced it. With a player pool in the low hundreds, it has been difficult to find people to invade and attack, and worse still — nobody invaded me, not once. Still, what I played felt good. Invaders appear to do reduced damage, which is a tough pill but your burden nonetheless — if you want to roll through other people's games, ruining their shit, you have to do it at a minor disadvantage.
At least in this game there's no reason not to chug estus flasks at will. The previous games struggled to clearly define what was an acceptable practice in PVP — could the host (the victim) chug at will? Was it bad form to restore health when your invader wasn't afforded the same ability? Was it worth the nasty messages on Steam to repeatedly invade the same person over and over? Yes, no, and oh my lord yes it was.
In this, estus flasks are used for two purposes — health and focus. Ashen estus flasks restore your focus, which you use for casting spells or using your Weapon Arts. Because spells don't have a limited number of uses beyond their focus cost, not being able to flask in PVP on either side would put casters in a tough spot — the solution then is to allow everyone to pop as many flasks as they like.
This lengthens PVP fights as well, which is a good thing in my opinion. Both fighters get to strategise in a longer fight, as minor mistakes can be recovered from while major errors are still punished heavily. Then again, as I mentioned my experience with the multiplayer was limited.
When we get to the technical side of the PC port, not all is well in the state of Lothric, I'm afraid. As far as ports go, Dark Souls III is a shocker. Before I dropped all my graphical settings to low, the game crashed repeatedly. Others on better computers (twin Titans in SLI for example) reported no such errors, forcing me to accept the fact that my PC only barely made the grade. With that said, my PC would earn similar benchmark results as the PC listed in the Recommended Settings of the updated Minimum Specs listed on Steam, so it even still seems like a poor port job. The initial Minimum Specs recommendation asked for a GTX 465 — they now require a GTX 750Ti.
For what that's worth, Dark Souls fans will probably scoff and consider my PC to be unworthy regardless. That's the nature of Souls fandom, really. The PC runs other, prettier games on Ultra at a solid 60 fps — Star Wars Battlefront, Ubisoft's Tom Clancy's The Division The Name-Longening, Rainbow Six Siege — but Dark Souls III didn't only suffer hard crashes before I put all graphical settings on low. Towards the end of the game, sections would routinely reduce my framerate to sub-40. It's a bad port. Hopefully this will be fixed over time.
Can we briefly pause to examine the nature of criticising a game such as Dark Souls. For many, FromSoftware's games are immune to criticism. This is a byproduct of the games themselves. The essence of Dark Souls involves self-reflection and accepting your own failures, and I think as a result a lot of people accept fault when the game is instead liable. My first reaction, when considering the idea that I think Dark Souls III has too many swamps, was to wonder if maybe I didn't like swamps because I die in them a lot. There is a slim chance this is the case, to be honest. In truth, I think swamps are a lazy crutch used by FromSoftware to pad out their games -- their version of sewers. They feature little, if any, interesting architecture. They rely heavily on space as a significant hurdle, so that if the player dies they are forced to retrace a large distance to regain lost progress. The level design (be it toxic swamps, large walls or an invisible path like in the bloody Shrine of Amana) often forces the player to not only cover a large amount of ground, but to also do so via the same well-worn path repeatedly.
But does one element of poor design detract from what is otherwise a brilliant experience? Does a momentary eye-roll upon discovering another swamp moot the exhilaration of the rest of the game? Do some dropped frames undo the feeling of accomplishment I get when I defeat a boss? What about when I beat two bosses? Or all of them? What is the takeaway from a game like Dark Souls III? Can it be forgiven its faults because the end result — one where I look within, find myself lacking, steel my resolve and then overcome the odds — is so effortlessly rewarding?
So we return then to the key question. 'Why would I want to play the most difficult game ever?'
Dark Souls fans hate that question. It mischaracterises the game, and by proxy themselves. It paints a picture of an impossible task and the masochists who toil away at it anyway. Once you're a fan, Dark Souls isn't difficult. Hell, Dark Souls III might be the easiest of the series (with some notable exceptional elements). The appeal is all mental, because it's not about beating the game, or the bosses, or an area. It's about beating the part within all of us which tells us we can fail.
By the way, there are more mimics in Dark Souls III than there are chests.