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Dark Souls III (PlayStation 4) artwork

Dark Souls III (PlayStation 4) review

"Wake up, Mr. Freeman. Wake up and smell the ashes."

Dark Souls 3 is a game about stat management. Do I invest my souls (read: experience) into vitality to increase my equipment load +1, or do I put them into strength to buff my right handed weapon’s power +2? What happens if I select between an Irithyll rapier +4 with capped physical damage at 181 and frost damage at 55, or go with the more pedestrian broadsword +10 with its physical power extending to 234 though it lacks an elemental booster? How do the numbers flow, and what are they telling me? More importantly, what do I want to get out of those numbers? Do I let them shape how I play, or do I let my style of play shape what I need the numbers to be?

The answers aren’t apparent unless you’ve spent time in the Souls universe, and even then they’re only apparent if you know precisely what you want to get out of your build. Customization is the name of the game here, as there is no one right way to play. You can dabble in magic or be the fleet of foot type who sports a dagger or beckon to your inner burliness by hulking around an ultra greatsword and massive shield. Tinkering is not only allowed – it’s encouraged. While I often debate between using the aforementioned Irithyll rapier +4 and broadsword +10, I often do wonder what sort of satisfaction I might glean from sporting a smoldering iron to brandish my foes. Or maybe I just want to run around looking like the ultimate badass, donning a sweet set of tattered rags and wielding a scythe. To experience this euphoria, I can customize my loadout at a moment’s notice.

Stat Souls? Fashion Souls? Dark Souls.

The oodles of equipment and armor made available throughout serve as only a distraction to the main attraction. This is Dark Souls 3, after all, and it is glorious. I’m new to this series, having experienced significant time only with Bloodborne beforehand. But whereas Bloodborne shoehorns you into a set style of play in an entirely new universe, Dark Souls 3 invites you to come as you are to experience the series’ magnificent denouement.

This is From Software’s way of telling us that they love us, or at least appreciate our willingness to return to these challenging yet fulfilling titles. There is no shortage of lore and fan service to behold here, and the game’s set pieces and presentation are nothing short of extraordinary. If you’ve played its predecessors, Dark Souls 3 promises to serve as the greatest Greatest Hits compilation you’re likely to come across for quite some time.

There are so many nods to prior Souls entries. I guess I could see why this might be an issue to some (guess what, there are three poisonous areas to traverse here!), but to me it just seemed like From Software knew that it had something special and wanted to refine it even more. There is such great depth in this wondrous world of Lordran that it’s never far from reminding you that you were just down in that valley or up on that castle wall. In fact, much of the game is set in or near Lothric’s towering castle. After making my way up to the very highest chamber as I neared the end-game, I realized upon fast-traveling back to the hub-like Firelink Shrine at the very beginning that I was never too far from where I really needed to go.

I would be remiss to make it sound as if this is an open world title as Dark Souls 3 is certainly no such thing. Despite its relative linearity, there is the occasional splitting path and more than occasional backtracking to previously worn trails, though primarily of simple choosing rather than necessity. There is so much mystery humming within these walls that I often find myself taking my time, absorbing everything that there is to experience.

Hidetaka Miyazaki and his team at From Software are so good at layered world building. Miyazaki himself is a proven master at making these sorts of games. As a child he would read borrowed manga from his local library and, unable to understand some of the more complicated writing, would use his imagination to fill in the gaps in the storytelling by carefully studying the artwork laid across the pages. His employment of lore is subtle yet pervasive, though you’ll likely miss out on realizing some of the finer points of it unless you take to the interwebs and read up on what the community has to say.

Dark Souls 3 doesn’t demand repetition beyond learning your enemies’ moves, but it offers reward to those who agree to going beyond just that. I was quaintly reminded of this when I found myself delving into some previously unexplored corner from earlier in the game I had all but forgotten. I only stumbled upon it because I had wanted to see what it would be like to cut through the thralls and undead that had given me so much difficulty at the outset and came across a locked door that I now had a key for. I don’t even recall when or where I obtained this key. But lo and behold, I encountered a powerful enemy – one that surely would have dispatched me in mere moments had I found him when I originally should have – at the base of an elevator that dropped a very important PVP item that I had all but forgotten about. Another instance, I stumbled upon a rare helm that allows my knight to gain 50% more experience with an offsetting health drain debilitation just for slaying an enemy I had originally bypassed in the interest of Estus (read: health) preservation. Will I ever use these items? Maybe. Maybe not. But the fact that they exist gives reason for me to scour every single nook and cranny. What else may I have missed?

There are so many fantastic moments, and none are more purely pronounced than the numerous and significant boss fights littered across the way. As the Ashen One, you’re tasked with rekindling the first flame. To do this, you must defeat the Lords of Cinder. I thought the Abyss Watchers gave me a good run for my money, but they proved to be pushovers when compared to some of the nastier baddies laying in my wake, like Aldrich, Devourer of Gods. It took a lot of persistence and dodging, but after some number of tries I was finally able to silence this grotesque human worm from conjuring powerful lightning blasts and flesh-piercing needles at my poor character’s body. Then I realized I had only vanquished the fiend in a side quest and had to do it all over again. This time for real.

All of Dark Souls 3’s boss fights are memorable and engaging. Now I’m down to just the final two – the optional Nameless King and the final boss keeping me from rekindling the first flame, the Soul of Cinder. At this point in time, it’s simply a matter of ensuring that I “get gud” or luck out with RNG. But I will say, regardless of how many tries it may take, never once does it feel that the game is being cheap or unfair . . . well, except maybe for the camera when fighting the Nameless King. He and his dragon can go to hell!

Otherwise, what we have here is a challenging yet mostly refined title that offers up the very best that the Souls series has to offer. I can’t wait to see what Miyazaki and From Software offer up next, though I’m in no hurry to leave this land of Lordran. I still have the game to beat, and so much more to do. It’s time for me to finish up what I have started and see what else awaits to be uncovered, sword and shield in hand.


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Community review by Fiddlesticks (August 19, 2017)

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