Thursday, 14 April 2016 00:00

Dark Souls III Review

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Even the brightest burning flames eventually fall to nothing more than ash…

From Software has unleashed its beloved beast upon the world once more. Mesmerizing us into a fugue state fueled by equal parts rage, frustration, determination, and foolhardiness, Dark Souls 3 returns us to the world we both hate to love, and love to hate. It leaves us wondering what happened with the past six, eight, or twenty-four hours of our lives. Death after death, defeat after defeat, and, if we’re lucky, victory after victory abound in Lotheric.

And… it’s a damn glorious experience.

The mighty Dark Souls 3 returns with its dramatic yet vague conclusion to the trilogy with elegance and grace, despite its brutal difficulty, gore filled grit, and ubiquitous grime. Around each corner, new threats await the unsuspecting Unkindled Ash. Will you be the one to return the Flame Lords to their thrones? Or, does Death himself wait in the wings to lay claim to your souls, your life, and the life of your favorite controller as it slams at top speed into the nearest wall?

Dark Souls 3 provides just about what fans of the series would expect from the latest and greatest installment, but cleans up the experience significantly from its predecessors. What do I mean exactly? Well, between dying over and over, I’ve come up with a few conclusions as to how the improvements to the whole shebang have created what I feel should be the quintessential and what I consider to be the best damn Souls experience I’ve had to date. The crème de la crème that the Souls series will be known for—its iconic iteration.

The Dark Souls series has always been known for being hard as nails due to scary surprises and threats around every corner, a combat system that requires precision and patience, rather than button mashing, and unforgiving mechanics all around. One misstep in position, combat, or avoiding traps, and you’re dead—losing all of your souls (which serve as currency for shopping, reinforcing or augmenting gear, and as points to use when leveling up). You get one shot to fight your way to your corpse to pick them back up. Die again along the way? Well, you can kiss those souls goodbye, as they’re gone for good. It could be one, it could be 10,000, it doesn’t matter.

What’s pleasant about Dark Souls 3 is that while the difficulty is still certainly up there (especially for those masochistic players who start as The Deprived, a class that begins with lower stats and basically no gear), I feel that the strength of the player is (mostly) balanced. Granted, I was playing as an Assassin instead of my normal Knight or Warrior. However, I felt as if I was able to hold my own, provided I didn’t get greedy, and I reserved some stamina for a defensive roll or block. I recall in other Souls titles feeling like I was made of glass, regardless of soul level or gear, and that enemies were just extremely powerful—requiring the patience and flawless attention span of a god. Not here. I don’t feel god-like, but I don’t feel as if I’m being absolutely crushed. It’s a nice balance that allows new players to jump in without too much upfront pain, but also keeps veterans vested in moving forward to the more challenging locales.

Some specific improvements that I found really helped improve the title were mechanical ones, rather than graphics, audio, or lore.

We’ll get to all of that goodness soon, but let’s go with what differentiates Dark Souls 3 from the other Souls titles. The first thing that comes to mind is the addition of password matchmaking to make finding the white soapstone signs of friends you want to play with significantly easier. It’s really easy and reliable to use too—just ensure that you and your friend(s) are within Soul Level range to find each other, then input the same password in your options menu. That’s it! Now, once a player has their Ember (just like being removing Hollowed in Dark Souls 1 and 2—basically, being fully powered and as human as possible for the newcomers to the series), they see when another player puts their white soapstone sign down in the same area, and can summon the specific friend or friend(s) they want! Fantastic! It sure beats trying to move to a secluded, unpopular area and waiting around for 10-20 minutes at a time, praying that your friend’s summon sign appeared… just to do it all over again if one of you dies, or after each boss you beat together.

The second thing that I noticed relatively quickly is the smoothness of Dark Souls 3. No doubt this comes with From Software finally getting their act together on their customizable graphic options. In the past, the Souls games have been notorious for subpar graphic options, terrible frame rates, and otherwise just an absolutely awful visual experience. Thankfully, we’ve had support from the modding community (looking at you Durante) in resolving these issues—sometimes within even 24 hours of release! This time around, I was visually pleased immediately upon launch. I was able to get a solid 60 FPS at 1920x1080 on max settings, without ridiculous looking textures, anti-aliasing, and just overall blurriness, like earlier titles. It was nice being able to boot the game and maybe flip one or two options, instead of my eyes burning, followed by endlessly searching online for third party fixes for the horrendous quality.

I also noticed that enemy placement and variety was far more impressive here than in previous entries in the series, which was both interesting and frustrating at the same time. As one gets experienced with the Souls genre, one learns to expect the unexpected. One adapts to the map, enemy placement, enemy type, and so on. However, From Software took it a step above. For example, frequently when entering a dark room without a torch, one can expect enemies to appear from dark corners or behind containers. This is all fine and dandy when you’re expecting it, but how about when you’re dealing with those enemies, and suddenly an archer fires a flaming bolt into your back through the door you just went through, while two more enemies then climb up from the castle walls to join the fray? Yeah, that kind of stuff happens… and often.

From Software has just thought one to three steps ahead of the player in each and every twist and turn, and it feels glorious.

Everything is well thought out, from the mixes of enemies in each room or corridor, to surprise enemies’ positions, their weaponry, and weaknesses, to each encounter. It’s all bloody fantastic, but also extremely frustrating, since it becomes predictably unpredictable. Playing Dark Souls 3 turns into a battle of the minds, or a battle of attrition. How many steps ahead of the developers can you think? Or, if you can’t, how many times can your sanity stand being butchered by the same encounter over and over, until the lightbulb goes off as to how to deal with the obstacle—only to be slaughtered yet again?

Whether you tackle Dark Souls 3 with the endurance of a tank, or the mind of a supercomputer, expect to be challenged in different ways in an experience that will leave you in a state of emotional confusion. Am I angry? Am I frustrated? Am I in love? Am I being dumb? Am I just using the wrong strategy? Am I having a good time?

Well, except for that last question. You’ll always be having a good time (or a “good” time) in Lothric. I guarantee it! ;)

The interface has been cleaned up as well, providing more transparency to the game’s complex mechanics than ever before. I noticed not only are different weapon’s movesets shown on the status screen, but there's also the traditional breakdown of your core attributes. When leveling up, the derived attributes show their changed values when adding points to core attributes. Everything just feels, looks, and works so much better than before, creating an even more seamless experience. It's great, whether you’re a PvE or PvP lover, a casual, or a hardcore theory crafter.

Graphically, Dark Souls 3 is superb, as any AAA release is expected to be. Animations, models, textures, and backdrops are all absolutely beautiful, even as dark and brooding as a game titled “Dark Souls 3” should be. I highly suggest taking a moment whenever you have a viewpoint to look around and absorb the sights of the kingdom. Even with death and destruction, there’s a serene peacefulness in the façade of emptiness found in looking out at all around you.

If you’re looking for a gorgeous title to sink your teeth into, Dark Souls 3 absolutely has you covered.

Brick by brick, puddle by puddle, cloud by cloud, and piece of gear by piece of gear, everything had been hand-crafted for excellence in appearance and function. Everything was seamless. There’s no better way to put it than every single pixel was masterfully done. It’s been a long time since I’ve enjoyed something that has been hyped as hard as Dark Souls 3 was, and I’m usually turned off by hype. It’s just that damn beautiful.

My only caveat graphically was character creation. Sure, I may have been a little rushed as I was indeed streaming on launch day, but, many of the color options seemed to have little to no effect. Most noticeable here was the hair color. The presets seemed to do little to nothing in terms of changing the hair due to a possible black undertone of some kind. I was able to use the RGB sliders to get close to my desired color, but it just didn’t feel about right. I assume the other colors operate in a similar manner, but I didn’t get to dive in too much to test that.

In terms of the auditory experience, Dark Souls 3 does not disappoint. Up there with the great masters of negative auditory space (using the lack of sound to create atmosphere and ambiance), such as Resident Evil and Silent Hill, you’ll rarely notice the lack of background music, until it hits, and won’t notice it when it goes away. When engaging a terrifying monstrosity or boss, the fade-in and crash of the instrumental track establishes an epic tone for the ages, as if you are David himself standing against Goliath in the duel of the fates. It then fades quickly upon death or victory—conveying very different senses of peacefulness. There is peacefulness in victory, as the cries and crashes of battle fade away, leaving only the battered and bloodied victor clutching his success. Yet, there’s peacefulness in death as well, as you drift off into nothingness before being pulled back to the reality of Lothric, and the horrors you must tackle. It gives you a moment of respite, before thrusting you back into the fray to try again.

One must actively hunt out the story and lore, and decipher it from the descriptions of items, scenes, and the vague speeches provided by NPCs. Then after piecing the parts together, one must come to their own conclusion as to what happened, what is happening, and what your role as the Unkindled Ash is in the events of the series. There are many complete or near complete fan theories out there, however, I strongly encourage that you explore this on your own before reading or viewing them, if lore is your thing.

The jury is still out on my opinion of this. I think it’s an innovative method of storytelling which certainly helps immersion and draws minds in via inquisitiveness, but at the same time, in an era of things being spoon fed, it’s quite jarring to have to put in that much thought and effort into getting key story elements—not even optional or side stories, but main story elements must be found by exploring blindly and reading EVERYTHING. Some days I absolutely love the fusion of hard as nails Ninja Gaiden sink or swim gameplay, and don’t mind hunting out story elements—other days, I just want to progress, level, and gear, and setbacks towards those goals suck, so story hunting takes a big back seat.

Overall, as a gamer that can’t stand overhyped titles that can’t live up to the big shoes their predecessors and advertisements have created for them, I think Dark Souls 3 hit or exceeded my expectations. As I progress through the game, I can only hope that the rest gives me as good (or better) of an experience than I have had thus far.


The Verdict

The verdict on Dark Souls 3? Almost perfect, but not quite there. I’m sure I’ll be spending a lot of time in Lotheric, as will many folks. Graphics, mechanics, gameplay, and audio are all absolutely on point. But, we could still use some simplification of certain mechanics. The password system is a great start, but why not just let us invite friends from our friends list to join worlds? We want to play together, so let us play together. We’re going to do it anyway. But, otherwise, whether solo or with friends, Dark Souls 3 is lots of fun, and is absolutely worth picking up.

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Dan Wheeler

Gaming was Dan's first passion in life. He learned to read at the age of 3, just to better understand his favorite NES titles (Crystalis, anyone?) back in 1993. No matter how busy his life gets, he always manages to find time to indulge in his passion. He's spent a great deal of time in just about every genre, major title, PC, console, and handheld, in one form or another, over a lifetime. While his first love will always be RPGs and MMORPGs, he's just as comfortable in any other genre. When not working or writing, Dan can be found streaming on Twitch at "OmegabladeX."


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