In many ways, reviewing a Dark Souls game is an exercise in futility. Not because they’re brutally difficult or because they’re deliberately clunky, but because Souls fans are going to pick it up one way or another. They crave the keen sting of being shut down in absolute terms and the radiant high that comes with attaining victory.
For fans of the series, particularly those who took issue with creative decisions made in Dark Souls II, Dark Souls III should constitute a welcome return to form. Fresh from his stint at Sony working on Bloodborne, game designer Hidetaka Miyazaki has returned to the Souls series and brings with him a number of lessons and mechanics from said new IP. The more interconnected map, beloved in Dark Souls and more or less dropped from Dark Souls II, is back. You can charge attacks by holding down the R2 button as you could in Bloodborne, classes like the Pyromancer have received some love and are now more viable than ever. Monsters and bosses now run through multiple evolutions and mutations as each battle progresses, again pulled from Bloodborne.
The frenetic pace of Bloodborne, however, is absent. This is still Dark Souls and as such requires meticulous, attentive, tentative play. Push to hard, overextend, and you’ll be wiped by even the most trivial of minions. In this, Dark Souls III reminds me more than ever of shmup and bullet hell games — watch carefully, stay on your toes, make a note of the patterns that emerge and exploit them to your advantage. But even as the game challenges you to accomplish these feats, it also waits for the moment when it can punish you for thinking that you can.
I know a number of Souls fans who enjoyed Dark Souls II but found it wanting in the difficulty department. So grizzled had they become by the hundreds of hours spent in the original game that they were ahead of the curve by the time the sequel rolled around. Those players will be pleased to know that Dark Souls III has a zero tolerance policy regarding such hubris. Indeed, the game seems to delight in throwing you curve balls. Just when you think you’ve got a battle figured out, the game will throw some wild new variable into the mix to freak you out.
One of my favourite changes in Dark Souls III is the ability to turn enemies against each other. Ever since Carmack and Romero let me do the same thing in DOOM all those years ago, I’ve been a big fan of the “make em fight amongst themselves” mechanic. Here, provided you can get it right and it’s so, so hard to get it right, it is absolutely the difference between life, death and being able to scoop up some sweet loot and bail before the nasties can figure out where you’ve gone.
Visually, Dark Souls III is an immense treat for the eyes. From environments to skyboxes, this is easy the most beautiful Souls game to date. The castles, more or less absent from Dark Souls II, are back in force and their formidable architecture is to be both feared and admired. And then there are the enemies. No-one — no other game designer in the world — is doing enemy and monster design like From Software is right now. These are hideous, unsettling creatures pulled straight out of your nightmares. The way they move, the frenzied manner of their attacks, and the bloodcurdling noises they make you fear these creatures.
You don’t need to go it alone, however. Following on from previous games, Dark Souls III features online multiplayer but expands the number of player slots up to six. That, I’m sure you’ll agree, is a lot of players. Interestingly, even with such a huge raiding party, the game remains a stiff challenge, raining monsters and brutal attacks down on you as you fall over each other to land hits of your own.
Here’s the part of the review where I lose a lot of you, though. Despite the praise I’ve given the game in this review, I’m not a Dark Souls fan. I don’t actually enjoy playing these games one bit. It’s not because they’re too hard — I like a challenge. It’s not because they’re too repetitive — they are, and that’s part of the charm for fans. I can see that these are beautifully crafted, cleverly designed games that demand a significant investment from the player and I respect that. What pushes me away from these games is how they make me feel.
Talk to any Souls player and they’ll tell you that they key to finding the joy in the game is feeling the satisfaction that accompanies victory against a seemingly impossible foe, a rush so potent it nearly makes them pass out. I’ve felt this rush myself! It’s an awesome feeling! My problem is that I find the hours of struggling to move forward and dying over and over again a depressing and aggravating slog that the three minute high of victory just can’t justify. I have a friend whose favourite part of any game is analysing the ways he can work the numbers and the enemy patterns to his advantage. You should see the way his min-maxing mind allows him to completely break games like Borderlands and Oblivion over his knee. In that sense, these are games made for him and they make me wish my mind worked that way too.
I tell you all of this in the interest of critical transparency and because I think its important that Dark Souls III did nothing to change my mind. This is a great game, its the most honed and focused the series has ever been, it’s the most terrifyingly beautiful and relentlessly brutal the series has ever been. It’s not for everyone, so if this is your first trip into the world of Dark Souls, welcome and stay sharp. For returning veterans, welcome home — and put your plans on hold. You won’t want to play anything else for a while.
Review Score: 8.5 out of 10
Highlights: Beautiful; Brutal; the best Souls game yet
Lowlights: Losing all your souls after thirteen hours of straight play and having no idea how you’re going to get them back
Developer: From Software
Publisher: Bandai Namco Entertainment
Released: April 12, 2016
Platform: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows PC
Reviewed on PlayStation 4