When I quit playing Dark Souls 2, we didn’t leave it on good terms. Like a wimpy boxer, I told myself this would be the last time I’d suffer humiliation at the end of a beating but for some reason I’m always drawn back. “It’s the only game which understands me”, I’ll say, as I boot up Dark Souls 3. Because this time, I tell myself, surely it’ll be different.
Thankfully, paradoxically, during my first few hours of gameplay, everything felt immediately familiar to previous entries. The combat has definitely increased in pace since DSII, taking a hint of the Bloodborne style of gameplay, but still retaining that quintessential Dark Souls flavour, both in visual style and combat mechanics.
You start the game and you choose your class and starting gift, just as you did in the previous two titles. This is followed by a swift run through a short tutorial area in which you inevitably die to the first larger enemy. “YOU DIED” flashes on the screen as your lungs deflate in sullen anguish. For a split second, your hands hover over Alt+F4 but something inside of you refuses to give in and you go back for round two. When you finally slay that enemy, the rush you feel is something that you just don’t really get to experience in a AAA games market that prefers to cater to as wide an audience as possible. If you were worried that Dark Souls III is simplified or easier than the other games, rest assured that not only is that not true, it feels almost Demon’s Souls level of difficult in places.
FromSoftware is a master of the craft in delivering unexpected moments of gameplay and difficulty to even the most veteran Souls player. For those of you who’ve played the Scholar of the First Sin rework of Dark Souls 2 will know exactly what I’m talking about, and you can really feel the design direction of how that game played in 3. The first area is littered with different enemy types, some of whom (and I don’t want to spoil the surprise for those of you still waiting on your copy) you think you’ve got pegged in your mind will turn around and chastise you for considering for even a second that you knew what was going on.
The weapons I got my hands all felt really individual and unique, which really heightens the aspect of customisation and personality that Souls players have developed over the series lifetimes. One of the coolest aspects of the games was that there weren’t necessarily better weapons (although as with any game a meta always forms around certain cheese builds) but rather different movesets and styles. In Dark Souls 3 combat, the weapons feel even more personal. I started the game as an Assassin and found the way the Estoc handled really felt different to a typical sword, with a more fencing based style of jabs and a cool backstep. My second weapon was a Uchigatana, which attacked with sweeping uppercuts and downward slashes and felt completely different despite both being swords.
The new game mechanic of Weapon Art is an excellent addition to the franchise. One of the big problems in Dark Souls and Dark Souls 2 was the way in which certain weapon moves were just outright overpowered. Now, these powerful move types are gated behind a magic bar which consumes a resource and the game becomes about managing health versus DPS, as your Estus Flask charges have to be allocated between being able to heal you or restore your magic (called Focus Points or FP). Going full Samurai with the Uchigatana not only looks cool but feels super satisfying as you cleave your enemies in twain.
Probably the most important aspect of Dark Souls 3 is a returning mechanic that was criminally left out of Dark Souls II and was honestly such a glaring omission I was ready to boycott the game. That feature is of course ragdoll corpses. I honestly can’t really explain why it’s so funny to run around with the ragdoll bodies trailing you and going mental but when I was playing DS2, I’d feel really crestfallen every time I couldn’t launch an undead knight off an edge to bask in my radiant victory.
As with any Souls game, the Dark Souls 3 experience is largely defined by its epic boss battles. The scope of some of the bosses is absolutely daunting, and visually stunning. FromSoftware has really made an effort in the visual design, with each boss being hugely memorable and bringing the world and lore to life. As there is so little drip-fed story offered to the player, it’s especially refreshing to have so much personality injected into the creatures you’re pitted against. The difficulty level remains just as hard as it has ever been and I endlessly found myself resisting the overpowering urge to annihilate my controller just as brutally as I had seen my character get destroyed, over and over.
Dark Souls 3 isn’t here to redesign the formula or to reimagine the way the Souls games play. Instead, it’s refined the game style that FromSoftware have been experimenting with since Demon’s Souls and it honestly feels like they’ve found the perfect balance between the style of each games. Borrowing a bit of the speed from Bloodbourne and mixing that with the gothic, oppressive atmosphere of Demon’s Souls and the core gameplay of Dark Souls and DS2 has made for a beautiful distillation of what looks to be one of the most successful hack and slash RPGs of modern gaming, a greatest hits package of the best Souls has to offer.