Dark Souls III Review
Dark Souls III begins familiar enough to the experienced Souls fan. Complete with an ambivalent cutscene establishing narrative, a character build setup, and tutorial-esque introductory setting, this latest installment seems almost too straightforward to surprise. Yet it does, and continues to astonish all throughout.
The player is thrust into a rotten graveyard of sorts, decrepit, grey, and bustling with Undead; set atop a mountainside, looking out over a valley of canyons and skylines; it is here where the player begins to notice the unfamiliar details. A blue bar now rests at the top left of the HUD, two Estus Flasks sit in their inventory, movement feels less cumbersome than in the game’s predecessors, a curious message appears, warning me to “Turn back now.” This doesn’t discourage me, however; instead it only incites encouragement to scout the area ahead and see just what the threat entails — but you know what they say about curiosity.
Upon ascending a steep hill, I lock eyes with a large crystallized lizard enemy which immediately makes clear its murderous intentions towards my character; prompting me to turn back and high tail it out of the area, hopeful to lose it and come back later after I’ve gained some strength levels.
For now, taking the game’s advice, I move onwards towards the intended goal, finally reaching a bonfire and soon after coming across a sort of shrine — one that seems all too fit to feature a premiere boss encounter. Unsurprisingly enough, a large knight figure kneels in the center of the open room. Less predictable however is the figure’s lack of reaction towards my character’s cautious approach towards it. A large sword thrust through its chest peers out its back, where a slithering black animation appears as the sole source of Life in the empty shrine.
Once again, FromSoftware continues to bewilder and play with player’s expectations, evident as the game then prompts me to remove the sword. Anticipation and dread surge through my veins, just as the developer has clearly intended. Dark Souls has always befit the ‘survival horror’ genre, complete with situations which both force the player to react quickly yet with focused intent and those designed to impose a level of untrustworthiness between environment and player. It’s the reason the game is often described as a learning experience and why so many fail to ever progress through its hallowed landscapes: one must become mindful of the concept that behind any corner there may lie any number of challenging monstrosities to overcome, be them animated enemies or even the deceptive environments themselves.
The Souls series’s greatest strength has arguably always stemmed from FromSoftware’s impeccable attention to level design and detail, and with Dark Souls III that focus is ever so sharp, demonstrating a developer quite possibly perfecting their formula for worldbuilding. As opposed to the complex interconnectivity of Lordran and the disappointingly-straightforward paths to follow through in Drangleic, Lothric features a bevy of secret areas and branching routes, constantly rewarding player exploration with perks, abilities, and fascinating lore. And while the main course is relatively linear in design, Dark Souls III successfully combines the level design aspects of both Bloodborne and the original Demon’s Souls, involving numerous optional areas to uncover while retaining a strict focus on narrative progression.
In fact, many areas in the game feel relatively familiar to those in games’ past. The haunting Irithyll Dungeon recalls the Tower of Latria from Demon’s Souls; the labyrinthine structure of Undead Settlement brings to mind Bloodborne’s scourge-infested Hemwick Charnel Lane; Irithyll of the Boreal Valley intriguingly seems reminiscent of both the Painted World of Ariamis and Anor Londo from Dark Souls. But this sense of familiarity, however derivative, is quite intentional and necessary to the foundation of connectivity between the series’ iterations. Characters and settings reappear throughout to both expand the lore of the series and drive forward the game’s insightful lessons regarding the cyclical nature of Life and death — though, at moments their appearances can certainly feel a bit contrived, included for the sake of pandering to audiences’ nostalgia for the original games.
And once again, FromSoftware wonderfully display their concentrated attention to worldbuilding and storytelling. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Dark Souls III is not its connections to previous iterations in the Souls series, but its thematic contrasts, as it delves into the progress of civilization rather than its downfall. Whereas Dark Souls and its sequel offer a compelling commentary on Humanity’s habitual motivation to arise from the ashes of ruination despite the ever-present Fate of death ultimately relinquishing the flames, renewing the constant cycle again and again; Dark Souls III offers a more optimistic viewpoint to counter this concept, arguing that the Human struggle to pursue communal energy and self-capability leads to an evolution of the Human spirit, instead of a lessening in vitality.
Given its pronounced pacing, the game makes this theme clear from the beginning with its references to embers and ashes. Embers in the game function similarly to Humanity in the previous games; however, while Humanity restores the player’s true living form to their character, and the loss of it dilutes their health and connection to the spiritual realm (online play), Embers are consumed to heighten their level of capability, increasing their health and establishing that connection to the spiritual realm in an effort to develop into a stronger, more vigorous being. Dark Souls III focuses on the development of Humanity, rather than the regression, allowing it to narratively push past the recurring themes of the second installment and establish itself as a sequel with a purpose; a successor with a counter to the predecessor.
And these universal themes extend past simple storytelling mechanics. Lothric is enormous, and the game’s intimidation factor is heavily emphasized by the cavernous hallways of Farron Keep; the lumbering monstrosities which inhabit the Road of Sacrifices; the gorgeous gothic architecture populating the vistas of Lothric. The scope of each unique locale — Dark Souls III also arguably offers the most variety in regards to level design and color palette — directly contrasts with the player character’s meager physique as to infuse a sense of constant dread and lack of true significance, despite the substantial task they’ve been appointed.
It’s almost shameful to criticize the monotonous trekking between areas given their sheer size, but one instance of where the game unfortunately falters is in its balancing level structure with plot progression. Bringing the player back to Anor Londo features a breathtaking ascent to a familiar cathedral, but only an isolated boss fight — which does however offer compelling implications to the series lore — and a hallway filled with numerous enemies protecting it are housed within. Such a crowd-pleasing throwback deserves more than this paltry experience, and the sequence ultimately appears to be included to excite fans rather than significantly progress the narrative.
Each boss encounter rewards a new bonfire, in similar fashion to Demon’s Souls; however, here the amount of bonfires in certain areas seems overabundant, and their distance between each other shorter than necessary. Given the lack of complex inter-connectivity between areas, as presented in the original Dark Souls, the linear functionality of the world-building is understandable; but the compelling intimidation factor is less effective when there exists a bevy of checkpoints to comfortably fall back on.
This structure also limits the explorative appeal found in the premiere title — much like DSII — disallowing Lothric to function definitely as a singular setting. Fortunately, the environmental pacing is very focused, as opposed to the previous iteration where the differing areas seemed implausibly connected by inattentive transitions. As a sequel, Dark Souls III constantly one-ups its predecessor in regards to craftsmanship, yet once again fails to outperform the series’s premiere title.
Perhaps the sheer scope of the game is what limits Dark Souls III from reaching its full potential. Some boss fights rely too heavily on gimmicks to provide a memorable encounter; whereas others happen to be some of the most well-designed and interesting in games’ history. Having to warp back to the Firelink Shrine to level up the character makes for a tiresome chore; but also effectively allows for the hub world to both feel like a familiar home as well as an ever-expanding universe, complete with recurring characters who come, go, and may be interacted with.
Overall, much of the game can appear familiar to players with past experiences with the Souls series; yet the world does manage to constantly shift and evolve around them, offering unique surprises and twists at nearly each turn. It’s a far more linear experience than the original Dark Souls; yet each area features a plethora of corners to search, off-beaten paths to explore, and meaningful treasures to uncover.
Dark Souls III does succeed, though; it succeeds because it strikes a peculiar balance between its disappointments and its further-reaching ambitions. While it fails to live up as exquisitely to its predecessor’s achievements as one may hope, on its own, the game offers a captivating experience — both in terms of storytelling and compelling game design — to frequently return to. Bringing a definitive conclusion to the series mythos while fine-tuning specific smaller details to functionality — for instance: upon killing the blue lizards, the titanite is automatically stored in your inventory (finally!) — this third installment is far more stimulating than disappointing, and presents an innovative developer at the height of their collected creative powers.