You’ll forgive me for the slightly graphic headline, but I feel that it describes Dark Souls III rather perfectly. It’s a beautiful game, yet behind its shiny and slightly creepy leathery surface, there’s a sea of darkness waiting to be discovered and explored.
Like a classic mistress, the game comes armed with whips, crops, clamps, and all kinds of torture implements, that it will use generously (and mercilessly) on you. It will walk all over your face with its steel-tipped high heels, and Begging for mercy will only result in a more severe whipping. Yet, if you approach the ordeal with the right dose of masochism mixed with defiance, the ultimate bliss will be within your grasp.
You possibly expected Dark Souls III to be very similar to Bloodborne, especially considering the success of the PS4 exclusive, but while it certainly learned some lessons from its cousin, I found it closer to the first Dark Souls, luckily departing from some of the less fortunate problems plaguing the second chapter of the series.
The initial impact with the story is as bare-bones as you would expect. You wake up in a coffin… and that’s it. You’re immediately thrown into the fray. That’s pretty much within the parameters of the series, which isn’t known for explaining things, as much as dropping hints here and there and then letting the player fill in the gaps and interpret what he could not fill.
This is, maybe one of the charms of the series, but in this third chapter, despite the sudden beginning, the game does a much better job of actually telling you what you need to know so that you won’t have to interpret too much. There’s still plenty of room for it, but I found the setting and story more cohesive and intriguing.
That said, I won’t give you any further detail here. I know how Souls fans can be sensitive to spoilers, and I don’t want to wake up one morning with a rusty knife to my throat, if I wake up at all, that is.
The graphics of Dark Souls III are downright amazing, but that’s not due to any incredible technical feat. From Software relied more on tried and true techniques than on amazing technological innovation.
Yet, the game is more pleasing to the eye than many others that delve more into visual innovation and that’s mostly due to the unmistakable artistic mastery of From Software’s level and character designers, that created some of the most stunning vistas and inspired boss designs that I have ever seen in a video game.
Some will probably call me crazy, but at least for what I am concerned, Bloodborne‘s extremely high standard has been overtaken here, but maybe I’m a little biased, because Dark Souls‘ medieval style is closer to my taste than its predecessor’s gothic flavor. I also found it a little closer to the original Demon’s Souls in some visual aspects, which for me is a very welcome bonus.
Architectural design is where the game shines the most, and the grandiosity and intricacy of some structure is something that made me want to simply sit there and observe like a tourist in the most beautiful ancient city. Unfortunately, the many vicious critters that populate those stunning areas had a different idea, and definitely did not like tourists.
Level design also finds part of its beauty in just how cohesive it is. There are many areas of the game in which you’ll be able to see places that you have already explored from afar, or spot other places that you’ll have to brave later in the game. That makes the world feel a lot more real and tangible.
There’s only one big flaw in the beautiful visuals of the game, and that’s character creation. I understand that this is more or less defined as From Software’s style, but it’s almost impossible to create a character that isn’t ugly. The options to customize your alter-ego are many and deep, but some of them seem to have a very limited effect, and none of them are very effective in making you look much less monstrous than the critters you’ll have to slaughter.
Incidentally, this is probably one of the best PC versions of a game that is also on consoles that I have seen in a long time. Performance is mostly very solid, with my good (but not incredible) rig effortlessly holding 60 FPS at maximum detail. Yet, it’s still not perfect, as there are a few areas in which performance drops (while still remaining very playable), at time inexplicably. That said, we’re still looking at a very good step in the right direction.
The audio of the game is absolutely fantastic, matching the artistry of the visuals. Music is contributes to the atmosphere masterfully, and the voice acting is near-spotless, with the right mix of charm and creepiness.
Of course Souls games could have graphics made of sticks and 8-bit music and they would still live and die on the gameplay, so how does that part holds up?
Considering From Software’s pedigree, you probably won’t be surprised to hear that the gameplay is fantastic. It’s still extremely punishing, even if I found it just slightly more forgiving than before. That said, it was still extremely hard for me, since I’m a wuss with the reflexes of a Snorlax. I make no mystery of the fact that this review comes a few days late compared to the embargo because the game was kicking my butt way too hard.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that the game is flatly easier than the previous Souls titles, but I found the difficulty curve to be softer and less prone to sudden jumps, which might lead veterans of the series to breeze through the beginning, but it’s in my opinion a better option in grooming those who aren’t armed with nerves of steel and frame-perfect timing into better players.
Luckily (or unluckily, depending on what you like), bonfires appear to be a bit more close to each other and easily reachable than they used to be, at least around in the first half of the game, giving you a chance of getting more accustomed to the difficulty with a little less frustration when you inevitably get slaughtered by the horrors lurking in the darkness.
Your initial class choice (there are ten in total) determines a large difference in how you approach gameplay, especially at the beginning of the adventure. The style gap between classes is much wider than in Bloodborne, making the selection feel a lot more meaningful.
You want armor from the start? Go knight, but don’t expect to be a magical powerhouse. If you prefer more nuanced gameplay, with more tricks up your sleeves, then pyromancer, sorcerer or assassin are probably better choices, but you’ll be a lot more squishy at the beginning of your adventure.
If you just like to be squishy, of course there’s still the masochist class, which is named the Deprived, starting with the lowest stats and basically no equipment, but offering the highest level of customization on the long run.
Despite the very defined initial choice, there’s still a lot of room for choosing different paths and builds as you progress through the game, and leveling up is truly satisfying, especially considering how hard you have to work in order to climb every step in your personal staircase to power.
One great addition to the battle gameplay are weapon arts, which some might define as special moves of sort. Yet, they’re much more than that. Utilizing mostly the focus points bar (and at times bleeding into stamina), they’re effectively an additional layer of flexibility added to your arsenal.
They’re not necessarily more or less effective than just hacking and slashing your way through the enemy ranks, but they’re mostly situational and very interesting to explore, especially considering that they change depending on the weapon you use.
Dual Wielding is another very solid option, and it allows you to effectively forego defense in favor of offense. Yet, it doesn’t feel weak or overly complex, as you’re still equipped with plenty of avoidance capabilities.
Ranged combat also feels a lot more satisfying than it did in previous Souls games, and the ability to soften enemies a bit before getting toe to toe with them is possibly a very good idea for those that aren’t very familiar with the series.
My favorite feature remain the parry, prompting you to time your defense with the enemy attack in order to be able to deliver a powerful counter. It’s a lot more effective and fun than just defending, and in any case turtling really doesn’t pay any dividends in this game.
Enemy variety is one of the major strong points in Dark Souls III. Not only the fauna that you’ll encounter within the game’s maze-like maps is rich and extremely diverse, but they also come equipped with a very large collection of ways in which they’ll try (and very often manage) to send you back to the nearest bonfire. Beware of enemies that at first sight don’t look like much, because some do hide some very nasty surprises.
Some of the enemies of the game are the most aggressive and vicious I remember experiencing not only in the genre, but in gaming in general, even if at times AI still feels a bit clunky for rank-and-file grunts.
A few of the bosses, on the other hand, are some of the best examples of encounter engineering ever. They kill you almost with uncanny grace. It’s not a “pleasure” per se, but it feels incredibly rewarding when you finally put them down.
While controls feel nicely responsive despite the weight coming from heavy equipment and weapons, the way you still loose lock on your selected enemy way too easily is my only big gripe with the game. It led to many untimely deaths, and basically the only ones within the whole game that didn’t feel harsh but fair.
Ultimately, Dark Souls III is an incredible game within its niche, even if I cannot honestly advise just everyone to get it: despite the efforts made as a limited genuflection to some sort of accessibility, purchasing and facing the challenge of a Souls game has to be a conscious choice made by gamers that don’t mind and actually enjoy having the most beautiful mistress whip the skin off their backs again, and again, and again.
If that’s your thing, then this game has tens of hours of bliss in store for you. Marquis de Sade used to say that it is always by way of pain one arrives at pleasure, and Dark Souls III certainly takes this concept to the next level.