Difficulty is often the primary concern when discussing a Dark Souls game, so whenever Dark Souls III is brought up in conversation, the first question is inevitably “Is it hard?” While that is a question I regularly have to field in my personal life, I can safely say that Dark Souls III is as difficult as you would expect. For better or worse, you’ll no doubt already know if that prospect appeals to you.
However, one aspect of the difficulty has certainly been toned down in this iteration. The opaqueness of the game’s mechanics has been addressed, making it slightly more accessible. For starters, Dark Souls III has a much more intuitive tutorial area. The first few moments guide the player through the basics, with messages telegraphing how to tackle different types of enemies. It isn’t long before you arrive at the first boss, who, unlike the Asylum Demon from the original Dark Souls, must be defeated before you can progress. In this regard, Dark Souls III forces players to engage with the game’s mechanics, and ensures that they have a firm grasp of them before they can move forward.
Progression is another area in which the game has been made more accessible. In previous games it was easy to wander into an area you were ill-prepared for. How many of us ended up fighting the skeletons beside Firelink Shrine in the first game, instead of heading upwards toward the Undead Burg? Dark Souls III is much more linear in the early game. While there are shortcuts that loop back to other areas, and you can fast travel to previously discovered bonfires, there is a clear sense of progression this time around. After leaving Firelink Shrine, you are only allowed to travel to the High Wall of Lothric, which is the DSIII equivalent of the Undead Burg. While you are still free to travel around the map, the first few areas unfold in a linear fashion, making the difficulty curve easier at the beginning and ensuring that you aren’t totally overwhelmed. The game eventually opens up in ways that you would expect from the series. Firelink Shine can only be returned to via bonfires, and also feels more like a hub this time around, similar to the nexus in Demon’s Souls.
Changes have been made to the combat system, which feels like a remix of everything that has come before. In the wake of last year’s Bloodborne, the pace of combat has increased, but still requires the same air of caution that previous Souls games have encouraged. Hiding behind a shield is still a viable tactic, but the window of opportunity has decreased for many enemies. Plus, wearing heavy armour seems to be less effective this time around, especially as the game wears on. Rolling, however, is a viable tactic, with even “fat rolls” (slower rolling when you are encumbered by heavy armour) being a decent alternative for getting around opponents and their attacks.
Managing your Estus Flasks has also changed. Your spells no longer have a limited number of uses, instead draining Focus Points (FP). This is displayed on screen as a blue bar, effectively acting as a mana pool. Accordingly, a new Ashen Estus Flask has been added so that you can replenish this resource between bonfires. This means that organising your Estus is even more of a priority, especially as you can reallocate a number of flasks towards health or focus via the blacksmith. The game is also quite forgiving in giving you extra flasks, possibly because the developers realised that you’ll need a few more for your FP. It’s a fantastic idea that largely replaces the unfriendly, antiquated magic system of past games.
For those who play melee, you might think that managing your Focus Points is not much of a concern. However, all melee weapons now have an additional function called “Weapon Art”. This ranges from shield-breaking attacks, devastating counter-attacks and even a warcry that gives you a temporary attack boost. Weapon Art attacks will also drain your FP, so even strict melee characters cannot avoid this totally if they want to make the most of combat. While it initially seems like another chore to manage FP alongside health and stamina, there is a distinct risk-and-reward mechanic that truly makes a difference if you are engaged with it. In this way, Dark Souls III is a shade deeper than its predecessors, in a very positive way.
While Dark Souls games always lack a certain graphical fidelity, they are nonetheless impressive with their art design and the scale of their environments. Dark Souls III is no exception. You can see the warts close up, but taken as a whole picture, this instalment is particularly breathtaking. There are areas later in the game where you can look back at those you’ve travelled from on high, and it is jawdropping to witness these areas sprawled out behind you. Even the ramshackle decay of earlier zones such as the Undead Settlement look impressive, with decrepit buildings interspersed with dead trees that weave a decaying canopy.
Boss design is also particularly pleasing. Without going into detail, as the bosses are often an enjoyable part of the surprise in Souls games, you’ll face many ancient horrors, most of which are exceptionally well realised. One criticism is that some of these boss battles don’t seem to provide the challenge of previous games. It’s difficult to say whether that is by design, or due to the fact that we’re so used to these games by now that we instinctively understand the best techniques for dealing with them. Either way, I personally never found them to be a disappointment and was, more often than not, impressed by the imagination that these battles displayed. The majority were tense, unique encounters that had me on the edge of my seat.
The usual emergent multiplayer components still exist here, with a few alterations. Your character has two states; Unkindled (dead) or Kindled (alive). While Kindled you have the ability to summon phantoms into your world to assist you or for duels, but you also run the risk of being invaded by a hostile phantom: an online player who is out to kill you. This is the risk you take if you want the rewards of being Kindled, such as a significant health boost and the ability to play sections of the game in co-op. There are a number of different coloured phantoms that you can also summon, such as gold, blue and purple, which are linked to different covenants and work together to produce interesting scenarios. For example, Rosario’s Fingers is a PvP covenant, but to counter them, the Blue Sentinels can be summoned. The Warriors Of Sunlight are strictly co-op phantoms who will help you fight off the enemy hordes. Then there are area-specific covenants such as Farron’s Watchdogs. These permutations mean that it is likely for 2v2 or 3v3 brawls to erupt in your world as phantoms and counter-phantoms are both summoned. While these bouts are often hilarious, if you are invaded by a phantom with a poor connection, it quickly turns into an exercise in frustration as your hits don’t land for several seconds. This is a frequent issue with PvP at the time of writing.
Storywise, those who have never played Dark Souls before will not be missing much. DSIII is largely as unfriendly and obscure as ever when it comes to laying out story beats or filling in its backstory. An introductory cutscene does more to set the mood than to actually inform the player. While there is a narrative here, most of it is conveyed through the environment and item descriptions, allowing players to piece it together themselves. There are various returning characters, but their roles are rarely referred to or explained. New players will only miss slight references that are not necessarily important.
Overall, Dark Souls III feels like a remix of everything that has come before. The pace is comparable to Bloodborne, the hub-like nature of Firelink Shrine is comparable to Demon’s Souls, and the game design is generally comparable to Dark Souls. While there are a few new features such as FP and Weapon Art, Dark Souls III takes a little of everything from FromSoftware’s back catalogue, distilling it down into a fine example of what these games are all about. If you’re new to Dark Souls, this is undoubtedly the best point to jump in, which is an odd thing to say about the third game in a series.
Praise The Sun!
Dark Souls III is an exceptional remix of everything that makes these games so compelling