Dark Souls III Review
Developer From Software has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that there is a market for challenging, rewarding games. Despite the mainstream titles that have flooded the industry over the years, most of which always reluctant to punish the player for missteps, Dark Souls has been a rock for hardcore gamers. In fact, it has been more than a rock; each entry dating back to the original Demon's Souls has been like a difficult mountain, one the patient and dedicated enjoy scaling. The third - and apparently final - entry in the well-received franchise is a love note to these fans, a way to say "thank you for all your unwavering support." At the same time, I think it's a bit of a missed opportunity to go out on the highest note of all.
From a graphical perspective, Dark Souls III has a fantastic high and a somewhat disappointing low: On the one hand, I daresay the artistry on display here is the best in the series, perhaps the best From Software has ever done. So many enemies are beautifully crafted and animated and a couple of the bosses are just downright awesome. At the same time, while the general design and structure is solid as always, the immersion waned for me after playing for a while. It almost seemed like the developers started using a lot of the same set pieces, and the inconsistent frame rate really didn't help the overall experience. Like the rest of the game, it's almost like the development team lost its head of steam three-quarters of the way through; this is evident in multiple aspects of the production.
As always, the sound is stellar. It still isn't as prominent as I'd like - I've had this complaint since Demon's Souls - because I keep thinking some of the more intense battles require a more intense musical accompaniment. At the same time, one could easily argue that the haunting, often downplayed score puts the emphasis squarely on the gameplay, and further enhances the urgency and tension. And if there's one thing Dark Souls has always done exceedingly well, it's the creation of tension thanks to a wildly effective soundtrack. The effects are another huge highlight; the gut-wrenching slashes are so over-the-top they're nigh-on cartoony, but they fit the atmosphere, that's for damn sure. The combination of the excellent orchestral score and combat sound invariably amps up player engagement, plain and simple.
Defeat is inevitable. That's really the overriding message in all these games. The player must accept that death will occur and occur often; what sets the conqueror apart from the frustrated gamer is one thing: Diligence. Patience, timing, strategy and tact are also important traits to have but above all else, diligence and perseverance win the day in Dark Souls. You are ill-equipped to battle many of the nasty demons that wander through this game, and you'll soon learn that no enemy can be taken lightly. As you progress, you will learn and relearn; you will come to respect every element of your surroundings and you well react accordingly...or you will die. Hell, you'll die even when you try your damndest but if you're willing to suffer the growing pains, this is one franchise that will always deliver the rewards in spades.
But we know all this, right? The preceding is the crux of the IP. It's what we've come to expect. And that's the central message of this reviewó the long-time, dedicated fans will love it because it's familiar. Obviously, I'm a proponent of developers who understand and cater to their loyal fans, who grasp the concept of progress and evolution while still retaining those fans. This is why I wholeheartedly recommend the third Dark Souls to anyone who enjoys the franchise; there's little chance you won't enjoy it. Still, despite the welcoming familiarity, you might be a tad frustrated at the missed opportunities. Why is the camera still imperfect? Why couldn't they ever nail down the lock-on system? Why are certain bosses beautifully designed but still a little, shall we say, been-there, done-that?
The Road of Sacrifices is paved with lost souls, most of which are actually despondent or fearful. It's a world of sadness and despair and not necessarily hostility. As per usual, this is where Dark Souls shines and why, despite the lingering flaws, fans will embrace the atmosphere; they will grit their teeth and press forward, knowing full well the rewards that await them. And I must say, I've always liked the blend of open-world and linear elements in this series; I feel it marries both structures while keeping many of the positive aspects of each. It's too bad that From Software always seems content to let the setting and subtle lore tell a somewhat disjointed and underwhelming story (there was always opportunity for a better narrative), but that's the only significant drawback of this format.
It's great that you can explore without being intimidated. Well, let's be clear: You're always intimidated, simply because you know death lurks around every damn corner. What I mean is, the world isn't so huge that you'll lose your way within the first few hours. It's a meticulously and logically designed world that won't lead you by the hand, but at the same time, won't give you an Elder Scrolls-like universe and just say, "go." Plus, I really like having a separate hub where you can focus on your character. The Firelink Shrine acts as the perfect reprieve from the dark oppression of the Road of Sacrifices, and it gives you a chance to reap the benefits of your hard work. Only when you feel safe do you really revel in the fruits of your labor, and finding a bonfire checkpoint - thereby opening a fast travel point - is like coming home.
Recruiting companions that hand over useful items is another appreciated part of this adventure, because you don't feel so alone, so over-matched. The best part of the series and indeed of this entry is that you really do learn to appreciate the little things. You appreciate a simple item here and there, for instance. You respect the power of your foes and as such, you appreciate your own ability, both in terms of the physical (i.e., how well you manipulate your character in battle) and the mental (the aforementioned learning and relearning). No other franchise is as adept at challenging the player to grow and evolve, nor can I think of another IP that is as quick to punish those who falter. This is the true allure of the series and Dark Souls III maintains this spirit of growth throughout the journey.
The combat is a big focal point, of course, and this is where you will spend the most time learning. You will figure out an enemy's attack patterns, his strengths and weaknesses, and even his tendencies depending on the situation. You will begin to understand the importance of your stamina, and once you fall prey to an enemy you'd beaten the last ten times in a row, you will remember that word: Diligence. Don't let your guard down for a second, or this dark and dangerous world will swallow you whole. If you fail, it's probably because you were too cavalier, overconfident in your growing abilities. There are times, however, when your death can be attributed to other factors, and this is where I'm forced to mention the lingering mechanical issues.
The camera remains a bit of an issue in cramped areas, as it has always been throughout the series. The lock-on is also finicky, another common complaint in the past. And I don't know why, but it really does seem like the frame rate is worse this time around. Maybe I'm now more in tune with these deficiencies, or maybe it's because I've played so many other games where the frame rate is simply better. Or, it really could be that the frame rate in DSIII isn't as steady as it was in previous installments. Now, none of these problems are game-breaking or crippling but I'm sorry, they've had plenty of time to fix them. Frankly, I think they should've been fixed in DSII and they weren't; now we're on the third and seemingly final entry, and these issues persist. This is where that "missed opportunity" phrase is most applicable.
Furthermore, let me say I've pressed farther forward in this game than I have in any of the previous titles, and I find a strange sense of apathy as I proceed. It's not because of the gameplay; it's due mostly to the design, which is starting to feel repetitive. I'm using the same strategy against multiple bosses, for example, and the world suddenly feels less interesting. It really does seem as if the team ran out of energy at about the 80 percent mark; I don't want to say they phoned in the latter stages of the game because that's inaccurate (and insulting). Let's just say they didn't finish strong. It's like they lost their wind on the final lap and as a result, it's easier to spot the shortcomings. Also, as they've run out of energy, there's simply less effort expended overall. That's kinda the feeling I get right now.
In the end, however, Dark Souls III is indeed a proper homage to an excellent franchise. It delivers precisely what the fans wanted, and it may be some time before we see another IP that so successfully puts a player on intimate terms with his or her own ability. The learning process is different than in any other series I've played and that's a very special achievement. They just didn't repair the flaws that have plagued the franchise from the word jump, and why I've never seen fit to award any of the games a 9+ score. And here, with the last hurrah, they're basically saying, "yeah, we know we're great and we don't need to change much." Well, yes, greatness doesn't require much improvement but the improvement this IP needed, it didn't get in its last installment. That's all I'm trying to say.
The Good: Brilliant visual design and artistry. Unparalleled atmosphere and engaging environment. Great balance between freedom and linear progression. Interactive learning at its finest and most involving. Unbelievably cool boss encounters. Solid overall design and good control. As rewarding as ever.
The Bad: Camera still isn't perfect. Lock-on mechanic isn't as reliable as it should be. Late-game design seems to fall flat, and repetition seems to kick in. Ongoing series flaws weren't addressed.
The Ugly: "The ugliness factor is sky-high but overcoming that level of ugliness is intoxicating."
4/7/2016 Ben Dutka