Another year has come to pass, and yet another Souls game is coming out. It's a time when we're torn between emotions. On the one hand the franchise has been amazing, and we're always eager to get our hands on the next title, but on the other hand there is a lot of pressure to review a game that's notoriously difficult within the time constraints that come with the territory.
Something we've always found interesting with the Souls titles is how different each game in the series comes across. Not just in terms of the story and the adjustments made to the mechanics, but also in terms of the atmosphere of the various worlds you visit. Would Lothric be able to capture our imagination in the same way that Drangleic did in the second game or Lordran did in the first? We're not going to keep you guessing. Lothric is our favourite Souls world and there are several reason why that is the case.
From a purely visual perspective Dark Souls III is the most gorgeous game in the series, and that includes last year's Bloodborne. The textures are sharp, the frame-rate feels much more stable on PS4 than what we experienced with Bloodborne, and it is obvious that a lot of work has gone into evolving the engine in order to make use of the power afforded by current-gen consoles. The game is also surprisingly colourful at times, and there's no doubting the theme - flames, ember and ashes - something that comes across in the yellow and orange tones. We actually died several times as a result of looking out at the views from towers, when an enemy snuck up from behind. You may want to make some extra room on your harddrive as you'll want to snap more than a few screenshots.
Compared to Dark Souls II there are perhaps, a little surprisingly, fewer areas to explore here, but that is not something that should be taken as a negative as the areas are instead much larger and more complex than we've ever encountered in the series. You'll spend a lot more time exploring each area, and you will find new secrets in areas after having spend many hours there already. It's something we've always enjoyed with these games - the sense of exploration - and it's been taken to new heights here. At times it made us want to peek inside the minds of the level designers at From Software, but then we thought better of it as you'd no doubt get lost inside the heads of those who dreamt up such complex designs. That said, once you've explored the areas fully, they always make sense.
It's not just in terms of the level design that you need to be on your toes in a Souls games, you also need to pay attention to the story. The narrative in Dark Souls III has a much more direct connection to its predecessor than was the case between Dark Souls and its successor. This also meant that we had to take a crash course in some of the lore. The narrative is very much left up to the player in these titles, but you can always catch up on it thanks to the work of YouTubers and numerous gaming sites dedicated to deciphering the plot. In spite of not having invested much time in trying to get the story before this, we did take more away from it here, something that really helped the experience stand out even more. Therefore we would encourage players who are new to the series or who haven't paid much attention up until now to take in a few explanatory videos before playing this game, as your experience will be richer as a result.
While Dark Souls III has direct links to its predecessor, there are still new elements in terms of the mechanics that you'll need to get used to. The most obvious one is the pace of combat, which seems to blend the classic slow paced and defensive gameplay from Dark Souls and Demon's Souls, with the quicker and more aggressive combat of Bloodborne. This will take some getting used to, unless you've played Bloodborne. But before long you will be able to dance around the enemies and backstab them one after another, unless you want to go for the more classic shield approach, which is of course also viable.
In addition to the faster pace, you're also given access to some new tricks in the shape of the Weapon Arts system. This means that each weapon and shield has an ability that is activated by pressing the shoulder buttons, and these have a significant impact on the action. One example of these abilities is War Cry - it strengthens your attacks while active, and you gain access to more aggressive combos. Another example is Charge, that allows you to charge (that's right) with your spear straight into your enemy for tremendous damage. Naturally some weapons share the same Weapon Arts, but it still offers a large number of additional moves and it doesn't feel repetitive. The system invites you to explore and try new things, and it's a great addition as weapons have now been given an extra dimension on top of the classic move sets and stats. It's going to be interesting to see just how these are exploited by fans as the game gets its release.
In order to make use of the Weapon Arts abilities a new resource has been introduced called Focus. It's best described as mana, as the blue meter also powers your magical abilities (if you want to go with that sort of character). It's a different sort of system than the one in Dark Souls II where magical abilities had a set number of uses until they needed recharging. Same as with your health bar, the Focus bar can be refilled with an Ashen Estus Flask, which works the same way as the classic Estus Flask because you refill them at bonfires, and the amount you can carry increases as you find Estus Shards in the world. Something we found interesting was that you can decide yourself how many of your flask are of the Ashen variation, allowing you the tactical choice of bringing a lot of Focus or healing with your character. It's smart as a character with a magic-based build needs more Ashen flasks than your average warrior, and if you're going for a healer class then the blue flasks may be worth more than the classic yellow ones.
It's not just the combat and the Estus flasks that have changed, but your character also acts differently. You used to play as a person trying to fight off the zombie-like state of being Hollow, something that grew worse each time you died, not just in terms of cosmetic looks, but your maximum health also dropped with each death. To regain your humanity you had to find Humanity (Dark Souls) or a Human Effigy (Dark Souls II), and so the game continues along these lines. This time around you're not carrying the Dark Sigil, and instead you take the role as an Unkindled, awoken from the dead and looking for a flame to grow stronger.
These Embers work much like the previously mentioned items, with one important difference, instead of making your character normal again it actually makes it stronger. As you consume them you raise your HP to more than the normal level, and you're rewarded with a beautiful visual effect where the edges of your character's armour or clothes start to smoulder. Something that lasts until your next unavoidable death. In other words, the penalty for dying has been removed, as your HP doesn't drop with each death, but you will lose the bonus the Ember affords you if you die. It doesn't mean that much at the end of the day, as you want to remain Kindled in order to have as much health as possible, but some may view this as something that relaxes the difficulty level somewhat. We find it harsh enough that you can lose your collected Souls if you happen to die a second time before collecting them following on from your previous death.
One important aspect of the Souls titles has always been the hub; the areas that you return to in order to level up and upgrade your equipment, and the place that connects the various areas. From Software has done a good job here as the Firelink Shrine is more than just a necessary pit stop you'll visit once a while, but it's also a place that is teeming with life. Something atypical for the series. You'll meet several characters from the world in the hub, and they all have bits and pieces to add to the story, but they can also sell you equipment, items and spells, if you have use for them. Some of these characters first need to be saved for various situations out in the game world, while others simply appear there, only to disappear once they've said what they needed to say. You never know when they'll appear and at times you'll have to look for them in what is a decent sized area, but it's great that there is more to do here that to spend your Souls on stuff and levels upon returning from your adventures.
In addition to the many visits to the Firelink Shrine, a couple of new gameplay elements have found their way into the vendor system in the shape of Umbral Ash, and books with spells and miracles. The way these work is that you'll need to deliver these items to the proper vendor who will then expand his inventory. It works really well and it means that you'll need to keep an eye out for these items in the game world as they can unlock some rather unique things.
One of the most important elements of these games has always been the boss characters and the epic battles they've offered up as you try and make your way to the next areas. And here From Software has once again outdone themselves. Perhaps they're not as numerous as in previous instalments, but it is clear that quality has gone before quantity in this case. All the boss fights come across as unique, with the exception of a few fights that feel like nods to earlier encounters in the series. You really have to develop your tactics and adapt in order to best them. It's also obvious that some bosses were designed with certain character builds in mind, meaning that they were very difficult to take on with one character using sword and shield, while other bosses were conquered on the first try. It may be a case that our years of training are paying off, or whether some bosses were simply a little on the easy side. It's a strange sense of disappointment as you conquer a boss too quickly, something that you rarely (if ever) feel in other games. Nevertheless, we were impressed by the design and variation found in the bosses, and it was always exciting to step into a boss chamber to see what the developers had conjured up.
If there were a couple of boss fights that were lacking in challenge we can comfort you by mentioning that there are plenty of "normal" enemies you'll meet along your way who will be very challenging to defeat. At a few points, that we won't spoil here, it felt like you had a boss fight on your hands just progressing through an area, something that made it all the more satisfying once you did. It is once again the case that a Souls game has delivered some of the most satisfying moments of achievement we have experienced in any video game.
When it comes to the game's online components, Dark Souls III nails pretty much every aspect. The classic blood stains and messages make an expected return, and summoning works pretty much as it did in the previous games. What makes the online play shine however, is how smooth the experience is this time around. During our time with the game, we didn't have a single issue with laggy opponents warping around my screen. Playing with friends is easier than ever, thanks to the password system, that works just like in Bloodborne. Private co-op sessions don't have any level restrictions this time around either, so no matter what your soul level is, you can always help out a friend, and the game makes sure to adjust the phantom player's stats, so the challenge in clearing the earlier areas remains.
Another important aspect of online play in the Souls universe is the covenant system. There are a total of eight covenants in the game, all of which change the way you play with and against other players to a varying degree. One group might for example have a goal of defeating other players by invading their worlds as phantoms, where others might be rewarded for protecting said invaded player. Then there's a third, whose job is simply to kill any player they see, both regular and invading, and even of the same covenant as their own. Most of these features will seem familiar to fans of the series, but once again the system works much better than previously. It is also possible to change covenants on the fly, thanks to a special inventory slot, where the player can equip the corresponding covenant items, so the need to travel to obscure areas to change one's allegiance is no longer necessary.
Dark Souls III offers plenty, both to veterans and newcomers. The game is full of references to previous games, like André the blacksmith, who is one of the first friendly faces you encounter as you enter Firelink Shrine. From Software has done a great job cherry-picking the best elements from its previous efforts, resulting in the best overall game experience. This is evident in the increased pace of combat (recognised from Bloodborne), but also the well known Fast Travel system that was added in Dark Souls II, allowing you to travel between bonfires without returning to the hub every time.
There is a lot to explore in the shape of secret doors, hidden treasures, and there's three different endings. And then there's New Game Plus for those who conquer it and want more, and what sounds like a very interesting and large online component (that we'll evaluate once we've tried it properly - so stay tuned for an update). But for now we can only wholeheartedly recommend this to anyone who is looking for a challenge, be that existing Souls fans and even newcomers to the series.