Ok, so.. Dark Souls III, the 4th installment from lead director and series creator Hidetake Miyazaki. Developed by FromSoftware and published by Bandai Namco Entertainment. You take on the role of an Unkindled Ash, trying to return the Lords of Cinder to their thrones, to link The Flame once more. The Lords of Cinder being the first guardians to link the flame with Gwyn, who all thought dead, has been reborn and returned, shortly after, abandoning their thrones, it is up to the protagonist, the Unkindled Ash, to bring back the hellish lords and rekindle the flame once more.
“Yes indeed it is called Lothric,
Where the transitory lands of the Lords of Cinders converge.
In venturing north the pilgrims the truth of the old words.
The fire fades and the Lords go without thrones.
When the link of the fire is threatened the bell tolls,
Unearthing the old Lords of Cinder from their graves:
Aldritch Saint of the Deep
Farron’s Undead Legion the Abyss Watchers
And the reclusive lord of the profaned capital,
Yhorm the Giant
Only in truth the lords will abandon their thrones
And the unkindled will rise
Nameless accursed undead,
Unfit even to be cinder.
And so it is,
That ash seeketh embers.”
(Monologue from opening cut scene)
Now, if you’re like me, you’ll know how cryptic the narrative can be, and at times you will find yourself struggling to fully comprehend what is actually transpiring around you. But, if you dig deep enough, scratch around long enough you will discover a world so heavily soaked in lore and detail. Legends of heroes, the rise of fall of ancient kings and queens. Covenants that have been waging a silent war against one another for a millenia. Mythical creatures slain by hollowed undead. You could lose countless hours scurrying around late an hour scanning every last hint and clue inscribed upon each unique treasure bestowed upon you.
Being a fan of the first two Dark Souls titles released on Xbox 360, I eagerly jumped at the opportunity to get hands on with an early review copy, massive thanks to the guys at Darkworld Gaming for snagging this up and Microsoft for sending out the content. Now, I’ve seen a few comments about this instalment being a reskinned version of Bloodborne, but you then realise that both games came from the same studio – FromSoftware, and thought up by the same dark, twisted and brilliant mind of Hidetaki Miyazaki. So is it really any wonder that they play the same? Is it really a bad thing?
Upon hitting the title screen, you are instantly hit with one of the more memorable parts of playing the Souls series, an intense orchestra that plays right into your imagination, it really does make you feel like you about to embark on a desperate struggle of toil and woe. It’s a core ingredient that Dark Souls empowers so well, that real atmospheric feeling of life and death. Upon starting a new character, you are met with a fairly formidable character creation process which ranges from sex, age, build, hair and so forth. It is always a process I spend a good thirty minutes getting embroiled in. The class system is the same as most roleplaying games, with many builds to choose from, but for Souls, it’s merely a pillar of which your statistical tower can build upon.
You are given complete freedom over your own attributes which, at first, may seem fantastic but you awaken to the realisation that this is Dark Souls. True to its nature, is a lot more complex at second glance. There are nine governing attributes that are each important depending on the path you take to salvation. Having the correct STRENGTH to wield an ultra greatsword, a high enough DEXTERITY score to dual wield swords. FAITH and INTELLIGENCE affecting your ability to wield and use the three base types of magic. A stamina bar – its size depending on ENDURANCE. New to the series, an FP or mana bar, meaning no more limit on how many times you can cast a spell before having to rest and replenish – factored by ATTUNEMENT. Each stat, in its own right is as important as the next. Even an attribute that allows you to wear heavier gear.
One of the elements I quickly noticed improved was the movement and combat. There is so much more fluidity in what you do. Flowing with more grace as you roll under the swing of a sword to pull of a backstab finisher with more grace than ever. Your character just doesn’t feel as heavy as before. You do not feel restricted in the ability to move around without fear of turning a corner to not quite pivot correctly and fall down 1,000 feet to the dark below which would be incredibly frustrating.
The combat remains true to the series. Brutal, relentless and yet wrought with finesse, punishing those who squander their opportunity with arrogance. Perfectly executed counters open up your opponent, (it’s also worth mentioning, anything you can do…), for a visceral cinematic riposte. It is not just a hack and slash, it is infact, quite the opposite. Enemy movement, attack patterns, the amount of swings they put in to a combo, are the ranged? What type of armour are they wearing, the type of weapon they are holding.. Are they holding it with both hands or one? These are mechanics you have to pick up or you will find yourself on the wrong end of a rusty dagger. The amount of effort that goes into each dual you take, it really does give you that feeling of life and death. It feels realistic and authentic to say the least.
The world is littered with different types of hellish creatures and demons roaming. From dragons atop the high castle walls, right the way down to nightmarish goats lurking in forests waiting to scratch your face off. Dark Souls III looks great. The setting is immense and at times breathtaking. You really get a sense of the peril you are in and the grave task that lies ahead of you. Claustrophobic corridors made more ghastly by heavy breathing noises, the subtle moans of ghouls echoing through a fog infested graveyard. The game just sounds outright creepy when played through surround sound headphones.
Every area is infested with secrets. After already sinking nearly 60 hours into the game, I find that I have still missed many hidden items and more importantly, a covenant. As well as the many weapons, armour sets, crossbows, bows and staffs you obtain through your journey you are also able to discover NPCs that will aid and join you, some even offer wares to sell. Covenants that you are able to side with and commit acts in their name. Be forewarned, messing around with NPCs can lead to misfortune.
The game progression system is the same as any other Dark Souls title. You kill creeps, you get souls, you spend souls. On a vast inventory system that offers alot. Souls are your currency, they are the bastion of hope in this dark gritty world, they are the key to your salvation as such. Levelling up attribute points cost souls, making them your one achilles heel. You obtain a different number upon defeating foes depending on their level and difficulty, but what Dark Souls does so well, and most mainstream titles shy away from, is that horrible little scenario where, upon having saved a huge amount of currency you are slain. Dropping all souls amassed for that last minute level up you want. You are then confronted with the process of retrieving what you have lost. If you don’t retrieve what you have lost? You lose everything. This is the one experience you will not find anywhere else. Forcing you to act most desperate. The feeling of triumph after thirty minutes of gruelling combat against a boss you have already died nine times against. You really get that sense of satisfaction and self achievement having defeated what stood before you. Its something that no other title has ever managed to capture properly.
Then there’s multiplayer. I know from experience that Dark Souls has a huge PVP scene. In previous titles I always struggled to play co-operatively with fellow unkindled, mainly due to connection issues and the signs you write for one another not responding correctly. I cannot fault Dark Souls III. You are now able to selectively choose who you want to play with by applying a password to your game, then share this password with another player. Hey presto! You will now only be able to summon each other with ease. Something you don’t see very often in games is a system that allows players to inadvertently help each other without ever having crossed paths. Leaving clues in messages on the floor for players to read and rate. Warning of ambushes, invisible walls. And even the odd joke from time to time to lighten the mood. The co-op play really helps when you are struggling to defeat an area or slay a giant boss you have struggled against for an hour. With both players being rewarded for efforts after the area objective has been cleared. Player vs Player works different however. You ‘invade’ another players world to try and defeat the host for their ember and reward. I have never been too heavily into the PVP in the Souls series but after the overhaul of movement speed and abilities. I aim to to do my fair share of player invading in this title.
In all Dark Souls III is not entirely different from the rest. With tweaks and adjustments to movement and combat, the added mana bar, new weapon arts to boost each type of armament you wield in a unique way and of course, the tried and tested rogue like formula. With rumours to this being the last title in the series, Dark Souls III is, in my opinion the best Souls title yet. With old NPCs making a subtle return, and nods to others. It is a genre of roleplaying and fantasy mixed with the die hard realism you come to expect from a studio that makes them like no other. It is not for the faint of heart, but rewards those who persevere with a triumphant feeling of being induced into a state of self satisfaction.