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Dark Souls 3 Review – Culmination of the Franchise
The Souls games are a series of action rpgs that take place within a medieval fantasy setting. Since the release of Demons Souls in 2009, there have been a total of 5 games, in a span of 7 years, which follow the same core game mechanic.
Last 3 years have seen the release of Dark Souls 2 in 2014, Scholar of the First Sin and Bloodborne in 2015 and now Dark Souls 3 in 2016. Has the developer, From Software, over-saturated the market with its annual releases?
While it is true that the Souls games are at the cusp of suffering from Assassins Creed like franchise fatigue, Dark Souls 3 manages to enough do things differently, to provide an extremely entertaining last ride without overstaying its welcome.
Although Dark Souls 3 is not the breath of fresh air that Bloodborne turned out to be, it does offer enough quality and variety to make it the best Souls experience for veterans and newcomers alike.
Two things that define the core of Dark Souls 3 are Accessibility and Aggregation of elements from the previous games. The game takes the best aspects of all its previous games and refines its components to create a system that is more user friendly without compromising on the depth of its mechanics and intrigue of its lore.
As per the Souls series’ tradition, the theme of Dark Souls 3 revolves around the cycle of Light and Dark and is about a reawakened “Unkindled” undead called the Ashen One, who has to find the Lords of Cinder so that the world can be saved from the impending darkness of the fading flame Age of Fire.
Unlike most modern games, there is not much exposition in the game that explains its story.
Dark Souls 3 features the series’ signature way of narrating its story where the players have to piece together the plot through a combination of item descriptions, character placements and environmental details.
While the game maintains the series’ cryptic nature of storytelling, the narrative in Dark Souls 3 does seem unusually forthcoming, for a Souls game, when it comes to revealing its lore.
Items, weapons, NPCs and messages reveal a great portion of the game’s lore with is more connected to the story themes introduced in Dark Souls 1 rather than Dark Souls 2.
The fabled difficulty of the Souls games is a misnomer. Dark Souls games have a stamina based action system that rewards careful approach and punishes rash actions. The key is to not mistake it for a mindless hack and slash game and try to figure out every new environments and enemy movements.
The core gameplay of Dark Souls 3 is the same as all Souls games; where players have to equip a variety of weapons including swords, axes, bows, bombs, spears and magic to aggressively fight against a myriad of enemies.
Players can also use different armours and shields to guard or deflect enemies’ attacks as well as utilize spacing and dodge-rolling to evade these attacks and protect their characters from suffering damage.
Getting damaged reduces the player’s Hit Point (HP) gauge which represents their character’s health. When the HP is fully depleted, the player is transported back to last visited bonfire and temporarily loses all the souls at hand. If the player dies again before reaching back to place of their previous demise, these souls are lost forever.
Souls are the main currency of the series, which are gained by defeating enemies and can be used for levelling up your character, upgrading your weapons and buying items, weapons, armour and spells from different NPCs.
While weapons in Dark Souls 3 do not have the depth of trick weapons available in Bloodborne, the game does offer more variety as players are able to choose and customise their arsenal from an inventory of hundreds of different weapons, shields, armours and spells.
The game also features several changes to how spells work, how weapons scale and the availability of new upgrade material, which makes every type of weapon, level stat and playstyle viable for use.
Dark Souls 3 brings back the Focus Point (FP) gauge from the Demons Souls game, whereby the number of spells a player is able to cast is not dependent upon a predetermined quota but reliant on the amount of FP.
To complement this change, Dark Souls 3 also introduces Ashen Estus; a reusable item which allows player to replenish their FP. The game also features ability to reallocate amount of total estus flasks carried by a player to any combination of HP restoring Estus and FP restoring Ashen Estus.
Furthermore, players can also utilize the FP gauge to make use of the game’s new ‘Weapon Art’ combat mechanic. Weapons Arts are unique skills that are associated with different weapons, which can be utilized by dual wielding that specific weapon.
The addition of Weapon Arts mechanic not only makes each weapon unique in gameplay but also offers a viable option for melee only players to utilize the FP bar which was previously limited to spellcasting use.
While the ability to power stance two weapons from Dark Souls 2 is gone, the game simplifies that mechanic by featuring several twin weapons that can be dual wielded in a single weapon slot.
Not only does the game feature good weapon options for pure strength power builds or pure dexterity speed builds, but also great choices for quality builds that focus on both strength and dexterity equally.
Similarly, in addition to intelligence based magic builds or faith based miracle builds, the changes made to pyromancy system makes intelligence/faith combination build a viable long range option as well.
This accessibility and variety also extends to online multiplayer portion of Dark Souls 3’s gameplay.
While the online play makes the players open to cooperation and invasions from random players, Dark Souls 3 allows players to invite other specific players via password matching and allow friends to participate in coop or pvp play.
In addition to the regular returning covenants that allow for different methods of summoning and invasions, Dark Souls 3 also introduces a covenant that allows players to be summoned as a purple mad phantom that has the freedom to help or attack the host player. This opens up new horizons of ambiguity and chaos in multiplayer play.
There seems to be a conscious design decision to include a lot of fan service in Dark Souls 3 as a signal of series wrap-up, similar to how MGS4 treated the closure of Metal Gear Solid narrative.
Some might find this overabundance of references to Demons Souls, Bloodborne, Dark Souls 1 and 2 off putting and bordering on pandering to the fans.
This fan service is not just limited to the themes and NPCs but also creeps up as a slight lack of creativity in the regular enemy designs as they seem to be heavily inspired from the previous Souls games and Bloodborne.
On the other hand, almost all of the Boss designs feature a great visual blend of old and new while giving substantial call backs to the best gameplay and lore elements of the previous games.
While the most glaring framerate issues seem to have been fixed by initial round of software updates, the occasional texture pop-ins really stain what is otherwise a magnificent work of visual presentation.
From its depictions of castles and cathedrals to graveyards and forests, the game is filled with hauntingly beautiful vistas complemented by great use of lighting and particle effects. Every level and environment looks beautiful and polished and there is no instance of rushed and badly textured environments like Lost Izalith from Dark Souls 1 or Shaded Woods from Dark Souls 2.
The overall game world size is less expansive than the world of Dark Souls 2 and while it is not an interconnected open world like Dark Souls 1, it does take some cues from it, as the game’s levels connect organically and each area features great level design containing abundance of clever shortcuts that loop back to initial bonfires.
Dark Souls 3 keeps the series tradition of exceptional horror fantasy sound design that perfectly complements its environments, as the game uses background music sparingly and only amps things up to punctuate special moments like boss fights.
Most of the time Dark Souls 3’s environments are quite and spooky with ambient and atmospheric sounds echoing in the distance. This not only highlights its crisp sound effects but also makes instances like hearing approaching heavy footsteps or a distant blood curdling shriek doubly impactful.
In addition to grunts and screams, Dark Souls 3 features excellent voice acting. Whether it is the narrator, enemy characters or friendly NPCs, each character’s dialogue delivery holds appropriate amount of gravitas and inflection to convey the context behind what is being said.
With the strength of its presentation and the depth of its intricately layered gameplay and level design, Dark Souls 3 compels one to revisit its 30-40 hour campaign multiple times. Couple that with its synchronous coop and PVP online multiplayer and you have a time sink that can easily offer hundreds of hours’ worth of entertainment.
Overall, Dark Souls 3 combines the gameplay system from Demons Souls with the level inter-connectivity of Dark Souls 1, user interface improvements of Dark Souls 2 and movement speed of Bloodborne.
The game comes off as a send-off to the Souls series and is the culmination of the action RPG genre that started years ago with Demons Souls.