I’ll admit that sometimes there are games that I’m not especially excited to play and write about. Doesn’t mean I don’t get the job done, though. Click through the Popzara archives and you’ll see a Barbie review or two from me. Other times, well, something like Dark Souls III comes out and here I am. It’s pretty good, in the same way a spicy piece of Caribbean jerk chicken is pretty good while also stinging a bit. Let’s talk about it. Don’t be scared.
Dark Souls III follows a similar formula to previous releases: you’re an immortal being given a seemingly impossible task and sent out into a hostile world to get the job done, regardless of the fact that immortality really isn’t all it’s cut out to be. In this case your job is to find the Lords of Cinder throughout the kingdom of Lothric and return them to their thrones, whether they’d like to go or not. Spoiler warning: they typically wouldn’t, so you’re going to have to force the issue. There’s more to the plot than this, but as usual it’s conveyed primarily in item descriptions and is entirely optional when it comes to enjoying the game.
Overall, the gameplay here is pretty much what you’d expect if you’re familiar with the series. This is a third-person action-RPG that offers a variety of character build options and gear to choose from. The game is divided into areas that are subdivided into segments that feature life-restoring bonfires which serve as checkpoints; progress typically involves making it from one bonfire to the next, defeating any foes and bosses that show up along the way while searching for treasure in the process. Victory in combat yields Souls, a sort of omni-currency that’s used for leveling up and purchasing items alike, but death causes the player to drop their Souls so they must be retrieved again.
You’ve got a variety of options when it comes to developing a character to hunt down the Lords of Cinder. There are a number of options available at character creation that offer a sort of template to build on, but you’re largely able to develop your hero as you see fit. Melee weapons are central to combat, naturally, and are largely divided into Strength-focused heavy weapons and Dexterity-focused light weapons, with most gear taking into account a proportion of both. Magic is available as well, divided between arcane Sorcery, holy Miracles and blazing Pyromancy, and you’re able to work any or all of these into your character’s design as you’d like. Most new weapons, armor and magic are available by finding them in the field as you progress through the game, so no matter how you choose to face the darkness you’re going to consistently find new ways to do it.
Lothric, of course, has plenty of environments to traverse that are full of all manner of baddies. You’ve got your standard castles and forts, of course, but there are also poisonous swamps, firey underground caverns and a snow-choked city infested with evil that serves as the game’s centerpiece. III is clearly aiming to inspire some Souls nostalgia, so you’re going to see a fair number of callbacks to previous games, including a location or two. The level design here is probably the best we’ve seen in the series; the game’s pacing is vastly improved in terms of the time it takes to reach new bonfires, turning each segment into its own unique challenge to be managed.
Boss design is solid here as well, though Bloodborne remains the high point of the series when it comes to interesting and well-made bosses. Dark Souls III is the first Souls game native to current-generation hardware, of course, so it stands to reason that many of the game’s biggest fights are intended to be spectacles. That’s both a good thing and a bad thing. It’s good because, well, a lot of these battles do look awesome and are going to stick in your memory for a while. It’s bad because on any platform but a highly-powered PC you’re going to run into some serious framerate drops. In particular, one boss battle featuring a horde of smaller foes is so cluttered that both Xbox One and PS4 consoles struggle desperately to keep up.
The elephant in the room when it comes to Dark Souls, of course, is the game’s difficulty. While the marketing and hype claims that this is an especially tough game, in fact it’s fairly straightforward to conquer this one with application of the three Ps: perception, patience and perseverance. Carefully observing a foe’s movements and the way they attack will lead to victory as you discover the moments in which they’re vulnerable, and unlike previous games the death penalty in III is a little less brutal, costing only Souls and potentially an HP-boosting buff. To paraphrase the single greatest cultural contribution of the 1990s: you’ll get knocked down, but you’ll get up again, and you’re never going to be kept down.
Frankly, at this point the intense focus on the difficulty in these games seems to be doing more harm than good. New players to the series are immediately turned away by fear of a game that they won’t be able to progress in, which leads them to miss out on a solidly built RPG that deserves a look on all of its merits. Meanwhile, requests for an easier difficulty mode miss the point – the heart of these games lie in perseverance against overwhelming odds and that feeling of victory as you conquer a foe that had seemed unbeatable.
I firmly believe that anyone can beat any of the Souls games as well as spiritual cousion Bloodborne as they stand; I also believe that exaggerating the degree of that challenge is going to keep new blood away from the series.
When it comes to established players, though, that’s neither here nor there. They’d just like to hear about how the game looks and plays. The answer: pretty damn well. Dark Souls III has made the transition to modern hardware with…well, some amount of grace. Everything’s very pretty and there are many impressive settings to gawk at, but the game suffers from an irritatingly poor and frustratingly unstable framerate on both the Xbox One and PS4.
Sound design is about the same as ever, featuring plenty of foreboding gothic flavor to marinate in. As mentioned, gameplay is largely similar to previous Souls games, though your character’s movements generally feel faster and more fluid…when the framerate supports that kind of fluidity.
All in all, series fans are already going nuts for Dark Souls III, while new players are likely terrified by the tales of a game that will chew them up and spit them out. Honestly, what it comes down to is that this is a well-made action-RPG in the same vein as its forebears that continues doing what we know Souls can do well. It would be nice to see more focus on aspects of the game other than how hard it is in the future, but failing that, I can simply plea that anyone with an interest in RPGs at least give Dark Souls III a shot.