While it may seem like this could yet again be another case of "holy shit, another Dark Souls game" syndrome, where the game seems fantastic from the outset only to slowly degrade over time like its predecessor, the fact that I already couldn't wait to restart the game was a clear sign that FROM knew what they were doing here. I swear, I'm not "Phantom Menacing" Dark Souls 3 here, guys.
Where Dark Souls 2 aimed to punish the player for, well, literally everything, as if that was the core idea for the series from the start, Dark Souls 3 dials it back a bit, still retaining the tough-as-nails difficulty but with a degree of fairness. That was always the case with these games: tough but fair.
I highly doubt that FROMSOFT is finished with these types of games. However, Dark Souls 3 might just be the final entry in this particular series, and I think I'm pretty OK with that. After three games of recurring themes, Dark Souls 3 manages to wrap it all up extremely well in a way that's ultimately satisfying. And given how lore-heavy these games are, I'm sure there's also plenty I missed my first time around.
Even as I'm writing this, I'm itching to boot the game up again, and that's a great sign. I'm getting the same feelings I got from the original Dark Souls, which I recently replayed prior to the release of Dark Souls 3 and still found extremely enjoyable, something that truly withstands the test of time.
With a ton of weapon and armor variety, pyromancies, miracles, sorceries and weapon arts to delve into, Dark Souls 3 is a virtual playground of player experimentation, of finding what build works best. And hey, once you best the bosses and feel like you need an additional challenge, take the fight to the vastly improved online. You won't be seeing me there though, sorry.
The environment, which Dark Souls 2 got a lot of flak for, is not only a lot more gorgeous this time around, but is also laid out in a way that makes a lot more sense, at least as much sense as a Dark Souls game can make. Looking past its more sensible design, the Kingdom of Lothric is both a beauty to behold and a pleasure to explore. It's a world filled with secrets and shortcuts waiting to be uncovered. It's also teeming with dangerous enemies, some more terrifying than anything I've encountered in previous games.
Lothric is also a mix of past Souls titles when it comes to its layout and presentation. Demon's Souls featured a hub that allowed players to teleport to any new self contained location. The same kind of mechanic is present here, with a new Firelink Shrine acting as the hub for all of the game's locations. But there's still plenty of interconnectivity to be had. It's no Dark Souls 1 in terms of how the world brilliantly weaves its world together into one sprawling playground that connects in amazing ways, but there are plenty of opportunities to see past major locations from a newly uncovered vista.
It's undeniable though that Dark Souls 3 is certainly more linear than its first title. While some might find that to be disappointing, some of the areas have multiple pathways and shortcuts to explore. There are still certainly opportunities to completely bypass a section in lieu of getting to your destination faster, albeit through tougher enemies, which should make speed runners excited.
Now more than ever, it's clear that the locations, though vastly different, are supposed to be the same across the three games, albeit in different time periods. While Dark Souls 2 tried vaguely to connect them, and then outright gave you Boss Souls from the main bosses on your second playthrough, Dark Souls 3 doesn't really hide the fact that this is, in fact, Lordran, with areas sprinkled with visual cues and easter eggs that confirm this theory. It really does come full circle in this way, and those who invested a lot of time in Dark Souls 1 will certainly appreciate the nods to that game's setting.
The movement and actions got a little bit of a speed boost, courtesy of Bloodborne's faster combat no doubt, but it still very much retains the feeling of a Dark Souls game. Weapons and armor still have weight to them, with heavy weapons taking a considerable strength to swing and heavy armor slowing your roll considerably. With that said, the roll penalty speed has been significantly reduced, most likely to encourage players to actually wear armor rather than going armor-less to get the full benefit of the fast roll.
The weapon and armor selection is fantastic, with old favorites making a return and some sweet new ones making their debut. As someone who beat the first game with a Zweihander, I was very excited to once again wield this beast of a sword and upgrade it throughout my playthrough. But I also really liked the nimble new dual dagger sets, as well as a majority of the boss weapons that could be crafted using particular boss souls.
Weapons themselves got an upgrade in the form of Weapon Arts, skills that range from finishing moves to altered stances and even spells. Each class of weapon has a unique Weapon Art, meaning there is a lot of experimentation to be had even after you find a weapon you absolutely love. One of the straight swords altered my stance when I was holding L2, which then allowed me to perform a dash thrust or an uppercut of sorts with the two standard attack buttons.
With that said, while the inclusion of Weapon Arts is great and adds some great variation in movesets, I didn't find myself using them all too often. Maybe I'm set in my Dark Souls 1 and 2 ways, but I mostly just used my character's standard attacks to get the job done.
It also seems like Dark Souls 3 wants you to Infuse your weapons a lot more this time around, as Infusion Gems plentiful. Demon's Souls had quite an extensive list of Infusion upgrades, but the list grew somewhat stumpy in next Dark Souls titles. Here, you'll have plenty of opportunities to switch up your weapon's usefulness. For example, one Gem can turn your Dex focused weapon into a Str one, vice versa, or even balance the two out. There's an even all-new Gem which turns your weapon Hollow, scaling its effectiveness with your Luck stat of all things (not unlike Demon's Souls Blueblood Sword). There are truly an infinite amount of builds you can tackle in Dark Souls 3, and it makes multiple playthroughs even more enticing.
There are plenty of new dangers to be found this time around. Crystal Lizards, those cute little things you'd chase after to get some sweet upgrade material, now have a much larger and fiercer cousin. You'll find ambushes aplenty, seemingly docile enemies who are just waiting to pounce on your head and scratch your face off.
The bosses themselves are also fantastic once again, sometimes borrowing a little design from Bloodborne, but altogether offering a diverse roster of abominations that actually consist of other things than two legged humanoids wielding a weapon (a la Dark Souls 2). I won't really go into much detail since that would spoil a lot of the surprises to be had, but rest assured there are plenty of "Holy shit, how am I going to beat this" moments in the game.
What's even more interesting this time around are the characters. I hate to keep picking on Dark Souls 2, but that game easily had some of the flattest characters in the entire trilogy. Dark Souls 3 is a mix of old and new, with some familiar faces returning and a host of new ones being introduced. Like the staple cast from the first game, their questlines are usually not straightforward, and you'll most likely miss many of them your first time through. But it's these mysterious questlines with great payoffs that make these characters worth searching for.
After meeting with a bunch of these characters, many of them will appear back in Firelink Shrine as NPCs, some selling you miracles, other pyromancies, etc. One particular NPC even granted me five free levels. "What a treat!" I thought to myself, only to realize what game I was playing. Nothing in the world of Dark Souls is free ladies and gents.
And yes, Patches is in the game. While I swore to myself that I wouldn't be fooled again by this miscreant, FROMSOFT found a spectacular way for him to get the upper hand, yet again.
Which ultimately brings me to the multiplayer. I will admit I'm a wuss when it comes to being invaded, which is why I spent the majority of the first game Hollowed. That mechanic was a double-edged sword. By being Hollowed, you aren't susceptible to invasions, but you also can't summon others for help. Dark Souls 2 completely crapped all over this mechanic, making you susceptible to be invaded whenever, and even punishing you further by constantly chipping your max health away every time you died.
Dark Souls 3 has a much more elegant solution to Hollowing, which in this case is becoming Cindered. When you beat a boss, help someone beat a boss, or use an Ember, you become Cindered. This is essentially the same as restoring Humanity, but it also comes with the added bonus of extra health, pretty much the antithesis of Dark Souls 2's concept. It actively rewards you for being Cindered, and thus encourages it due to the extra health, but of course leaves you susceptible to invasions from other players and NPCs.
However, even though I'm a self-proclaimed wuss when it comes to PvP, I had to partake—for science! FROM certainly has put a lot of time into making the PvP in this game the most responsive and lag-free. Matches against invaders are always a nail-biting experience, and thanks to the inclusion of Weapon Arts, those fights are now doubly exciting since both players now have an added arsenal of moves to utilize. But outside of the core PvP mechanics, the hit detection seems to be spot-on, where I never lamented over being hit due to a bad roll, because it was my fault to begin with.
Likewise, co-op works like a dream, at least when the game doesn't crash on you because you're trying to connect with a player with a version that doesn't have the Day One patch. Since the game is already out in Japan, and has been on that patch for quite some time now, I was able to play with former GameZone writer Andrew Clouther. I didn't cheapen my experience though, and kept bosses a strictly solo affair the first time around. But when it came to replaying the game and knowing what's behind every corner, we let loose on the bosses and had a great time. The game utilizes Bloodborne's password system to simplify connecting and playing with another friend.
As far as performance is concerned, I can't say I've experienced a whole lot of framerate drops. Maybe I lucked out, maybe it's a fluke, but so far my experience with Dark Souls 3 on PS4 has been rather smooth, at least within the range of 30fps.
On the audio side, characters are once again voiced brilliantly, with each character delivering their lines with the utmost believability. Even characters you might not want to ever turn your back to, have a way of drawing you in with their voices. And holy shit: the soundtrack. The Souls-Borne games have had a pretty good track record with amazing soundtracks that managed to intensify the situation with killer boss themes, but Dark Souls 3 just blows them all out of the water. Whether it's the calming Firelink Shrine tune playing in the background that's complimented by a soft female vocalist, or the intense yet beautifully scored boss themes, the music complements every single setting and event perfectly. Souls veteran composer Motoi Sakuraba is also joined by Yuka Kitamura, who composed some of Dark Souls 2 and Bloodborne's Soundtrack, and their efforts for the third entry in Dark Souls have certainly paid off.
I will admit that after the initial shock of "Holy shit, we just got a Dark Souls sequel" wore off, Dark Souls 2 wasn't really that great of a follow-up. Sure, sure, it could be that Miyazaki, the series' father, wasn't involved in the development process, but the game introduced a whole lot of changes, many for the worse, that the series didn't need. Still, I didn't particularly dislike Dark Souls 2, but the more I played it, the more I became disappointed with it, basically the exact opposite of how I viewed the fantastic Dark Souls, and in that same vein, Demon's Souls. Scholar of the First Sin was a decent update to the game, but in the end, unless you've already played through and beat Dark Souls 2, it isn't for you.
Dark Souls 3 feels like the proper sequel to the first game. A lot of the odd mechanics from the second title were scrapped; instead, the game manages to update a lot of the core systems from the first game, borrow some from Demon's Souls, and even add a little bit of Bloodborne flavoring. And even though it feels like the true successor, it doesn't completely discount the second game's existence, as there are plenty of references to that game and world as well.
What's most notable about Dark Souls 3 is that it's the first proper current-gen Dark Souls game, which didn't really hit me until I finally started playing it and noticed all those nuances from past games, but this time in gorgeous detail.
There's a lot to cover, so let's get on with what makes Dark Souls 3 a worthy successor, and potentially the final title in the trilogy.