Dark Souls 3 is, as far as we know, From Software’s last Dark Souls game. While Bandai Namco own the license and will do with it as they please, the glory days of Dark Souls are over. The game is an ode to the short but rich history of the series, to the point where I’ve seen people saying it’s like a greatest hits album or that it’s just trying to get by on nostalgia.
These seem like viewpoints that are either cynical or missed the point. Dark Souls 3 is a refinement of the franchise, a swan song to the memories we have of the games. There are references and call backs to things from Dark Souls, Dark Souls 2 and even Demon’s Souls, the Sony owned/published game that gave birth to Dark Souls. There is even some expanding on the lore we thought we knew of those games. I’ll get to this in detail later though, as it’s rather impossible to do it without spoilers and most of this review will be as spoiler free as I can make it.
So for the spoiler free part of the review, let’s start with mechanics. The game really feels like an all-round improvement, the combat has the slow and careful approach of Souls games past. However there is more than a little bit of Bloodborne combat in the mix, where avoiding the attacks altogether becomes the main goal rather than just blocking them all like a heavily armoured turtle.
The armour system also borrows from Bloodborne, though before you get worried physical defence still matters a great deal. The change is that resistances are now a lot more important than they were in the previous games. When fighting enemies or a boss that uses mainly lightning attacks it can be far more helpful to equip your best lightning defence gear rather than your best physical defence set.
And the Bloodborne similarities go on and on, a new system in this game is the weapon arts. A special ability each weapon has that uses your Focus Points, which is your MP bar going back to how Demon’s Souls handled magic rather than the limited uses of Dark Souls. You can think of these like a counterpart to Bloodborne trick weapons, though less flashy in most cases. A mace might have the War Cry art that temporarily boosts your damage while a longsword has an art specifically for knocking back guarding enemies.
The system is a very good edition and adds a lot more variety to a play style, at various points I was changing between swords, hammers, clubs and greatswords to take advantage of the differing arts. I usually stick with one weapon as I progress through the Souls games so this took me by surprise, though it was only possible due to another very welcome change in the game.
In past games you would upgrade your weapon as you play, and after not too long you began to stick with the one weapon because you could only afford to keep upgrading the one. Getting the materials you needed to upgrade the weapons wasn’t easy. Now though, the game is far more generous meaning if I decide I want a change I can go buy a new weapon and get it up to a useful level quickly. The amount of flexibility with weapons is just brilliant, it’s always fun to start trying out a new strategy.
This extends to adding elemental damage. In the past the formula for this was you levelled the weapon up to +5 or +10 and then used a special stone. So a longsword for example would be upgraded to a Longsword +5 and then you can use a special stone to make it a Fire Longsword, which itself can then be upgraded to a Fire Longsword +5.
With this game however, at any point you can add an element to a weapon. All it takes is a gem, and you can even replace gems currently in use. So take a Longsword +7, add a fire gem and it becomes a Fire Longsword +7. Then you find an area where enemies are weak to lightning, simply add a lightning gem and it’s now a Lightning Longsword +7. It’s such a good system that it makes the system found in the old game, which I had no problem with, look crap in comparison.
The game doesn’t feel quite as long as Dark Souls 2 nor as expansive as Dark Souls. There aren’t any chains of totally optional areas lots of players won’t see, such as The Great Hollow and Ash Lake, but rather just a few single optional areas. I feel this works in the games favour however, as it doesn’t feel bloated. It feels like more care and effort has been put into the content that is there. There are no areas of this game that make me have the thought ‘I would love to replay this game, but I don’t want to have to replay that bit’. The perfect description would be quality over quantity, though don’t get me wrong the game isn’t short. There are a ton of areas and my final playtime was in the 45-50 hours range.
We’re nearly at the end of the spoiler free bit of the review, but before we hit that I have a small thing to say. The soundtrack of the game is fantastic, I even found at one point I was walking back through an area looking for an item and I was listening to boss songs on YouTube as I played. With that said this is the end of the review for people who want to play the game blind, which I recommend you do. In the next seven paragraphs I’ll be talking about specific bosses and moments in the game. You have been warned.
So the reason I’m going into this is because, as I’ve said, I’ve seen people complaining that this game just reuses old ideas and is trying to pad itself out by reminding people of past games. That’s missing the point though, the game is celebrating all the great moments of the old games. The biggest moment of this comes with the reveal of a new area, Irithyll of the Boreal Valley.
This is a large frozen city, not unlike Yarnham but covered in ice and with wider streets. As you battle through the city you’re getting higher and higher until you come across a boss. Defeat him and head outside and you’ll see a point where you’re going to run along a section of roof top. Suddenly a large arrow hits into a wall near you and you see an enemy. It’s a Silver Knight from Dark Souls, specifically a rather infamous part of Dark Souls where they would knock you off a narrow walkway with these giant arrows in an area called Anor Londo.
So it’s like Anor Londo, it’s calling back those memories. You continue forward, and suddenly realise something. This staircase looks familiar, you walk up it and it’s revealed. This place isn’t trying to call back memories of Anor Londo, this place is Anor Londo. Immeasurable time has past, and most of the surroundings are destroyed, but the main castle of Anor Londo still stands. It’s a fantastic moment to discover and why I told you that you should play the game blind if you can. It reminded me of Metal Gear Solid 4, when you return to Shadow Moses.
It’s easy to say this is just trying to pander to nostalgia, to get an easy moment of ‘oh I remember this, that’s cool’. This misses the point though, that this game is a finale. This is the end, the story that began before the start of Dark Souls in Anor Londo with Gwyn The Lord of Sunlight is ending with this game. These moments where they’re remembering where the game came from are just fantastic.
Finally I mentioned earlier they even make call backs to Demon’s Souls, a game Bandai Namco do not own but nevertheless the game that lead to the existence of Dark Souls. This is done, in the most obvious instance anyway, in a boss fight. I’ll not be saying who the fight is against, but the fight begins and you start attacking. I was using a Fire Longsword at the time and was doing next to no damage it would take over half an hour to beat this boss at this rate, not that I’d survive that long. I tried four other weapons, all the same result. It was looking hopeless.
Then I realised, there was an item in the boss arena. I thought I’d go get it, even if I couldn’t beat the boss yet I’d get the item at least. So I run over and grab it, finding out that it is a sword called Storm Ruler. A rather clear reference to the boss fight of world 4-3 in Demon’s Souls where you used a weapon called Stormruler to, well, rule the storms. Allowing you to hit airborne enemies with long slicing gusts of wind. It works a little different this time round, the wind attack being the swords weapon art where you have to charge up the power of storms before firing it at the boss. The fight is so good, and just as memorable as the original fight it was referencing.
There are nine boss fights during this game, including the one I just talked about, that I bloody loved. They are some of the best boss fights from the entire franchise, for some reason or another. Some of them are great for how they play, some are great for the theatricality of it and some are brilliant for tone and the significance of the fight. I can’t even name nine bosses total from some of the older games, but in a year I feel I will still remember these ones.
Dark Souls 3 is the perfect finale game, it’s everything I could have hoped it would be. It is Dark Souls refined. Everything is improved from the past, some old systems are better, new systems replace older ones. The feeling of the game, along with the plot and lore, of the game are just fantastic. It’s a game that closes the book on an incredible journey, for now anyway.