Dark Souls III
PC, PS4, Xbox One
There are times, especially early on, when it all feels a little too familiar. From the moment you first set foot in Firelink Shrine, Dark Souls III feels like a work of fan service, and the feeling simply intensifies as you push deeper and deeper into Lothric. Almost everything in the opening third of the game is a contrivance, a reminder of something from another FromSoftware game you already know inside out.
The run-up to one particular boss fight has enemies with origins in New Londo Ruins and Hemwick Charnel Lane. It’s the final stretch of an area whose geography and bestiary have variously reminded us of Darkroot Garden, Blighttown and Shaded Woods. And the boss that awaits us at the end of it invokes comparisons with three or four fights from across the Souls lineage. At its worst, Dark Souls III feels like a musician delivering the final album of a long, multi-record deal. OK, you wanted a hit: we don’t really do hits, but here you go. Please can we go off and do something else now?
At first it feels like an unavoidable consequence of this series’ staying power. There is, as many have said, nothing quite like a Souls game – but there are quite a few of them now. Here, Hidetaka Miyazaki and team pluck their favourite bits from across the Souls oeuvre and mash them all together for one final outing. Five games in, is the crown finally slipping? For 15 hours or more, you’ll think perhaps it has.
You’ll be wrong. There is a point, one a little too long in coming, when you realise that Miyazaki has been playing with you once again; that the early sense of familiarity bordering on weariness was deliberate. Eventually he will show what’s in his hand, and hit you in the head with it. Minutes later, he’ll break your heart with it. If this is to be the final Dark Souls game – and it certainly feels like it could be – it’s a heck of a way to run out a contract.
It’s just that Dark Souls III’s majesty takes a little longer to become apparent than we’ve come to expect of FromSoftware. Bloodborne’s sharp stylistic turn made it clear from the off that it was meant to be played in a different way, the horror of its setting and the aggression of its denizens in perfect harmony with the pacy, front-footed design of its combat. Being back in a Dark Souls world – playing as your favourite class, fighting recognisable enemies with familiar gear – means you quickly fall back into old habits. That means you may not engage with the new Weapon Skill system, powered by the new, blue FP meter, for some time.
Yet skills sit at the heart of Dark Souls III’s design. To users of hulking Strength weapons they offer quick, enemy-tracking moves that are certain to open an opponent’s guard or break their poise if they hit home. For Dexterity builds they provide fast, powerful and, crucially, deliciously flashy ways of putting down an enemy. Magic users, meanwhile, gain tremendous, transformative benefits – a temporary boost to poise to ensure miracle casts aren’t interrupted, perhaps, or a brief damage buff for sorceries. Even shields have skills, be that a damaging bash, a parry or, most usefully of all, the ability to use your right-hand weapon’s skill without two-handing it. Weapon Skills, despite their obvious benefits, come at a risk. Anything you can do to mitigate that is welcome indeed. Yet, whatever your playstyle, skills are easily ignored early on. A glug from the new Ashen Estus Flask will top up your FP meter, but you start the game with just four swigs and must choose how to split that total between regular, health-regenerating Estus and the FP-filling Ashen variety. Early on, you find you have a far greater need for HP top-ups than fancy swordplay. The bar can only be extended by levelling up Attunement – a magic-user’s stat that’s a wasted investment for the melee-minded.
Magic builds, which always have a rough time of it at the start of a Souls game – a consequence of being underlevelled with minimal tools, an acceptable tradeoff given how powerful you become later on – have it even rougher here. Use too many spells on the rank and file and you’ll get to the boss with no FP, two empty Estus flasks, and must face it down with your weedy melee weapon and a shield that barely absorbs half a blocked attack’s damage. In the past, a sorcerer or cleric could use their weaker spells on the grunts, saving their more powerful options for the boss. Now, all are bound to the same meter. It nudges the magic user down an unfamiliar path, suggesting that they level up melee stats early on instead of focusing solely on what they were designed for.
Tough it out, if you can. The game reprises the Estus Shard mechanic introduced in Dark Souls II, and they’re both plentiful and a little easier to find here, typically in heavily guarded dead ends off the beaten track. Long before the game’s end you’ll have a large enough stock to be able to tailor the split between regular and Ashen Estus to suit your playstyle – though you’ll realise, gradually, that your style needs to change too.
Poise has always been a central, vital mechanic in the Souls games – it defines who gets to hit who, and when, and for how long. In Bloodborne, Miyazaki dialled back its importance. You’d be happily whaling away on an enemy when they’d suddenly start attacking, forcing you to think more on your feet, using those wonderful flighty dashes to get in, slice off a chunk of a health bar, then retreat to safety before the reprisal came. Now we’re back in the land of the greatshield, the heavy armour set and the fat roll, poise is back, yet all but the weediest of enemies are able to start attacking when they feel like it, no matter the pressure they’re under. At first this seems like an unwelcome, perhaps even