Dark Souls III

PC, PS4, Xbox One

EDGE - - GAMES - FromSoft­ware Bandai Namco PC, PS4 (tested), Xbox One Out now (JPN), April 12 (EU/US)

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

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