Dark Souls III Review
Dark Souls III is a phenomenal plunge back into the spreading dark of a dying age. The game is so difficult it should come with its own ESRB rating, sports visuals that will leave you breathless and fully aware of your insignificance, all while killing you so many times that the act loses meaning.
This is the second part of the review, and in this section we’re going to look at gameplay and mechanical construction.
The preface here is pretty simple: mechanically, in Dark Souls III, there is only one thing to talk about as an overarching theme. The game is hard.
When I talked about the game probably being “the easiest one yet,” in my preview, I meant that’s how it would be spoken of. I anticipated, factually, that the difficulty would fall along the average for the series.
I was wholly incorrect on this point.
Dark Souls III is the absolute hardest game I have ever played in my life.
Now, mechanically, it shades towards unfair. The first thing I would like to talk about to this end is the tracking mechanic. In Dark Souls, difficulty was unexpected, but inimically fair. Enemies used statistics, had movesets that you could anticipate with the help of cues, and their tracking was relatively simple and narrow in scope.
In Dark Souls III it feels like a lot of that went away. Bosses like Pontiff Sulyvahn, Champion Gundyr and Lorian, Elder Prince seem to have limits to the tracking on their abilities. The Pontiff in particular attacks nonstop; he is
almost impossible to attack himself, and one normally requires a friend with which to pass the Pontiff’s attention to so that the other can get a hit in without being killed in two or three shots.
Enemies like Iudex (and Champion) Gundyr have the type of tracking which borders on what a player character could get banned for cheating by doing. For example, I once rolled behind Champion Gundyr while he was attacking, and he literally spun mid-downward slash to hit me anyway.
Bosses do inordinate amounts of damage per hit. Most bosses will one-shot anyone without twenty attribute points in Vigor (your health point pool stat) if they land a square hit of opportunity (a hit that lands while you are performing an attack animation or rolling) it almost doesn’t seem to matter how much health you have, saving an extreme amount of mitigation through armour.
The problem I have with this is that, barring the type of skillset that lets you drop your invulnerability frames into the contact window, the game nearly forces you to wear heavy armour and equip a greatshield.
When you combine very precise tracking with heavy damage into a slim margin for error, it tends to either force players to put a lot of time into getting really good at i-frame dodging or parrying, or shoehorning those without the requisite reflexes into heavy builds.
I’m not sure that’s a bad thing, but it does go against previous trends towards trying to make it so that most builds are at least workable.
The other thing I noticed is that most of the bosses towards the end of the game are vulnerable to Lightning damage. This empowers Faith builds, and combined with the previous evidence, strongly incentivizes faith-strength builds.
That’s just a note. I mean, it could easily be a good thing; going with Luck or Intelligence paired with Dexterity as a build might be how you access Hard mode in Dark Souls III—like the other games, it can be as hard or as easy as you want, once you have the requisite knowledge; a mechanic the community refers to as “biological difficulty.”
Another factor in the difficulty of Dark Souls III is that the game capitalizes on your lack of observation. The game demands a skillset that very few players are going to have without prior exposure to the games. For example, in the Catacombs of Carthus, if you look at the floor, you notice that the tiles are all caved in toward the middle of the passage, as though something heavy had spent a lot of time rolling down that floor. Naturally, if you go too far, something heavy comes rolling down that passage.
In and of itself, that would be fine. They’re “gotcha” moments, a little too subjective because some of the cues in the game could mean nearly anything, but nonetheless moments you tend to just smile and give Mr. Miyazaki (the game’s director) a mental nod.
However, there are also traps that have no warning whatsoever; they seem like they’re just there to kill you the first time. This is mostly a nod toward the hooded “Thrall” enemies which tend to hide on ceilings and rafters. They’re detectable, once you know they’re there, but normally they deploy once you’re on a ledge or attacking a much larger enemy for a quick gank on the first-timer.
That seems a little cheap, to me, but it also didn’t give me more than a moment’s pause.
In order to properly discuss the next part, I’ll restate the game’s core mechanic. Players gain currency by killing essentially anything in the game. When the player is killed, they drop that stack of currency on the ground where they perished, and upon being reborn that player may return to the site of his passing to recover his currency.
The currency is used to level up, purchase items, and cure serious status effects.
The pacing in Dark Souls III is pretty good. You’ll notice almost immediately that the game has de-inflated the amount of souls (currency) you gain from kills in the early-game. This makes surviving or recovering your souls after death a huge part of your playthrough’s meta—how far you get later without having to grind souls is often a testament to having made it through the early game in one piece.
This is part of the reason those afore-mentioned traps can be a little frustrating. I expect that without a trip to the game’s re-specialization mechanic, most first-time characters won’t be particularly good and will probably all bear very similar (mostly defensive) statistics due to circumstances I have already discussed.
Later in the game, however, souls will pile up noticeably.
If I’m going to be honest, I feel like the bosses were tuned down a lot, with a few exceptions, to account for the pacing in New Game—which is the difficulty mode that you start Dark Souls III in. You will notice that the health, abilities and other attributes of bosses are modified significantly if you make it to New Game Plus, (the next cycle, and the next difficulty level) and I privately theorize that these versions are the intended versions—many of them are much tougher than the versions of them which inhabit the first playthrough.
There are a few brilliant fights in the mix—Abyss Watchers and Pontiff Sulyvahn—and there are some stinkers. For me, Yhorm the Giant is a terrible fight because it’s such a gimmick, and the Nameless King is a badly constructed encounter as the camera simply does not support neither the dynamic nature nor the scale of the battle.
Since I’ve already written a column on the narrative, refer to that for more information. In short: it’s good, and helps with the immersion of the game itself.
So, all this slides into replayability, and therefore value. Obviously, since your first character is going to get ganked a lot, many will immediately find that they want to try again with some idea of what’s ahead—or, at least, I did.
Quite aside from that, though, as you explore the game you’re going to notice you missed some things. NPC plotlines, dialogues, items, hidden areas, hidden bosses and anything else you can name—you’ll miss them. I did, and I was looking as hard as I know how. This is a function of From Software’s classic use of indirect and subtle storytelling; if you miss something, you’re never getting it back.
This is frustrating as much as it makes the game’s value a little extreme in terms of replayability. I would use the word “dense” to describe the content, and it comes with a lot of binary choices; picking one will often null the other choice, which is about as specific as I’m going to get without working to spoil things for you.
To conclude, Dark Souls III packs a difficulty that should keep you coming back; it’s a fine mix between hard-to-figure traps, ganks, practiced execution and sheer luck.
It’s extremely well-executed in almost every phase (with the noted exception of player-versus-player combat, something I may get into with subsequent posts) and is sure to lure you back into a decaying, homicidal world time and time again.