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Dark Souls III

Score: 90%
ESRB: Mature
Publisher: BANDAI NAMCO Games America, Inc.
Developer: FromSoftware
Media: Blu-ray/1
Players: 1; 2 - 6 (Online)
Genre: RPG/ Action/ Online

Graphics & Sound:

FromSoftware's Dark Souls series lives by an all-or-nothing philosophy, but it's hard to say the same about its player base. Frankly, I don't think I've ever played a series that I've both loved and hated to this extent. On one hand, it's always thrilled with its macabre worlds, weighty combat, and risk/reward dynamics. On the other, it is an often cruel teacher whose primary implement of education is the purest virtual form of negative reinforcement, and it often hides its best parts behind gameplay systems that are obtuse for the sake of being obtuse. Dark Souls III knows exactly what its players want, and it delivers. It is not the revelation that its key progenitor was, nor is it really an improvement. It is simply another installment. But of course, that's not a bad thing at all.

Dark Souls III plays it comparatively safe when it comes to its visuals. It doesn't mark a massive leap in technical prowess or artistic vision. However, the series is known for running stable (with the exception of the original game on 360 -- hello Blighttown), and it's most certainly known for its uncanny ability to give primal fears a physical form. Lothric is as desolate as Lordran, Drangleic, and Yharnam, and it wouldn't be a Dark Souls game if it was not. The horrors you'll face in Dark Souls III present themselves as a pastiche of both the ruined world and the corrupted denizens half-living their unwholesome half-lives therein. Again, we've seen all of this before, but FromSoftware has had it down to a science for more than half a decade at this point.

The same holds true for sound design. Dark Souls III's soundtrack is laden with sorrow and despair, much like the world it presents. However, spend more than a few seconds in the title screen alone, and you'll get a taste of how epic its gothic notes can aspire to be. Of course, most of the soundtrack's high points surface during the game's many boss battles, but it's always effective, even when it remains completely out of the way. Dark Souls games have always had that hollow, dreadful ambience, and to leave it behind would be a grave mistake. A grave mistake that FromSoftware did not make. Topping off the game's macabre aural tendencies is the voice acting, which again is rife with melodramatic bombast, strange inflections, and a cadence that occasionally sounds just plain inhuman. It's mighty unsettling stuff. And I'm talking about the precious few NPCs who actually don't want to kill you!


You are the Ashen One, an individual prophesied to be the lone failsafe against a cataclysmic endwar between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. But you cannot simply stand about and wait for battle lines to be drawn: you must prevent this before it has a chance to properly begin. And to do that, you must venture forth into the hellscape of Lothric, seek out the Lords of Cinder, and quench their lives.

Dark Souls III continues the series' dubious tradition of simply dropping your character into the designated beginning area and hoping you'll put the story together yourself. I've been with the series since Demon's Souls, and I still think this method of storytelling is rubbish. The world is fascinating to look at, and it inflames your imagination with ideas of exactly what went down here. Dark Souls III doesn't do very much to sate this curiosity. But hey, this is a game aimed at a very specific audience, and that audience no doubt loves that approach.

A substantial number of individuals in the Dark Souls fanbase consider the original (that is, the sequel to Demon's Souls) a perfect game. With Bloodborne being the game that allowed FromSoftware to branch out and experiment, the development team was free to deliver exactly the kind of experience that the fans wanted. While Lothric's level design isn't quite as exquisitely connected as Dark Souls' Lordran, it's a definite step up from Dark Souls II's comparatively linear Drangleic. There's no denying the thrill of exploration, however. Lordric is teeming with secrets, and you'll have to work hard to not only uncover them, but to simply reach them.


There may come a day when FromSoftware decides to add an option to take the multitude of razor-sharp edges off of its baby. I don't think it will happen, and Dark Souls III doesn't give me any reason to question that prediction. If the unforgiving, relentless difficulty level of Souls games past has driven you away from the series, this one will not change your mind. It's the equivalent of a brutal teacher who says nothing and immerses you in the subject matter instead of talking about it; and every time you make a mistake, no matter how tiny or seemingly insignificant it is, a brass-knuckled haymaker smashes into your temple.

Immersion is the perfect tool for learning a foreign language; the rules are crystal clear as you make progress. The question of whether or not it's a successful game design philosophy has pickled me for years, however. There are games in which minimal direction is ideal, but I've also found that the degree of success is directly proportionate to how simple the game is. And, well, Dark Souls III is not a simple game at all.

Dark Souls III is death. Death is Dark Souls III. Your failures will outweigh your victories, and several of them will be bitter and infuriating. But the game doesn't cheat. It stacks the odds heavily against you, but it rewards you just as heavily when you finally succeed. Enemies are, per capita, faster and more aggressive than the series has ever seen, and you need to be on your game if you want to make any progress at all, let alone finish the thing.

Game Mechanics:

If you've stuck with the Souls series since its 2009 inception or even since its progenitor series King's Field, you know what to expect. Bonfires, Estus flasks, unguided exploration. Dark Souls III has all of that, not to mention the genre-defining combat system that embodies risk vs. reward. Character creation, classes, loot drops, of course. This is an iterative experience rather than the innovative breakthrough that Demon's Souls was.

Health, magic, stamina. These essential pools of physical resources must be managed every step of the way, lest you find yourself face to face with those familiar two words in that familiar red font: "YOU DIED" and several thousand souls poorer. As always, stamina governs every bit of exertion that extends past a leisurely jog. Losing it leaves you unable to defend yourself or take evasive action. Health and magic speak for themselves, though perhaps not clearly in the context of this frequently mysterious series.

One thing that has changed is the manner in which you can regain health and magic. Estus flasks return, but if you're dabbling in sorcery (and you'll want to), you'll find yourself making use of the new Ashen Estus Flask. You can only carry a set number of flasks (regular and Ashen) at a time, so you'll need to visit Andre the Blacksmith at the Firelink Shrine and carefully divvy up those resources.

With the enemies being faster and more aggressive this time around, it makes sense that you should have some sort of boon, right? Well, maybe not to the most hardcore of us, but for the rest of us, Dark Souls III introduces Focus Points and Weapon Skills. Focus Points are essential to casting spells, but they also allow you to unleash a special ability with whatever weapon you're carrying.

Dark Souls III's core adventure is lengthy and deliberate, even more so when you take into account the cooperative play and the player-versus-player encounters that take the franchise's signature intensity and crank it up well past its threshold. All the systems that you've loved (and perhaps hated) are still here in roughly the same form.

"It's not for everyone." Truer words were never spoken about the Souls series, and it most certainly applies to Dark Souls III. It's a well-made game full of exciting combat, tense exploration, and epic boss battles (save a few duds); but if you don't fit into this very particular niche of gamers, there's a fair chance you'll hate it. But if you do, by all means, check it out.

Oh, and one final thing: Dark Souls III comes with a free downloadable copy of Dark Souls, which is now backwards compatible on Xbox One. And that's just awesome.

-FenixDown, GameVortex Communications
AKA Jon Carlos

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