Bandai Namco have been on a roll with their music choices in trailers recently. Last year, we were treated to Ben Howard’s “Oats in the Water” in the run up to The Witcher 3, and with Dark Souls III, we were treated to a haunting cover of Cyndy Lauper’s “True Colors” in the Shadows Ahead trailer.

As I watched the trailer and listened to the lyrics, I was suddenly taken aback with how relevant it all was to the whole endeavour. Though many would say that Dark Souls is all about death and dying, anyone who has played through the series will know that From Software’s particular brand of masochism is more about perseverance against overwhelming odds. The “get good” mentality of the fanbase presents the kind of sheer bloody-mindedness of being presented with a brick wall to bar your path and punching your way through rather than even thinking about turning back. After thirty hours of fighting through the decaying ruins, squalid bogs and foreboding catacombs of Lothric, my hands are good and bloody, and I’m grinning from ear to ear.

To the casual observer, every Souls game (including Bloodborne) is basically the same. However, to the initiated, each has its own set of eccentricities and changes that are subtle enough not to be readily apparent at first (or even second) glance. I’m still not entirely sure of all the tweaks that Dark Souls III makes, being the next step on a steady evolution of the mechanics that From Software have been polishing slowly since King’s Field.

The most obvious changes you’ll find are that life gems and grass has been given the boot, while the ability to stick your own boot in has returned. Estus is much more plentiful (and there’s a new flask specifically for magic). Knights are back to Demon’s Souls levels of bastardry. The combat is quicker, and covenants are now tied to equipable items that work in a similar way to Bloodborne runes (so, in other words they’re a lot more straightforward and make a lot more sense).

Fast travel has been improved, with a tabbed breakdown of each area’s bonfires and pictures of the area so you know exactly where you’re going. It also automatically selects your last traveled-to location every time you open up the menu, making trips to and from Fire Link Shrine just that little bit faster. The various merchants and characters needed to level up are all placed in convenient fast-to-reach areas, making the act of leveling and reinforcing gear a lot faster than Dark Souls II, which forced you to wander around an entire town to do something that should take seconds.

The biggest new addition to Dark Souls III is the “arts” system, which adds an extra magical element or attack to certain weapons after you’ve put them in two handed mode by pressing L2. These include things like buffs to attack strength with axes and an additional stance for swords. Though they do make each type of weapon feel a little more unique and give you a few more options in combat, I didn’t find myself using them half as much as I would the transformations in Bloodborne. They just didn’t have all that much of an impact on battles, especially as the game progressed and I found myself relying more on the fundamental roll, stab, run away and turtling methods that have served me well throughout the course of the series.

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On the whole, the fights are just as absolutely fantastic as you’d expect – the usual tooth-and-nail combat you’re used to from the series but far more refined. The bosses are still big and brutal but have learned a few tricks from Bloodborne, occasionally transforming at the mid-way mark and generally increasing in aggressiveness and sheer unpredictability as the battle intensifies. To counter this, you are given far more strategic options to deal with each threat, with the breadth of magical abilities in particular meaning that players that favor magical characters, like myself, will find themselves with all manner of new tricks up their sleeves. With the right build, even archery becomes a viable combat strategy for more than just picking off the occasional sniper. Put simply, though the old tactics still work for the best part, there is far more room for experimentation, and each class feels more distinct and varied as a result.

Lothric is absolutely beautiful with the narrative themes of fire and ashes tying together the visuals and the underlying narrative more than ever before. When the player becomes enkindled, they pulse with heat and the edges of their armor literally start to fray with wisps of ash swirling around them. It never fails to make you feel more than a little badass.

Similarly, the design of the numerous enemy models, from the mightiest boss monsters down to the lowliest grunts, are all superb. It’s clear that From Software have taken on board the criticisms leveled at Dark Souls II for over-reliance on armoured enemies, and they’ve created a veritable menagerie of freakish monstrosities for you to battle against. From zombie priests to lumbering giants to impish scarecrows that leap from the rafters. Yes, even soulless, hard-as-nails knights make a return as well.

The environments are absolutely beautiful, and the game has some simply breathtaking vistas. The fact that you know that sooner or later you’ll be right in the heart of that far-flung village or dark, dense woodland far below makes them feel all the more special. However, despite looking beautiful, there are few surprises in where you’ll actually travel. Sure, we’re not getting to Nintendo platform game levels of repetition, but the landscape is mostly comprised of the usual castles, villages, swamps and temples seen in previous entries. It’s not that they’re not well constructed or lacking in their own sense of decaying beauty, it’s just that it never really felt like I was stepping into the unknown.

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That being said, the game is littered with numerous call-backs to previous entries in the series and barely an area goes by where you won’t find a little piece of lore or minor detail that won’t make you think, “Hey, I remember that!” There’s even a few cheeky nods to Demon’s Souls included too.

Dark Souls III feels more linear in its progression, though each area presented has the usual sense of verticality and finding the usual lifts and shortcuts is as satisfying as it ever was. I found myself, at times, knowing that I only had one boss I could beat in order to progress, and there was simply no other options available to me, which was rather annoying.

The PC is probably the way to go (if you have the means), mostly due to the ability to play at 60fps, which really ought to be the standard for games that require frame-perfect dodges and attacks to ensure your survival. Meanwhile, you’ll get 30 frames (at best) on consoles, with the PS4 having the general edge performance-wise over the Xbox One. Then again, both see frequent hitches with the frame rate, crashing down below 20 when there’s a lot going on. It’s not game-breaking by any stretch of the imagination, but worth noting all the same as more than a few untimely deaths will be blamed on it.

The best thing I can say about Dark Souls III is that despite feeling instantly familiar in many ways, it certainly hasn’t lost any of its innate charm. Just when you think you have a handle on things, it’ll throw a curve ball that never fails to surprise and keep you pushing ever forwards – to the next boss fight, the next bonfire, eventually to that final showdown in the Kiln of the First Light and (hopefully) victory.

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Each new boss encounter has a sense of escalation with each boss being bigger and angrier than the last and though there are a few cheeky remixes (which befit the series’ narrative of death and rebirth), on the whole most feel pretty fresh, new, and suitably ingenious. I don’t want to spoil it, but Dark Souls III is home to some of the best encounters in the entire series, and ones that I’m sure will be discussed for years to come.

If Dark Souls III really is going to be the final game in the series, then it certainly is going out on a glorious high, a greatest hits compilation of ideas and systems with plenty of interesting new twists thrown in to boot. If you’ve never played a game in the series before, you’ll find it more than a challenge. For fans of the previous installments, Dark Souls III represents the culmination of everything that came before it, a love letter to the fans that have stuck with the series through thick and thin despite the obvious abuse. Those fans will feel right at home. Fair enough, it’s a burnt-out husk that reeks of death and nightmare fuel but once the bonfire’s lit, it’s surprisingly cozy and we wouldn’t want it any other way.

Dark Souls III was reviewed on PS4 with a copy provided by the publisher.

Publisher: Bandai Namco | Developer: From Software | Genre: Action/RPG | Platforms: PC, PS4, Xbox One | PEGI/ESRB: M/16+  | Release Date: April 12, 2016 | Controls: Controller, Mouse/Keyboard


First Look at Dark Souls 3

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