Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Dark Souls III - Review

Developer: FromSoftware
Publisher: Bandai Namco Entertainment
Platforms: PC, PS4 (version played), Xbox One

From the opening title screen of Dark Souls III this is a game that makes it abundantly clear that it's the last in a series. The (incredible) booming orchestral track by Yuka Kitamura is a stark contrast to the gentle melody that's played at the beginning of the previous games.

And despite having nary a true cut-scene, the game manages to make itself feel like the last of its kind, a culmination of the entire series of 'Souls games dating back to 2009.

For veterans of the series up until this point, you're in familiar territory. After an opening cinematic detailing the game's major bosses, your character is dredged up from a coffin and left to begin their epic quest.

In terms of minute to minute gameplay, things remain generally the same. The somewhat wayward design choices from the previous instalment have been jettisoned; gone are the horrible life gems and other non-Estus healing items that otherwise spoiled the simple design of the original Dark Souls. Likewise, the abstract, and poorly explained adaptibility stat has been completely removed, meaning all characters now have the same quality of roll that's only altered by equipment load.

By far the biggest alteration this time is the change to the magic system. Rather than opt for the charges that the other two Dark Souls games have used, Dark Souls III goes further back, bringing back the magic bar familiar to Demon's Souls players and meshing it with the Estus system.

Magic has always been a somewhat tricky element for the series to balance. Long range magic attacks have typically been able to abuse enemies' artificial intelligence and pathfinding abilities, chipping away at them from afar so that you rarely have to engage in close combat. It's a cowardly way to play perhaps, but it's arguably testament to the series' incredible depth that so many different build options are genuinely viable.

With Dark Souls III, FromSoftware attempt to rectify this imbalance with the adjustments to the magic system. Characters need to invest more heavily into their magic bar to regularly rely on their spell-casting (it's all governed by the Attunement stat) and restoring your MP relies on taking a swig from an Ashen Estus flask.

The Ashen Estus is such an ingenious and simple addition that it's baffling that it wasn't introduced sooner. Simply put, characters have a number of Estus Flasks that can be divvied up between regular Estus to heal you, and Ashen Estus for restoring MP. It creates a unique level of strategic decision making as a spell-caster, weighing up how much of each that you require. Each extra Ashen Estus means one less healing charge you'll have access to, adding an interesting risk versus reward mechanic.

Non-magic fighters aren't left out in the cold either. The new weapon arts that each weapon possesses also drain your magic bar, meaning that some characters that never wield a catalyst or talisman will still find themselves dropping a few points into Attunement.

It all makes for a game that seems keen to broaden even further the variety of builds available for both the core game and player-versus-player encounters. Each weapon art can vary from regular swords having a shield breaking attack, through to axes that typically grant a temporary attack buff.

The core combat has been tweaked to gently encourage these new strategies. Enemies on the whole are simultaneously far more aggressive and much more defensive than in previous instalments. Knights will typically hold up their guard and wait for you to make the first move, or throw out a canny sidewards shield-bash to stop players from simply kiting around for a back-stab.
Likewise, Bloodborne's influence can be felt in many of the larger monsters, with lunging attacks, aggressive attack strings and even grabs to stop players from remaining completely passive.

The bosses have undergone a similar transformation. Dark Souls II suffered from far too many “big dude with hand weapon” types, devolving many encounters into simply utilizing the same rote strategy. Dark Souls III upends this with more variety, from boss spell-casters, through to several that play out more like puzzles. If there's one niggle it's that the Bloodborne “every boss is essentially a dog” problem hasn't quite been fixed, many of the later encounters feel remarkably similar to one another, with several being a large four-legged enemy wielding a hand weapon or two and armed with a similar move set.

The guiding principle of many of the combat encounters seems to be to reduce the importance of shields as much as possible, again,  reducing the reliance on passive and reactive play. During many boss encounters I found myself simply lugging the hunk of metal onto my characters back and taking them on whilst two-handing my weapon.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment from Dark Souls III is the shocking level of familiarity. Castle level with dragon, swamp, skeleton crypt, prison. Many of the game's locations have been seen and its hard to shake the sense that you've played whole thing before, albeit with a few design tweaks.

That's not altogether surprising, this is the fifth instalment in the series in the space of around seven years and you can't help but get the sense that the creative potential of the series is running dry. It's perhaps a little churlish to complain, after all it's still very good, but there's no denying that this is a game that sometimes struggles to come up with new ideas and instead dregs up the same concepts all over again.

Familiarity is almost anathema to the whole theme of Dark Souls, a series that at its heart is about making the player both immersed and oppressed in its atmosphere. So when the game reintroduces NPCs and environments that we've seen before, albeit slightly differently, there's a level of disappointment. It gets worse when the game drops little fan service moments into the game, almost banking on series nostalgia to carry it somewhat. That was perhaps understandable for Dark Souls II which lacked Miyazaki's direction, but here it seems completely unnecessary.

It's a game that constantly feels as if its building up to catch you unawares but that moment never comes.

Exploration is much more linear this time around, too. Gone is the Metroidvania of Dark Souls or the wheel-and-spoke level design of Demon's Souls. In its place is a game that has you going from point A to point B with a number of diversions and optional areas. Each individual zone has plenty to explore and loops around on itself, but the game world as a whole lacks the intricate structure that earlier instalments did.

Dark Souls III is a fascinating game and a suitable conclusion to the series. Its depth is still absurd and its core gameplay loop is so incredibly fun and well designed that it'll still likely be one of the best releases of the year. Yet, you can't help escape the sense that this is a series that's buckling under the weight of its own success. Rather than create something new, it doubles down on what worked last time, invoking fan service and “Praise the Sun!” memes to hide the cracks in its armour.

It's a safe sequel in other words, which is not something you'd expect from a 'Souls title. It's great in its own right, certainly, but it's hard to shake a slight air of disappointment. All fires eventually fade, that's what this series has taught us; better for it to end on a relative high note than be butchered by more unnecessary sequels.


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