Fans rejoiced at the announcement that Hidetaka Miyazaki, long running series director, would be returning for Dark Souls III after having taken a break from the series to work on Bloodborne, a spin-off with a violent, lovecraftian vibe. Dark Souls II (directed by Yui Tanimura) divided fans due to Miyazaki's departure, with some denouncing the game over poor level design and lackluster bosses. Dark Souls III promised a return to form, but, unfortunately, From Software have missed the mark in a few areas and a number of issues, both big and small, hold the game back from greatness.
The game opens with you awakening from a shallow grave, oblivious to the perils ahead. A trip down the road (and a battle with a monstrous, slumbering knight) brings you to familiar old Firelink Shrine, though it's changed quite a bit since you were last here, and it's now home to a few new inhabitants. Most of them are just here to sell various items and speak cryptic exposition, as the game is very short on character quests and interactions. As a result, lot of the dialogue doesn't really go anywhere. It's here that you're instructed about your objective to slay the Lords of Cinder, and return their ashes to their respective thrones at the shrine. Shortly afterwards, you're whisked away to the first area, the High Wall of Lothric, to begin your mission.
Unfortunately, the adventuring aspect doesn't fare much better than the dialogue, as a large portion of the game is spent fighting the same handful of zombies and knights (with the occasional zombie knight) while trudging through wearisome and linear environments. The game world as a whole suffers from an ugly lack of variation, both gameplay wise, and visually – most of the screen is dominated by dreary shades of grey, brown, and mustard yellow throughout the majority of the game. The lack of variety is disappointing compared to the previous titles, which featured a broad spectrum of freaks, creeps, and bizarre locales. Most areas feel like retreads of zones from the prior installments, and there's little in the way of scenery and vistas that haven't been seen already.
In terms of combat, however, Dark Souls III is much sharper, featuring refined animation locks, some very tense boss fights, and dodging that actually works more than half the time (the second game's controversial Adaptibility stat, which modified invincibility frames while rolling, has been removed). Taking a note from Bloodborne, it's much faster paced than the prior games, with lightning-fast dodge rolls and special weapon abilities. There's a nice selection of armaments and gear, though playstyles are somewhat limited to brawling and swordfighting early in, as most of the more prominent spells, miracles, and pyromancies don't come in until later into the game.
In addition, there's also a new selection of covenants to join, and similar to Bloodborne, they can be swapped out like equipment once unlocked. The covenants aren't without their quirks either, though. Curiously, the sin system and Blue Eye Orbs appear to be gone completely, and the two blue covenants (Blue Sentinels and Blade of the Darkmoon) seem to be functionally identical to each other (automatically being summoned to protect Way of Blue members). On a brighter note, there is the new delightfully mad Mound Makers, who are summoned as purple phantoms. These phantoms have friendly fire active at all times, and achieve victory by either killing another player or helping them to fell a boss. They can also be summoned by anybody in a match – even tresspassing invaders. Last but not least, while there's not much in the way of red covenants, the fan favourite Full Red Eye Orb has finally made its return, completely uncracked and undamaged. Regrettably, however, I wasn't able to try out the multiplayer myself, as there was little to no activity on Steam's servers when I was playing.
The boss design is equally uneven. There's a couple of truly standout fights such as Oceiros and Aldrich (both of which feature interesting mechanics and are all-round fun to fight), but then others, such as the Curse-Rotted Greatwood (who is simply too big for his own good) and the Ancient Wyvern (a puzzle fight almost on the level of the infamous Bed of Chaos from the first game), possibly rank among some of the worst in the series with just how tedious they are, due to a mixture of irritating mechanics and needlessly large amounts of health.
Other bosses seem to have gotten the short end of the stick in terms of health, as some feature almost laughably small health pools. Stranger yet, many of them also have large blind spots in melee range, making a lot of their attacks very easy to evade by simply dodging further into them.
Still, despite the inconsistent gameplay of these titans, the series' trademark visual design holds true, featuring twisted and terrifying designs throughout, as well as some dazzling graphical effects. They're backed up by a soundtrack equal parts glorious and haunting, featuring chilling choirs and booming organs.
The graphics themselves aren't too shabby either, featuring broad skyboxes and detailed architecture, with some lovely special effects for spells and magic. Pyromancy, in particular, sports brilliant particle effects, with embers and sparks tumbling off of fireballs and weapons. The atmosphere is hampered by flat lighting and a curious lack of shadows in some areas, however. Places such as the Road of Sacrifices and Crucifixion Woods look a little washed out.
The optimization seems to swing both ways. I played through the game at max settings on the PC version using a Nvidia GTX 970, Intel i5 4590 at 3.30 GHZ, and 8GB of DDR3 RAM. The frame rate held a cool 60 throughout the majority of the game, but sunk down to 30 in areas such as Farron's Keep and Lothric Castle. Curiously, no amount of fiddling with the graphics settings improved the frame rate in these areas. I also experienced a few crashes early in, as the game was eating up very large amounts of memory, possibly a quirk of the transition to the Bloodborne engine. I managed to remedy this by setting up a new paging file to give the game some more memory to use.
Despite the issues with the game, it's far from outright bad – it's still Dark Souls, after all, and it's just as satisfying to play as the prior games in the series. What's good here is good, but it could have been so much better, due to the inconsistent game design and underwhelming world.