I'll be straight with you - it's hard to review Dark Souls III fairly, because it simply isn't like any other AAA series out there right now.
We generally believe that when there are moments in a game with frustrating roadblocks, that it's a knock on the game. Part of what makes the Dark Souls series special is that it demands a lot of its players to play the game at even a basic level. That's something few AAA games do today as the focus shifts toward mass-market accessibility.
Knowing this, every frustrating moment I had in the game was met with a brief outburst towards the game followed by introspection. Dark Souls is one of the only game franchises that makes you question whether the problem is the game or the player. It isn't designed to be friendly or accessible... so when it turns out to be inaccessible in parts, can you really call it a negative?
We'll get into this later.
Now, I'm a bit of a Souls veteran, and by that I mean I've completed each game in the series once (Demon's Souls twice), and that's it - I'm hardly a master of the series, but I know my way around a roll cancel. So that's the background information I feel it necessary to point out before we really get into the meat of this: I know how to play.
Here's my end-game build.
[caption id="attachment_82198" align="alignnone" width="800"] Full melee/DEX build. I was one-handing the Washing Pole (katana) with the Shield of Want on the left hand. Also used a bit of archery.[/caption]
If you need to know everything about Dark Souls III in one sentence, it's this: It's the third Dark Souls game. If you played the first two, that actually tells you a lot. If you're looking for a major departure from the series formula, it's not here.
In fact, the only major gameplay change from the previous Souls games is the excellent Skill system, which gives every weapon a sort of "alt-fire" mode. At the cost of some FP (Focus Points - basically a magic bar), you can use a weapon-specific skill. Curved swords have a clear-out spinning attack, katanas give you an iaido slash and parry, and a number of boss weapons have unique skills. One of the game's bosses can only be killed with the focus attack on the weapon found in that very room.
I found the skill attacks very interesting to play with (if not always practical), but the flow of play is still largely unchanged: it's all about patience and observation. If you want to make any progress in the game, you'll spend at least twice as much time defending yourself as you spend attacking - especially in boss fights. That's a jarring transition for anyone coming from From Software's speed and aggression-focused previous entry, Bloodborne.
That gameplay - which punishes players for pushing ahead without the utmost caution and observation - is a Souls staple, and I found myself impressed with the way they were about to play on experienced players' expectations.
See, the early Souls games taught players to check your blind spots - especially walking through a doorway or down a corridor. Casually strolling through a doorway without checking to see if someone's hiding around the corner is a good way to get back-stabbed, surrounded, and killed in a few seconds.
So now, any experienced Souls player knows to check around every corner and occasionally peek in to lure out potential traps. From Software isn't stupid, they know you're doing that, so in Dark Souls III they start doubling up the traps. The trap you're looking for, the sword-wielding skeleton around the corner? That guy is totally there. And as soon as you kill him, you'll drop your guard, letting the drop-attacking one clinging to the ceiling fall right on top of you.
There's a great example of this where I got caught expecting two different traps: either an extra enemy coming out of the door in front of me, or some enemies popping up from behind me while I was running down a staircase. I didn't see anyone in front of me, so I turned my shield around to defend against potential back attacks, and then this happened.
No matter how prepared you think you are, Dark Souls III still manages to get the drop on you, and that's thanks in large part to some phenomenal level design (par for the series).
The logical next question is, "Is this one as hard as the first Dark Souls?" The short answer is, no it isn't. The longer answer is, I'm not sure any of the Souls games will ever be as difficult as original (for the purposes of this review, I'm considering Dark Souls to be the original, not Demon's Souls - I know this is debatable) for series veterans, because the players themselves have learned and improved.
Part of the reason the original is so difficult is because everybody was struggling to get their bearings together. Now we have experienced veterans of the series who have already learned how to play - roll, block, roll, attack, circle strafe, backstab, roll. Character builds are a science, and bosses can be reduced to rhythm games.
The thing Dark Souls 3 does do is find ways to iterate on its difficulty curve without moving into "cheap death" territory. "Hard but fair" is the Souls series' calling card, and there's only so much more they can do before it starts getting unfair. With the exception of a certain common enemy that saps your max HP just by looking at you, I'd argue that the game maintains "hard but fair" status.
Still, the experience of going into the game completely fresh and floundering your way through it until you learn what the game expects of you is gone, and it will never come back once you've played your first.
This is especially true if you try co-op play. Co-op is the closest Dark Souls 3 has to an easy mode, and honestly, I don't know if I'd recommend it. I decided to try summoning some other players to help with a boss or two, and the ensuing fights were so anticlimactic, I honestly felt bad about it. I felt like I had missed out on the experience of getting through it myself.
The argument for people using an "easy mode" in games is, of course, that they want to see the game and its story. There's no doubt that the visual spectacle here is the highest it's ever been, and it's worth seeing whether you want to subject yourself to the challenge or not. One particular boss fight had me so stunned at its opening, I never saw the actual boss and ate a bunch of damage.
Without question, the visuals are phenomenal, and the music is also top-notch (just listen to the music in this fight).
The enemy designs are also amazing, ranging from impressively grand to slightly creepy to stomach-twistingly grotesque. There are zombies that grow maggot-tumors from their stomachs, which then attack you... and if they hit you, even your shield, you become covered in maggots, which begin to eat away at your flesh.
Those guys are the worst.
Dark Souls II took a lot of criticism for boss designs that mostly centered around the concept "huge armored guy with huge weapon." I am happy to report that Dark Souls III has some of the most unique boss designs in the series - and some especially unique boss mechanics as well. They even subvert the trope a little in the first boss fight, with a guy who starts out being a standard armored guy with a big weapon, and then halfway through sprouts a huge demonic growth.
So again, everything about the design, visually, is impressive. But the story?
Like everything else in the series, it takes a while to pick up. There is no overt attempt to feed you the game's story, and since I'm not a huge Souls lore buff, I freely admit I finished the game having basically no idea what had just happened. And I'm okay with that.
I know the story is there for those who dig into the lore and the item descriptions, but for those who don't, there is so much fantasy babble and vagueness surrounding the writing, it can be very hard to penetrate without putting time into it. Even then, I'm not sure if it's entirely worth it.
So in short, this isn't a game you play for the story. It's a game you play for the challenge, the experience, and the sense of accomplishment. And using co-op sort of tempers that, so while it's a fine option for some (especially if you want to play with friends), I wouldn't recommend using it too much - even in the most frustrating of moments.
One thing I really struggled with at about the 60-70 percent mark (that co-op probably wouldn't have helped with) was direction. It seems every other room in the game has a branching path, so when I got to a certain point in the game, I had reached the end of every path I thought I had found, and had no idea where to go next.
Now, this is okay in small doses - exploration is a key part of the game as well - but had happened was I missed an entire part of the game because it was at the far end of a large open area (Crucifixion Woods) and through a fort that looked like a dead end.
If, at this point, an NPC at Firelink Shrine had even dropped a hint about looking around in that general area, it would have been fine. I didn't need a waypoint marker, I just wanted to know which of the dozens of bonfires I'd lit I should explore around to progress the game. If there was a mechanic to tell me that, I wasn't aware of it.
But again, is that a negative? The game isn't holding my hand and telling me where to go, should I mark it down for that or just chalk it up to tough love?
This is why Dark Souls III is an interesting game to critique: it is bulletproof from a lot of criticism because of the "git gud" aspect of the game and its fandom. Even I'm not sure whether its shortcomings are a result of its design or my play - few other games tie player skill and game quality so closely together (Platinum Games IPs, perhaps).
But at the same time, the second and third iterations of the series are victims to what a great experience the first one was. Dark Souls III outdoes Dark Souls II in nearly every way, but it still doesn't feel as magical as the first. The most memorable moments in the game are the ones that call back to people or locations from the first Dark Souls, the details of which I won't mention because of spoilers.
But still, the bottom line is, Dark Souls III is a fun game. Like it's predecessors, it demands a lot of the player, but provides fun and fair gameplay for those who put in the time. Its presentation - story aside - are at their highest levels yet, and the sheer spectacle of some of the locations is worth staring out at for a long time.
Your experience with this game will probably reflect your expectations of it going in. If you wanted Dark Souls III, you got exactly what you wanted - a third version of a familiar game. If you wanted something that would use the power of next gen consoles to push the series and the action genre to new heights... well, you got Dark Souls III.
You could do a lot worse than that.
Same old Dark Souls gameplay
Skill system adds a fun new layer to combat
Best music in the series
Hard-but-fair is in full effect - few deaths felt "cheap"
Fantastic monster/boss designs
Level design cleverly tricks series veterans at times
Same old Dark Souls gameplay (which is fine if you weren't looking for iteration)
Navigation can be frustrating at certain points
Story is opaque unless you become a PhD in Dark Souls lore
I've been a gamer since my grandfather got me into Tetris at age 4. Now I play a little of everything, but I champion the truly unique and unusual. Unsurprisingly, I also really like Japan. On that note, you should all play Valkyria Chronicles.