Dark Souls 3 is out. Well, it’s out in Japan. We’ve had review code for a few days now, but Bandai Namco has asked that we don’t release our review of the international version until April 4th. In the meantime, we have permission to talk about the earlier parts of the game.
Within 15 hours of playing Dark Souls 3, I’ve encountered horrible creatures and tragic characters. I’ve wandered knee-deep through a noxious swamp and stood on a high tower with a complete panoramic view of snow-capped mountains. I’ve thrown both body and brain at challenging, mythic bosses to eventually emerge the victor, my heart playing an adrenal arpeggio long after the action ends. I’ve studied statues, cadavers, carvings, animations and their relations to one another the same way I close read text in a novel—not just because they look great, but because every art asset is imbued with purpose. Dark Souls 3 is on track to be the most intriguing, diverse Souls game so far. It’s a tight, labyrinthine fantasy dreamscape packed with secrets and subtle storytelling, and imbued with an overbearing sense of slow decay.
I’m playing Dark Souls 3 on a GTX 960 system and a GTX 980 Ti system, and it runs pretty well on both. The 960 hangs out between 30 and 60 frames per second with maxed settings at 1920×1080, while the 980 Ti maintains 60 without issue at 2560×1440. Options are fairly limited (see them here), and the frames per second are capped at 60, but otherwise it’s a functional port. Not a PC player’s dream, by any means, but Dark Souls 3 runs and looks better than any other in the series at release.
To keep the famously vague lore of Dark Souls succinct: in Dark Souls 3, the age of darkness is approaching and the Lords of Cinder awake to ‘link the fire’, or to basically reboot the world. Problem is, this kills the Lords, and most of them bail out of selfishness. It’s up to your hero to seek them out, kill them anyway, and return their souls. It’s some straight up mythopoetic Gene Wolfe fantasy storytelling: hard to understand, and better for it. Through defeating enemies, gathering souls, leveling up, and traversing the kingdom of Lothric, I have a hazy idea of what’s going on, mostly absorbed through recurring imagery and study of the environment. It’s like trying to recall a dream.
On my adventure, paths regularly lead to dead end cliffsides just to show off a painterly vista. Admiration isn’t their only purpose—if I saw an area in the distance, chances are I just came from there, or was headed there soon enough. Like the first, Dark Souls 3 has a contiguous map with areas that connect in surprising, logical ways. It’s not an open world game, but the cohesive design gives the world a real sense of space. The same way GTA 5 embodies Los Angeles, Dark Souls 3 succeeds in establishing itself as a lived-in dilapidated nightmare-fantasy kingdom.
It takes a bit to do so, however. Maybe I missed some paths, but the world doesn’t seem to immediately branch out in the same way the previous games did, instead opting for a slow unraveling of routes to explore. The result feels more linear and a tad less threatening from the get-go. That said, I passed by plenty of locked doors I couldn’t open, which suggests there’s still more to see in areas I already passed through. It’s all much more connected than Dark Souls 2, I just hope to see the dense level design pushed even further.
A fighting chance
Not limited by the Xbox 360 and PS3’s hardware requirements, the extra memory means Dark Souls 3 can have more enemies on screen at once. Instead of a few undead soldiers, I regularly ran into, for example, 10 armed undead villagers, a corpse dog or two, and a beefy spellcaster. With a lot to deal with at once, and very early on, I noticed myself prioritizing enemies, studying the arena, and dipping into my deep arsenal more often than normal. In this instance, I could shoot a gunpowder barrel with my pyro’s fireball, skirt the edges of the arena to take out the smaller enemies, and then focus exclusively on the spellcaster. Combat moves at a quicker clip overall to accommodate the more chaotic scenarios. You’re still committing to each swing and dodge roll, and shields haven’t lost their importance, but with enemies rushing from every side, quicker attacks are an exciting, necessary addition.
I’ve only faced a handful of bosses so far, but they’ve each played fundamentally differently. From a massive rotting ent who sprouts a wraithlike fungal arm from its chest, to a shrouded magician that clones itself and sends exploding crystalline urchins your way at an alarming pace, each boss required an entirely different strategy to defeat. They take equal amounts patience, observation, and skill to defeat, but like the whole of Dark Souls, they’re far from impossible. Except for the camera. It always wins.
Classic problems make a return in Dark Souls 3. The camera can get caught on walls or obscured by enemies, leading to an unfair death on occasion. Menus and inventory management don’t have the most logical hierarchy or layout, which can make comparing items or equipping consumables a clumsy puzzle. Dark Souls 3’s aesthetic and mechanics also feel super familiar. I’ve yet to experience the same outright wonder I did with the first game, but I also tried real ramen for the first time last week. Just because I’ve checked it off the bucket list, doesn’t mean I won’t happily eat it until I burst. And leeches spill out. Dark Souls.
As appetizing as Dark Souls 3 has been so far, there’s still a lot to see. I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of weapon upgrades, spellcasting, or sorcery. There are also ton of items and weapons that I’ve yet to find a real use for, and while the variety is always welcome in a Souls game, whether or not they’re unique or lend themselves to playstyle variety remains a mystery. And with a handful of people online before release, I haven’t been able to touch online play. I don’t know how far I’ve come or how much is left to go, so until I do, it’s back into the dark.
We’ll let you know how it all comes together in our final review on April 4th.