Editor's Note: Now that Steve has had some time with the multiplayer side of Dark Souls 3's retail release, he's added a score and updated his thoughts on the game as a whole.
Dark Souls 3 is a greatest hits package, with all the good and bad that description suggests. It is both compulsively playable and utterly loathsome, a fascinating mix of beautiful combat and cheap boss fights. It is a game which will camp out in your head when you're not playing it but, by virtue of constant homage, is curiously not all that memorable. It's a megamix of Demon's Souls, Dark Souls, and Bloodborne which never really amounts to more than the sum of its parts. It is still better than most adventure games I've ever played.
Much is often made of how 'hard' Dark Souls games are, both by marketers and players alike, and while a lot of that is puffed-up aggrandisement, Souls games are 'harder' - not just in terms of pure difficulty, but also in signposting and communicating with its players - than the norm. Dark Souls 3, in its early to mid stages at least, is far easier than the games that came before it. Part of the reason for this more gentle introduction to Miyazaki and co's latest is that it feels much more linear than the original Dark Souls: there is less chance of, say, the player wandering off into a graveyard full of near-invincible skeletons right off the bat. It doesn't hold hands, but it also doesn't let the player get lost, neatly nudging them towards the nearest bonfire or 'safe' space.
As such it feels like there's much more forward momentum here, and far less grinding to get sufficiently leveled to carry on your adventure. It's a smart move for a series which would like to find a way to turn enormous hardcore appeal into enormous sales, but in the process Dark Souls 3 also loses something of the original game's absurdly well-realised sense of adventure.
Dark Souls used interconnected 3D space amazingly well: that sense of wonder when realising you could see Firelink Shrine from Blighttown, or unlocking a shortcut which brought you out somewhere you never expected, was a key part of its appeal: it felt like a tangible place rather than a set of streaming 'levels'. The player was cast as both combatant and cartographer, gradually making sense of their environment and how it all fits together while they battered all and sundry.
Dark Souls 3 doesn't really feel like that. There are moments when it does: traipsing down through Irithyll Dungeon into the Profaned Capital, seeing it all open up before you into a grand, decaying cavern with a sense of pure scale which other 'epic' games only dream of: those sorts of reveals will stay with you. But as a whole that sense of exploration and discovery is muted, in part because of the lack of complex connections between places (players can warp between bonfires from the off) and also in part because almost every area in the game is reminiscent of somewhere you've been or seen before.
This is to be expected in a second sequel which also pulls from another, spiritual successor, but Souls 3's environments are simply too familiar. Irithyll of the Boreal Valley will no doubt provoke wonder in new players, but series vets will probably only recall its similarity to Bloodborne's Cainhurst. Then there's the high walls of Lothric, the intense, skeleton-filled catacombs, the poisoned marshes: each a callback to glories past, each slightly less potent than before. Even enemy design is very similar, and asset reuse leads to more than a few deja vu moments. We've seen it all before: not quite at this fidelity, but definitely better realised.
Which is a disappointment, but in context - that being Dark Souls is one of the best games ever made - it's not too much of a problem. While the familiarity in environments may underwhelm slightly, the combat retains Dark Souls' strategic edge while also (by virtue of the Bloodborne influence) being faster, more accessible, and simply more fun. Increased mobility reduces the need to shield-and-poke, and groups of enemies can now be taken on in confidence thanks to an increase in roll and movement speed. One of Bloodborne's joys was dancing into a group of enemies, slicing them to pieces, and flitting out afterwards, and something approaching that can be found here. A shame, then, that fairly frequent (if not catastrophic) frame rate drops can hamper some battles.
Another new (old) addition is the FP gauge, which is essentially mana (as in Demon's Souls) and governs usage of both spells and weapon arts. The latter enables players to switch their weapon stance to use more powerful attacks, while also granting new abilities to other items in your inventory. Most of these changes are specialised: guard breaks etc, and for at least one boss fight weapon arts are absolutely crucial. But, as an STR/tank player, I can't say that I used them all that much, if at all, and it seems the FP system is actually more beneficial to conjuring classes. Given that using a lot of weapon arts means going two handed, those dependent on shields may find themselves never using it.
Something players will find themselves doing often, however, is cursing the game's bosses. Which is nothing new for the series, but here the gatekeepers are either quite underpowered or massively cheap. There are some arresting visual designs, particularly a boss which crawls from an abyss, and a smattering of fair and hard-fought encounters. But some bosses are toppled far too easily, while others rely on cheap one hit kill moves, clones, secondary health bars, and all sorts of other shenanigans.
These elements have always been part of Souls, but they're overused: many bosses seem to rely on one hit kills simply because the game has no other way of defeating base-level tactics: it's very easy for the player to get locked on behind them and stay there. One boss has two one-hit kill moves, as well as a teleport which deals extreme damage. It makes the entire encounter a chore, reducing it to exploitation and luck rather than skill, and it's not an isolated incident. It's a shame, and made worse by the relative ease of which players will progress through the rest of the game. Dark Souls 3 doesn't have a difficulty curve, it has a difficulty ECG, a series of manageable-enough encounters punctuated at regular intervals with towering spikes.
All swearing, shouting, and threatening to kill Miyazaki aside, these bosses eventually fall. The reason is that Dark Souls 3, for all its faults, still has enough of what made the original game so excellent. It's a joy to spend time in the world, to grow stronger, to return to previously-difficult areas and crush everything in it, and while the sense of adventure is dulled it's never truly extinguished. And when the last boss has been conquered, there's always New Game Plus, as well as the expanded co-op (now up to six players) and, of course, PvP (if you've not touched it already).
Changes to multiplayer have seen some Souls fans up in arms (obviously), particularly with regards to the supposed issues with setting up 1v1/dueling, as well as moans about summoning and the fact that a particular, easily-joinable covenant enables players to auto summon backup to see off invaders. I never found any of these to be a problem: competitive play is still great fun, and co-op manages to foster camaraderie and teamwork with little more than a wave emote. The only real issue I've had so far has been with lag, and that wasn't always a factor.
Even if Dark Souls 3 doesn't inspire awe, then, the superb combat goes some way to making up for it. It never hits the heights of Bloodborne or the original Dark Souls, but then not a lot does.
Version Tested: PS4