Game Review – Dark Souls 3

Dark Souls 3 is a 3rd person combat-focused RPG by FromSoftware [pub. BANDAI NAMCO], released April 11th, 2016 on Steam (or via Amazon), PS4, and Xbox One. This is the fifth game in the series, and while that sounds like a large number, fans (myself included) continually beg for more. Not only are two of the five titles Playstation exclusives (thus limiting their appeal), but I feel these games created and now comprise their own genre. The real core of the genre is the unique brand of combat, focusing heavily on deliberate actions and costs/consequences both for the player and the enemies, that also enables many styles of play with numerous equipment options. In addition to that, one might add the complex and often intertwined level design, cryptic storytelling, and sheer difficulty that can be overcome with knowledge and skill.

The dedicated fanbase and reputation this series has built for itself causes a certain level of misunderstanding for the general audience. Frequently I see misconceptions about what these games entail, why people should or shouldn’t play them, and the ways in which they are ‘allowed’ to be enjoyed. I will be covering the game’s potential as an entry into the series, additions and changes from past games, issues with the PC port, cheating and the ways in which you can push difficulty/frustration in either direction, and more. I won’t be delving deep into lore or hardcore PVP item meta, and should stay somewhat light on spoilers outside of mechanical info, with all screenshots from very early game. For lovers of any of the past FromSoftware titles, I’ll say right away that it is easily a ‘must-play’; arguably the best in the series for my tastes, and a worthy end to the core souls storyline. Review last updated 2016/04/24.

Banner - Dark Souls 3

Aspect Ratios 16:9 [16:9-21:9+]*
Triple Monitor No [Yes]*
Framerate Cap 60
FOV Adjustment No [Yes]*, default 43° vert / 70° horiz
SLI Yes
Performance Lacking
Options Good
Key Rebinding Yes (2 slot)
Controller Support/Rebinding Yes, Yes
Local Co-op No, Online PVP & Co-op

[ ]* = Requires Modification – See below and PCGamingWiki.com/wiki/Dark_Souls_III


This is quite a long one, so feel free to skip around or startup the soundtrack down below.


PC Port Quality

Performance & Crashing

While it is still massively ahead of the original game, I would still unquestionably classify it as a sub-par port. It’s very similar to Dark Souls 2 (or via Amazon), but takes a few small steps both forward and back. While it is the most detailed and visually impressive title in the series, it seems performance hasn’t scaled equally, resulting in a much higher performance cost than one might expect. We also see evidence of some optimization issues where certain locations or scenarios cause the framerate to dip considerably, made worse by saving (something that happens automatically during most interactions with items/objects/enemies) causing the game to hitch (even when using an SSD). The past titles both used this kind of consistent saving (in an attempt to solidify consequences of your actions), but saw no such issue.

There are also a number of crashing issues (depending on your hardware) surrounding the Lighting setting and it’s interaction with cloth and hair. From a technical standpoint I would say the initial build is slightly worse than DS2’s, but there are some steps forward as well. It’s still capped at 60FPS, but it supports it (over the console’s 30FPS) without the durability bug of DS2, or any of the movement/speed/damage issues of DS1. If however your PC can only handle ~30FPS and you then drop below that mark, you will experience slowdown; the console release does the same.

Control

The largest improvement is that their attention to rebinding makes this the first in the series to be competently playable using Mouse and Keyboard with no external tools/modifications/rebinding. You have full rebinding of all actions, separately for gameplay and the menus, with both a mouse and keyboard bind-slot for each. And yet after all that they clearly didn’t test the game with keyboard, as the movement speed continually resets on all sorts of direction changes; DS2 moved fluidly and had no such issue. To put it simply, in all cases where you turn the characters movement direction using the keys rather than turning the camera (something you can’t do while locked on), the character will essentially reset to an earlier point in the animation before the acceleration happened, and this gets worse the more inputs you send. The analog stick can point forward and wave 45° in either direction, and maintain a full sprinting speed. If done with a keyboard (eg. holding W and tapping A D A D repeatedly), it results in the animation resetting with every press, reducing the characters speed to a tiny fraction of what it should be. This is a direct disadvantage to using the input method that absolutely doesn’t need to be there, and isn’t present in 99.99% of other games with standard WASD movement controls. You expect only 8 directional movement (more with camera rotation), but this is just broken. You also expect lack of analog speed control to be addressed with a walk toggle, which they have also removed here leaving only a ‘hold to walk’ bind; DS2 had both. There are no KB/M button prompts to speak of, but that’s very easy to ignore as there are so few actions that even use prompts, and it’s easy to memorize if you understand how menu and combat controls work in any souls game.

It’s a step forward overall, the full in-game binding making both gameplay and menu navigation quite competent (DS2’s mouse menu control was ruined completely after rebinding to get the gameplay right, purely because of their click + double click system and inability to bind the single-action attacks to anything but the keyboard), but they’ve tarnished it again with a lack of validation.

The controller has a single layer of binding as well, and can for the most part be used simultaneously with keyboard and mouse inputs, which is great for hybrid devices like the Steam Controller that benefit from exactly that. Dark Souls 2 introduced a completely unnecessary axis deadzone that meant you lost fluidity and fine angle control when nearing the 4 cardinal directions. That could only be fixed with xinput injection, something that would get you softbanned in DS2 (more on that later). They haven’t made the same mistake here so DS3 is mostly fluid, but that animation reset issue surfaces on controller as well. If you use the stick as if it were the keyboard (near perfect 90° angles) you’ll see those resets, but that’s so hard to do that it won’t happen unless you actively try for it. Spinning the stick in a circle however doesn’t result in a clean spin, and flailing the stick makes the character take on a glitchy appearance. None of this happened in DS1/2… Something seems very off about the movement; they could fix it, but I highly doubt they will.

Settings

The graphics options include everything I’d want on a surface level, but there are two small issues. The Anti-Aliasing method is FXAA and can only be toggled on or off. FXAA is done in post, and is often partially ineffective and overbearing; blurring all elements of the screen (textures, effects, etc… not just edges). FXAA and other post-processing methods of AA are best used when downsampling from or displaying natively at 1440P-4K+, as the blurring then occurs on a smaller scale. The average 1080P user will notice said blurring and that is best counteracted by injecting an effect like LumaSharpen through ReShade/SweetFX (more on that later). Next is that specific settings refuse to stick between relaunching the game, specifically the Lighting setting which again is likely responsible for crashing issues; many users have had to switch it back down to low every time they launch the game.

Dark Souls 3 - Settings

Display Support

The game by default is letter/pillar boxed to 16:9, and you need to Hex edit the game’s executable (something that will need to be re-done after most updates) to expand wider (3x if not wider is possible), with no options for thinner (16:10/4:3/etc); the HUD will always fit within the original 16:9 box.

Dark Souls 3 - Aspect Ratios
21:9 and 3x Wide Aspect Ratios – Requires modification of the exe

FOV is locked vertically to 43° (70° horizontally @ 16:9). The only way to alter it is by using CheatEngine to modify the value in RAM, but fortunately like DS1/2, the game doesn’t use many cutscenes nor does it even utilize that value for anything other than gameplay, so locking it to an intended value isn’t a problem. In the early days of Witcher 3 (or via Amazon) before the script modding came, you could similarly lock the value, but the game continually modified and called upon the value for it’s countless cutscenes, breaking them visually unless you manually toggled off the lock for every single one. The 70° horizontal default is far too low for most PC gamers, and I found 90° (59° vert as seen in CheatEngine; simply pressing the + hotkey 8 times) to be a monumental improvement. It improves playability with more spacial awareness (needed desperately in tight corridors and fights against the larger bosses), while also removing any sense of claustrophobia or discomfort caused by the default which was suited only to across the room play. The game seemed to have no problem with me frequently adjusting the FOV both way above and way below the default, and it only reset twice in numerous hours of play, fixed quickly by pressing the + or – hotkey whatever number of times to get to your desired setting. I highly recommend trying it out, and if you daringly choose to play online, it is likely one of the things that will go undetected by the game’s anti-cheat.

Dark Souls 3 - FOV
FOV [ Default 43° (70°) vs 59° (90°) ]

Anti-Cheat

The original Dark Souls had no protection to speak of. While there were numerous hackers, not only did that allow players to fix and mod their incredibly broken product into something worth playing without repercussion, but eventually competent user-made tools came about to both ensure fair PVP, and allow direct pairing between players for co-op without the incredible fuss of the game’s base systems which made that far less feasible. When Dark Souls 2 launched they implemented VAC (Valve Anti-Cheat, a VERY SERIOUS system that leaves a permanent mark and limitations on your entire Steam account) poorly which resulted in waves of players being banned and thus marked for no reason.

After the subsequent backlash they decided to remove VAC and implement their own ‘softbanning’ system, which would detect cheaters and flag them to be sent to a secondary set of cheater-only servers. The problem was that their idea of cheat prevention was a nonsense set of guidelines the game and save files have to follow; guidelines that could easily be broken both by completely legitimate unaltered play, as well as countless tools that the vast majority of even competitive games allow for. Numerous kinds of overlays, simple controller rebinding injection to get non-xinput controllers to work or to fix the horrible axis deadzones I mentioned earlier, ReShade/SweetFX color correction, mods to fix the game’s bugs, and even a few recording applications like DXTory, all would get your account softbanned. Meanwhile, people with the intent to cheat could freely lock their heath/stamina, multiply their movement speed and damage to ludicrous levels, and a whole host of other things that would be very clearly considered as cheating in an online multiplayer environment. So in an effort to stop cheaters, they did absolutely nothing to stop cheaters, and screwed over countless legitimate players who simply play the game or innocently use tools the vast majority of other games are completely fine with…

While it is unclear the exact structure they’ve gone with for Dark Souls 3, they’ve already struck tons of legitimate players with warnings and bans of some nature. I saw live and captured footage of cheaters within hours of the game being out, and know of those who have actively been cheating in the same easy ways from DS2, all without punishment. They have utterly failed on multiple levels just like the last game, and to top it all off there are countless reports of people with pirated copies of the game playing online together already with no faulty cheat protection in place. That kind of thing is insanely rare as it is, and yet it has already happened in a case where legitimate buyers/players are being punished for bad (like unplugging your controller, restoring a backed up save, or playing offline and logging back in; not joking) and unknown reasons… NOT GOOD.


Gameplay

New Players – Series Info

At first glace, these games seem dated both structurally and visually, and while somewhat true, I beg you to look further. Not only do I feel there are more positives than negatives to such an approach, but that it’s more complex then that as the series picks and chooses specific elements and has in turn developed it’s on unique way of handling various mechanics. By no means are any of these games perfect. Because of their sheer complexity and eccentric design philosophies, these games can be nitpicked to death and some do have some very serious flaws. Dark Souls is an amazing game and largely lives up to that claim, before taking a nose-dive near the end where it seems both creativity and hard work ceased as if the game was rushed out before being fully realized. Dark Souls 2 makes many completely arbitrary changes that go against the ideas that made DS1 and Demon’s so great, but makes up for it with some neat additions and DLC expansions that bring some of the best content in the series. To be honest, I am not qualified to really do that kind of hardcore gameplay analysis of a series this deep, but it has already been done anyway. If you are okay with spoilers in the highest degree or have already played the previous games, I highly recommend checking out the videos of Joseph Anderson [ DS1DS2Bloodborne ], Matthewmatosis‘ heavily critical look at DS2, and the countless videos covering lore by VattiVidya.

Dark Souls - Artorias
Artorias, a fan favorite boss from the original Dark Souls

To give you an idea of what these games entail, as simply as I can I’ll explain the general structure and then layer on the concepts and nuance that give them such depth. At it’s simplest your task is to clear enemies between sparse checkpoints, with many boss rooms that lock you in as you enter or engage sprinkled along the way. Every kill, among other interactions, nets you a currency (“souls”, “Blood Echoes” in Bloodborne) that can be used to purchase all manner of goods, passage through an area, payment for upgrades done to equipment, various services from NPCs, or investment directly into your characters stats. Held currency is dropped upon death where you last touched solid ground, and will vanish the instant you die again if not retrieved manually before then. Death is not a reversal of time but rather a teleport back to safety, and the games intentionally save almost constantly to try and enforce consequence to a wide variety of actions. Souls (while not actually necessary) are vital for the average player to keep their character up to the task at hand.

Depending on the game in question, the exact area of the game because of strategic enemy placement, the state of your character and the game-world, and the players knowledge and skill level, it can be possible to rush through areas avoiding combat entirely, of course at the cost of foregoing all of that currency, practice gained from clearing said area, and all sorts of items strewn about the level and within enemies. It changes depending on the title, but a core concept of Dark Souls 1 and 3 in particular involves conservation of a limited healing potions called “Estus” that refill when checkpoints (“bonfires”, “lamps” in Bloodborne) are reached or revisited. The games dole out upgrades for both count and potency of this healing at specific points (many are entirely missable, much like many of the items/quests) to fit the increasing difficulty, and while there are some other methods of healing, Estus is the most important mid-combat and sloppy play can see you running out before the next checkpoint. Bosses are often positioned just before the next major checkpoint, and thus inefficient play leading up to a boss means that you’re allowed less mistakes during the fight, and less time for learning and developing skill/strategy. Excluding Dark Souls 2 where you can exhaust the spawns of enemies (one of their worst decisions), clearing the enemies and running back to the last checkpoint isn’t an option as everything but specific puzzles/doors/events/collected-items will reset when resting/refilling. Your option is to either become proficient at either clearing or avoiding the enemies, which causes them to be an extension of the boss in a sense.

Again depending on the title, the path from beginning to end can morph between linear, branching, and crypt-like at will, both on the small scale between bonfires and in context of the entire game. Without guidance or keen awareness, you will likely take the wrong path, and the sheer potential of that and the sense of wonder and discovery it facilitates is one of the strongest points of the series. That same uncertainty spreads into everything from NPC and covenant interactions, quest lines, stats, equipment choices, key items, gimmicks and traits of enemies and environments, and more. You have an obscene number of weapons with genuine strengths and weaknesses entirely independent of numerical stats, armor/ring choices which grant various advantages/disadvantages in and out of combat that can be combined together strategically. You have multiple schools of magic with many different instruments (some of which serve multiple purposes) to cast them, throwing weapons, all manner of offensive and defensive consumable items. There are countless ways to play these games even though the core goals remain the same, and while some paths may be more challenging than others, there aren’t many solidly right or wrong answers.

Finally, the most important component of the series is the core design philosophies behind the pacing and feel of the combat. The conservation of health concept wouldn’t be as reasonable as it is, if not for the idea that almost all damage to the player strives to be predictable, and preventable or at least mitigable. Because of that, the design of the core combat systems had to be responsive and consistent. Ever played an MMO with combat? The souls series is the most extreme antithesis of that I have ever experienced in anything even resembling this genre. Almost every act can be entirely deliberate including the reading of the majority of enemy behaviors, with timing as one of your most important tools. This is a tough ask for a series with a continually high level of content variety, and yet outside of some slip-ups, they’ve managed to achieve this, and it’s exactly why the series is held in such high regard by it’s dedicated fanbase. It doesn’t actually need the sheer difficulty to feel as good as it does, but it does make mastering the systems that are just begging to be mastered, all the more satisfying in addition to all the visual appeal.

Dark Souls 3 - Screenshot 03

So with all that out of the way, how does Dark Souls 3 stack up? I can easily place it as my personal favorite of the series. I feel it has the most fidelity and visual interest along with environment/coloring variety, amazing weapon count and variety, fewer but the prettiest and most compelling bosses… I love it. There will always be the unforgettable moments and locations from past titles, but while still not perfect, I definitely feel that DS3 is the most satisfying as a complete package, and would be the title I’d choose were I to only have one. Though that is no reason to make this the only one you play; far from it. The genre is so small as it is and as I’ve said the core concepts largely carry across the whole set; if you enjoy this one, absolutely look into the others as well. For the patient and those really interested in the lore, you should probably begin with DS1 or even Demon’s if you can, and work your way up, as daunting as that may be. However, as a title to hook a friend into the series initially, DS3 stands out to me. It’s not ALL good though; details in the next section.

Returning Players – What’s New

The start of the game has instant character creation and you’re plopped onto a path with both a compelling boss and optional mini-boss. Directly past that is your hub for the rest of the game, with a touch of extra landmass to explore now and some gated for later on. Sadly this hub connects to nothing else, and your first destination is a teleport (you can from any bonfire to any other from the start) out to an area you can see far off in the distance. You’re also given 3 essential NPCs (your means up leveling and upgrading) and a side-character right off the bat. These were choices made very deliberately to ease newer players into the game. I’d have preferred a hub smack dab in the middle of some massive ruined city with dozens of ways to head in, tasked with discovering even the essential NPCs… That said I can understand it, and from then on they do a good job distributing the additional NPCs throughout the lands, for you to find and recruit, murder, piss-off, many even leading down their own small questlines. They are obscenely cryptic, but you’ll still likely flub some of them up without care or assistance. As far as interlocking level design, there’s quite a bit of it on the smaller scale within each area, and I found the verticality and way paths branch of in believable ways to be compelling enough, just don’t expect DS1 levels of connections.

Dark Souls 3 - Screenshot 02

One interesting aspect as that areas you travel through are all quite close together, and from a certain vista can be seen on a grand scale. DS1 didn’t really facilitate that kind of distance/scale within one view, and DS2 was far too stringy for that to ever work. Additionally, even though from that distance they might appear a bit samey, there’s actually notable color/theme/scale variety between the environments once you’re down in it.

Onto some technical things… You can’t cancel attacks or parries anymore for faking or parry-rolls/backsteps. Attacks and parries take priority when pressed at the same time as or instantly after rolls/backsteps. There’s still queuing of course, and doing so on backsteps causes them to end shorter/sooner, but they no longer have iframes. Jumping attacks can now be triggered far more consistently with R2 (as well as the forward + R2 from a standstill), and attacking again triggers the weapons rolling attack. Holding R2 now charges most strong attacks for even more damage, and will trigger variably on release or after roughly 2-3 seconds automatically; you cannot hold the stance indefinitely. Equip load has breakpoints at 30, 70, and >100%. Over 100 you can’t roll, backstab, or run, >70 is fat roll, and going down gradually increases roll/backstep speed/distance, with an extra iframe or two. Jumps no longer force the roll at the end if you let go of the movement stick. Upon first impression I’ve seen many players including myself feel that parries and backsteps/rolls have a delay, but after testing I’ve found that the animations simply have a longer startup time. but begin animating with a responsiveness similar to past titles. It doesn’t seem like a bug but rather something inherent to the animations, so it’s something to get used to. Lock-on range has been shortened which hurts casters (you can’t effectively use binoculars to aim spells either…), and users have also been slightly annoyed by occasionally losing lock-on mid-fight for seemingly no reason.

Menuing is easily the best in the series with tons of improvements. If you clutter up your equipped items, you can at any time hold down on the d-pad to return to the first slot, great for finding Estus mid-fight without even looking. To help you leave out eliminate that clutter for lesser used items (homeward bones, rusted coins, talking stones, binoculars, etc) you have 5 slots beneath your pause menu icons. When inside any equipment slot (rings, weapons, items), you can use the shoulder buttons to tab through the slots without the need to back out, making something like changing not one but even all four of your rings mid-fight more feasible. There are more options for viewing stats or comparisons across many areas of the menu, and you can click the right stick to hide the whole right portion, so that you can view your character (or an enemy approaching you). Covenants are now tied to equippable items which have their own slot, further decreasing the feel of permanence/consequence, but making it much more convenient for PVP.

[Mechanical Spoilers Ahead] We have a new mana bar under the name of “FP / Focus Points”, and it is the fuel for not only spells (which have no cast count limit), but also weapon skills. Mana is recharged by allocating your number of Estus into “Ashen Estus” (can be rearranged whenever within your home base), or less effectively through alternative means like rings and special weapons. The weapon skills (aka “Weapon Arts”, a different approach to the trick weapons of Bloodborne), are present in ALL weapons (yes, even bows and magic instruments), and can be activated with L2 while two-handing (some work one-handed by default), or L2 in place of a parry with shields that allow for it. Shields are now each capable of one of numerous skills of their own; standard parry, spell parry, bashing (and other miscellaneous attacks), a pass-through for using the weapon skill of your other hand one-handed, an aggro pull, I believe spell casting, and potentially more. Even more-so than the shields, the weapon skills (as cataloged here) range from basic additions to the moveset, to solo or AOE character buffs, weapon buffs, block breaks/pierces, parries, held stances that alter other attacks… up to insanely wild and flashy attacks with all sorts of different behaviors. One key skill present on certain claws and daggers, is an alternative to the roll; a “quickstep”. It has iframes only as long as you’re consuming FP, and has quite the magnetism when locked-on, making it great for backstabbing in PVE. The low-down dashing animation is retained and can be used endlessly on an empty tank, which is amazing as it allows you to blow through deep water/sludge (often also poisonous) that would otherwise slow you down to fat rolling. NOT ONLY are there an absurd number of amazing weapons and shields, old and new, but these skills make them viable if not at the very least interesting. They turn the old tried and true “best in class” options on their head, and give you good reason to switch and experiment regularly, if not on-the-fly during a fight. Needless to say I absolutely adore this addition because of the notable increase in play variety, though like most other things in souls, it’s entirely optional.

Bow Gameplay

The combat has been sped up somewhat, but largely because of the viscous nature of the enemies. Inspiration was clearly taken from Bloodborne, not really in terms of player movement, but with the amount of very aggressive and/or relentless enemies, alongside clear improvements to AI to punish mistakes and things like backstab-fishing or needless blocking. The majority of enemy positions are still rigid and don’t really feel alive, but there are a number of patrolling enemies that can be avoided with care, but might also catch you off guard while fighting something else. Outside of the few single-encounter enemies/invasions with guaranteed drops, the rest spawn endlessly, and there’s no equivalent of Bonfire Ascetics; greatly simplifying the mess caused by farming for items in DS2.

ALL of the bosses have more than one stage triggered by time and/or health amounts… changing form, state, stance, etc… but almost always becoming more aggressive in some way. A number of standard enemies transform upon being alerted by the player or some other enemy, and one kind in particular is unbelievably hard to deal with and learn for close-range. I’ve watched them continually destroy good players, especially when using slow weapons, and that leads into a notable change. There seems to be a degree of enemy and scenario variety that really rewards adaptive playstyles; it doesn’t seem to be as easy to pick one basic weapon and just blow through every challenge like you might be able to in the past. To further that more, while there are weapon upgrades and infusion, there are more types, the resources are more plentiful. You also don’t have to waste any of it on armor so you can swap more often, and because of a new flat % defense bonus from simply filling each armor slot with anything, it’s clear that they want players to make use of a wide variety of pieces, for both “fashion souls” and utility.

There are some problems with the way spells are implemented in that most don’t feel they were accelerated enough to match up against the routinely aggressive enemies. That said, there are a ton of new options across the 3 disciplines (Sorceries, Miracles, and Pyromancies) with Hexes from DS2 now distributed evenly to the others as special dark options; again more variety. Certain bows can now be used quite offensively (you can beat the game bow-only without TOO much trouble) with rolling and rapid-fire attacks, along with alternative options for ranged damage and utility.

Hollowing is back and will make you ugly still, but is implemented in a completely different way, focusing primarily around a major questline. It has some small advantages (infusion scaling, among other things) and disadvantages and can be taken care of properly, but the structure might not be all that clear your first time through. All I’ll say is that you can easily avoid it entirely and keep a pristine appearance, you can get rid of it, and it isn’t so negative that it halves you max health or anything like it did in DS2. New Game + is optional and can be done at any time after all of the endings, and features upgraded rings, some new drops, better upgrade mats, tougher enemies; very similarly to DS2.

As always difficulty depends on prior experience and equipment choice. While bonfires are more plentiful, avoiding overly long corpse-runs and making certain shortcuts a tad unnecessary, I still think the level of difficulty is good throughout. Most experienced players will still feel some challenge, and wont feel overpowered without researching and intentionally min-maxing. The hitboxes overall have been substantially improved (projectiles can go through arm/leg gaps and such just fine), but certain flashy attacks can get you, primarily grabs which still aren’t the kind of thing you want to be in range for. I’ve also seen certain enemies attack through walls which is just silly considering what happens when you try the same, and for higher level play you’ll have to be wary of specific enemy/boss spells that go through walls as well.

Final few notes and tips… Multiplayer is arguably better than ever with a new maximum of 6 players at once, password matchmaking for easier co-op play and dueling, along with a variety of covenants with different phantom colors that then get mixed depending on how you connect with other players (eg. invading with the red eye orb while in a covenant other than red). You’re invulnerable while pulling levers and opening doors / fog gates. You can change appearance and reset stats up to 5 times per new game, and while you can’t change genders, you can use a ring that swaps NPC responses and your animations, but not your characters voice for some reason (along with other still unknown possibilities). There’s an insane number of rings with familiar effects reaching back to even Demon’s Souls, and plenty of new stuff as well. There’s still no marker to point out new items in your own or in shop inventories; inconvenient as there are multiple that update frequently as you progress. Also, crystal lizards are more adorable than ever, with hilarious animations and persistent ragdolls.


Presentation

Visuals

Upon initial impression I was unimpressed by the game’s aesthetic. The game uses the engine they created for Bloodborne, and while it isn’t capped at 30FPS nor does it utilize any of that game’s horrendous chromatic aberration, it is similarly (if not notably more-so) grey and lacking in contrast. Older televisions often have limited dynamic range and/or implement their own crazy adjustments, so many developers made their games output a very flat profile, and this game is no exception.

On the upside, also coming over in the transition were better reflection/particle/lighting effects and tons off detail… Oh lord the detail. After expanding the dynamic range, emphasizing weak colors, and using lumasharpen to counteract the FXAA blur (all with ReShade), I then immensely appreciated the detailing and art direction. It’s not necessarily sheer texture resolution (as it’s honestly a bit mixed), but rather the amount of geometry combined with texture variety and good use of normal (adds to the appearance of depth) and specular (adds reflections to only specific portions of a texture/object) maps. The game is utterly filled with bricks, stones, leaves, roots, blood, planks… and the surfaces and structures you traverse through feel organic or hand-built, not the result of tilesets.

Dark Souls 3 - Screenshot 01

The rendering tech isn’t great, it’s not some unbelievable bleeding-edge UE4 title, but there is clearly a level of love an attention put into the detailing here that was just not present in Dark Souls 1/2, but was seen in Bloodborne (the next most recent FromSoftware title). As if that wasn’t already good enough, many of the environments are expertly arranged to frame gorgeous scenes, emphasize scale, and highlight key enemies/objects/locations. While the gameplay pathing through the environments isn’t fully believable (as one would expect simply to prevent some confusion), the detailing definitely makes them feel lived-in (not recently… mind you). I came across countless wallpaper-worthy screenshot opportunities; sometimes even half a dozen angles within the direct vicinity of each other. I had to actively refrain from that so I could continue progressing; it’s THAT good. I still yearn for a clean, high-fantasy aesthetic in one of their future titles, but they’ve definitely their chosen aesthetic justice.

Mango’s Config – A 1.0 on sfx.thelazy [No perf cost]
Mango’s Config – B 1.0 on sfx.thelazy [Pictured below, small perf cost]

Dark Souls 3 - Reshade Before-After

As far as visual issues, there’s some slight pop-in (though the overall level of distance detail seems very high, which might be behind some of the performance issues..), you’ll find some small holes/gaps in the environments, if you explore there are areas you can peer into that clearly weren’t meant to be seen and feature near PS2 levels of detail, and character shadows don’t exist in most interiors (they hard-toggle on or off between areas) even where the lighting would surely cast them.

Once you get past or resolve the lacking contrast/color, you’ll very quickly forgive those other inconsistencies because of all the detail and visual intrigue the rest of the game holds. The boss fights have become quite the visual spectacle as well with tons of flashy attacks, elemental particle/lighting effects, blood splashes, cloth/hair physics, etc… and some of that might even come from your own character, as a number of weapons have fancy effects/attacks of their own.

Audio

As tradition with this series (partially excluding Dark Souls 2…), the orchestral, choir-heavy soundtrack is absolutely incredible (tear inducing even), but is relegated almost entirely to the boss fights. If you’ve watched speed-runs of past titles you might be glad to know that the frankly comedic hard-cut when the boss or player dies, has been remedied with a far smoother fade-out for both scenarios. To go along with the bosses having multiple phases, they seamlessly transition the music as well, really solidifying the sense of awe and intimidation mid-fight. Voice-acting is top notch, with suitable processing for masks/environments. That said the characters don’t really feel alive as there is no lip movement to speak of, only basic head-tracking, and very basic animations for even extremely important interactions/exchanges. The amount of dialogue considering the number of characters and events is still high, but they didn’t seem to have quite as many lines as I recall from DS2; I walked away disappointed in no new dialogue more often than I’d have hoped.

The ambient sound design, while not unbelievable, is mostly well suited and reactionary to small factors like shoes and surfaces, with albeit mixed reverberation quality. Many areas are made eerie in the presence of enemies as they breathe, squeal, scream, groan, and otherwise. Certain sounds are even more unsettling if not multitudes louder (some would easily qualify as jump-scares), and that touches on the only real problem I have with the sound design… The sound levels are extremely dynamic, and I found that playing at a volume where I could really enjoy the subtleties, then made various non-diegetic sounds from parries/ripostes (these sound intentionally distorted regardless of volume) and death/success messages FAR too loud. The settings only account for voice, music, and effects, with no separation of the diegetic and non-diegetic (real vs fake) sound elements. The backstab and parry sound effects are iconic at this point, but they’re simply too loud for the rest of the game, and forced me at least to lower the overall volume and lose some immersion.


Conclusion

Dark Souls 3 makes a number of mistakes, primarily from a technical standpoint, but the rest of it is absolutely outstanding. It’s quickly become my favorite of the series/genre and is now what I would recommend to hook new players. The story as cryptic as we’ve come to expect from the series, so while it doesn’t necessarily tie the bow in terms of plot, I feel it absolutely does so in terms of content and gameplay. It’s of consistent quality like Bloodborne and unlike the 3 older titles, and it goes out of it’s way to reward continued play with variety from multiple angles. They’ve made countless small changes here that all point to getting the utilize more of the tools, items, and equipment on offer. For PVP people will find and abuse the most OP build they can, but in general there is far more reasons (both tactically and for pure enjoyment) to utilize strange combinations of items/weapons/magic and swap between options even mid-combat.

There is a significant amount of fan-service in here, but it’s not as soulless as Dark Souls 2, and I think all of the item inclusions in particular are well worth it, having been expanded on or made viable with the weapon skills system. It’s more accepting of new players, but I still wouldn’t call it dumbed-down as the conveniences are done with grace, while also offering new challenges for experienced players. Even though the level design here isn’t as brilliantly clustered and woven together as DS1, I can’t help but like it and just about every other aspect of this game. The sheer attention to detail and art direction within the level design, the viscous multi-stage bosses and accompanying music, the late-game state of your home base, etc… It simply cannot live up to the nostalgia of the original Dark Souls in the eyes of many, but I genuinely do think the direction here is for the better. The DLC for this series always tends to be pretty top notch, so along with hopefully some small bug and performance fixes, it should be even better down the road.

Dark Souls 3 - Scorecard

For returning players, accepting of DS2’s port, this is surely a must-play title and something you can get a tremendous amount of joy and entertainment out of. For new players, that either haven’t been exposed yet or have been pushed away from the series in the past… if you enjoy tight, tactile combat, especially in a dark medieval fantasy setting… this game is for you. Drop the barrier of difficulty from your mind, it can be overcome by half a dozen means. [ Cheating in an offline environment is not a wrong answer, just be sure to give it your best shot and explore all other options first. ] Regardless of how you alter the difficulty it’s still a somewhat demanding game because of it’s sheer complexity, so it’s still not for everyone. A baseline level of patience, intrigue, and a desire for tactile gameplay, will be heavily rewarded by this series and DS3 in particular.


For full disclosure, I have no interest in or contact with FromSoftware, BANDAI NAMCO, or any of the brands mentioned. I was torn between Highly Recommended and simply Recommend for the final rating… This is the third time they’ve failed a port in this fashion, and the console versions chug and suffer slowdown as well. They need to get their act together as the point of forgiveness as long past. I adore the game underneath, but I just cannot ignore the shortsighted execution considering the time they’ve had and the number of knowledgeable people telling them exactly what to fix.


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