Fantasy gamers should not fear Dark Souls III

The game developer From Software has been around for 30 years, tormenting players with grueling experiences like the King’s Field franchise. They earned an even more fearsome reputation recently because of their Souls series. The PlayStation 3 exclusive Demon’s Souls was followed by spiritual successor Dark Souls, which appeared on multiple platforms, thereby growing a larger following of players who loved the challenging combat and extensive character customization. Players who have been intimidated by the previous games shouldn’t be afraid to try out the newest installment. It still has the merciless difficulty that the franchise is known for, but Dark Souls III is also a gateway to a tragically beautiful world of dark fantasy.

Dark Souls III is indeed a challenging, punishing game that offers only the barest of tutorials before throwing players into a harsh world populated almost exclusively with undead monsters and gigantic beasts. Within a minute of starting the game, players who turn right instead of left will charge headlong into a foe that will certainly kill unwary noobs. A bit of text pops up to explain the controls and basics of combat (and warn the foolhardy away from the wrong path). Otherwise, players will be left to fend for themselves and hope that they can reach the first checkpoint alive. This design alienates people new to franchise right from the start — even the first Dark Souls game had a relatively generous tutorial.

The playable character begins the game by leaping from their grave with little explanation. This is not a continuation of the plot from the previous games — it’s a new story, with a new protagonist whose past is supposed to be a mystery. This puts new players on equal footing with fans regarding their knowledge of the protagonists’s history.

Players create their own character, with a customized appearance and a vague backstory based on their class and starting items. As with the other games in the series, the main character is undead. This time around they are a new kind of creature called an “Unkindled.” This Unkindled One must help other undead on a quest to defeat four god-like Lords of Cinder.

Players pick a class at character creation, but the classes only affect the early parts of the game. It determines starting stats and what equipment the Unkindled One carries. Characters have a large set of RPG stats, more so than in most games. Any class can use any weapon, but each weapon type requires certain stat scores. Players can upgrade one stat by one point per level, so even a weak little sorcerer will eventually be able to swing a battle axe if they get their strength up high enough. Warrior classes can gain access to spells, and there are some classes that have a mixture of brawn and magic at start.

Regardless of class, players are going to use a melee weapon and a shield for much of the game. Magic spells can be a powerful offense, but they take a second to charge up and are easily interrupted by speedy melee combatants. Even slow, heavily-armored enemies can lunge great distances to interrupt a spellcaster, so the focus of the game is more on the melee combat. New players are likely to have an easier time if they pick a class that focuses on the basics of sword and shield (although the pyromancer’s fireballs are very handy in the earliest parts of the game).

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The game itself plays much like the previous installments in the franchise, which means that new players will have to adjust to the distinct control scheme of Dark Souls. The attacks are mapped to the shoulder buttons and triggers. At the most basic level, whatever weapon the character holds in their right hand is controlled by hitting the right bumper for a light attack, and the right trigger for hard attacks. The left bumper is used for blocking, and the left trigger for a parry (which is harder to do, but sets enemies up for a riposte counter attack). However, it’s potentially much more complex than that; players can assign weapons and magic powers to either hand. Weapons also have special moves when wielded in two hands, and new to Dark Souls III is a set of support skills for weapons. Different weapons and spells are hot-keyed to the D-pad, so players can quickly switch between them in mid-battle. In practice, this system leads to a wide variety of tactics that are necessary to deal with the very dangerous enemies found in the game.

The subtleties of this combat system take hours of practice to learn, and are another unfamiliar thing that new players have to endure before they can appreciate the game. Experienced action game players are liable to reflexively hit the wrong buttons when trying to jump or attack, even a substantial way into the game.

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Combat is much more skill-based than in other action RPG games. The character’s stats and the weapons used have an impact, but the player’s skill is much more important. This is going to be a sore spot for people new to the franchise. If the player hasn’t mastered techniques like parrying, rolling, and backstabbing, then they are not going to be able to win boss fights unless they grind for hours to get their stats up very high, or buy very powerful equipment.

This grinding is often rewarding, because the levels are filled with hidden areas that players can easily miss the first time through. There are branching paths and shortcuts, so the grinding will lead to the discovery of surprisingly large areas. Among these are optional boss fights, and companion characters that can be missed entirely by unaware players.

The franchise has extensive lore, history, and mythology.  This is one of the reasons why the frustrations are worth tolerating. This is a ruined world that had a long history before the events of the games. Ancient gods that have abandoned their thrones, fallen kingdoms, and mysterious artifacts abound in this franchise. Because it’s made by From Software, they have to make it hard, so this lore is not presented in simple dialog. Most of the lore is trickled out through item descriptions and the placement of objects in the world. The item descriptions are more concerned with explaining the history of the object than with what the player can do with it. When looking at a magic ring, the player can learn about the ruined kingdom from whence it came, what person might have worn it long ago, and how it might have come to be in the place where the Unkindled One finds it. However the descriptions are often vague on how things affect gameplay and what exact statistics they provide.

Aside from the text, there is the occasional friendly NPC who talks about their history. The NPCs sometimes accompany the Unkindled One on adventures, but there is also a shrine that serves as a sort of base for the Unkindled One and their associates. NPCs recruited along the journey will gather here, serving as merchants, and also providing flavor for the story.

This well-crafted world is something that fans of swords and sorcery tales will enjoy just as much as those seen in rival gaming franchises. The developers have ensured that players will have to earn this arcane knowledge through rigorous combat and exploring dangerous side paths. However, the franchise is a treasure trove of lore for those who achieve victory.

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