Sunday, 17 July 2016

Dark Souls 3 - Embers of Potential

The fire fades and the lords go without thrones. 

The first flame which sustains life in Lothric fades yet again and the bell of awakening has tolled to bring back the souls who previously gave themselves to relight it. You, ashen one, must bring them to their thrones and make a decision on the fate of the world. The last entry of the infamously challenging action RPG series promises a beyond apocalyptic journey. Will it be one worth making?

Well it certainly lives up to the standards of difficulty set by previous entries. Not content with the weakest of hollows being able to kill you, From Software decided to give some the ability to explode into a giant abyss snake monster. There are jailers who can bring your health down just by looking at you. Almost every boss has multiple phases now where they’ll become even more horrible too you, and most of them are more horrible than previous games anyway! Those looking for a challenge will be satisfied, but there’s nothing which feels as unfair, for example, as the infamous Anor Londo snipers. Even The Nameless King, arguably the hardest boss in the entire series, is a fair fight: it isn’t just hard because he has instant-kill attacks which are hard to avoid.

Indeed, the bosses in this game are tough, interesting, and all unique. I was worried on hearing the game would have the fewest number of bosses yet, but there are no dud fillers like the Demon Firesage in Dark Souls I or - lets face it - a good half of the bosses in the second game. Even relative small fry like the Crystal Sage has its place in the world and has a unique mechanic or fighting style to keep things interesting. 

The pontiff has the dubious distinction of most aggressive boss in the series. And he can make CLONES.

While not approaching the blistering speeds of Bloodborne, Dark Souls III is significantly faster and angrier than previous entries. Movement is more fluid, attacks less sluggish, enemies more aggressive and encouraging of aggression in turn. Indeed going back to Dark Souls I or II straight after playing this can feel downright clunky. Enemies are placed in ways which make methodical sniping less appealing. The result is combat that is more exciting than carefully baiting out individual foes, but this comes at the price of each encounter being less significant.

The spectrum of weapons available is as wide as ever, and most benefit from the increased running speed. However, slower weapons can feel ever more clunky and challenging to use as a result. One removed feature from Dark Souls II is the ability to dual wield certain classes of weapons in a “power stance” – bestowing a different move set and weapon properties. They’ve been replaced by dedicated dual wield weapons for… some reason.

Fortunately, upgrading weapons remains a simple process. There aren’t half a dozen titanite types for different upgrade paths, just one path and gems which can apply properties such as elemental damage, improved scaling damage with your stats, or even gradual HP and FP restoration. Even if you choose to stick with one weapon type (not inadvisable, longswords are OP af), gem customisation can be used to meet different needs and situations.

You can also obtain boss weapons and cosplay. With weapon arts, they are more awesome than ever!

Levelling up remains the same: Souls acquired from enemies are exchanged for increases in individual stats from the Fire Keeper. It is up to the player to decide how to evolve their character: giving them more health, increasing their strength to equip new weapons, or boosting intelligence to cast stronger sorcery. The only new stat is luck. Which is crap, don’t bother. Having to teleport back to Firelink Shrine to level up instead of being possible at any bonfire as in Dark Souls I remains an annoyance; only putting an extra loading screen between something which has no reason not to be instantaneous. But I’m nitpicking.

A few key changes have been made to how magic works.  Instead of an allotted number of casts for each spell, all your attuned magic (and weapon arts) draw from a shared pool of ‘Focus Points’ (FP). FP can be restored with the Ashen Estus Flask, of which the number of uses is shared with the health-restoring counterpart.

Their damage is also now abysmal.

Scaling of magic damage does not seem to pick up until a much higher level: The sweet spot where a build becomes viable comes far later with a sorcerer than that of a simple warrior. But even at these levels, spells fail to outclass or even match the more powerful weapons of the game and must be supplemented by rings to increase spellcasting speed etc. to be practical. This move appears to be designed to make hybrid builds less attractive; indeed, spellslingers wielding full Havel’s armour and heavy weapons was a minor issue in Dark Souls II. However, the result is a class that has been left not merely sitting, but face down in the dust, and the loss of variety in the game is far more damaging than a few overlevelled master-of-all-trades.

You can visit everything in the background. You just have to do it in order!

The first Dark Souls game was praised for its interconnected level design. Alternate pathways through the world exist everywhere, and the geography of Lordran, for the most part, was consistent and this lent itself to an unparalleled sense of exploration. The second game was more linear in level design, with disparate levels existing broadly in isolation, albeit on exponentially branching paths. This was a contentious change, but I thought it fit the game’s narrative of choice as an illusion and the levels themselves were still not bad. So it confuses me to see Dark Souls III praised by II’s detractors when it’s easily the most linear game in the series. Geography may well more consistent, but locations artistic flair and the links between them simply don't feel as inspired, and I don't think that being able to see Cathedral of the Deep from upper Lothric makes up for that. The game is almost entirely along a single path, with only a few inconsequential detours.  Individual level design is intricate and layered and fantastic, but fails to live up to the standard set by the first game.

Story and Lore in Dark Souls has always been subtle: Hidden in item descriptions, level geography, and cryptic dialogue. However, the world of the game has always been rich with detail for those who wish to find it. There are spectacular legends of gods, curses and the origins of life, the fall and rise of kingdoms, and personal struggles with loss and tragedy. At Dark Souls heart has always been a quiet contemplation of what it means to be alive… but that kind of feels like a lost message in Dark Souls III. The side cast, while charming, are largely lacking in compelling personal quests. While almost all bosses and villains are more vividly drawn than some in the previous games, they fail to add much to the overall mythos of the series.  Dark Souls I introduced the wider arcs and ideas, while II established the cyclical nature of the first flame and the dark with the implication the wheel may finally be broken in III. That doesn’t happen. With the exception of one of the three endings, this just feels like another turn of the wheel, and it’s disappointing for the finale not to wrap up plot elements such as the fading flame and undead curse in a more satisfying way.

And that is Dark Souls III in a nutshell. It’s a perfectly competent entry in the series, and the core mechanics have been refined to the best they’ve ever been. However, it doesn’t feel like a conclusion. A cacophony of references mainly to the first game means it can at times fail to set out its own identity and purpose within the universe. This lack of unique identity makes its competence harder to appreciate, and its failings less forgivable.