Dark Souls III + Ashes of Ariandel DLC Review

Introduction

According to From Software's president and visionary Hidetaka Miyazaki -- the man who gave birth to the series with Demon's Souls and made From Software the internationally respected studio it currently is -- Dark Souls III will be "a turning point" for the franchise. The Japanese developer would later specify that, while it's possible that the series will be resurrected in the future, Dark Souls III is meant to be the last Dark Souls game.

This isn't trivial information. The third chapter of the dark fantasy action-RPG series produced by From Software is indeed a send-off, and every facet of its gameplay betrays this mission statement. It's an amalgam of Demon's Souls, Dark Souls, Dark Souls II and Bloodborne, rife with callbacks. Most uncharacteristically for the series, it's a game that seems to be more interested in galvanizing players than surprising them, a point perfectly encapsulated by its impressive final battle.

It does so to such an extent, in fact, that it makes Dark Souls II retroactively look more innovative and daring than it actually was, and Dark Souls II (a game I otherwise love passionately, its reception be damned) was a game I'd already criticized for being too in love with its own past. Seen through this lens, it's easy to be disappointed with Dark Souls III. And yet, it is such an accomplished title that I find negativity entirely undeserved. If this is the end of the Dark Souls series, then few series have had such an impressive output throughout the years.

Core Gameplay and Progression Systems

If you have already played a Souls game in the past, you can safely skim these paragraphs and focus on the relevant information for you. I'll try to keep general explanations brief, but it's necessary for the sake of those who have never gotten into the series before. Dark Souls III puts the players yet again in the shoes of an Unded, a special Unkindled this time around, who fights enemies through a series of increasingly challenging and non-linear areas. Upon death, players respawn at a bonfire without their own souls, a currency used to level up and buy items, though they have the chance to regain them by touching the bloodstain they left before dying.

Combat is a relatively simple affair involving blocking, strafing, dodging, and attacking. However, as veterans of these games know well, the variety of movesets, loadouts, enemy abilities, and level layouts provides a hidden layer of depth that isn't immediately apparent. It should be clear already why Dark Souls has a reputation for being challenging. That said, a large amount of tension in combat is due to the management of stamina, a core component of the game's combat system. Every action takes a certain amount of stamina, and having 0 means the character will be unable to perform any action except for normal movement and using consumables. All these ingredients together put together have always made for a satisfying core game, but they're also supported by simple but robust progression systems and a very interesting approach to online integration.

It's in the details that the differences between Dark Souls III and its predecessors start to become apparent. Dark Souls III's approach to controls resembles that of the original game much more than Dark Souls II's. This means that the recovery time between actions is generally shorter, movement is more fluid, and attacks can be chained together much more quickly. The pace of the combat is also faster than either of its predecessors and perhaps a tad faster than even Demon's Souls. This is partly due to the general feel of movement and partly due to the fact that enemies have been adjusted so that that they can keep up with the players more easily, something that didn't happen in previous From Software games, with the exception of Bloodborne. There are, however, a few aspects of Dark Souls II that were preserved. Jump controls still offer the same options, rolls go in eight directions rather than Dark Souls' four, and parries have start-up frames that vary depending on the shield or weapon used.

The progression system is also very similar to what has been offered before, though attributes have yet again been slightly reshuffled. Vigor is the attribute governing HP, Attunement governs FP (more on that later) and Attunement Slots, Endurance governs stamina, Vitality governs equipment load, Strength influences the attack rating with heavy weapons, while Dexterity influences the attack rating with more dexterous ones, Intelligence influences the power of sorceries and pyromancies, Faith influences the power of miracles and Pyromancies, and Luck increases item discovery and also governs the build-up of certain status effects such as bleed. It's a balanced spread of attributes that also have a number of additional minor effects on defenses and statistics, though Vitality ended up shortchanged compared to its Dark Souls II version. Pre-release, I was worried Luck might be a dump stat. Thankfully, while many builds will ignore it, it's very useful for others and works far better than it did in Demon's Souls.

Changes have been implemented for items too, of course. One of the most notable ones concerns the basic healing consumables. Gone is the large array of consumables that would let players recharge health and spell uses without ever touching Estus from Dark Souls II. Dark Souls III goes back to a system similar to the original, but this time Estus is split between normal (heals HP) and Ashen (heals FP), due to the addition of the FP resource, the equivalent of mana in Demon's Souls. FP is also used for the weapons' Skills, though, which at first glance would make one think that it's a resource useful for all characters. Weapon Skills are one, perhaps the only, major addition to combat implemented in Dark Souls III. Every single weapon and shield has one. Some are shared across categories and others are unique. Most of them are, unfortunately, inconsequential, and while they add an extra wrinkle to the dynamics of combat, they often don't feel very relevant in PvE. Both Ashen and normal Estus Flasks draw from the same pool, and the distribution can be edited at any time by simply talking with the blacksmith at the hub. Because sorcerers need Ashen Estus to cast their spells at a reasonable rate, while warrior types can ignore them altogether, sorcery-focused build feel less attractive in Dark Souls III, a problem that is further compounded by aggressive and quick enemies with strong attacks. It's a far cry from the "magic as easy mode" we've come to expect from previous titles.