As far as I know, only the French language has a phrase for it: deja vu. That strong sensation that what you are experiencing right now is something you already experienced in the past. The act of walking the tightrope between nostalgia and deja vu is something most video game sequels struggle with. You want to invoke the former without making it feel like the latter.
The first Dark Souls was a surprising breakout hit for a game that most people assumed would find a niche audience at best. It had a raw, uncut feel to it that a lot of first music albums have for bands that are just starting to find their feet. If that was Dark Souls, then Dark Souls 3 is the greatest hits collection. The same songs you’ve heard before, but polished and re-recorded with better sound and equipment.
And that’s Dark Souls 3’s biggest problem. At a lot of times, the game just doesn’t feel like a retread of old ideas but a remake of them. Catacombs, poisonous swamps, dilapidated houses, cathedrals and castles. They were all there in Dark Souls 1. They are all here in Dark Souls 3. In most cases, they are better designed, but the ideas (and often enemies) are all unmistakably and unapologetically unchanged.
But even if it is a redesign of an old concept, is it still worth replaying? Absolutely. Doubly so if this is your first contact point with it. And even if it isn’t, everything in Dark Souls 3 is superbly designed and exceedingly well put together. The combat and movement flows beautifully and it is probably the best it’s been in a Souls game. The finicky-ness of Dark Souls 2 is gone and the game really feels like a joy to control. There are still dodgy hitboxes here and there, but those are basically a series staple by now.
The game is a lot more focused than it was before as well. On one hand that means the level design is absolutely sublime with no wasted areas and some fantastically designed shortcuts. But that also means that it ends up being less open-ended than all of its predecessors. That linearity also seems to reflect in the way From wants you to play the game. In earlier games, almost all builds were equally viable. Here every build that isn’t a fast-moving and fast-hitting build seems to be in for a hard time.
But those are minor balance issues. Weapon damage can be tweaked. Spells can be buffed. The core of the game (even if it is at times awfully familiar) is rock solid. There are some places where the game has regressed disappointingly though. Covenants (which Dark Souls 2 had nailed almost perfectly) are hit and miss. Also, letting invaders heal using Estus’ means that almost all invasions end up being a fight to see who runs out of Estus first. Again, most of this is fixable, but it’s hard to say whether From meant it to be this way or if it’s an oversight.
On the technical side of things, I don’t really have any big complaints. The game’s art direction is absolutely phenomenal and From probably has the best art designers in the industry. And while there are some dips in frame rate here and there, I genuinely didn’t have any issues with the PS4 version that I played. Invasions and co-op seem to work fine, with the exception of some rare laggy matches. All in all, it’s a pretty solid showing.
The game’s biggest drawback will still be its lack of new ideas. Dark Souls 2, for all its faults, felt more like a step forward. Dark Souls 3, on the other hand, is a fantastically designed game that feels like it is walking over the same ground as Dark Souls 1 with prettier shoes. It will impress newcomers to the series, but for series veterans, there will be a constant feeling for deja vu that might leave a bitter aftertaste.