Supposedly it’s all over… I’ve just finished my first playthrough of Dark Souls III, and if I take From Software’s word as gospel then this is the finale to a fine trilogy of games. To say that I’ve had a love affair with the ‘Souls games would be putting it mildly; as in my opinion they’re some of the greatest videogames ever made and certainly some of the finest I’ve ever played. Obviously it was with great anticipation that I waited for the release of Dark Souls III this year, and certainly it’s one of the games I’d most been looking forward to amidst and whole bunch of potentially amazing titles (including Persona 5 and allegedly The Last Guardian to name but a couple). However, this game also has the unfortunate timing of coming hot on the heels of another From Software title, Bloodborne, which released only last year and which I played through again very recently. I awarded that game a solid 10/10 score, putting on par with Demon’s Souls and the original Dark Souls title, which of course this latest game is a sequel to. The pressure was on then when I picked up this latest instalment, but did it deliver the goods? A quick flick to the bottom of this review and a glance at the score will tell you that it definitely does, but it took me a little while to warm to the idea of returning to Lordran. Or rather Lothric.
The premise of Dark Souls III is once again that the first flame, which keeps the world turning, is spluttering and flickering out, and so a bell of awakening has been tolled calling a champion to rise and link the fire. This is very similar to the first game, obviously being a sequel, but there are early indications that this has happened over and over again already, and these former “Lords of Cinder” who linked the fire have gone into hiding back in their kingdoms. It’s up to you as a newly risen undead to find and kill these former monarchs and claim the rite to link the flame yourself. So off you go, starting in areas like the High Wall of Lothric and the Undead Settlement which will feel *very* familiar as starting areas and initially don’t inspire much confidence that this new ‘Souls game will offer anything different. This was a feeling I had that lasted throughout the first portion of the game; even the bosses that looked impressive (like the Curse-rotted Greatwood) didn’t seem to bring anything new or particularly interesting to the table. I was enjoying myself but the game lacked a certain spark of imagination and creativity that the previous ‘Souls games had. Once I’d got past an area called the Road of Sacrifices though, the game started to heat up, and the level design, enemies, bosses, etc. all started to sizzle and burst with the same special-sauce that I’d tasted in the past; and left me desperately wanting more. While Dark Souls III does take a lot of inspiration from all the ‘Souls games that have come before it, eventually it finds its own identity and becomes a wonderfully designed game with enough nods to the ‘Souls lore to satisfy long-returning fans.
The presentation of the game is fantastic, running on the more recent engine developed for Bloodborne, but with a different aesthetic and ‘feel’, mostly due of course to the high-fantasy setting (as opposed to Victorian/Gothic horror) but also through the removal of cinematographic effects like chromatic aberration, etc. As the game progresses there is some absolutely phenomenal enemy design and some of the bosses are the best that there’s ever been in a ‘Souls title (such as the Nameless King – WHAT A BOSS!!). The world design in general is like a weird mix between Dark Souls and Dark Souls II, which is not going to please the fans requesting a return to the interconnected world of the first game. There’s a “hub” area of Firelink Shrine, which is disconnected from the rest of the game world, and the other areas of the game mostly flow together in a linear fashion. However, like the first title, there are some absolutely fantastic optional and hidden areas off the beaten path, and the designs of the areas themselves are top-notch; a particular favourite of mine is the Cathedral of the Deep, which has so many nooks and crannies. Personally I loved many of the places that I was taken to on my adventure, and with the new graphics engine providing some truly breathtaking vistas, I was often compelled to stop and screenshot, although it’s a hard game to capture in stills. The music is also once again fantastic, and the boss themes usually have at least a couple of different pieces to them, due largely to the way that most fights unfold in a sequence of steadily increasing difficulty. Overall, the music sounds much grander this time, and this reflects the apocalyptic tone of the game and the epic narrative you’ll experience whilst playing.
Whilst I hate to pander to Bamco’s awful advertising, let me discuss the difficulty curve. In most RPGs the game tends to get easier as you progress, as you level your character up and increase the damage output of your weapons by upgrading them. This isn’t the case with Dark Souls III, and I found that the difficulty ramped up considerably the longer the game lasted; indeed some of the late-game areas and bosses are *fiendish* to the extreme and I had to summon some friendly “sunbros” to help me with a few fights out of necessity. Part of this increase in difficulty also comes from the removal of some options from Dark Souls II. Life gems are gone, meaning you’re once again relying on estus, which is also now shared between health regen and replenishing your focus, a new blue bar fuelling magic and special moves. Also, unless I severely missed something, I could see no way of upgrading your armour anymore. Weapon upgrading though, and infusing elemental properties, has been streamlined and made very easy, as it’s all exclusively handled via Andre the Blacksmith back in Firelink Shrine. He accepts titanite in its various forms to upgrade your weapons and you give him different coals to unlock the infusion options. It’s a similar case for miracles, magic and pyromancy as once you find the relevant NPC they warp back to Firelink Shrine and wait for you to bring them the relevant upgrade materials you find out and about in the game world. Exchanging the boss souls for powerful unique weapons is also the sole duty of an NPC back in your hub and I found myself wondering why I was still carrying around the ‘broken straight sword’.
Covenants are of course back, and this time they’re joined via a dialogue option here and there, but enabled through the equipping of a special item; this means it’s easier than ever to swap about between different covenants and there’s no penalty for suddenly leaving one. There’s the usual PvP focussed red phantom covenant, the helpful “Sunbros”, and various groups that warp you to special areas to defend. The most interesting covenant though is the Mound Makers, which unfortunately I missed because I’d already blown the conditions by which I could join. The members of this covenant appear as purple summoning signs and when you call them into your world they enter as “mad phantoms” meaning that they’re free to inflict damage on anything and anyone… meaning that if they want they can suddenly turn around mid-boss-fight and kill you; for the lulz. Obviously. Speaking of missed things though, I also missed a bunch of NPCs in my playthrough as the game is as cryptic and branching as ever, with various character questlines interconnecting and your choices and actions affecting the world in sometimes quite profound ways. I was playing mostly blind (just using maps in the guide to zip about and collect items I’d missed in an area once I’d defeated the boss) and just happened to fulfil several criteria triggering a special ending to the game, which is one of a possible four. I have to say, it’s the first time I’ve ever gotten married in a ‘Souls game! This is all in stark contrast to the special endings of previous titles, such as Bloodborne, which I had to use a guide second time through to ensure I got the “three umbilical cords” ending.
Many people across the internet have been labelling Dark Souls III as the very best ‘Souls title, and I think that from a purely objective point of view, it probably is. It’s an absolutely phenomenal videogame that I would usually be throwing a 10/10 perfect score at, and I really *LOVED* my initial playthrough, which has me itching to play more. However, it doesn’t have the same impact as the original Demon’s Souls or Dark Souls, because naturally it’s relying on iterative videogame design – more of the same only better and more refined. I also mentioned in the intro to this review its unfortunate proximity to the release of Bloodborne, and I say unfortunate because I think the Sony published game pushed the formula is a very interesting direction. When I first started playing Dark Souls III I really missed the “regain” system that Bloodborne had implemented and which encouraged a much more aggressive playstyle. Not only that but despite people moaning about the lack of variety in weapons, the trick-weapons themselves were awesome, and opened up a lot of tactical variety throughout the game. Dark Souls III tries to approximate this somewhat with what it calls weapon arts, but basically it’s just like having a special move most of the time, that eats into the focus meter you might be keeping for spells or pyromancies. Some of the boss-soul weapons though have weapon arts which feel a bit more useful, like charging up with flame for a humongous fire-strike! These are nit-picks really though, and depend on how much you enjoyed From Software’s last title. For me, whilst Dark Souls III isn’t the instant unforgettable classic of some of its forbears, it’s still absolutely phenomenal, a truly great videogame, and will probably keep being discussed for years to come just like the original that it comes *so* close to capturing.