At one point, Dark Souls was an obscure oddity. It was something talked about by only the hardest of the hardcore, whispered about on message boards with reverence for its ultra-demanding style of play and its intricate but obscure lore. It started seven years ago with Demon's Souls and matured with the second outing, Dark Souls.
Now we have Dark Souls III in our hands to bring the series to a close. Instead of it being a whispered oddity, Dark Souls is legendary. It's divisive, embraced and dismissed in equal measure, with many gamers having at least dipped their toes into the game's murky waters.
The original was lauded for its intricate world and unique enemies. The sequel was helmed by a different director and, while still often fun, is derided for its hub-based game world, less interesting monsters, and disappointing visuals.
Dark Souls III comes to us direct from the hands of series director Hidetaka Miyazaki, a coda to the series that hopes to take it out on a high note and try to redeem it in the eyes of some of the more disappointed fans.
What we have is an experience that's familiar, for better or worse. This is a Dark Souls game in every way, from that impenetrable story to some very tough combat, right down to the technical hitches that have always plagued the series.
The combat is one of the few places where things have been changed up a bit. After Bloodborne, fans of the series were worried that this game would suddenly speed up and discard its reliance on shields and guarding that form the base of a lot of its combat, or that magic would disappear.
That's not the case at all. I would say that combat feels a bit faster, but this is not Bloodborne. The classic combat we've come to expect is pretty much intact. The blocking and rolling tactics we're used to, for the most part, work as they always have.
The biggest new change to the combat is called Weapon Arts. These are, in short, special moves that come with each weapon type that let you do things like break guard of a shield user or close distance to a far-off enemy quickly.
They don't turn combat into some kind of anime spectacle, though (despite some very explicit influence from anime like Berserk). The weapon arts are simple and practical. When used properly, they're effective, and when used carelessly, they'll mostly just get you killed the same way anything else will in the series.
One added wrinkle is that those arts cut into your skill bar the same way magic does, and you now have a secondary Estus flask to regenerate those points. It's one more thing to manage in battle, even if it's a small thing.
With that said, weapon arts are very rarely necessary. Whether you like to block and strike, roll and backstab, or stay back with magic, you can definitely do that. There's one required boss battle where weapon arts are absolutely necessary to win, but it's more of a nod to them existing than it is a way to force players to master something they might not be interested in.
The opening hours of Dark Souls III had me, honestly, pretty worried. At first, the game seemed really difficult. I had a tough time making headway, even if it was steady. I'm not sure exactly when it happened, but something cracked and things stopped being so tough.
In fact, I'd say this might be the easiest game in the series.
In previous Dark Souls games, I found myself needing help from friends or pulling in random players to help me with battles. Not only have neither of those been the case, I've managed to beat a fair number of the bosses on the first try. That's not me bragging, just to be clear.
The bosses are cool looking and often have awesome cut scenes or memorable dialogue, but a few of them have been downright easy. Most of them are pretty well-tuned, taking me a few tries, but not so many that breaking my controller seemed like a good option. There are a few truly difficult bosses that will test your patience, skill, and commitment, but stepping through the white fog that isolates each boss has become less intimidating this time around.
The game world, too, seems more forgiving. Bonfires are still a huge relief to find for the most part, but they've been quite close together a few times. The souls I've dropped when I've died seem like they've been easier to pick up, too, with the glowing green orb appearing outside the mess of enemies I died in the middle of before. Estus and Bone Shards, which let you level up the number of uses and healing power of the game's infamous Estus Flask, seem like they're all over the place, and you'll be upgrading the flask quite frequently.
This seems familiar
As you progress through the world of Dark Souls III you'll find yourself experiencing deja vu, over and over again.
This third title converges its two predecessors not just in terms of some mechanical decisions but in the story as well. The world of Dark Souls has always been one of death and rebirth, but this one seems to be completing a circle.
Some areas feel very much like those from previous games. The Undead Settlement, an early area in the game, feels a lot like Dark Souls.
It alternately feels like an interesting story decision, returning you to these familiar places from a different perspective, and like a lazy one; remember how cool Dark Souls was? Let's do that again, it seems to be saying.
But it's not all rehash.
There are plenty of new environments to explore and die repeatedly in. One of the locations in Dark Souls III, a chilly castle town, might be my favorite in the whole series. As I played through that area, I couldn't help but wonder what it would look like when the world was alive.
Some past enemies return, too. Of course, there are some generic enemy archetypes, like "skeleton" and "rat," but the Silver Knights that guarded Anor Londo with their massive arrows return, as do those weird floaty fire-breathing things from Lost Izalith.
On the flip side, there are some truly creepy monsters to fight that made my skin crawl as much as anything I've seen in the series before. A floating body with its hair spread out turned into a mess of legs and teeth like something out of my nightmares. And then there's the crawling, baby-headed monster I found wailing in the corner of a pitch-black dungeon.
There's a story in here somewhere
Dark Souls III is as light on story as ever. The greatest task lying ahead of series fans is figuring out how this game is connected to its predecessors.
The world feels more lived in than it has in previous installments. Like the hub area of Majula in Dark Souls II, the Firelink Shrine of this game will serve as a rest stop, leveling area, and shopping center. As you meet the occasional NPC in the world, they'll head back to the shrine to perform some service or provide a bit of conversation. Having so many characters coming and going from the shrine gives it a sense of weight and life often missing from the series.
Artistically, Dark Souls has been pretty much impeccable. It sets out an intended aesthetic and builds on it. Technically, the series has always been kind of a mess. Dark Souls' Blighttown is renowned for its ugly, chugging frame rate, and since then each game has had areas with trouble.
Dark Souls III might have the least consistent frame rate of any game in the series and possibly any game I've played in recent memory. While much of the game runs steadily on high on my GTX970 at 60 frames per second, each area seems to have its own framerate, and rarely does the framerate make sense. Sometimes open areas run fine, while enclosed areas run poorly and vice versa.
I also had the same amount of trouble that I do with most any other ambitious PC game in terms of crashes and pop-in and stuff like that. It's mostly just that framerate. I'm alright with 30fps, but having it jump around throughout the game can be disorienting.
What does a record label do when one of their artists is done making music, but people still want more from the band? Release a "Best Of" album. That's what Dark Souls III is. Dark Souls – All The Hits. Everything we've loved about the series has been brought together, put into one place and polished up, and a few unreleased tracks even made it onto the album.
For a long time fan of the series, it's a reminder of why you love what you love. For someone new to the series, it's an entry point. Lots of great notes in one place, put together in a way that welcomes you to explore the rest of the back catalog.
In all, Dark Souls III seems like an appropriate farewell to the series. It brings together various elements of the Dark Souls world, tries to wrap up the story's loose ends without straight-up telling you what's happening, and presents the most mature version of the Dark Souls combat so far.
I'm excited to see what From Software moves onto. I love Dark Souls, but I'm glad they're finally getting to put it to bed.
Disclaimer: We received a copy of Dark Souls III for the PC from the publisher. We spent over 50 hours with the game, completing most of the campaign before writing this review.