There’s always a moment in a From Software game where the experience is perfectly summed up in a minute of gameplay. It’s different for each player, as skill levels vary what troubles you, but it does usually involve familiar patterns. A struggle with a tough section is overcome with luck, swagger and a little precision. Then, just as you’ve made progress, the game drops a new wicked thing on you and wipes you out before you have a chance to stop being ever-so-slightly smug. You curse, swearing never to play again, then spend another hour thinking about it before relenting and picking up the controller once more. Most fans’ relationship with From Software is an abusive one, but at least you can actually get something beneficial out of a Souls game.
So, here we are with Dark Souls III, the third year running where we have a new From Software offering with the same basic template as each other, tweaked just enough to feel different, for better (Bloodborne’s combat) or worse (Dark Souls II narrowness, though I personally didn’t mind that). A simple way of putting it, and perhaps slightly unfair when viewed as a criticism, but it is as true of Dark Souls III as it is of any number of franchised games series. You have a winning formula, and some wiggle room to alter it here and there for each entry. The thing that From Software’s series has that separates it from the hooded killers, virtual sportsmen and shooty bang bang games for children, is that no matter the issues these change (and indeed lack of changes) bring, these games still manage to each have a very individual personality. With Dark Souls III however, you could probably question that a little more than usual.
Your journey this time around takes place in Lothric, predominantly on the grounds of a gargantuan castle. You are the ‘Ashen One,’ a previously deceased being revived to take on a quest that boils down to defeating the Lords of Cinder. The introduction to Dark Souls III is inarguably the most accessible in any From Software game to date. This includes little hints and tips, a few near-harmless enemies, and a delicious taster of a boss fight to get you into the swing of things. The infamous difficulty of a Souls game is more tempered here, giving you a slightly more forgiving first few hours, gradually building up to some genuinely stressful and head-crackingly intense encounters nearer the end. Gone are the ridiculous difficulty spikes of DS II; instead, DS III is an admirable attempt at compromise without defeating the iconic level of challenge fans expect. Make no mistake about it, there are moments that will make even the more experienced Souls player despair; still, it is almost never unfair or unjust, and you’ll come back, just like you always do. Few are as rewarding as a Souls game.
Back to Lothric, and once again, From Software has produced an artistically wondrous spectacle, full of rich, unspoken detail that other games with far more technical grunt could only dare to capture. The castle is haunting, intimidating, and downright colossal in size. As you peer into the distance, looking at spires reaching to the sickly-looking heavens, it’s difficult to remember that you will get to that area eventually, but when you do remember, it only serves to remind you of the challenges that await you. The original Dark Souls really managed to nail the effect of a world lost in time, ravaged by the impurities that patrol and pollute. It’s where the real story is told, the scraps of a dead world’s tale pieced together by the bleak horrors and oppressed beauty that remain. Dark Souls III captures that too, even though it isn’t as complex and labyrinthine as the original. It is filled with smaller secret areas, just off the beaten track, some hold rewards, others, additional, potentially unwelcome challenges. The stamp of individuality is most clearly there in these moments, making it all the more apparent when Dark Souls III becomes a veritable ‘Greatest Hits’ package.
This is a common feeling about Dark Souls III, and while it’s very welcome at times, it does steal some of the unique flavor that drives From Software games to become such heralded classics. Take the combat for a positive instance. After Bloodborne’s more aggressive style, a Souls game could feel like a step back, yet by fusing the swiftness of Bloodborne with the general mechanics of Dark Souls, we now have a refreshing mixture of two familiar styles. You still have to be cautious here, but your nimble feet give you more of an excuse to go for that extra hit. The balance of your newfound speed is that most enemies are now merciless and relentless in their pursuit of you, charging headlong at you, swinging wildly or lunging in a more aggressive manner than previous Souls fodder. They are still generally monumentally stupid, but they do more than enough damage if you underestimate them for a second.
As ever, panicked play is a no no, as you need precision and full concentration at all times. Mashing an attack button will see you essentially shove your opponent’s weapon up your backside voluntarily. Even after several similar games in the series preach the same thing, it’s incredibly hard not to blindly flail at an imposing, glowing-eyed Knight as it charges towards you at high speed. Or when a regular enemy just up and mutates into a horrific abomination out of nowhere. Dark Souls III doesn’t like to let you get too comfortable in its desolate land. There’s a battle against a boss middle way through the game that almost begins to feel like a rhythm action segment, such is the trance-like efficiency you need in order to press just the right button at just the right moment, with failure near certain should you falter more than once. It’s just one of many exhilarating encounters peppering the game world, against some beautifully grotesque horrors and some welcome callbacks to previous games in the series (most of which actually feel necessary).
On the flipside of this is the negative impact of that aforementioned familiarity. Nearly everything about Dark Souls III has an air of the past about it. Areas re-used, enemies returning, set pieces rehashed, it would be par for the course in any other later entry in a big series, and as I said before From Software know how to keep things interesting, but seeing this much recycling with Souls makes it feel a bit more disappointing. It’s still head and shoulders above nearly anything else in terms of originality, but it draws from its own deep Estus wells a little too often to really stand out as the best, most striking entry in the series. You could argue that it feels like a grand farewell to Souls games; threading the rich history of a cult classic gone supernova into a finale that serves as a fine reminder of what makes Souls games so great.
It’s open to interpretation to some degree, my personal take on it being somewhere in between. Already I don’t find I have the same urge to go back to do it all over again, whereas I had that thought process whirring away in my head long before the final boss of Demon’s and Dark Souls. Part of that is the overarching feeling of having seen all this before, but arguably better. It’s a fantastic ride while you’re deeply entrenched in it, no doubt about that, yet it undoubtedly suffers from being the fifth time we’ve seen this formula. That, and the technical issues are a bit aggravating.
Yes, there’s some incredibly bad slowdown, texture popping and all round jankiness to Dark Souls III that urinates in the party punch a tad. These, like with much of the faults with Dark Souls III, are barely of consequence when it matters most (slowdown only occurred in combat once for me, but boy was it a doozy; you might be familiar with if you’re a long time fan of the series), but the ‘charm’ of these niggles has begun to fade considerably with this being a prime opportunity to nix them.
I may have gone quite negative for a bit there, but Dark Souls III is honestly one of the finest games of the generation to date. All the pretenders to From’s crown still are unable to come close to nailing the appeal of Souls games because what that developer does with these games requires hard work and incredible attention to detail that few can match. The problem Dark Souls III has is in its heritage. It may stand tall over many within the industry, but by the standards its forebearers have set, this is an ever-so-slightly underwhelming end to a trilogy.