Video game franchises have a way of running themselves into the ground. They either repeat a tried-and-true formula, pile features upon features ad nauseam, or straight-up remake past glories. FromSoftware’s Souls series (spanning, so far, Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls, Dark Souls II, and tangentially Bloodborne), a staggeringly original and singular RPG at its birth, has - according to creator Hidetaka Miyazaki - finally reached its death bed with Dark Souls III. The resultant game is best described as a compilation album, drawing upon all its predecessors to attempt to finally perfect the Souls experience.
For newcomers - for whom Dark Souls III can happily serve as an introduction to the series - Souls has always revolved around three pillars: atmospheric and intricate world design; sparse and sorrowful fantasy storytelling; and precise, uncompromising combat. It’s popularly known for its difficulty, but that’s more an effect of those three design pillars than a pillar itself. Dread and wonder unify all of these games, both of which can be found equally in discovery and death. And it was with dread and wonder that my handsome character Cornelius Corndog rose from his grave and delved into the decaying kingdom of Lothric.
Like its antecedents, Dark Souls III starts out in a undead medieval world that's pretty ordinary as undead medieval worlds go, before gradually spiralling into a hell of magic, monsters, and mutilation. Its story is told through detailed environmental and enemy design, in-menu descriptions of items, and interactions with non-player characters. It concerns, I think, an age where the lords keeping light and dark in balance have abdicated responsibility, leaving their world to rot. Whether my interpretation of the game’s story clues is “correct” is questionable and beside the point - the story is meant to be opaque, its meaning different for every player.
Lothric is surprisingly densely populated with NPCs. They tell a wide variety of side stories, making up a rich tapestry of plot that becomes clearer the more you uncover. As you meet these weird folks, they show up at the Demon’s Souls-esque hub area, turning it into a dingier version of Mass Effect’s Normandy, full of characters to talk to and receive quests or items from. These NPCs are weird and inscrutable and oddly loveable, with purple dialogue and theatrical voice acting that would straight-up ruin a more naturalistic game. Though many of their stories are characterised by the Souls brand of despair, some buck that trend delightfully, occupying oases of warmth, tenderness, and even humour amidst the gloom.
And what glorious gloom! Though it lacks the sublime interconnectedness of Dark Souls’, Dark Souls III’s world is characterised by grandness, detail, and intricacy. Each area is huge and complex, often vertiginous in verticality, and designed with an eye to player progress. You’ll frequently be offered outlooks over large expanses of the world, which prick the “I can go there?!” curiosity the series is known for and give a sense of the sheer scale of these areas. Dark Souls III offers some of the most stunning vistas of the series, often delivered at the end of claustrophobic indoor sequences. Granted, some areas - like an inevitably bland swamp or the underground areas unpleasantly reminiscent of Bloodborne’s generic Chalice Dungeons - fare less well, but the sacked villages and grand cities of Dark Souls III - not to mention its bountiful secret areas - offer intriguing sights and storytelling alike.
FromSoftware clearly learned from the criticisms of Dark Souls II with the new enemy roster. Though the initial mobs seem to come straight outta Yharnam, later enemies number among the studio’s weirdest creations yet. Body parts and animals get twisted in stomach-churning ways. Seemingly ordinary enemies sprout gargantuan, Lovecraftian tendrils. Obese preachers with enormous ruffs sing to you before burning you alive. One enemy type apparently burrows maggots into you, causing lasting blood loss. Some of these nasties are genuinely unnerving, while many are simply obnoxious, aggressively spamming attacks or ganging up in groups. But even when encountered alone, enemy AI has been improved, with expanded movement and attack abilities designed to punish common tactics. Yeah, they’re all bastards.
Boss design is similarly varied. While some are inevitably remixes of previous favourites (expect yet another return of one of Dark Souls’ most feared and loved baddies), many bring along imaginative surprises, both in their visual design and their gameplay mechanics. Most bosses feature unique twists on the tried-and-true “giant pool of health” formula, and all of them feature multiple stages where the mechanics or the entire playing field can change dramatically. Some of my favourite boss battles in Souls have come from this game, as well as the most rage-inducing – sometimes both at once.
That brings us to the nitty-gritty of the combat, onto which series purists pour just as much scrutiny as they do the games' lore. The basics are still the same - attack, dodge, block, riposte, repeat - but a host of refinements make the combat a satisfying touch deeper. The banner feature is Weapon Arts: a generic term for special attacks, abilities, and buffs that vary from weapon to weapon and use up the new, blue mana bar. These range from massive greatsword golf-swings to rapid bow shots to simple damage increases. While I’m sure Weapon Arts are useful choices in the constant push-pull of risk and reward, I barely ever used any. Your mileage may vary, particularly if you play as a magic user. What I did use is the guard-breaking kick (returning from Dark Souls) and charged attacks (returning from Bloodborne). The one thing I really missed was Dark Souls II’s dual-wielding mechanic - it’s replaced by specific paired weapons, which just don't have the mix-and-match quality of the last game's system.
But that paragraph is for Souls nerds only. The important thing about combat is that it can mould to your desired playstyle. You can use an up-close sword-and-board setup, or go ranged with bows or magic. You can equip heavy armour to absorb damage, or play a nimble, sprightly naked warrior. Most importantly, you can choose to fight aggressively (and you’ll often need to, as this game has inherited Bloodborne’s pacier combat), or you can do what I do and be over-cautious and methodical. Hey, that’s just how Cornelius Corndog (dodge-) rolls.
Multiplayer is as devious and rewarding as ever in Dark Souls III, with a number of tweaks geared towards creating dynamic encounters. The invasion system is intact, allowing players to invade other players’ games (provided they're in the oddly empowering "Ember" state), and so is co-operative play, with all the backstabby trolling and honour systems that come with. It’s finally easier to connect to friends now, thanks to a password-matching system inherited from Bloodborne. The game’s numerous covenant allegiances largely exist to facilitate better multiplayer - particularly the new Mound Makers covenant. That covenant's purple phantoms, when summoned, can “win” either they help the host kill a boss, or when they kill the host. It’s a clever twist reminiscent of The Division’s great Dark Zone multiplayer area, provoking tense will-they-won’t-they encounters, and YouTube is bound to be littered with dramatic purple phantom betrayal videos in the months to come.
Where Dark Souls III truly reveals its sequelitis is in its fanservice. Perhaps because it’s the closing chapter in this loose saga, it’s positively packed with callbacks to previous titles, from items to characters to lore and even whole areas. Suffice it to say that fans of the musical career of Polygon writer Justin McElroy will be well pleased. Certain design decisions will either make fans coo with delight or glumly ponder the lack of originality. And while the fan-facing characters and situations certainly link the games thematically, there's perhaps little too much fanservice for a series known for its inventiveness.
FromSoftware’s latest is typical of game sequels in that it's a refinement, not a revolution. This series’ lore is so dense and so vague in its connections that there really isn’t a “best” place to jump in, so newcomers might as well do so with this, the most polished game in the series. Veterans will relish the fresh challenges and twists, while reactions to the references to Soulses past will vary per player. But for all players, make no mistake: this is Dark Souls. What you get out of it is proportional to what you put in. For Cornelius Corndog, that's likely to be a hundred hours or so.