Dark Souls III is an unhealthy addiction. So much, in fact, that I’m finding it difficult to take time away from playing it to write this review. Though the journey is often frustrating, complex, and completely unfair, it’s one perfectly designed to challenge players and reward their hard-fought victories. Whereas Dark Souls 2 was divisive, Dark Souls III is a return to everything players loved about the original, aside from some of the modernization that has come with recent iterations.
The kingdoms of Dark Souls have never been in a happy state of affairs, but by Dark Souls III the world has begun to spiral towards apocalypse. Familiar locales, such as Anor Londo, no longer have the look of a kingdom recently abandoned, but rather are falling apart, utterly devoid of peaceful life, and seem to be at the final stage of their utter collapse. The narrative of Dark Souls III is equally bleak, which follows the efforts of “The Unkindled” to seek the Lords of Cinder and return them to their thrones, in an effort to save humanity. The overall aesthetic ups the ante for all of the series’ primary themes of chaos, hopelessness, and the coming apocalypse, which gives Dark Souls III a unique tone for what may be the final entry in the franchise as we know it.
The mechanics of the Dark Souls series have improved with each new game, and Dark Souls III is no exception in this regard. For the first time in the series, I felt like each character attribute was truly valuable, and I found myself agonizing over each important decision. Combat has also been improved via a greater number of weapons, spells, shields, and rings, as well as a new feature called “battle arts,” which gives weapons unique attack options. The combat feels a little faster than previous entries, a little more balanced, and slightly more varied, and each encounter has the potential to kill the player, which keeps one on their toes.
Countering the new tools in the player’s arsenal are a massive new roster of enemies with a diverse range of behaviors. Gargoyles will fly above the player, stabbing downward with a spear, swamp creatures will jump in the air and pounce on the player, and some enemies will invisibly creep toward the player, attacking with the element of surprise when the time is right. When it comes to gameplay, Dark Souls III embodies a next-gen Dark Souls experience in every regard.
The way you choose to play in the Dark Souls series has always greatly impacted the player experience, but it has never been very fair. For example, in the original Dark Souls game, playing as a pyromancer was notoriously easy to exploit to complete the game with relative ease. Dark Souls III has solved many of these problems with the new magic system, which it seems to have borrowed from Demon’s Souls, with much greater success than the original iteration. Now magic power is required in order to cast a spell, and the bar only recharges when the player consumes an Ashen Estus Flask, a new item made specifically for this purpose. However, each player must decide how many of their Estus Flasks will be filled with magic fuel, or the regular health fuel that players have come to know and love. This fixes many of the former balance issues involving the use of magic in the series, and comes alongside several other fixes like it.
Boss fights are always a topic of enormous discussion among the Dark Souls community, and knowing this, From Software seems to have put a ton of focus in this regard, especially when it comes to variety and challenge. There are traditional boss encounters, which are incredibly challenging straightforward fights, gimmicky bosses, which introduce an interesting concept that requires the player to find a solution to a problem, and lore-focused fights that are more about resolving a narrative plot than anything else. It’s a mix that has always existed in the series, and Dark Souls III handles it very well. That said, there are a few boss fights that are just not very interesting, which can be said of any Souls game, though it’s still worth noting.
As has always been the case with the Dark Souls series, there are technical issues, especially when it comes to framerate, which dips in areas with many enemies, or a bunch of items are breaking, or some other intensive circumstance arises. While this has almost come to be expected in the series, it’s disappointing to see the issue still arise on the first Souls game built exclusively for next-gen consoles.
Many of the most divisive elements of Dark Souls 2 seem to have been directly addressed in its successor. An abundance of boring humanoid bosses, anti-grinding mechanics that have enemies permanently disappear after 15 kills, and fairly unchallenging mechanics that help the player just a little too much (I’m looking at you, Lifegems) have all been addressed, along with countless other issues. Even the story of Dark Souls III feels like a direct sequel to the original Dark Souls, only paying passing tribute to the contributions of Dark Souls 2.
Since Dark Souls III is a return to what players love, it has a lot in common with previous Souls games, which can become a bit of a drag for those feeling a little burned out from what has almost become a semi-annualized series at this point. Some environments feel very familiar to previous entries, and a fair amount of enemies make their return without any notable alterations. At times, it can feel like shameless fan service, or an attempt to induce nostalgia in the hearts of players, but for the most part Dark Souls III successfully reminds players why they fell in love with the series in the first place, without resting on their laurels in creating the third entry.