I have a confession: before this year, I had never played a Souls game, unless you count the hour or so I spent with the first Dark Souls. In fact, before last year’s excellent Bloodborne, I had no interest in playing a Souls game at all, but thanks to Bloodborne’s engrossing world, the challenge-and-reward gameplay loop, and a driving desire to explore every nook and cranny of the well-realized universe, I now consider myself a fan of the series. Now that I’ve finished Dark Souls III, I could not be happier that I gave it a chance.
If you’re unfamiliar with the Souls series of games (a rarity these days, it seems), the central idea is that the player must make their way through a world populated by deadly enemies, hidden traps, and worse, as they light bonfires, defeat bosses, and uncover the hidden lore of the world. Infamous for its difficulty, the Souls series punishes reckless play and rewards the meticulous exploration of its environments. Dark Souls III sticks closely to this formula, but that is not a complaint. After all, why fix what isn’t broken?
When approaching this review, I had trouble deciding where to start. Do I talk about the memorable boss fights? How about the looping, dense level design packed full of secrets? The wide variety of weapons and armor sets make viable a huge number of potential builds. But the thing about Dark Souls III that impacted me most was the world itself. Lothric, Irithyll, and the surrounding areas are gorgeously realized, littered with vague hints, in true From Software form, to the overarching story.
The game offers up stunning vistas (my favorite being the view of Irithyll of the Boreal Valley), often as a reward for making it though a particularly punishing stretch. In a game absolutely ripe with powerful weapons and hidden secrets, the promise of a new locale stands toe-to-toe with any physical reward Dark Souls III is capable of offering. It is a rare thing for a game world to entice the player as wholly and thoroughly as Dark Souls III has for me; truly, this is one of the most beautiful games I have ever played.
Mechanically, it is very difficult to find anything to complain about here. Any grievances I could possibly muster would simply be nitpicking, like the way I was sure I was stealthy enough to land a backstab on that one Cathedral Knight, but instead he launched his glowing morning star into my skull sending me back to the bonfire. For a game that requires as much precision as Dark Souls III, I never felt that the controls were to blame for any of my numerous deaths.
There are a number of ways to build your character, from a spell-slinging sorcerer to bulky, brutish knight. Between pyromancies, miracles, archery, ultra greatswords, shields, and more, the number of viable character types is impressive. A far cry from Bloodborne’s fairly limited build options, Dark Souls III’s ability to cater to all manner of play styles is one of its strongest points. Each potential build has a huge number of weapons at its disposal, another difference from Bloodborne’s comparatively paltry twenty-something offerings.
Monster design was one of Bloodborne’s strong suits, and I was happy to see that Dark Souls III has done nothing to sully that legacy. A host of memorable creatures populates the world, each more disturbing than the last. Standouts include a quadruped with a salivating hand for a head, a cage filled with writhing bodies, and stoic black knights who wait stone-still until you wander too near.
The fantastic design extends to the bosses as well. Dark Souls III boasts some of the most memorable boss fights this side of Shadow of the Colossus. Without spoiling too much, suffice it to say that a huge fire demon wielding a flaming club wouldn’t even make my top five fights of the game. Each boss presents a new challenge to the player, and builds upon all the skills they’ve been honing over the course of the game, culminating in a couple of boss encounters that, once bested, result in the feeling that you have accomplished a great deal.
The environments are well thought-out, designed in such a way that they often loop back around themselves. Unlocking a new shortcut is usually a cause for celebration thanks to shorter boss runs or easy access to other areas of the world. The shortcuts feel less important in Dark Souls III than they did in Bloodborne, however. There are more bonfires this time around, and by the time I unlocked a gate that had been taunting me for an hour or so, I had also found another bonfire, making the shortcut feel a bit superfluous. Still, unlocking a new secret is its own form of reward and feels good nonetheless.
There are few franchises that endure the amount of scrutiny leveled at Dark Souls. Fans of the series demand a certain level of quality, difficulty, and replay value. Without having played previous entries, I can say that Dark Souls III certainly clears a very high bar, and for me that’s enough. It was a rewarding experience, and is one that I plan on returning to for Journey 2.