When Dark Souls was first released back in 2011, it basically set the gaming world on fire. The spiritual successor to Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls, took everything that gamers loved about its predecessor and turned it up to 11. With a new open-world format and the same addictive structure, Dark Souls became a genre-defining game and the ultimate experience of its ilk… until Dark Souls III, that is.
Hot off the heels of Bloodborne, Dark Souls III was able to ride two zeitgeists side by side. The first was the emerging genre of souls-like, a new gaming designation inspired specifically by the Soulsborne series of games. The other was a new, more precision-oriented flavor of action RPGs inspired by Bloodborne. On the wings of its own previous creations, FromSoftware was about to create an all-time great.
Cultivated as the final game in the Dark Souls series, Dark Souls III became a connective tissue of a game, a creation that would bring together not just each of the games in its respective series but Demon’s Souls and Bloodborne as well. It became the meta-context for every game that From had made since 2009.
Using a storyline similar to Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, Dark Souls III had each player’s worlds and the characters of the Dark Souls universe coalescing into a greater whole. It was an amalgamation of all forms of all things. With everything connected and converging, nothing was impossible.
Previously dead characters rose from the grave, ancient heroes were reanimated, and familiar locations popped up between this adventure’s new settings. In fact, the entire notion of this entry was predicated on the mythology of the series, a mythology that the player had played an integral part in creating. The central bosses were all beings who had risen to the heights of their age, linking the fire to preserve an ongoing light for future generations.
However, in doing so, each hero had unintentionally enacted a grievous wrong. As we’ve written about before, linking the fire is actually the wrong move in the original game, and anyone who dug into the lore would know that the seemingly “evil” ending of Dark Souls was actually the right thing to do all along. So some of the main bosses you’re fighting in Dark Souls III only exist due to the actions of players who have made this same wrong decision over and over, dooming the world even as they hoped to save it.
Of course, only one of these bosses, the end boss of the main game, is meant to delineate these other players clearly. The Soul of Cinder, who appears on the cover of the game, is quite literally an amalgamation of the players and characters who have failed this world since time immemorial. Though the Soul of Cinder begins the fight as a nameless hollow, he eventually morphs back into Gwyn, the end boss of the first game and the first character to make this endlessly recurring mistake.
By bringing him back as the final foe of Dark Souls III, FromSoftware creates a closed storytelling loop for players who have been following this series all along. It’s a common storytelling tradition to end a story where it began or revisit familiar territory so that fans will feel like they’ve completed a full circuit. By embracing this tradition, the ending chapter of the Dark Souls franchise doesn’t just create a satisfying conclusion; it also makes players feel like their experience mattered.
Naturally, this is all without mentioning the other disparate elements that make Dark Souls III one of the best games of its generation. As previously mentioned, Bloodborne‘s influence is all over this game. Though the Dark Souls franchise always leaned pretty hard into dark fantasy tropes, Dark Souls III has more outright horror elements than any other game in the series.
Take a single enemy, for example, the Lycanthrope. Massive, crucified beasts who not only drag a cross behind them but use it as a weapon, Lycanthropes show the way that Bloodborne‘s world and enemy design have colored the generally less intense world of Dark Souls. Dark Souls III also contains chanting cultists, enemies reanimated after dying from unimaginable tortures, and a series of horror-influenced bosses.
Bloodborne‘s fingerprints are seen in other places as well. Like Bloodborne‘s trick weapons, the adaptive weapons here allow players to engage in different combat forms without equipping another weapon. Simply tapping a button can switch your attack strategy from slow and steady to fast and frenetic in a blink.
Really it’s this intrinsic crossover feeling that sets Dark Souls III apart from the Soulsborne titles. Mixing not just storytelling elements but level, enemy, and boss design from the four entries that had preceded it offers Dark Souls III a perfectly unique feeling. It offers the best of all worlds and allows them to somehow coalesce into a whole that makes for maybe the strongest game in FromSoftware’s entire oeuvre.
Despite its many influences, Dark Souls III remains one of a kind 5 years later. The intense and intimate intersection between horror and fantasy, the final game in the Dark Souls series, sent the franchise off with a fabulous bang of style and sensibility. With two fantastic DLCs and a somewhat lively online presence even today, there’s no better time to go back and experience one of the greatest action RPGs of the previous gaming generation.