There’s a certain feeling of familiarity as you move through the first few areas of Dark Souls III. From the layout to the enemy design, and after a bit more time spent, even the bosses themselves. All of it seems to be calling back to another time, another place. It would be easy, and not terribly unexpected, to think that this is just a case of sequelitis and that From Software is simply running out of ideas.
However, as the game goes on, it becomes clear that this isn’t the case. Much like how the evolving enemy design of a game like Bloodborne could seem to be just a lazy way of making one kind of enemy into five, a cynical mind could find lots of reasons to be disappointed or disenchanted by the latest Souls title over its first 10 hours or so. That said, though, if you put the time in, and stretch your legs outside of the proving grounds, you’ll start to see that there’s a lot more going on here than you might’ve initially thought.
As with the four games that preceded it, Dark Souls III is full of surprises. For me, the moment when things first began to click into place was when I encountered a boss that seemed to be an amalgamation of three different bosses from the original Dark Souls: Artorias of the Abyss, Gwyn, Lord of Cinder, and the Four Kings. I won’t spoil how the fight was set up, or even which elements it borrows, but immediately, from this point on, it becomes clear that not all is as it seems.
In fact, Dark Souls III has by and large the most callbacks of any game in the series. You’ll see it in a tree that seems to resemble a giant, a city that looks like it could be a rebuilt version of one you’ve seen before, or an enemy brandishing a familiar weapon or piece of armor. Though it comes across as derivative in a lot of ways, especially at first, it’s actually quite the opposite, informing the design of large swathes of the game, and even seeming to play a part in the key message and theme of the narrative: the more things change the more they stay the same.
It’s impossible to determine exactly how many “cycles” have passed between Dark Souls III and it’s predecessors, and in a lot of ways it’s pointless to even try and hazard a guess. The point is that this is a world that feels lived in. It has a rich history, something that is clear in every catacomb, tomb, cave, and forest that you explore. Everything suggests something, whether it be a dilapidated piece of architecture or a forlorn shield left in a field of grass. Nothing is without purpose.
In this way, the world-building of Dark Souls III may be the finest example that the franchise has produced yet, and that’s saying something. The atmosphere drips from the screen in every environment, and the way that the areas branch and unite together, using the series’ trademark shortcuts and alternate paths, shows a team that has learned from the mistakes and missteps of previous titles.
But enough of the arty stuff, what everyone really wants to know is how the thing plays right? Well, let me assuage your concerns right from the get-go–this is the smoothest playing entry in the Souls saga by a long shot. Wanna dual-wield? Go to it. Focus on magic? By all means. You can keep your shield up at all times and play it like a veteran, or you can go the Bloodborne route and simply use dodges and rolls to keep your character out of harms way. More than ever before, there’s truly no wrong way to play Dark Souls.
Though a lot of the classics make returns, there is also a pile of new weapons and equipment to choose from, and each weapon also has a special skill or stance that makes it unique. Also new to the series is an upgrade called infusing, which allows the player to add a certain trait to their weapons such as poison or fire, and opens things up for a lot more customization.
Magic, meanwhile, returns to the more traditional, meter-based mechanics that the series premiered within Demon’s Souls. However, Estus, an item typically used for healing, can now refill your magic bar as well. The catch? You have to allot how many Estus flasks you want to reserve for your health, and how much you want to save off for your magic. This will largely depend on your play style, and how you focus your stat upgrades, but the strategy that this evokes in even something so small as item selection adds further depth to an already dense system.
In a series that is famous for not allowing you to take anything for granted (anyone who took a trip through Sen’s Fortress knows this firsthand from a certain notorious treasure chest and the slightly sinister elevator that followed), Dark Souls III adds, even more, wrinkles to the equation here as well. You’ll know what I’m talking about when you roll through a pile of vases in search of some loot and find that you’ve just released a series of homing projectiles that were being contained inside. Yeah, this is Dark Souls alright.
One thing that’s interesting about the series trademark difficulty here is that it’s on a bit more of a slant this time around. Dark Souls III doesn’t just hurl you into the deep end like previous iterations, instead imparting a very deliberate curve to the challenge that ramps it up gradually over the course of the first half of the game. When you reach a city with a gorgeously dark, blue-tinged sky, though, get ready, for as fans have been wont to scrawl on the ground since 2011: the real Dark Souls starts here!
For the hardcore fans that have greedily devoured and faced down every challenge thus far, though, worry not. The pain, misery, frustration, and eventual success model has not been removed, only adjusted. Where the challenge in previous titles might have been summed up as something like a reverse L, this time, it’s more like a backslash.
In the end, Dark Souls III is largely what you might expect it is if you’re a long-time fan of the series, and if you’re a new player, the game is gonna break you in a little easier than older titles in the franchise might have. It’s the best of both worlds and creates the most balanced difficulty curve yet. Veterans will feel like heroes for the first 10-15 hours while rookies won’t throw there controllers through their flat-screens 10 minutes in. It’s a win for everyone.
Just know that no matter how good you are, whether your an untested newbie or a battle-hardened hollow, don’t think for a second that this world doesn’t have a laundry list of surprises for you, most of them nasty. Dark Souls III will absolutely push you to the limit if you’re going to reach its closing credits. Not only that, its flawless design and balance will have you returning for New Game + eager to prove yourself anew.
Dark Souls III is everything you thought you wanted from a new Souls game, along with a few things you didn’t know you wanted. Like a parent, From Software absolutely knows what’s best for you, and in time you’ll see that this was always the case, you were just too naive to see it.