For as much players tend to mythologize and fear the difficulty of the Souls games (which includes honorary member Bloodborne) I think they have always been more afraid of us. I’ve written before that these games have always tried to rework themselves to keep players in the dark. They beat players down, throw nasty surprises their way, obscure their plots, and throw in new kinks with each entry. Dark Souls turned Demon’s Souls level structure on its head by making its world one interconnected landmass; Dark Souls 2 made multiplayer a much bigger deal; Bloodborne threw aside the safety of a raised shield and pushed a more aggressive mindset. The worst thing a Souls game can do is only show you something you’ve seen before.
But those pivots have always served to deflect from the idea that these games all rely on a very familiar skillset. You find an enemy and target them. You roll out of the way of their spear and hit them with a weapon of your own. You enter an unfamiliar area expecting it to be as dangerous as the last one, so you raise your shield and head forward with trepidation. You spot out a boss’ patterns and wait for the right time to roll, block or parry their moves. Maybe there’s a “hidden” solution to killing a boss, and you figure that out. You smack at every wall you can find, hoping it’s a illusory one hiding treasure. You work your way down one path, only to find a dead end leading you back to where you started from. The rules may change between entries, but the techniques are the same. If a game didn’t throw a spanner into these works, someone might get bored. That’s what these games have always been afraid of.
Dark Souls III is the first game in the series to finally let go of that fear and embrace its familiarity. If we tear the game down into bullet points, it doesn’t bring a lot of new ideas to the table. Instead, it mashes together ideas from the rest of the series. Demon’s Souls’ mana gauge and central hub area return; you teleport among bonfires from the start of the game and upgrade your Estus Flasks the same way you did in Dark Souls II; every weapon you find has a new “Weapon Skill,” a nod to Bloodborne’s transforming swords and whips.
Dark Souls III is series developer From Software’s retrospective of its own series, and the homages are more than rule changes. An enormous dragon blocks a key doorway, roasting all the skeletal figures below them. There’s a roof full of archers with spear-sized arrows that will knock you off said roof. Priestesses resembling Mind Flayers patrol the halls of a dimly-lit prison. You trudge through poisonous swamp and framerate slows down. A ramshackle village at twilight evokes Hemwick Charnel Lane. The game’s biggest surprises don’t come from fighting a new enemy or figuring out an intricate puzzle, but recognizing something you’ve already seen. This whole game feels familiar.
That’s a little disappointing, considering From has always found some fundamental change to make each game unique. But without having to worry about adding a new hook, Dark Souls III can focus on building on the foundation of the series instead of shaking it. Before, it felt like the first half a Souls involved figuring out the new rules. This feels like the sequel to the original Dark Souls that neither Dark Souls II nor Bloodborne strived to be. Now that it can rely on players to find their footing in less time, Dark Souls III can focus on tweaking and editing with nuance.
This is what lets it revisit those ideas, building on them enough to make them feel worth playing again. The prison area feels as oppressive as it did in Demon’s Souls, but working through it is a hassle for the right reasons. In reworking bits from past games, Dark Souls III becomes the smoothest, most well put-together game in the series. Because let’s be honest, these games have always had obvious weak spots: everything after Anor Londo in Dark Souls. Demon’s Souls’ inventory and item system. Dark Souls 2’s bloat and lack of real home-run moments. Bloodborne’s limited combat options. Dark Souls III builds on its history and is a better game for it. Even the poison swamp area feels right this time around, and it doesn’t have any superfluous areas like Dark Souls’ Ash Lake.
Are there weird hiccups? Daunting enemies you can defang by luring them into spots they shouldn’t be and chipping away at them with impunity? Sure. Enemies with wings that you can kill by knocking them off cliffs? More than a few. But these moments now feel like exceptions rather than emblems of loose design. You’ll encounter more humanoid opponents who’ll roll, juke and run as quickly as you do. I found it hard to cruise by an area even after I’d already beaten it, and it took me longer than it usually does to get to a point where I felt like I wasn’t getting battered in every area. Some of the hardest encounters in the game don’t involve bosses at all.
But bosses, too, engage with more of the game’s formula than they ever have. One boss requires a special weapon to fight, while another is susceptible to a one-hit kill. And maybe this is just experience speaking, but I felt like I needed to use more of my moveset this time around. Some bosses forced me to roll, while others I had a better chance using my shield. Fast weapons worked on some, while others required longer, heavier weapons to even hit properly. Some I just needed to stay away from. There aren’t as many bosses as in Dark Souls II, but they all feel like a momentous occasion, and the breaks between them do a great job of building them up.
And if we want to find something unique to Dark Souls III, it might be how it makes its often obscure lore matter. The series told most of its story through its environments, its item descriptions, and occasionally, its cutscenes. The story in Dark Souls III rounds those bits out a bit more, pushing its tale of fire and ashes and history just a bit harder to get you to understand why you’re moving from one bonfire to the next. The tale of the Lords of Cinder feels like the most vivid story this series has told, and rather than make me feel like it was betraying the previous’ games subtlety, it made me more committed to seeking out how this game mattered in the context of the series. By the end, knowing what was going on made the finale a little more potent, and once I knew that this was all the Souls I might get for a while, I felt wistful.
Dark Souls III would be a fitting end to a videogame series, and we don’t get many of those. I enjoyed almost all of my time with it, but I’m not sure if I’d want another game like this to come by for a long time. As a comprehensive second draft of the best moments from the series, it left me with fond memories of everything I love about these games. And by sprucing up those moments, it gives new players a chance to finally understand why these games matter. It doesn’t make sweeping changes to the series’ structure or rhythms, but just this one time, it can get away with tugging at familiar heart strings. I came into this game hoping it wouldn’t be “just another Dark Souls game.” But I’m glad that’s what I got.
Dark Souls III was developed by From Software and published by Bandai Namco. Our review is based on the PC version. It is also available for Playstation 4 and Xbox One.
Suriel Vazquez is a freelance writer who’s read more than his fair share of books during server downtime. He’s written for Paste, ZAM, Playboy, and several others. You can follow him @SurielVazquez.