Of all the video game franchises in history, few can claim to have perfected masochism to an art form as Dark Souls has. After all, it’s an easy thing to murder a player time and time again, insulting their very skill or desire to continue a-la I Wanna Be the Guy. It’s another thing entirely to have a player stumble through a world of dead nightmares, but always forcing them to stop just shy of quitting out of sheer frustration. Dark Souls III sticks closely to that winning formula, yet FromSoftware has hardly been content to merely rest on its laurels, and has once more reworked its greatest strengths.
The core story again returns to the subject of the Age of Fire slowly sparking out, heralding in an era of undead monstrosities. While the subject remains as grey as ever, and it’s a path well trodden by this point, this latest game opts to shed new light on a different area of the mythos. Focusing upon the mysteriously absent Lords of Cinder and the empty thrones, which must be filled to link the fire once more, the subject of death and decay has taken on a new form.
The early sections revel in religious overtones, with many obvious and subject hints present as much in the environments as the enemies themselves. This is conveyed less through the expected witch-hunt or “power corrupts” motifs than past releases, and more the very act of worship itself. As you fight your way through the ruins of once proud cities, the sight of undead kneeling in desperate prayer in front of fallen idols becomes a common sight; even one of the most striking scenes from the first several hours originates from this, with many mourning the ashen corpse of a dragon. These moments offer more life to the world than an entire codex worth of lore, and offer no end of surprises thanks to the inner decay of the world and its inhabitants. Tumorous black parasites lurk within certain undead figures, bursting forth and transforming the average, unremarkable mook into a miniboss at a moments notice. Along with the greater mystery at work, as to just what these viscoid monstrosities are, it robs you of any real sense of safety at every turn.
While previously fans balked at the very suggestion that Dark Souls III might be somehow easier than its predecessors, it would be more truthful to say it’s simply more accessible. As you’re introduced to the game, the first few minutes see you facing little more than animated cadavers, each idle until you directly confront them. Easily isolated and ambushed, the first several minutes is little more than a casual walk through the crumbling mountain fortress, admiring its bleak beauty as you pick off the odd foe; at least until you run into a ten foot tall roadblock by the name of Iudex Gundyr. You see, Bloodborn threw the player into a nearly impossible fight, unarmed against a somewhat strong mook. By comparison, this game gives you a little time to find your bearings before throwing you headlong into a boss fight; a structure which allows veterans to breeze through the initial sections of the game, but allows new players to get to grips with the mechanics before bumping into their wake-up call boss fight.
In many regards the mechanics themselves can be viewed as a “best of” completion from past releases, picking and choosing from each prior release. While many elements, animations and ideas are lifted from the original release, more than a few of II’s refined concepts have been re-introduced here. The New Game+ options offering new foes and items, which completely reset your character, both make a welcome return, and the combat embraces the death or glory aggressive approach found in Bloodborne. This isn’t a game that reinvents the wheel but instead refines it, offering slicker and far tighter combat than prior Souls games. Much of the inherent chunkiness found within the dodging and projectile based mechanics has been finally ditched, resulting in far smoother boss fights without losing the classic risk-reward focus which made this series so engaging.
While subtly hidden, even the most narrow or seemingly linear environments offer plenty of opportunities for exploration, or new enemies. Among the aforementioned easy pickings of the undead, the opening two areas alone feature a Crystal Lizard on steroids – more akin to Godzilla than the pint sized loot piñatas fans know them as – and a lone maniac wielding a katana. These aren’t so much outright hidden as subtly kept to one side, specifically placed off of the beaten track so that they’re only met by players seeking new challenges, or possible loot. It’s in these moments that you can easily bump into a monstrosity you have almost no hope of beating, at least not without some serious over levelling or inventive use of the environment. Said katana wielding madman is one you’ll probably only beat first time around if you’re lucky enough to chuck him over a conveniently placed cliff top.
However, if there is one criticism to be levelled at Dark Souls III, it’s the game’s oddly forgiving nature. While the fights themselves will often result in evisceration, you’re rarely set back more than a few steps. Bonfires are so plentiful, especially in the early stages, you’ll be stumbling across one every five minutes or so, and the threat becoming hollow once posed has been severely lessened. There are certainly items, which can increase the risk of such corruption, but even then these come with an added bonus of gaining more power. For all its brutality, Dark Souls III doesn’t truly hamper the experience, but it can seem as if it’s unwilling to hold you back past having bosses disembowel you time and time again. It’s a minor quibble to be sure, but certainly an odd choice on the developer's part given the series’ lauded reputation.
Much like Dynasty Warriors or Legend of Zelda, by this point you know what you’re getting with a Dark Souls game. While a few elements bit be tweaked here and there or new ideas introduced, it will ultimately stand by what has worked in the past, and that’s true again here. If you’re invested at all in past gems released by FromtSoftware, if the first three hours of this game are anything to go by, you’ll be happily returning to a world of perpetual death in no time at all.
Dark Souls III is set for worldwide release on 12 April 2016, and will be available on PC, Playstation 4 and Xbox One.