Yes, I know, I know. Gareth’s already told you how excellent the latest Dark Souls game is – in fact, you can read his full review here. And I’m not going to disagree. But Gareth himself admitted that he’d never played a Souls title before and as such, his review assessed Dark Souls III on its stand-alone merits. See, for want of a better word us Dark Souls fans are a tad… pedantic. We like what we like and we don’t like it when that changes too much. In this article, I’ll focus on how Dark Souls III fits into the series. I’ll look at the story, the new gameplay mechanics and the world of Lothric. More importantly, I’ll tell you whether From-Software’s latest outing measures up to its predecessors.
For starters, the original Dark Souls took a great deal of inspiration from horror and gothic tales. Enemies were atrocious and deformed, the world was dark and foreboding; the game treaded a very fine line between scary and interesting. The game was also left to the player’s discretion. While there is an optimal route of progression, there wasn’t much stopping players from taking whatever paths they desired. Dark Souls II, on the other hand, removed the monsters and instead players faced big dudes with big weapons in big armour. True, the enemies were fun and challenging, but, on the whole, they lacked the terrifying intrigue that made Dark Souls so incredible. Now, Dark Souls II was still great, mostly because it made the series more accessible. The structure of Drangelic actually gave the player some direction. The bonfire-travel mechanic removed an unnecessary inconvenience from gameplay. And the addition of Majula – as a base of operations – provided welcome respite for the oppressive world.
Dark Souls III takes the best of both these games. The initial mood is reflective of the original game, with the hollowed lurking around decrepit ruins. But the game’s first boss – Iudex Gundyr, who appears about 10 minutes into your playthrough – is a massive knight akin to the enemies from the second game. When this boss reaches half health, however, he morphs into an almost indescribable snake-tar-monster. Until this point, the fight is fairly straightforward: learn his attacks, then dodge them and attack when you can. But mutated Gundyr is different to bosses we’ve seen in previous Souls games. He’s fast and he doesn’t fight with a routine. He’s dynamic and symbolic of Dark Souls III as a whole.
From Software’s newest release takes the best parts from its predecessors, it combines them and expands upon them to create one of the most engaging worlds the series has seen. Lothric takes the breathtaking views and the daunting sense of the sublime that we’ve grown to expect from the series, and it amplifies them. Entering the Catacombs of Carthus, you’ll feel dizzy at the sight of the gaping abyss below you. You’ll realise the magnitude of your quest when you arrive at the High Wall and see, for the first time, the chaotic world below. From the Profaned Capital, to Archdragon Peak: the level design in Dark Souls III simultaneously fulfilled and defied my expectations. Perhaps what made these levels so appealing was their fluidity. When the haunting darks of the Profaned Capital become tiresome, you’re transported to the once-dignified Anor-Londo. The noxious wilds of the Road of Sacrifices juxtapose the crumbling cathedrals of the Boreal Valley. In fact, as dark and horrific as Dark Souls III is, it couples every bit of darkness and horror with brightness and beauty – or at least, what would once have been bright and beautiful. This balance allows Dark Souls III to combine the polarised environments of its predecessors and raise the franchise to a new height.
Of course, there’s more to Dark Souls III than combining pre-existing factors. In true Dark Souls fashion, the game is most dazzling in its boss battles. An amazing amount of thought and detail has gone into producing these situations. And like most things in Dark Souls III, are worthy of the franchise. The Pontiff Sulyvahn and Twin Princes battles are some of the hardest I’ve faced in the franchise. Conversely, Yhorm the Giant seemed initially insurmountable, but once I discovered his hidden secret, the fight was a distinct change of pace. It was fun, simple and required thought rather than perseverance and timing. Perhaps Dark Souls III’s most dazzling boss is an optional one. At the top of Archdragon Peak, sits the Nameless King, who, with his Wyvern, poses the hardest challenge Dark Souls has seen. As dazzling, and as dazzlingly difficult as this fight was, the Abyss Watchers were the game’s greatest achievement. The Watcher’s, themselves, are formidable, and at first glance they’re discouraging. But as I approached the fight, the once valiant warriors began fighting and killing each other. Of course, I was left to fight their surviving champion. But once I succeeded and once the adrenaline wore off – and I realised how important that scene was to the franchise – it painted a scene, perfectly reflecting the themes of collapse that have been such a large part of the twisted Souls universe.
Dark Souls III also features certain minor developments including the addition of weapon arts – weapon exclusive skill sets that are incredibly useful. These weapon arts play a large part in deciding your weapon of choice. And, as they are available to enemies as well, weapon arts diversify combat. They do, of course, take some getting used to. But they’re an appreciated resource in Dark Souls III’s fast paced combat.
The story is exactly what we’ve come to expect – minimalist and obscure – and to properly immerse yourself you’ll have to spend hours reading, exploring and paying close attention. Like the Dark Souls comics – that we’ve reviewed – there’s easter eggs and cameos that only long-time players will recognise. And Dark Souls III features greater NPC characterisation and more immersive questlines than its forerunners.
It also features the Transposing Kiln, which allows certain souls to be transposed into special weapons. Like many of Dark Souls III’s features, The Kiln provides players with incentive for exploration and reward for their hard work. In the quest for better weapons, I discovered the game’s secret areas and, subsequently, some of its best bosses. You’ll receive the Kiln after slaying Curse Rotted Greatwood, and with it you’ll obtain some of the game’s best and most interesting weapons; the Dragonslayer Greataxe, for instance, will play a large part in your survival both on-and-offline.
On the topic of online play, I’ve always seen Souls multiplayer as a refuge for the community’s truest sadists and truest philanthropists. If you fancy making the Dark Souls experience more morose than it already is, you can invade the world of an unsuspecting – or sometimes suspecting – player and kill them. Similarly, if the challenge of defeating the various bosses wasn’t enough, then you can place your summon sign and do other people’s dirty work for them. Now, I am not an aspiring hitman, nor am I an aspiring laundry maid. So, short of facing off invaders, I never really partook in the multiplayer side of the franchise. But I promised to check out the online component of this game, so, once I finished the story I went out to spend some time being a bastard.
Now, there is a system to online matchmaking – you can only invade players of a similar level. But, like most things Dark Souls, success isn’t so much a product of your level – it’s a product of whether or not you’ve gotten gud. And in multiplayer, ‘getting gud’ is synonymous with ‘discovering which build is most overpowered and exploiting it’. At my time of playing, this meant equipping Armour of Thorns and the Dark Sword then rolling, stomping and swinging your way to victory. The experience was a telling one: I discovered new tricks and developed more skills. But more importantly, amongst the irritation and exploitation, I learnt that in Dark Souls III, there’s more to online play than simply being a pest.
See, Dark Souls III’s online play works in accordance with covenants. However, this idea has grown since Dark Souls II. Now covenants have history and purpose; they call players to act in certain circumstances, forcing unity in an otherwise morally bankrupt world. By adding lore to the various covenants, From Software have given players a sense of duty. Essentially you pledge allegiance to certain covenants, and are charged with a responsibility: Watchdogs of Farron protect Farron Keep, Warriors of Sunlight help the needy and the Mound-Makers are simply murderers. Not only do these covenants direct players’ actions, they actually encourage online play. Dark Souls has very much been a single player experience, and its online component gained traction because certain people were assholes. As far as the series’ gameplay goes, the multiplayer was very much a weak link, but this time round, covenants provide motivation. I, for instance, was relatively disinterested in the idea, but upon discovering the Old Wolf of Farron, I quickly changed my mind. Camaraderie and purpose are amazing draw cards, and Dark Souls III has profited on their appeal and finally created an online experience worthy of the Dark Souls brand.
If you’ve read my previous articles, you’ll know that I love the Souls series. So it should speak volumes when I say that this is the best installment yet. Usually games as distinct as the Souls games run the risk of becoming formulaic. Luckily Dark Souls III avoided this. In it, I see everything I’ve loved about the franchise, yet the game still feels fresh. The combat is faster than what we’ve previously seen. The world is detailed and rich with lore. I’ve been playing Dark Souls III for 40 hours and I’m nowhere near done; there’s more to see and I’m still excited to see it.
Now let’s address the elephant in the room because I know you’ve all heard the rumours that this will be the final Dark Souls series. I’m just as attached to the Souls worlds as anyone, but I also believe that it’s better to go out on top. Yes, it would be sad to see the end of this phenomenal franchise. But the Souls games have burned bright, receiving both critical acclaim and a cult following. So, if the series is going to conclude in the foreseeable future, then Dark Souls III is a worthy note on which to end this age of fire.
Dark Souls III had big shoes to fill, and it filled them so well its toes are bursting out.