It’s been a long journey filled with many hardships, but finally, we have arrived at the final stop as far as the Souls series is concerned, with Dark Souls III. After the second entry left a few people feeling sour, I was interested in seeing how From Software sought to put the franchise back on top. A lot was changed around, a fantastic story was cooked up, and Dark Souls III hit store shelves in March 2016.
The Ashen One
Dark Souls III takes us to Lothric, a vast kingdom where the first flame, responsible for keeping the Age of Fire going, is housed. As the bells ring to indicate the coming end of the age, undead begin to rise up around Lothric. Its prince, the one responsible for linking the fire, refuses to do so, and the Lords of Cinder abandon their thrones, unwilling to help out. Players take on the role of an Ashen, an undead who failed to become a lord of cinder, and must travel the land of Lothric to gently persuade the prince and lords to get back to their thrones… nah I’m kidding. You’re gonna kill the lot of them.
The story of Dark Souls III intrigued me even more so than its predecessors, as we learn more about Lothric, its history, and the people who roam it through dialogue, item descriptions, and visual storytelling. It has by far some of the most interesting characters and places the series has seen so far and interactions between player and NPC that we haven’t seen from the series yet. Characters like Siegward, Sirris, and Anri feel much more like fellow adventurers this time around, rather than jovial summons you are obliged to help out at every turn.
You may sometimes feel a sense of deja vu, as characters like Siegward and Patches are revisits of familiar allies we have met before, and the story will also take you back to memorable places throughout the series. It’s blatant and I wasn’t too fond of it at first, but Dark Souls III has plenty of new content to back up its nostalgic shout-outs. Even if it was a copy-paste job, this would still be a major step up from the rather dry adventure that was Dark Souls II.
Story score: 8.5/10
Mana? In Dark Souls?!
I won’t go into too much detail on how Dark Souls plays, as its iconic blend of action-RPG with hack & slash gameplay should be familiar by now. Dark Souls III continues this legacy and is, once again, a challenging fantasy title that is certain to confront you with the famous message “YOU DIED” numerous times.
Players are again free to build up a character of their own, through investing souls into stats and finding gear and weapons hidden throughout Lothric. This process has been streamlined nicely, as Dark Souls III drops the adaptability stat and has a more balanced leveling progression throughout the game. There is also an emphasis on the weapons, which are more diverse than ever before and can be upgraded through various ascension paths that yield very specific benefits. It’s fun to try out and, in an interesting move, Dark Souls III drops armor upgrading entirely. All gear has static values, freeing up the titanite and souls you’d usually need for armor upgrades for something else.
In fact, a lot of quality of life improvements have been made, which makes Dark Souls III my favorite game to replay. The blacksmith is now present in the firelink shrine, meaning you waste zero time between starting the game and getting to upgrade yourself into your build. Firelink shrine also hosts the Fire Keeper, a young maiden who upgrades your estus flasks and lets you invest souls into stats, as well as an upgradeable vendor lady that buys and sells. As you venture into Lothric you’ll attract an increasing ensemble of adventurers, which will move in and out of the shrine as you interact with them and get side-quests going.
The controls are tighter than ever before and the level design in this third entry benefits from the experience the team garnered over the past entries. Levels and enemies are difficult, but due to clever layouts and positioning more than anything else. The levels have a nice flow to them and despite having to replay some parts many times, I never grew too annoyed or bored with them. Stages also rediscovered the more non-linear design of the first game, rather than the linear format we saw in Dark Souls II. On the flipside, the game has retained the more generous bonfire placements, so getting back to a boss that keeps beating you is a lot less frustrating than in either of the prior games.
Bosses, in general, are also some of the series’ finest and, while it wouldn’t be a Dark Souls game without some terribly stupid ones, most were a joy to fight. In fact, the DLC even has a boss I’d rank among my all-time favorites of any game. The more I played of Dark Souls III, the more it felt like the perfect realization of the series; the hard, but fair fantasy epic that drives players to keep trying until they can overcome its harsh difficulty. Everything from the levels to the enemies, to the controls, and the options available to the player are some of the finest the series has to offer, and the shout-outs to previous games are all tasteful and clever.
Gameplay score: 10/10
Gorgeous view ahead
From Software went beyond expectations with Dark Souls III. Always renowned for its beautiful vistas, this third entry leaves behind the grimier locales and has many stand-out locations. The Boreal Valley, Lothric Castle, The Dreg Heap, there are so many stunning areas to visit and you just now that when you lay your eyes on it, you’ll probably have to go there to get killed by lots of nasty stuff. And the monster design certainly isn’t far behind compared to the environments. FromSoft cooked up some seriously, hideous creatures, like the cage spiders, and the beasts in the Boreal Valley. There is plenty of body horror going on throughout the game, so beware those who tend towards being queasy.
Everything else that you’d expect is there. The animations, armors, and weapons all look great and, with armor upgrading now removed, it was much easier to get into the mood to play the old Fashion Souls and try out various looks for my character. Series composers Motoi Sakuraba and Yuka Kitamura return for this third installment as well to deliver a soundtrack that is a proper send-off to the series. Keep some tissues at the ready by the time you enter that final boss room because that music hits like a truck.
Presentation score: 10/10
Dark Souls III once again has a number of covenants players can join to engage in different forms of PvP, yet this time there are entirely no covenants available for singleplayer use. While I could still enjoy these covenants when I played and battle other players without hassle, this will change over time and render this part of the game useless once servers close down or people move on.
More interesting are the optional areas players can visit, both inside and outside of the DLC content. The hidden Archdragon Peak offers some really tough end-game content and an optional boss that I, personally, found many times harder than the game’s actual final confrontation. The DLC is interesting too, providing a whole, separate storyline with recurring characters throughout both DLC zones. The DLC is 100% absolutely worth it.
The main storyline enjoys several different endings and even gets away from the old “fire or dark” setup that was used in both previous titles. 4 distinct endings exist with different criteria for reaching them depending on your choices throughout the game. These different paths also come with unique NPCs and change the dialogue from existing ones, giving plenty of reason to consider revisiting the game.
Extras score: 8/10
Regardless of what Dark Souls you preferred before this one, Dark Souls III delivers on the best qualities of both. It has the interesting world, characters, and level design of the first, as well as the flair and quality-of-life improvements started by the second entry. It’s a fantastic game that serves to remind people that, despite the rising popularity of the Souls-like genre, From Software is still at the top of their own game.