Welcome adventurer, to Dark Souls III and Lothric. The seat of the Lords of Cinder who have risen as the First Flame flickers at Firelink Shrine. A new unkindled has arisen as apocalyptic events unfold, sending each of the Lords across the land and to be hunted and placed back on their thrones. In a sprawling land of beautiful, twisted and ruined architecture, you are the only hero of the Dark that can complete this monumentous task… If you have the guts, that is.
Dark Souls III returns to a more recognisable form since 2014’s DSII. When you finally touch down in Firelink Shrine after a short, but challenging introduction to Lothric, the setting reeks of Souls games of the past. The Demon’s Souls style hub contains everything you need to begin your adventure. A bonfire for travelling into the unknown, a Fire Keeper that will help you strengthen your character as you claim the souls of the undead, the collected NPC’s that you’ll encounter on your journey into the varied locations of the world and the five thrones of the Lords of Cinder, where you’ll place their remains one by one in order to restore… Well, that would be telling you too much, wouldn’t it?
With a few nods back to previous games in the series, there are many mechanics that will be familiar. From DSII, the fast travel bonfires are back, allowing you to use the Shrine’s central flame as a way to teleport between all the areas you’ve visited in Lothric. Upgrading is the same as every iteration of the series in you will talk to an NPC and will exchange her knowledge for souls. Blacksmith Andre and his mighty West Country accent is also present in the shrine from the get go, helping you to hone your weapons and keep them pointy enough to penetrate the armour of the undead. One thing to mention quickly here, is that this time, there’s no armour upgrading. Instead, you’ll choose which set suits your play-style best and more than likely, stick with it through a large chunk of the game until a suitable attire to make you a bit beefier presents itself or you need protection from a certain type of status effect. I didn’t like this at first until I realised that I was just as squishy a third of the way into Dark Souls III as I was when I set foot into the Cemetery of Ash and armour was more of a way to set your agility and toughness in certain fights.
As ever, if not more, Lothric is an epic landscape of stunning scenery, ranging from mighty castle ramparts littered with statues and ornate staircases to ruined, dilapidated shacks surrounded by trees with not so rosy fruit hanging from them. A torch-lit, trap-filled labyrinth complete with the bones of the dead lining the floor, crunching underfoot as you try desperately to listen for enemies patrolling along the tight corridors. The towering steeples, keeps and garrisons of Anor Londo also make a return… As a game scenery junkie, complete with a button to take instant screenshots, I’m in heaven all over again. From Software are one of the few developers who can capture both beauty and misery in it’s storytelling through visuals and anyone who plays these games for just that will not be disappointed, despite the similarities to previous Dark Souls games.
The aesthetic design also follows across to it’s inhabitants. Hollow, undead and monster alike, with a hell of a lot more variance than the last outing. The usual zombies, skeletons and slugs are present, along with knights, giant rats and lizards. It’s the variance in the bosses that are truly striking however. Each has it’s own style, both visually and mechanically. No more series of fights where dodging behind for a quick swipe at their arse is the way to go (rarely). There are around 18 bosses in total and most have some gimmick that needs to be satisfied before you can claim their ever-so-useful souls. Early on, you’ll encounter a giant ent-like monster, surrounded by ever spawning undead. While slashing at his limbs will knock a small portion of health from him, there are egg-sacs on his extremities and spotted on parts of his body. While dodging, kiting and running in for a quick swing, aiming for these is the quickest way to dispatch him, rather than poking away at him. Dark Souls III definitely offers more variety in it’s epic battles than it’s predecessor.
The difficulty varies too, with quite a few bosses leaving you crushing an ember, the replacement for humanity, that gives you more health and allows you to summon other players for a bout of jolly co-operation when the need arises. While the system has changed little and bringing in some help when you only have a few hairs left on your bleeding, balding scalp is absolutely necessary, the multiplayer aspect of Dark Souls III is still one of the most interesting concepts of recent online gaming. There are also a few unique things added with the new covenants allowing you to take a certain stance in the world, the best one being the Mound-Makers. Summoning one of the purple NPCs or players is a bit of a gamble, since they tend to be able to act outside the limits of a normal white, gold or red phantom. See, you know where you are when you bring a white guy into your game to help you rid the area of it’s boss and the same when you are invaded by the malevolent red phantoms. You can steel yourself and prepare against attack. With a Mound-Maker, they can do whatever they please, whether it be scourging the land of evils and helping rid you of invaders or, they can just as easily wait until your back is turned and stick a knife in it, all the way to the hilt, probably laughing while doing so as they can claim the souls they’ve just helped you farm… Bastards.
While not many players will be confident enough to allow one of these fellas into your world, it adds a nice layer of tension to the co-operative part of your game. It’s always a good feeling when you best an invader, but one that you’re unsure of, well, it’s extremely satisfying to turn the tables on someone pretending to be a friend than someone who you know is a definite adversary, honour or no.
The gameplay is as familiar as you remember: careful planning, using your memory to navigate difficult areas and learning attack patterns so you can dispatch enemies with simple grace. Upgrade your character with souls, your weapons with Titanite and gems, unlock winding routes back to earlier areas, read all the descriptions of items and talk to the cackling cadre of NPCs so you can get a better grasp of the lore and push the story forwards and just plain enjoy the masochistic journey. The combat feels a bit less weighty though, and sometimes it feels as though Bloodborne has had a bit too much input for the slow, precise form of the Souls series.
Certain enemies, as always, have combinations. These combinations used to either be dodged and backstabbed or blocked and countered, usually ending momentarily while their stamina replenished. In Dark Souls 3, it sometimes feels like some of the faster beasties don’t have a stamina cap and can relentlessly pound away at you until your green bar empties and they continue their assault, murdering you easily in the process. This is the first time in these games outside of boss fights that I’ve encountered a slight bit of imbalance. There are hooded skeletons in the Catacombs of Carthus that vanish, charge, slash and do a jumping somersault while throwing knives at you and they just don’t seem to stop for breath. It does take a while to get used to their attacks, but a slight mismanagement in keeping your stamina up and you’re a goner. I won’t complain too much, as the series is well known for it’s challenging gameplay… It just felt a bit off compared to previous adventures as an unkindled.
The second and final problem is that while most of Lothric is extremely well put together in level design, there are a couple of nagging areas that seem to have been hastily crammed in to make the location bigger then it seems. The most telling of these is the Crucifixion Woods, which begins quite well and then ends up being a giant pool of mutated crabs. It’s a nice area for a bit of long range PvP, but it just seemed a bit lazy to me. Despite this being out of place, the Woods also contain a keep with strategically placed undead which was fun to tiptoe through. The swampy area just gave off a feeling of the developers trying to fit something in and giving up.
With only a couple of minor flaws, Dark Souls III slots perfectly into the series as a fitting end, again, offering a compelling adventure and sometimes heart-stopping battles that will remain in your memory forever. No one has come close to repeating the success of From Software with the Souls series and it’s a shame to say that this might be the last time we see the linked fires of their doom-laden, gorgeous worlds. Hopefully, From have ideas to continue it’s legacy with more Bloodborne and a continuation of Demon’s Souls, but until then, I’ll be content with repeating my travels through Lordran, Drangleic and Lothric in all their wonderful glory.
Dark Souls III is a perfect end to an almost perfect series. There is nothing that could persuade me to tell you not to part with your cash. If you haven’t played any of the previous games, there’s not too much to worry about in terms of continuity, it’s easy enough to go back and play the others and fill in the blanks. Right, I’m off to see what hidden wonders New Game + has to offer… Oh I didn’t mention that? There’s more to uncover on multiple playthroughs. Muahahahaha!