Though on the surface Dark Souls 3 may look like a dull retread of old ideas it is actually the strongest entry in the Souls series so far (including Bloodborne). The combat mechanics, online play, summoning system and graphics have all been tweaked to perfection, with elements being lifted and developed upon from all of the previous Souls games and the world of Lothric is by far the most cohesive From Software have ever created. After the misstep that was Dark Souls 2 it’s great to the series regain its footing. That’s not to say things are perfect, some of the boss fights are far too easy and are just a let-down and the Souls formula feels pretty tired by the end of the game.
You awaken as an Ashen One, an undead whose job is to hunt down The Lords of Cinder, defeat them and return them to their thrones so they may keep the flame kindled and prevent the world from plunging into an all-consuming apocalypse. The story is classic Dark Souls, bare boned and cryptic, leaving the player to explore the world and piece things together if they wish to discover the full extent of the story. There are many characters, both friend and foe, with interesting stories and all are portrayed with the Souls series’ uniquely offsetting vocal style. It is possible to recruit some of these characters to aid your journey, offering items, services and tidbits of advice and story.
The core hack and slash gameplay returns but with a few twists. The most prominent one is the increased sense of speed, no doubt inspired by Bloodborne. Fear not, the game still feels like Dark Souls but there is a larger emphasis on speed with a greater reliance on dodging with back stepping and rolling. It takes a little while to get used to but once you’ve adjusted you’re left with a wealth of defensive options and, if mastered, the new style can be used to dance around your foes. It’s From Software’s own twisted ballet.
There is also a strong emphasis on dual wielding which goes hand in hand with the increased speed of the game. I tend to play Souls games as a heavily armoured knight, parrying attacks and soaking up damage like a sponge before using the largest weapon I can find to carve or bludgeon my enemy. Now I’m more inclined to experiment with lighter armour and different weapon sets. With the addition of Estus flasks for your magic bar and a renewed focus on magic I may even be tempted to create a magic wielding character for a future play through. There are also Weapon Arts, which grant special attacks and abilities at the cost of your magic – these are great fun to experiment with and further deepen Dark Souls’ already rich combat system.
The best thing about this game is its world. Lothric is vast and varied but feels cohesive, like a world, living but on the brink of annihilation. From Catacombs, to castles, to swamps and snow bound towns. You’ll experience a lot of different environments but not in the jarring, separate world feeling style of Dark Souls 2, this is very much a return to the world building of the first Dark Souls and that’s a very good thing. This is then built on with stunning art direction, astounding graphics and an epic soundtrack.
The thing is, there are at least four bosses, each of which is mandatory, that are simply terrible. Sadly one of these four is the final boss. When you go into a Dark Souls game you expect the bosses to be both challenging and inventive. Unfortunately these four bosses are totally bland and I beat them all on my first attempt. I’d like to point out at this point that I have never beaten a Souls game prior to this one, largely because I am not good enough. It’s not just disappointing in terms of what I expect from a Souls game it also disturbs the flow of the gameplay. I find myself being unstoppable against a boss but struggling against simple foes. Also it makes for a wholly unsatisfying ending. It doesn't feel like you've finished a great journey or overcome some great hardship. It just sort of ends with you stood, sword in hand, wondering ‘was that the final boss?’
At the end of the day this is the best Souls game. Demon’s Souls was too unrefined, Dark Souls was too challenging, Dark Souls 2 had terrible world design and Bloodborne felt too familiar despite its speed. This game side steps all of those issues but creates its own. It also shows how tired the formula is becoming. There were too many moments when I felt a sense of deja vu. The Souls series was refreshingly different but now it is dangerously close to self parody. If you like the Souls games or want to experience them for the first time then I would highly recommend this but, without a serious revamping of the formula, I would not be interested in further Souls games. This is the flawed high point of a flawed but great series and is as fitting an end as we are likely to get. Pray From Software agree.