Ever since debuting, the Souls series has been synonymous with difficulty, establishing and fully embodying its taunting “Prepare to Die” tagline. Whilst this remains true in the case of Dark Souls III, the supposed final entry in the franchise, you shouldn’t be put off by the challenge; instead embrace it to discover an exquisitely rich gameplay experience.
In the face of such horror, it’s incredibly easy to be panicked into button mashing, but there are few faster ways to invite your own hollowing. To succeed, you’ll need to carefully monitor enemy attack patterns, block, parry and dodge with finesse to be presented the perfect moment to launch a satisfyingly weighty counter-attack. Even in these moments, you must be careful not to be too greedy, as if you consume all of your stamina on the offensive, how will you answer the opposition’s rebuttal? Cool heads prevail in Dark Souls III - great care and consideration must always be employed, which, if you’ve grown accustomed to Bloodborne’s scrapper take on series combat, may take some readjustment.
Yuka Kitamura’s stunning composition is goose-bump-inducing - you owe it both to her and to yourself to play wearing headphones...
Players are spoilt for choice, which can admittedly be daunting, but it really serves to ensure everyone can find their niche with a little experimentation.
The experience is further distanced from Bloodborne by the plethora of weapons available to the player, rather than the former’s more succinct arsenal. As usual, provided you have the relevant stats to wield them, each weapon has both a one and two-handed stance variation, whilst new to Dark Souls III are Weapon Arts. With a weapon two-handed, a simple button press will employ what’s essentially the weapon’s special move - these vary from sharpening a blade, to deal increased damage for a time, to steeling oneself, delivering devastating combos, automatically positioning for a critical backstab, charging forwards with a polearm and more.
These powerful abilities are limited by the new FP bar, which whilst we can’t tell you what FP stands for, we can confirm functions in much the same way as a typical mana gauge. FP also governs the use of Sorceries, Pyromancies and Miracles - the new Ashen Estus Flask serves to replenish FP, doing away with the old system of limiting casts to a certain number between rests at a bonfire safe haven. It makes more sense, and lowers the point of entry somewhat for newcomers. Even more accommodatingly, the Estus allotment can be changed at any time, meaning if you wish to simply have a hoard of standard, health-replenishing Estus and no FP-replenishing Ashen Estus, you can - and vice versa.
Players are spoilt for choice, which can admittedly be daunting, but it really serves to ensure everyone can find their niche with a little experimentation. It also means tactics can always be switched on-the-fly to best combat any of the numerous and varied enemy types housed within each different environment.
It’s no exaggeration to say these environments are gorgeous. Visually, there are some truly breathtaking vistas to behold. From a game design standpoint, they’re even more impressive, the gracefully interconnected world holding innumerable secrets that beckon you to explore deeper and deeper into the crushingly oppressive rabbit hole. You aren’t explicitly guided down any of the multitude of split-paths, instead the resistance you face offers a gentle indication of whether you’re ready to tackle it. If you’re up to the challenge, only your grit and determination stand in the way of progress, offering a liberating sense of freedom. Miyazaki offers another absolute masterclass that sees the series return to its glorious roots, following the slight misstep in his absence during Dark Souls II’s development.
The one and only foible on this front is that some environments hold a reasonably strong sense of déjà vu. Whilst this is contextualised by the repeating lifecycle that the narrative’s built upon, some more variation would’ve been nice. The game as a whole is more of the same, but frankly that’s only because they had the formula perfected right from the start.
Underpinning everything is the returning, uniquely integrated multiplayer. If you’re playing in online mode, you’ll see remnants of other players as they make their journey through Lothric - ghostly phantoms relay their current location and actions in real-time, bloodstains on the ground can be interacted with to gauge how adventurers met their end, inviting you to adjust your approach accordingly, and messages scrawled on the ground either serve to help or hinder their fellow man.
Whilst these passive effects add to the world’s already stellar ambiance, more actively, players can engage in co-op and PvP. If you’re struggling to overcome a particularly difficult boss, pride permitting, you might summon a couple of pairs of helping hands. If you’re low on Souls, you can invade another player’s world to pillage theirs, though be warned that the favour can be returned. These PvP duels are incredibly intense and range from well-mannered - the invader presenting themselves and bowing to bookend a fair, clean fight - to deviously deceptive - the invader laying in wait to launch a devastating ambush.
Covenants return to encourage online interactions, each varying in respectability and tasking the player with different objectives. Completing a relevant objective grants covenant items, which are subsequently used to deepen your allegiance and unlock unique rewards. Changing covenants is now a simple case of switching your sigil; gone are the desertion penalties that previously somewhat discouraged experimentation with the system.