All good things should come to an end. That is not only the overarching tone and message of From Software’s latest title, Dark Souls III, but also the message of its production and marketing. Now a yearly series, we’ve had 4 Soulsborne games starting with the release of Dark Souls II back in 2014. But unlike other annual franchises like Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed, the critical praise and financial success only grows stronger with each new Soulsborne title. And this trend only continues with Dark Souls III which has received incredible sales and critical reception. The horizon seems endless for the future of these titles, but between marketing slogans and director Hidetaka Miyazaki’s recent comments, it seems like From Software might actually be truly done with the franchise that put them on the map in the first place. If this is the case though, then Dark Souls III is a beautiful sendoff for one of the most influential franchises in video game history.
Dark Souls III takes place at the theoretical end of the world like previous Soulsborne games, but this time the world seems be in a direr state than before. The champions whose destined quest was to rekindle the First Flame of Mankind have abandoned their posts, and it’s up to you, little more than a walking corpse, to slay these false heroes and rekindle the dwindling fire of mankind before the darkness overwhelms the world. It’s a fairly similar setup to previous Souls games, but there is the pervasive feeling throughout that even if you succeed in defeating every single boss, that the world will still end. This morbid sense of inevitable dread enriches the already harrowing atmosphere of the Souls games, and feels specifically reminiscent of the ruined mythical feel of the first Dark Souls.
With innumerable callbacks, direct references, returning characters, and retouched mechanics from the first game, Dark Souls III feels like the direct sequel to the first Dark Souls which I had hoped Dark Souls II would’ve been. The 5-years in between the releases of Dark Souls I and III only makes every time a nolgastic callback, both overt and otherwise, was made more gripping to myself, a diehard fan of the first game. But Dark Souls III takes another step forward, not only drawing upon the power of nolgastia, but resolves just about every question and lingering plot thread anyone could have had about previous Dark Souls games. Dark Souls III not only feels like the last game in a series because of its apocalyptic tone, but also because at the end of things, Dark Souls III closes the book incredibly well upon the evocative universe and themes that have gripped fans over the years.
While the moment-to-moment combat remains largely the same compared to previous Soulsborne games, there’s a great number of refinements to both the foundation and the edges to make Dark Souls III really sing. The speed of the combat itself is sped-up, which feels like a direct reference to Bloodborne, and the dodge has the exact perfect amount of invincibility frames between the useless roll in Dark Souls I and the ridiculously overgenerous back-step in Bloodborne. The amount of weapons is staggering with a great mix between viable PVP weapons and joke/trick weapons, causing me to frequently swap weapons throughout the game for any single situation. To make this even better, the upgrade system has been overhauled, with both weapon refining and leveling-up from past games, but also a magic gem system which allows you to specialize your weapon even further in really useful ways such as dealing fire or dark damage. This is important as exploiting elemental weaknesses is a very viable strategy in the challenging Dark Souls III.
But what might be my absolute favorite change in Dark Souls III is the evolution of the healing Estus Flasks. Dark Souls III brings back the great system in Dark Souls II of only having a limited amount of Flasks, but giving you the ability to discover more of them hidden throughout the game. But what takes it to the next level is the introduction of Ashen Flasks, which when used restores your mana for magic abilities and newly introduced Battle Arts, a newly introduced system in Dark Souls III which gives each weapon in the game a special ability to activate from a lunge to a stat boosting aura. You have a base amount of flasks, which you can choose to make either Estus or Ashen, allowing you to specialize exactly how you want to play your character. This helps make magic builds not only more viable, but more intuitive than previous games’ annoyingly limited charge system for each specific spell. As a spear-and-shield man this wasn’t super valuable to me, but this makes doing another run as a magic user feel far more attractive than the weirdness surrounding the class before.
What can really make-or-break a Soulsborne games is the quality of the boss battles. Dark Souls I had the most memorable and diverse cast of bosses, meanwhile Dark Souls II had the most number of bosses but with all of them being boring men in armor. Dark Souls III takes it up a notch with a reasonable size cast of really inspired and interesting boss designs. This is achieved not only thanks to the incredible visual design of Dark Souls III, but also a new system where every boss in the game has an alternate form about halfway through a fight. Each of these twists are extremely interesting and complicates the fights in really exciting and dynamic ways. From gaining a shadowy clone which mimics all of its moves, gaining a completely different moveset, changing the arena in a really fascinating way, or even regaining all of its health for a second go at you. These boss transformations are meaningful wrinkles which add a ton of personality and challenge to these encounters, making each boss fight a highly memorable encounter, giving Dark Souls III the best cast of bosses in a Soulsborne game yet.
Production-wise, Dark Souls III is also the strongest of its kin yet. While Bloodborne was a fantastic looking game, it suffered from having a limited set of environments that made everything feel rather samey by the end of things. Dark Souls III, in comparison, goes to some crazy places. There were many moments where I was dumbfounded by the vistas or the terrifying visage of a boss. This is not only because of how well-realized the Gothic artstyle is achieved, but just how varied the environments and enemies are. On the soundtrack side of things, now composed by newcomer Yuka Kitamura, the quality is just as strong. It’s a powerfully dark classical score that really shines in boss encounters, where the score does an amazing job giving personality to these godlike antagonists. It's also worthwhile to note that these boss scores also change with the mid-fight boss transformation, upping the tension to truly thrilling heights.
Playing through Dark Souls III was one of the most bittersweet experiences I’ve had playing through a video game yet. Sweet because of how incredible Dark Souls III is from its masterfully refined gameplay, incredible visual design, labyrinthine level design, beautifully haunting soundtrack, surprisingly satisfying development of the Souls universe, and so much more. But bitter because despite how engaged I was, playing through Dark Souls III felt like the end of my most favorite era of video games to date.
Dark Souls III takes its position as the supposed final game in the series to reflect upon its incredible legacy, cherry picking and refining the best bits of all previous games within itself to become the best Soulsborne game to date, even surpassing the monolithic Dark Souls I. The first Dark Souls was a transformative moment not only for the entire video game industry, but also for myself as a player as I was introduced to a new type of video game that challenged and pushed me to previously unrealized levels. And while its depressing to see such a strong franchise depart, especially on such a high note with Dark Souls III, at least it does so on its own terms with an unmistakably potent bang.
FIVE OUT OF FIVE
(An exceptional game whose flaws are barely noticeable.)