The original Dark Souls was a masterpiece. It introduced us to a vast and meticulously detailed world where every aspect of the experience was crafted to a staggeringly high degree of quality. It was also one of the most uncompromising games of its generation; consistently testing your resolve with its ‘risk verses reward’ style. Dark Souls II faltered slightly but still maintained the original’s core strengths. With Dark Souls III, Hidetaka Miyazaki, the design lead from the original title, has returned, and indeed, with lessons learnt from previous Souls titles – alongside Bloodborne – Dark Souls III achieves a tremendously satisfying balance of components from all of them to form the most compelling and enjoyable Dark Souls experience so far.

Veterans will know what to expect: semi-realistic combat that feels impactful and purposeful, tied with enemies infused with extreme bloodlust. The result is a brutal experience as enemies punish you for impatience and bad strategy with relentless aggression. It’s a unique challenge that takes some getting used to but the combat is so well designed that once you do get to grips with it you’ll be in awe of its mechanics.

Combat requires forethought and constant adaptation. Your opponents will attack aggressively every time and whilst they each have their own patterns they react to your actions as well, making them slightly unpredictable and very dangerous. Moreover, anyone can kill you, all it takes is a lapse in concentration and an enemy will take that opportunity to tear you apart. This also means it’s important to judge combat before entering the fray. Multiple opponents can easily overwhelm you and simply judging what kind of foe and how many you’re up against is crucial to your survival.

Dark Souls 3 1Dark Souls III also expands the combat from previous titles, allowing you to use Battle Arts. These Battle Arts come in the form of special skills that are attached to certain weapons, and vary wildly from a different stance to a new attack. Using these Battle Arts eats away at your FP bar, the same bar that fuels magic, with Ash Estus flasks and resting at bonfires replenishing it. As such, using them becomes a strategic consideration depending on your FP bar and flask quantity. Additionally, often these skills possess their own animations that can slow you down and make you vulnerable to attack momentarily, offering another strategic consideration. It’s a terrific additional to an already superb combat system, and alongside Dark Souls III’s increase combat speed, this extra tactical option elevates the combat to new heights, making it even more compelling and satisfying, as well as making encounters more exhilarating and equally terrifying.

Once again, you’re primarily up against a variety of undead, humanoid foes in Dark Souls III, however, enemy design is now even more varied with each foe possessing a more complex set of attacks that complement the new tactics offered by Battle Arts, as well as transformations into even deadlier and intractable enemies being more common. Indeed, combat is still extremely tough, and returning level design tricks where enemies hide around corners, drop from points of elevation, and target you from afar with projectiles makes every step a nervous decision between pushing on and hoping to find a new bonfire, where Estus Flasks can be refilled and health restored, or retreating back to a bonfire location you’re already aware of and triggering all enemies to respawn.

Dark Souls 3 2However, it’s the other players you really have to watch out for, with phantom invaders threatening to enter your world and ruin your day a frequent reminder of how harsh the world of Dark Souls can be. Fortunately you can still summon other players to aid you, and Dark Souls III features Bloodborne’s password system so you can even invite friends to the fray. Then there are the bosses. These huge and menacing creatures are a testament to FromSoftware’s design, looking spectacular and truly testing your combat skills. However, more so than in previous titles, there are a few bosses that come down to attack spamming more than finesse, which is disappointing. Grinding to raise your stats is also still an inevitable chore in order to give you a fighting chance against the tougher bosses.

The majority of creatures offer up souls when you slay them, with loose souls also scattered around for collecting off of corpses. This is alongside humanity, which restores you from an undead form to a stronger human one. These souls are the currency for raising you level and stats, purchasing items, weapons and armour, and repairing and forging new equipment. Souls are still a precious currency that must be spent wisely, and when you die your collected souls are deposited where you fell and must be picked up again before dying a second time or they are lost forever. Falling once and seeing your souls collect in a pile can be heart breaking at the best of times but falling again before getting them back can bring tears to your eyes.

Dark Souls 3 3The hub-world setup returns, rather than the original Dark Souls’ interconnected design. Locations this time don’t suffer from the same linearity of Dark Souls II, and the confusing, labyrinthine world of the original Dark Souls is avoided due to the hub. Instead Dark Souls III provides a pleasing compromise between the two, with large, relatively open areas with connected paths and hidden shortcuts, alongside bonfire fast-travel to and from the hub-area, the Firelink Shrine. It works well to keep you orientated and focused on exploring the right locations rather than wandering off into an area far beyond your level, or being too restricted and failing to offer options for circumventing hordes of enemies. Furthermore, the visuals have been tremendously enhanced to provide some of the more awe inspiring vistas the series has ever produced, giving the whole experience a far grander feel.

Indeed Dark Souls III is a vast and challenging game, but it’s equally brilliant and fascinating. It’s a tough world for sure, triggering genuine emotion as you fearfully explore, compelled to see what wondrous creatures and locations are round the corner. It’s a damn near prefect balancing of curiosity and trepidation that melds MMO qualities with a singleplayer experience subtly and effectively to create a wonderfully intimidating experience. Magic is unfortunately under powered currently, meaning certain character builds are destined to fail, however, the melee combat is even more impressive than it already was thanks to an increase in speed and the addition of Battle Arts.

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But it’s the design that truly stands out, from the attack patterns and mob mentality of enemies, to the level design, architecture and ingrained history and lore the world emits through every character, building, and enemy encounter. The pull of pushing on after fighting dozens of enemies, all in hope of finding a new bonfire rather than retreating to a previous one is powerfully compelling, and invokes a ‘risk verses reward’ style of play that you simply can’t find outside of this series. Indeed, the Dark Souls series is an example of excellent game-design, and Dark Souls III is a product of that design being polished to a mirror shine. It’s bloody hard, though.

Thanks to Xbox and Bandai Namco for supporting TiX