By Gabriel Jones 27.12.2016
The Unkindled One, a being of ash so unworthy that it's not even fit to lick an Undead's boots, has been charged with linking the fire. The benefits of this task are unclear, but it serves as a fine excuse for adventurers to see the world, obtain powerful weapons, and slay the Lords of Cinder. Dark Souls III marks the end of everything. The dead and dying rule over ash-covered ruins, their purpose lost to an endless cycle of destruction. It's time to put them all to rest.
When the famed musician Prince was asked if he'd ever want to make another Purple Rain or another Sign O' The Times, his response was, "I've been to the mountaintop. There's nothing there." This statement could be applied to From Software and their critically acclaimed "Soulsborne" franchise. Over the course of seven years, they've released five great games. Where do they go from here? Another entry that adopts the same formula and compares favourably with rest of the series is all well and good, but what was once interesting will eventually become mundane.
Additionally, when a videogame becomes a massive hit, dozens of clones immediately follow, all with the hopes of profiting from the success of that breakthrough title. One of the most well-known examples is Street Fighter II. Oddly enough, the Soulsborne franchise, despite selling well over 10 million units, hasn't seen nearly as many pretenders as Capcom's classic fighting game did. In a way, it's fitting that the Dark Souls series concludes with Dark Souls III. When there's no competition, it gets lonely at the top.
For the third instalment, From Software focused on addressing the faults that have plagued previous entries in the series. The first game is fantastic, but it suffers from a relatively weak second half, which features boss fights that are more about spectacle than actual solid game design. The sequel has a number of unique and creative ideas, but it's bogged down by a poorly-constructed world and frequent middling encounters. This entry is thoroughly consistent. From the beginning to the end, the entirety of Lothric and its inhabitants are well realised. Rarely is there a moment that stands out as exceptionally poor.
The first aspect that is liable to grab the player's attention is the level of control available to them. While not quite as evasive as The Hunter from Bloodborne, The Unkindled One is still very mobile. Actions such as running or rolling feel great. There is an acceptable amount of weight to every motion. This not only makes those heavy attacks more impactful, but it also makes the more nuanced movements more noticeable and effective. A lot of attention is paid to the intricacies of hit boxes, which makes dodging sword swings and stabs all the more satisfying.
The design of each area is excellent. Ever since the days of The King's Field series, From Software has exhibited a mastery of world design that few developers can match. Having a dungeon with corridors, monsters, and treasure is nice, but it takes a lot of work to create a place that is not only dark and foreboding, but also creates a "lived in" atmosphere. Every location has to feel like a real place, and must be structured in a way where someone can believe that people, fiends, or monsters could actually sustain an existence there. Now it's not as simple as just making sure there's furniture in a house. That house, along with its neighbouring homes, has to be arranged in such ways that even without a map, the player can easily find their way around.
This is an aspect where the third entry excels. Not only is every location distinct and memorable, but they're also arranged in a manner that doesn't involve a lot of warping, just to get around. There are multiple instances where elevation is used to great effect. The sense of verticality is perfect, as it provides numerous vantage points for observant players to get a lay of the land. They'll notice suspicious objects far below, and then they'll conclude that there must be a way to reach them. Overall, this game is more linear than its prequels, but there are still plenty of side areas and optional locations to explore.
It's also noteworthy that every location is substantial both in imagery and design. There aren't any places that are defined entirely by gimmicks. Farron Keep might have a poisonous marsh, but it also features a walled perimeter that houses more creatures and secrets. There's a lot of exploration to be done. In a number of cases, from the safety of a bonfire, the player can head out in multiple directions, finding something of interest no matter where they go. This attention to world building is an essential part of what makes the game so good. No location exists solely to the detriment of the person holding the controller. There's always an optimal route, but players are free to make their own way through the many trials of Lothric. The almost constant presence of foes that wander along predetermined routes lends a nice touch of stealth to exploration. Taking on three or more skilled enemies at once might be a bit too much trouble, even for franchise veterans.
As always, the denizens of this dead world are not to be taken lightly. Getting ambushed or surrounded is a bad idea, and the various knights that stalk the halls are fearsome brutes. Magic users and archers rely on advantageous positions, and they usually support whoever currently happens to be in The Ashen One's face. It's nothing that long-time fans haven't seen before, and it's their experience that's liable to guide them through difficult circumstances. Alongside traditional foes, there are plenty of adversaries that are unique to their location. The presence of invaders further complicates matters, though they're less likely to target players who don't summon help.
It's both fortunate and unfortunate that there aren't really any soul-crushing scenarios that sear themselves on the hearts of players. In other words, there isn't a moment as infamous as the Two Archers of Anor Londo, or the multiple swinging blades towards the end of Sen's Fortress. Its incidents like these that either break whoever plays these games, or makes them lifelong fans. Maybe this is just one of the boons of experience, and it results in long-time players developing the knowledge necessary to avoid potentially horrible situations. Still, one can't help but secretly wish that certain precarious paths had one or two more enemies, walkways were just a little narrower, or bonfires weren't quite as prevalent.
As is standard for the series, there are plenty of bosses to contend with. Many of them certainly look imposing, but when it comes to great fights, size doesn't matter. The toughest opponents tend to be those that are at or around the size of the player-character. On the bright side, at least the largest opponents don't rely on cheap tricks to cause countless deaths. Altogether, the boss battles in this entry aren't terribly difficult. If the player can comfortably handle Ornstein & Smough by themselves, then they shouldn't have much trouble seeing the end of this game. If they're seeking a greater challenge, then perhaps they'll consider limiting access to certain weapons and spells, or refraining from levelling up.
One feature that's liable to go overlooked is the weapon skill system. By expending Focus Points, fighters can perform dazzling special attacks that are unique to their equipped weapon. This ability was sort of present in the previous games, except it usually drained the weapon's durability when it was used. The main reason players likely won't utilise this system to its fullest extent is simple; there's hardly ever a situation where they'll need it. In the heat of battle, it won't occur to a combatant to perform their special skill, because they're too focused on finding an opening. The tried-and-true method of continually hitting the R1 button is just as if not more effective. Furthermore, winding up for a special attack is more likely to get the player killed.
While Dark Souls III is a more consistent game than its prequels, it struggles with establishing an identity. The call-backs to the first entry are readily apparent, and the various subsystems such as equipment and levelling have been scaled back and streamlined. The controls, locations, and encounters with adversity are handled superbly, but in a way that isn't as inspired as before. Maybe more risks need to be taken. Perhaps curious design decisions that take the series in unknown directions are required. It might even be necessary to introduce flawed ideas, just to maintain freshness. Yes, it sounds baffling, but merely fixing what's broken just isn't enough for a sequel.
All that said, what this series has accomplished is more than anyone could ever ask for. The lack of clones speaks largely about just how difficult they are to develop. It takes a remarkable eye for world building to even fathom a seamless interconnected environment, that isn't just twenty square miles of open land, like so many open world games. The great combat, awe-inspiring enemies and emphasis on exploration tie everything together. One can't help but feel a little selfish when they demand more from a series that's just so far ahead of the curve.
All of the praise that Dark Souls III receives is well deserved, because it gets most of everything right. However, it never strays from the established formula. This is something most gamers are willing to ignore, just because the formula is excellent. Although it's great that the Dark Souls series can retire on a high note, it's a shame that its crown has gone unchallenged. Hopefully that will change in the future. Videogame companies in competition with one another helps to bring out the best in them.