I’m friends with a giant now. He tosses spears taller than me a thousand yards off towards a white birch. He wants to keep it safe from cursed villagers, and I can respect that. From up here the tree is a speck of brilliant white in sickly olive and grey. We stand together in silence for a while. The whole village is visible from atop his tower, all its ramshackle buildings and tortured denizens whose worship of a rotten greatwood has clearly gone awry. I can almost smell the mold. My job is to bring the ashes of the treasonous Lords of Cinder back to their thrones to prevent the apocalypse. Maybe it’d be better off that way. This world isn’t my friend.
But this giant is, and if he cares about a little white tree, then I should too. That might be reason enough to keep this rotten place together.This is what makes Dark Souls 3 so profound. Sure, the thrilling, punishing combat and notoriously difficult boss battles are its titanium skeleton, but the language and ambiguity of the world are its flesh and blood—the beating heart that imbues an excellent third-person action RPG with mythic authenticity. Marred only by few performance hiccups, Dark Souls 3 is one of the most engrossing, cohesive games I’ve ever played, and the most focused, potent game in the series.If the first Dark Souls depicted a world gracefully drifting towards the apocalypse, Dark Souls 3 shows one on a spiraling, feverish descent directly into it. It’s a fierce and punishing behemoth that dares you to take a step forward before knocking you back, again and again and again. But with a bleak, yet beautiful world that’s enthralling to explore and packed with secrets to find, I always felt compelled to come back, eager for that familiar thrill of overcoming even the most exacting challenges.Dark Souls 3 does suffer from occasional framerate dips and a few underwhelming boss fights, but beyond that, its epic scale, aggressive obstacles, and rich development of existing lore make it the grandest and fiercest Dark Souls adventure yet.
Enemy design is more diverse than ever; long-haired skeletal spider people sucked my face off, fire witches reduced me to ashes from a hundred yards off, and the icy quadrupedal Irithyll knights chopped me up into a big bowl of frosted flakes. Alone, they’re already a challenge, but I rarely found any baddie without a buddy. Well-paced level design kept frustration from death to a minimum. Bonfires and unlockable shortcuts typically showed up just before I ran out of healing items, and more importantly, willpower.Dark Souls’ difficulty has always been in service of building on themes of desperation and despair, rather than being hard for the sake of ‘get gud’ video game egos worldwide. One of my favorite changes, and likely a controversial one, is how Dark Souls 3 plays around with boss design to get those ideas across, throwing a few less challenging, but more thematically playful opponents into the mix.this isn’t to say any of them are simple. Each demanded the attention of my deep arsenal, pattern recognition, and the level design in order to take out. Some are towering monstrosities with multiple stages that change pace in an instant. Others are somber battles with pitiable opponents that made me wish I could sheathe my sword and show mercy. Some took a few tries, others (a certain dancer comes to mind) took me closer to two hours. No matter the ease or lack of, every victory elicited a jump, a shout, shaking hands, each of those reflexes at once. They’re challenging, engaging, animated with ferocity and elegance, and scored by a choral orchestra that further describes their themes and emotional backdrop. The entire score is melancholic fury, perfectly suited for an endless stream of YouTube metal covers. There are plenty of interesting characters to meet throughout Dark Souls 3, some new and some returning. The voice acting is great as always and characters have a ton of dialogue to exhaust, offering up plenty of new emotes to perform, dropping useful hints about the world and your role in it, and generally cementing themselves as the next in a line of odd, yet lovable Souls personalities. Like in past games, NPC questlines remain mysteries to be solved over the long term of your adventure, so in my first 35-hour playthrough they weren’t all completed. I let a couple characters die because of my failure to encounter them in certain areas or meet certain circumstances, but in keeping with true Dark Souls fashion, even death has its rewards: those conclusions still had something interesting to offer in the way of tragic closure, sometimes tied to other plot details in startling ways, or neat new items.The mystery carries over into the cast of characters strewn about the world and recruited as companions in Firelink Shrine. They all work as vendors for specific classes, each with a personal storyline that can play out in several ways based on their relationships with other NPCs in the shrine and a few branching decision points.
Early on, I lost a companion to my own greed, and another later due to differing ideals for Lothric’s future. Moral dilemmas, tragedy, and corruption constantly pull and tear at every character and play out in surprising ways. Each feels fully formed, and thanks to excellent voice work across the board, their motives remain ambiguous. I wanted to save everyone, even if they were dropping like flies or wanted me dead. Perhaps my new giant friend got to me.
I’m surprised he did at all. The added fidelity in Dark Souls 3 could have just been a simple upgrade in texture detail, but FromSoftware treats the extra space like a wider canvas, pushing their themes and story through every possible avenue—sound, music, enemy design, animation, dialogue, item descriptions, environmental cues—with more finesse and frequency than ever before. Dark Souls 3 gracefully nudges the series’ notoriously difficult action towards a greater artfulness that tests far more than reflexes. I was challenged to read environments and props like a novel, to empathize with Lothric’s imperfect inhabitants, and to ask whether or not I was trying to save anything worth saving. But there are no easy answers here, only 40-plus hours of tense action, awe-inspiring exploration, certain death, and big, bleak, beautiful questions.