At the heart of Dark Souls’ murky mythology is an infatuation with cycles. Its is a world that is cursed to repeat itself, where flame holds back an encroaching darkness until that spark of life wanes and is renewed by yet another heroic force. The people are cursed to live and die and live again, suffering through this cycle of death and rebirth until they turn into mindless brutes. Players always enter into this world as one in a line of prophesied conquerors, who, all things considered, is just a slightly more important cog among the sea of eternally reincarnating wretches caught in an unending loop of near apocalypses. What has happened will always happen again.
It’s an intriguing thematic foundation that has shaped every facet of the series’ identity. Playing a Souls game is, after all, to insert oneself into this same cycle—dying and reliving and dying and reliving, succeeding in inches and, at the worst of times, feeling your sanity slip away like one of those poor cursed undead. Your quest eventually ends, but there’s always going to be another game with another chosen one who sets out to accomplish the same goal and meets the same archetypal people and fights through the same archetypal locations. Repetition is a narrative necessity for the series, and FromSoftware has gotten a lot of mileage of that conceit, having made as many as five games now (depending on whether you count their primordial cousin, Demon’s Souls, or their spunky kid brother, Bloodborne) that follow the same blueprint.
Dark Souls III marks the culmination of everything the developer has learned and accomplished over the last seven years. It is a greatest hits collection of ideas, characters, and places from all the previous Souls games conjoined together and polished off to form the most refined version yet. This preoccupation with the past is both a strength and a weakness. Familiarity is the root of many of Dark Souls III’s most powerful moments, but this fifth time around the Souls loop also shows that some of these hits are starting to get played out.
Much of Dark Souls’ vaunted difficulty comes from a need to decipher the language with which it speaks to players. The game is never entirely unfair. Every trap and ambush is telegraphed—if you know what to look for. If you’re walking down a corridor and you see an enemy flee around a corner into a large room at the other end, chances are they’re trying to sucker you into something deadly. If you see tons of weird barrels sitting around and a few enemies perched above you, it’s time to run, because that place is going to be filled with explosions any second now. These tricks become old hat once you’ve learned to recognize and subvert them, which is a problem when they form the basic building blocks of every game in this series. If you’ve been keeping up with FromSoftware, you’ve already seen and conquered most of what Dark Souls III will throw your way, rendering much of it routine.
Thanks to an uptick in the tempo of combat and responsiveness of your warrior, at least that routine is more immediately gratifying than ever. The mythical “invincibility frames” of a dodge roll—the split second of your character’s somersault when they are invulnerable to attacks from any angle—have been made more understandable and easier to employ. Many of DS3’s boss fights are built around them, with rivals who never give you a second of comfort and are most easily defeated by diving right through their attacks and getting in a quick strike of your own in the very small window of opportunity they allow you. This game seems to favor the nimble, but even bruisers with giant clubs (my preferred method of attack) can benefit from how great it feels to take down an imposing foe while hardly getting touched.
But reaching the point where you have the answer to everything one of these sentient roadblocks is going to throw your way takes time and practice. Boss fights have been perfectly tuned to create a tangible and dramatic learning process. At first, they feel either inscrutable or impossible, but they reveal their inner workings with each successive attempt until you reach a point of understanding and confidence. It also helps that FromSoftware has gone all out when it comes to spectacle, pitting you against awe-inspiring monstrosities and setting these duals in beautifully crafted arenas. It goes without saying that DS3, the first game in the series designed for the current crop of consoles, is capable of new levels of visual splendor, but its creators have embraced that extra horsepower in typically graceful fashion, using it to bolster the detail and atmosphere of their ornate architecture.
Less exciting are the treks between boss fights. Wandering into a new location is as thrilling as it’s ever been, but that moment fades when you realize you’re set to fight your way through another poisonous swamp or skeleton-filled catacomb or any of the other stereotypical settings the series has been mining since Demon’s Souls. The glimmer of differentiation is the relative openness of its biggest locations. Exploration is at its best in DS3 when you’re let loose in one of these humongous spaces and overwhelmed with possibilities. One the game’s centerpieces—The Cathedral Of The Deep—is a series standout, forcing you to explore a maze of paths that take you inside, outside, and all around a ruined church that’s teeming with zombies and mad priests. Although you’ll hardly ever have one of those mind-melting moments where a jaunt down a stray trail leads you back to a place you haven’t even thought about in hours—á la the first Dark Souls—the game does hide trinkets, sights, and even entire new zones off the beaten path.
FromSoftware isn’t afraid to exploit Dark Souls nostalgia either. The second game in the series has largely been forgotten, but iconic characters and locations from the original make stirring returns. In all but a few instances, it comes off as bald-faced fan service, but dammit is it effective. Given the arduous nature of these games, the emotional connections we’ve forged with their people and places are stronger than usual, and simple moments, like being reunited with an old friend or being confronted with the ominous facade of an unforgettable building, are able to evoke surprisingly powerful responses. In these cases, FromSoftware is overtly playing upon our familiarity and the license its series’ preoccupation with cycles affords to add a real spark of delight to its otherwise aggressively grim creation.
We don’t yet know whether this will be the last Dark Souls game. Dark Souls III certainly feels like a finale, but that pesky cycle (not to mention the series’ financial success) means another adventure is never out of the equation. I’m not so sure how well the series will hold up to another reincarnation. With all the constant recycling of ideas, its flame is starting to fade. Luckily, it was such a magnificent fire to begin with that it’s still a roaring success even after a little dwindling.