The strength of FromSoftware’s output over the last decade is how much they switched up combat over each iteration while maintaining the same foreboding world-building. The basic mechanics remain largely the same, but the change in feel between Dark Souls, Bloodborne, Dark Souls III, and Sekiro is distinct enough for each to stand apart.
Dark Souls III feels like a halfway point between Dark Souls’ methodical enemy design and Bloodborne’s ceaseless assaults. Where the first could be conquered largely by going slow and steady, Dark Souls III requires constant but careful aggression. While I tend to prefer the two extremes of those earlier games, Dark Souls III uses this new system to craft some of the greatest boss fights in the series.
But what makes these boss fights so great goes beyond the mechanics alone. While losing some of the original game’s intricate connections, Dark Souls III makes up for it by expanding the scope of each individual location. Many of the connections in the first game felt like neat reminders that all of its areas were surprisingly close. Here, the shortcuts are a necessity. Soulsborne games are all about the checkpoint-to-boss run. The game rewards exploration by cutting many of those paths shorter. What makes this world design so great is mechanically simple – many central bonfires have a few exits, but all but the first remain locked until you progress. By seeing a locked door, the game is providing an unspoken hint – your next stop likely involves finding your way back to the same point from the other direction. This really emphasizes the bosses as the grand finale of the entire location instead of just the third or fourth checkpoint. They might send you back to the beginning, but the beginning is rarely that far – if you’ve earned it.
Despite the extravagant presentation of these locations, subtlety is the key. These games are constantly teaching the player what to expect while relying on us picking up the pieces. It’s never holding the player’s hand, but it’s rarely dropping the player into uncharted territory.
Games which are challenging purely to be challenging rarely click with me, but the best Soulsborne games always feel like they’re teaching me something new with each death – which is actually why I tend to prefer the runs between bosses to the bosses themselves. While you may die a few dozen times, there’s rarely a point while exploring where you’ll feel as if you’re not making progress. Most bosses are simply asking the player to use their skills to the best of their abilities, which is common enough in most video games. If you’re not particularly good at a certain boss, it can devolve into a repetitive and hopeless battle. Some enjoy the thrill of overcoming these odds, but certain moments can feel like distinct blockades from what I truly enjoy about the genre.
But what makes the Soulsborne games so surprisingly accessible (sans Sekiro, which doesn’t actually fall into the genre but is still related and feels like a serious step down for this and a variety of other reasons) are the options provided to mitigate this difficulty. These are RPGs, after all, and sometimes all you really need is a few more levels or a weapon upgrade. If you’re truly incapable of beating the boss on your own, that’s fine, too – one of the coolest features allows the option to summon other players for help, which practically changes the genre entirely.
One thing worth mentioning is how much skill this game involves. There’s nothing quite like starting up a new character and realizing you’re capable of rolling over those early bosses. This is not a number’s game like a traditional RPG at all – who needs more HP when you can avoid the attacks entirely? These other options can make it easier, but victory is ultimately possible at any level.
The online features have always been a highlight. In Dark Souls III, you can become embered to increase your maximum health. However, while in this state, other players can invade. General invasion isn’t too common, but certain areas are designed for constant swarms. The covenant mechanic offers a ton of variety in how these encounters come about, and the possibility of invasion adds a constant tension even after familiarizing yourself with an area. Players can also leave notes on the ground to warn others, which can eliminate many intentionally cheap moments as long as you bother checking.
Despite Bloodborne being a separate series, its eldritch influences left an obvious mark. The first boss in Dark Souls III has been corrupted by a writhing black mass. The next has devolved into moving on four legs. Others like the Dancer of the Boreal Valley carry an inhuman grace. All of the bosses have their own iconic presentation and play against the mechanics in their own ways; no two bosses are alike, even the two which should be. The game also has a phenomenal soundtrack, adding that extra epic ambience to each encounter.
There are also three distinct areas most of us would miss without a guide, with one of these areas being hidden behind an already optional area. With such a foreboding atmosphere throughout, stumbling across what feels like you were never supposed to find is an unforgettable experience. No matter what location you’re in, there’s always a dark beauty to this game. The final location and its bleeding sun is truly breathtaking.
Dark Souls III is largely more of the same – but when something is part of an era defining movement, that’s not a bad thing. Offering just the right amount of nostalgia while otherwise pushing boundaries, Dark Souls III helps prove the Soulsborne formula is imitable – the only problem is most other developers have yet to figure out how.