Trilogies are always difficult things to get right. You need to balance tying up plot threads, improving on aspects of previous installments while retaining enough to seem familiar. Dark Souls III has quite the act to follow, coming off the back of an incredibly successful deviation from high fantasy in Bloodborne and the disappointing sequel that was Dark Souls II. Miyazaki and his team have had to win fans over from both sides of the aisle, reassuring Souls fans that this final entry will be more like the now legendary Dark Souls while also bringing in a new crowd who are used to the hyper-aggressive playstyle of From Software’s Gothic experiment. What results from this legacy is the most accessible and streamlined Dark Souls, one where all the mechanics and design have been polished to a mirror sheen, yet it lacks that special something which pushed the original Dark Souls and Bloodborne into the history books. Pardon the pun but playing Dark Souls III is a hollow experience; it plays the part well but it doesn’t have enough of those glorious moments of surprise or triumph which lets it join its predecessors in the sun.
Starting out, Dark Souls III feels like the Dark Souls II that was going to be made if Miyazaki and the A team hadn’t got messed up in Gothic horror and transforming weapons. Dark Souls III is pretty much a direct sequel to the original Dark Souls and it makes this very clear, with players returning to Firelink Shrine as your main hub area. The hub feels like the accumulation of all the ideas From have been tossing around ever since Demon’s Souls, finally coming together in this one place of safety. It’s disconnected from the main world like the Hunter’s Dream and the Nexus, people take refuge and set up shop in the Shrine similar to Dark Souls and it’s the only place to level up your stats, linking back to Dark Souls II. However, the most important change to the Shrine is that your goal of collecting the five Lords of Cinder and bringing them to the Shrine is constantly hanging over you whenever you return back to base. Those five thrones are always there, eventually filling up with the bodies of deceased giants that you have felled as you quest through Lothric until you have finally united all of these former heroes under one roof. Unlike previous Souls games where your goal has seemed as distant as the cathedral looming over the horizon, the finishing line is always in sight when playing Dark Souls III and it makes play a lot more focused.
As a whole, Dark Souls III is the most streamlined game in the franchise, when it comes to both cutting away mechanical clutter and guiding the player in the right direction. You’ll rarely get lost as you travel through Lothric, partially due to there never being really more than one alternate area that you can go to at any one time. From an accessibility point of view, it’s a well needed change to stop hundreds of potential fans bouncing straight off Dark Souls III after getting lost on the High Wall of Lothric and never fighting the first boss. Miyazaki and crew know exactly what they want to do and where they want their players to go, but this streamlining does dilute the nervous trepidation that made exploring in the original Dark Souls so thrilling.
Rather than discovering a shortcut and rejoicing at finding a way back to a bonfire, you can quite clearly tell where a shortcut is going to be, due to the carefully placed lift or locked door right around the corner from the checkpoint. Areas snake over each other and eventually loop back round, rather than meandering into little pockets and possible new areas, meaning that any detour you make is pretty much guaranteed to take you back to the main road. It’s clear that Dark Souls III was designed to be ‘My First Dark Souls’. Players are given a fairly straight path for the first 10 hours, opening up a little for the next five before finally placing a trademark ‘fuck you’ boss to separate the wheat from the chaff. It’s not so much a difficulty spike as a difficulty sheer cliff, shown by the massive increase in bloodstains and doleful messages as you reach this area. If you soldier on, you will be rewarded with some of the greatest bosses the series has ever seen but this sudden difficulty jump will test every player, regardless of how ‘gud’ they think they are. Even as a dyed in the wool Souls nut, I was looking to my picture of our Lord Miyazaki and asking for his aid when I reached the later areas.