Rating: Length: Approx. 50 hours (Experienced player, not counting optional side-quests)Platform & Performance: PS4 - Initial frame rate issues patched out, enemies occasionally stuck in world geometry.
There are a lot of words you associate with a Souls game; 'brutal', 'unforgiving', 'tactile'... but there's one that until now, I hadn't even considered - 'addictive'.
From the first moment I'd slain scores of zombified warriors and lit my first bonfire, to the last when I was watching the credits and already planning my next character build, Dark Souls 3 is everything FromSoftware have learned over the last seven years, rolled into the tightest and most enrapturing package yet.
You'll slice through regular enemies with increasing skill and confidence, be enticed by multiple paths snaking off in two or three directions at once, defeat bosses and use their souls to forge unique weapons, craft some of your own, spec your character with armour sets, practice unique kill animations, equip items for future encounters... and you'll do all this within the first few hours.
Many of these features have been staples of creative director Hidetaka Miyazaki's games for years, but Dark Souls 3's gameplay loop is a consistently rewarding and pleasurably moreish one, to a degree that Dark Souls 2 and even Bloodborne couldn't achieve.
You'll gorge on Dark Souls 3, you'll drink it in. It's the best FromSoftware's own brand of third-person hack, slash and RPG stat track-ery has ever been, and one of the purest video game experiences - free from microtransactions, server-dependant play or pointless loot-grinds - this generation.
Chances are you already know if you're a 'Souls person'. The franchise is part of gaming's elite these days; a veritable mix of pendulum-swinging difficulty and old-school gamer mettle-testing that'll put just as many off, as those who fall completely in love. And that's okay, it's pleasantly refreshing to see a property so completely sure of itself at this level of recognition, and yet be so utterly nonplussed about appeasing the masses.
For those gamers who the developer's unique blend of visceral combat clicks with, it does so to a degree that sprouts addictive tendencies ruinous to all other titles on the market. Such a view has become something of a joke within the Dark Souls community; being once you've experienced and are engulfed within a 'Souls experience', everything else feels lacklustre in some way, like they're all missing the requisite bite that Miyazaki's work is positively dripping in.
To that end, it feels simultaneously like a reaction to Dark Souls 2 and a tribute to the original. Gone is the disconnected sensation of levels being a scattershot selection of unconnected themes, and in is a well-designed, intricate game world that ensures the checkpoint-style bonfires are always the sweet, "Oh, thank god" release they should be.
Everything from the general look of character models to the fact of backstab animations being the exact same as the original, is a callback to how far the franchise has come. It gives Dark Souls 3 a sense of charm and established identity, the likes of which the developers had mostly stayed away from acknowledging head-on until now.
Therefore, if you know where to look to find their hand, Miyazaki and his team have written a love letter in code. There's a large, poison-filled swamp - complete with lagging framerate in spots - that'll scream "Blighttown!" to Souls veterans, a glacial mountain city which looks as though someone took a hammer and chisel to the Crystal Caves - you even return to a specific location that ties the lore together directly, but it's something best discovered when certain landmarks begin to make themselves known...
The only major new addition are 'weapon arts', an optional special stance or attack that every equippable weapon has. This allows you to pull off devastatingly flashy attacks such as forward-leaping somersault-slashes, or it may form a bridging sweep that connects your other strong attacks. As they're only really prevalent when wielding weapons in two hands, my sword n' shield build didn't entertain the idea in any real meaningful way, but if you're looking for an evolution of the base Dark Souls fighting engine, this is it.
Sadly, in amongst all this joyous Soulsian splendour is the age-old problem of the camera. There's just nowhere for it to go when you're tackling large enemies, and considering you'll be up against everything from lumbering giants to flying stone gargoyles, backing up or attempting to evade them can get you boxed in, your character dying as the screen turns into a mess of sword-swipes and attempted dodge-rolls. This - or getting hemmed in by enemies' invisible hit boxes trapping you on the spot - has always been the one time where Dark Souls most definitely isn't 'fair', despite how much its biggest supporters would like to attest.
Speaking of environments though - and let's get back to the good stuff - FromSoftware have more than outdone themselves with one of the most remarkable hand-crafted worlds in gaming history.
Yes, gaming history. Some areas - the Cathedral of the Deep in particular - are genuinely breathtaking affairs, from the moment you come up on some unforeseen hill crescent only to see an entire previously-travelled path laid out behind you, or the labyrinthine network of corridors, tunnels, ladders and elevators that will take you back to a checkpoint you thought you'd left behind a good hour ago. There were many times I was completely blown away by just how skilled, in a pure architectural sense, FromSoftware's level designers are, and it's a feeling of awe and wonderment that from about the midpoint on, Dark Souls 3 sets a new standard on.
Levels are underground caverns that appear like demonic versions of Bruce Wayne's Batcave, entire hollowed out chasms of stone walkways and broken chapels hanging in the moonlight. They're dank, ghost-infested prisons with God-knows-what enemy types springing at you from all sides, or they're the bespeckled, snow-covered cities of the deceased upper classes, reigning down over all with lashings of wealth and silver.
The bar has been raised, developers of the world. This is how you craft a world, and one with enough detail in every inch to warrant replayability at every turn.
You may be wondering just where any comment on the story has gone, and honestly, it is in there, but you'll need to hoover up a few lore videos or really dig into the item descriptions to truly figure it out. Just know that you're the 'Ashen One', a wayward soul seeking to take down five towering bosses named the Lords of Cinder. Like all Souls games including Bloodborne, the story is the barest facilitator for your actions, but one that's immensely rewarding if you do decide to seek it out.
The monsters and beings you'll fight on your way to finishing the story too, my lord (of Cinder), I've not come across such genuinely horrifying creatures in decades. Think John Carpenter's The Thing, give those abominations a murderous intent and you're halfway there. Shambling half-dead prisoners will balk and produce maggot-infested stomach-demons, weird lizard-like serpents with human baby heads (yes, really) will watch you whilst sticking to a nearby wall...
One thing (as I'm calling it) was a half-woman, half-skeletal spider hybrid that spends its time hanging upside down in bodies of water. Suddenly you get too close and its entire form is unveiled; multiple legs stretching out as it screeches and even lunges at you like some horrific 'Man Vs. World's Largest Spider' footage made real. Arachnophobes need not apply.
Seriously, if you've gotten to the point where Resident Evil's naff recent instalments have neutered you on the effects of pure grossout enemy design, let Dark Souls be your guide into rekindling that feeling, complete with extra goosebumps and skin-crawls for days.
I've lost count of the amount of times I was shouting "WHAT THE F**K IS THAT?!?" as I'm simultaneously fighting my body's natural reaction to flinch, whilst attempting to dodge and fight back. FromSoft's time flexing their horror muscles in Bloodborne has carried over nicely, and when you venture into darkly-lit rooms in Dark Souls 3, the mood shifts on a dime. Just be prepared for what's in there with you.
Multiplayer forms the last part of the picture, and something that holds up as one of the most unique on the market. By combining the sensation of adventuring solo and with the community at large, messages can be left for other players to warn them of hazards, hint at treasures, or just to troll them instead. You can pop 'Embers' to change your form and call in another player to assist you in defeating a boss or particular run of enemies - but beware, this also makes you visible to players who'll invade and make your journey even harder.
Duelling is recommended as the flow of combat person-to-person is completely different to going up against the A.I., but if you're anything like me, the 'purest' Souls experience is trying to tackle its world as a lone wanderer, occasionally only calling in reinforcements for the game's spectacularly epic boss battles.
The sensation of seeing some ragtag group of warriors posse up and fell a hugely imposing creature - only to then bow and wave goodbye as they return to their respective solo adventures - is one of the best gaming experiences you can have, and something completely unique to FromSoftware's franchises.
Bosses too, are far more considered this time round. Dark Souls 2 seemed to say "Oh, you like fighting them? Here's one every few minutes!" whereas DS3's are more evenly paced and identifiable. They ramp up in difficulty accordingly, alternating nicely between being large mounds of puss and teeth or human-sized foes that challenge you to perfect reflex reactions and timing windows. Occasionally you'll have to solve a light puzzle element, such as figuring out what you have to trigger in the environment or seek out to even deal any damage - it really is an exemplary selection of creatures and characters we'll be talking about for decades to come.
I'm not going to say Dark Souls 3's boss selection beats the perfection that is the original's, but it's mighty close, and a considerable step up from DS2 and Bloodborne's; the latter of which all looked like a string of disease-ridden dogs had been pulled inside out.
Dark Souls 3 is so much more than what could've been 'just another Souls game'.
The tighter feedback loop of new equipment and styles, the weapon arts, the locations that entice you with multiple pathways at once, the enemy design, the bosses, the phenomenal art direction - copycats like Lords of the Fallen, Salt & Sanctuary and the upcoming Nioh may be fleshing this mould out into its own genre, but they only reinforce the fact that nobody 'does Dark Souls' like the masters themselves.
Whether you're new to Souls or you've been here since Dark was Demon's, Dark Souls 3 is a masterclass in game design, a testament to effective fan service and a tome on how to reignite the love for a given franchise from beginning to end.
Let us know in the comments if you're a new player or a longtime fan, alongside which boss has been the hardest so far!