Dark Souls II was a tremendous video game – so good in fact that we happily played through it twice thanks to a timely HD remaster – but for some Souls fans, something wasn't quite right. It lacked the focus of the sublime original it was argued, and when it came to finding a scapegoat, such critics didn't have to look far. Clearly, the blame lay with co-directors Tomohiro Shibuya and Yui Tanimura, who took over from series creator Hidetaka Miyazaki thanks to his commitments to Bloodborne, a PlayStation 4 exclusive spin-off from the main Souls franchise. Whether or not this apportioning of blame is valid – we're not entirely convinced ourselves – the return of Miyazaki for Dark Souls III has predictably sent expectation levels into overdrive; the master has come home, and those who found Darks Souls II not to their liking are expecting to be pacified.
In actual fact, Dark Souls III does what every decent sequel should and takes inspiration from its forerunners and siblings – including Dark Souls II and Bloodborne. The core template will be instantly familiar to those who have been following this series since the days of Demon's Souls. You create a character – based on a set of classes ranging from burly Knights to Assassins and spellcasters – and you venture forth into a hostile and nightmarish medieval fantasy where most of the creatures you meet are looking to kill you. Defeating enemies in battle yields souls which can be used to purchase items and improve your character's base stats. These souls are carried around with you until they are used, and if you happen to die, the souls you have acquired are lost also, dropped at the point where you fell. It's possible to regain them by trudging back to this location, but should you succumb en route, the souls are lost forever.
This delicate balancing act has been the bedrock of the Souls series since day one, and imbues Dark Souls III with an interesting "risk and reward" mechanic. When you've stockpiled plenty of souls, the temptation is to head to the latest bonfire – which acts not only as a way of restoring your health but also allows you to fast-travel back to the hub-like Firelink Shrine, where you can level up, augment weapons, and buy items – and spend your hard-earned souls. The catch? Doing this resets all of the enemies in the game, which means you have to fight through them again when you return to that location. Dark Souls III therefore becomes an exercise in pushing your boundaries; do you soldier on in the hope that you'll reach the next bonfire but risk losing your souls, or do you limp back to the previous safe haven, knowing that you'll have to do it all over again later? Of course, should you choose the former option then each enemy encounter becomes positively electric with tension – even more so when you consider that even the lowliest foe is capable of taking you down quite swiftly, while massed hordes of any rank are nearly always lethal.
Thankfully, movement is more fluid this time around – no doubt thanks to Bloodborne's influence – and while there are less weapons to play around with than in Dark Souls II, the ability to dual wield certain types and the inclusion of special skills attached to each one make the process of mastering them all the more challenging. These "Battle Arts" vary wildly from weapon to weapon; for example, the long sword's special skill is a two-handed "ready stance" from which you can deliver powerful lunges and swipes, while a polearm has a spinning attack which has a large area of effect. Each of these skills consumes FP, which is also gobbled up by magical spells. FP, like HP, can be restored using flasks – Estus for health, Ash Estus for FP. These recharge at each bonfire and you can only carry a finite amount of each; it's possible to allot uses to each one, so you can go into battle with plenty of restorative Estus or choose to keep your FP topped up instead.
As before, online play is a massive part of the Dark Souls experience - in fact, with some of the more taxing bosses some players might find it impossible to progress without the assistance of "summoned" friendly allies. It's possible to call players into your world and have them lend their might to your own, but you can also lay down your own summon sign and be called into another player's game. Those who find such random connectivity distasteful will be pleased to know that Bloodborne's code-based matchmaking system has been carried across, allowing players to connect to one another's worlds via a password. The promise of additional souls and the ability to revert from your weaker "Hollowed" state as reward makes this jolly cooperation thoroughly worthwhile, but you can hinder as well as help if you feeling takes you; invading another player's game as a phantom is equally bountiful and gives Dark Souls 3 an additional competitive edge. Another facet of the online experience is the ability to write special signs which appear in other games; you can point other players in the right direction or warn them of an impending attack. Of course, there's the temptation to post bogus or misleading messages but the voting system - which allows people to rate messages based on their usefulness - circumvents such tomfoolery; signs which have little or no votes will eventually be removed.
Dark Souls III doesn't attempt to reinvent the wheel, then, but it absolutely does benefit from next generation hardware. Character models haven't experienced a particularly notable bump in terms of detail, but the environments are positively awe-inspiring; FromSoftware has used the additional horsepower to create more spacious locations which seem to almost go on forever. These epic levels are matched by the creative foresight of the game's designers, who have an uncanny talent for crafting complex, winding passageways which twist and turn on themselves, eventually connecting in unforeseen ways which reveal time-saving shortcuts. This was a hallmark of the original Dark Souls but was lacking in the sequel; it could be Miyazaki's return that has restored the inventive world design. Whatever the reason, the nightmarish and troubling world of Lothric is far grander and more imposing than Lordran and Drangleic – although this is not without consequence, as there are numerous moments where the frame rate drops quite sharply, a sure sign that FromSoftware has permitted its almost boundless ambition to cloud its judgment.
Despite this, the return of Hidetaka Miyazaki to the Souls series has resulted in what fans had hoped for; a game which takes the best elements of past outings – including Bloodborne – and fuses them together in a more expansive and detailed fantasy world, packed with grim architecture, terrifying creatures, and a lore so incredibly complex that it could have sprung from the pages of Tolkien or Martin. In fact, it's remarkable that such a dark vision of European fantasy has been created by a Japanese team – at no point does Dark Souls III (or any of the other Souls title, for that matter) feel forced, ham-fisted, or ill-conceived; this is a team which is intimately familiar with its sources of inspiration, arguably more so than many Western RPG makers. However, the myths, legends, and chilling stories of the kingdom of Lothric are only part of Dark Souls III's charm; more potent is the constant battle to better oneself, to push your skills that little bit further – either with or without outside assistance – and defeat that seemingly impossible boss or overcome that gaggle of monsters. The sense of progression and advancement is unmatched in modern video gaming; while typical RPGs feature levelling systems and upgradable weapons and armour, only the Souls franchise makes it feel like your own skills are growing in stature alongside your avatar and their equipment.
For some, Dark Souls III may lack the revolutionary elements which made Bloodborne such a refreshing change of pace – the aggressive combat system of that title is absent here; it's not possible to reclaim lost health by quickly counter-attacking, for example. However, the pace of Bloodborne's combat has been carried over, proof that FromSoftware is constantly iterating and improving its stable of titles. Visually, there are moments of wonder and moments of unfortunate shakiness as the game engine struggles to cope with the gorgeous vistas that FromSoftware's designers have so painstakingly sculptured, but this is unlikely to come as that much of a shock to seasoned fans who recall the juddery mess that was Dark Souls' Blighttown. There's nothing quite as objectionable here, thankfully.
Dark Souls III is another triumph of the imagination for FromSoftware, a studio which surely now must rank as one of Japan's leading talents. The company's Souls series has a near-flawless track record and after the cult nature of Demon's Souls has thankfully found a large and receptive mainstream audience – not bad for a franchise which delights in being obtuse and hair-pulling tricky in equal measure. Dark Souls III is arguably the most accomplished entry yet, refining the core mechanics and cunningly utilizing next-generation hardware to excellent effect.