[Editor's Note: This piece was originally published as a review-in-progress. If you've already read the first installment, click here to move on to the second half and conclusion.]
From Software's prolific output may mean good things for those who dig their specific take on game design, but every annual release brings us closer to the risk of diminishing returns.
Human beings may have their limits, but the developers at From certainly haven't shown theirs. While many series feel content to hastily shove new content into an existing template, Hidetaka Miyazaki's band of brothers seemingly use every new Souls (or Souls-related game) as a chance to make up for old mistakes. Each Souls installment contains its own specific flaws, of course, but every dose of new content seemingly exists to address existing complaints from fans and critics alike. From still carries their own unique voice, but it's rare to see a developer so devoted to self-improvement.
Dark Souls III could have easily been too much, too soon—especially after last year's Bloodborne—but, in keeping with their recent rise to power, From still has a way of surprising people. If you've been a fervent Souls fan over the past seven years, it's doubtful you're on the fence about this third installment, but I'm here to reassure you regardless: No, they didn't screw it up. (Though with the game being such a known quantity over the past two weeks, it's likely I don't need to tell you this.) Simply put, Dark Souls III shows From Software at their best, building off of what came before while making several dozen tiny tweaks that improve the experience without fundamentally altering it. Now can someone please give this poor team an extended vacation?
Even if you haven't played a Souls game, you likely know them from their slightly disingenuous marketing message: These games will kick the shit out of you (to paraphrase a bit). They certainly have their difficult moments, but From Software is more interested in giving players total responsibility than punishing them outright. Exploring a previously hidden pathway, for instance, becomes much more rewarding when you find it yourself instead of having a flashing arrow point you towards it. And From takes the exact same approach with storytelling: Outside of the brief intro, Souls' narrative can only be pieced together via environmental details, item descriptions, and the scant amount of dialogue spoken by NPCs. In short, there's a reason why several YouTubers have made doing Dark Souls deep-dives their full-time jobs.
So if you've come to Dark Souls III for all the, well, "Souls stuff," you won't be disappointed. Even if From sticks with certain tropes (the hub, the annoying swamp area, the duplicitous killer NPC), they're presented with enough of a new spin to justify their recycling. And just as the (often unfairly dismissed) Dark Souls II brought plenty of quality-of-life improvements, Dark Souls III stands as the most approachable entry in the series to date—while still maintaining its focus on player responsibility. You can always fall into a seemingly bottomless hole of experimenting with character builds, but past instances of awkwardness in the Souls series—brought about by From's sometimes flawed experiments with game design—have been eliminated entirely. The past four takes on this brand of action-RPG have given Souls' creators an astounding amount of confidence, and that's good news for all of us.
While Dark Souls III's setting cuts a different profile than the melancholic beauty of DSII's Drangleic and the faded glory of DSI's Lordran, returning players should feel right at home. You'll find some new takes on old ideas, but the added power of a new hardware generation means DSIII's environments feel more dense and expansive than anything found in the previous games. Souls II's fairly linear levels made for a valid approach, but III places a focus on exploration that's felt slightly absent since the first half of Dark Souls I. Some areas have their direct routes, but, in many cases, you'll find yourself dropped into a large (often outdoors) expanse with no real sense of direction. Combing each and every corner for treasures, shortcuts, and checkpoints isn't mandatory, but it's hard to avoid being a completionist with such a rich world begging to be fully charted.
On a somewhat less important note, Dark Souls III simply looks great. While I miss the more cohesive—and slightly more interesting—Lovecraftian slant of Bloodborne, Dark Souls III's visuals feel like From's artists finally getting a chance to stretch their talents after being tied down to circa-2005 hardware for the better part of a decade. Granted, I've been playing the PC version at 60 FPS on a new gaming PC, but the small chunk I played on a PS4 certainly didn't disappoint. Dark Souls III may not feature the same strangely picturesque backdrops of Dark Souls II, but From's artists manage to craft a certain kind of beauty from their strange, twisted worlds. Even if each new area brings its share of rotting, deformed abominations, it's still fun to marvel at just how much detail has been put into every last disgusting thing.