Dark Souls III offers something that its kin can’t seem to match up to on a consistent basis, and that something is a level of refinement that can only come around once in a decade (or two). Almost to a fault, Dark Souls III creates a hyper efficient pattern of gameplay loops that follows the structure of: big area for exploration, small enemies, boss blocking next area, repeat.
Its a fun loop to participate in, but one who seeks a more natural approach to video game world design will find the theme park level of tour guiding a let down and, in some cases, an annoyance. Instead of being offered a world to explore and, as in the previous two Dark Souls titles, slowly figure out how to most efficiently traverse on a new account, the player is being strung along a very, very predictable path forwards to progress gameplay. This can be said, somewhat, for Dark Souls II, but for the first of its name, Dark Souls I does a brilliant job in layering the entirety of its world above, below, and beside itself. And, when it wasn’t able to do that efficiently, delayed giving the player to tools needed to warp around it until absolutely necessary for seamless gameplay.
Dark Souls III holds no compunction in tossing the player the tools for teleporting around the map immediately, and tries its best to incorporate said design into a positive instead of working against it. For players who prefer getting straight into the action and delving into the combat, this is an absolute plus. But for the aforementioned players who care more about the world itself, or at least equally as much as the combat, having a world designed to be teleported around instead of walked, fought, and “short-cutted” will immediately tire the mind and bore the senses.
The one true exception to this rule is the fight with Dancer of the Boreal Valley, which, despite being an end game boss fight, is actually available right at the start of the game if the player chooses to commit #ViolenceAgainstOldWomen™. And I, like many cultured men before and after me, will always opt to commit such acts when offered the chance by a dev fellow (or otherwise).
The Dancer showcases the refinement of Dark Souls III on a technical, micro level where the world displays it on the macro. With the Dancer, every single moveset is not only readable on the first attempt, but can always be manipulated by positioning relative the Dancer’s angle against the player. With a mix of physical, dark, magic, and fire damage, there isn’t really any one way to sure up your defenses against the Dancer aside from “gitting gud”. Additionally the moveset of this boss is downright satisfying to admire, with each move representing a free flowing dance (go figure) amidst a duel as apposed to raw brutality. The hitboxes, the move manipulation, the required patience to slowly wear the dancer down, and the visuals are all top tier here, and the because of the refined combat, its all tied together as what is one of, if not THE, best fight in the Dark Souls trilogy.
And, to go back to my original point, beating the Dancer early allows the player to access a late game are early, which is the only real time in the game where the player has the option of taking the unbeaten path at all, unlike in Dark Souls I & II, which allows the player to go every which way immediately, if they have the skill.
The combat in Dark Souls III is also the trilogy’s best. The movement, both when using the lock-on mechanic and when free moving, is completely untethered to an integer system and provides a full 360 degree range of movement for the player, which is sad to call an actual improvement over the former two games, but it absolutely is. The weapon movesets range from basic to outright gorgeous and satisfying to play with, and the range of weapon viability, although obviously tilted in favor of speed, is still varied enough to make multiple playthroughs just for different builds worthwhile. The PvP is about as tight as FromSoft can reasonably be expected to get at this point, and uses to previously mentioned attributes to reign itself in as overall a strong experience with a community still battling out to this day.
Not to sound like a broken record, but the hitboxes exhibited in Dark Souls III are also a breath of fresh air after playing around with DS2 for even a few hours. Each enemy, at times, will swing their weapons just inches away from the player during some roll or another and not once in my gameplay have I ever been tagged where I otherwise would have felt that the weapon should have missed me altogether. Basically, the hitboxes slap (or don’t slap, depending on your perspective / skill. They’re good.)
The vast majority of the game was built from the ground up with parrying in mind which creates an interesting dynamic between the bosses and the player where each fight can absolutely demolished with nothing but a shield and a dagger. In my opinion, parrying fights are extraordinarily interesting in that they feel like duels between the player and a master at arms as apposed to a Monster Hunter-like “dodge n’ roll” hack-fest.
This point in personal, but the more parrying fights in the DS games, the more I seem to like them. And DS3 has some extremely satisfying parryable bosses.
This point has to do with world building, which we’ve already covered, but is important enough to mention all its own: “Firelink Shrine”. Each Dark Souls game has its own world hub. A “center” for the player to return to and find new NPCs, spells, weapons, companions, foes, etc, etc, etc. Dark Souls I built the entire world around the center, so each time it was worth going back to Firelink Shrine the player was likely to return there anyway as they traveled up, down, and across the map.
Dark Souls II and III allowed the player to teleport straight to the hub for the sake of convenience, and the world building suffered for it. The world building strengths of each game can be summarized by looking at the nature of their Firelink Shrines or “centers”. Dark Souls I is not only of paramount importance to the player to interact with NPCs and gain functional lore hints, but also interacts with shortcuts between the rest of the world.
Dark Souls II left most of that behind, but did manage to incorporate a drop from the center into a pivotal part of the game and kept the NPCs around.
Dark Souls III kept the NPCs around, but did nothing to make Firelink Shrine important to the world at all except for the fact that you travel to the final boss from it, which sounds important, but in the grand scheme of Dark Souls games feels more like a smart use of space in the developer’s part than it is important to making Firelink Shrine a well-incorporated asset into the game as apposed to a necessary world hub that was cobbled together by virtue of being tradition.
This is hardly noticeable, and that’s because all that’s noticeable in Dark Souls III its the refinement. Refined movement, refined combat, refined hitboxes, refined boss design, and refined world travel. And what Dark Souls III boasts in these feats, it loses in world design and wholesome traversal. Some of us in the gaming community would call this “soul” for simplicity, although I’d ask you to excuse the unintended pun.