It seems like only yesterday that Bloodborne came out. Indeed, it’s actually only been a little bit over a year since its initial launch and its last DLC came in late November 2015. Nonetheless, here we are at Dark Souls III, and despite that alarmingly short timeframe, this game doesn’t feel rushed in the least. In fact, it feels like a culmination of all of From Software’s experience brought in at the highest level. However, where Dark Souls II felt like a continuation and natural evolution of the original Dark Souls, Dark Souls III feels more like an extension of Dark Souls II mixed with a few fresh lessons learned from Bloodborne to create a richer and more powerful overall experience.

The story is the usual gothic and dreary Japanese take on Western mythology and fantasy that we’ve come to associate with this developer and series. You take on the role of an undead being known as the Unkindled; a being so low in death that you could not even be quenched in the fires of the afterlife, left as lowly ash in the Kingdom of Lothric. Your only hope of salvation is to seek the Lords of Cinder, essentially gods of the realm, and return them to their thrones by any means necessary. It’s a fairly nonsensical plot, but serves as a device to deliver you from land to land and from boss fight to boss fight as you seek each Lord.

The lands of Lothric, its inhabitants, and the player are equal parts breathtaking and disturbing. There are some areas and ideas that From Software went back to from previous games, such as poison swamps and the Catacombs, but eyeing the elaborate misty cliff sides and the expansive gothic architecture provides some of the most gorgeous visuals From Software has yet to produce. Likewise, enemy design comes through again. Though many of the more common models become a bit of a bore, there is a vast variety of enemies in the game, beautifully rendered and animated, that run a great gamut from majestic and awe-inspiring to downright disgusting and disturbing. Players with an inquisitive nature will revel in exploring every nook, cranny, and corner of these lands to draw everything that this rich and diverse world has to offer.

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Fans of Dark Souls II will find much of the system from that game intact here. Shields, bows, melee weapons of all kinds, and casting catalysts return alongside a wide variety items that can either be used actively against foes or be used to augment your abilities in and out of combat. Thankfully, Dark Souls III trades the humanity system of Dark Souls II for one that offers simplicity against the slippery slope that too many deaths in Dark Souls II could cause. The player character keeps Embers about them when they continue to survive, which provide a healthy HP boost. If you die, it’s like losing your humanity in Dark Souls II, except you don’t turn increasingly ghoulish and only take the one straight dip in max HP. This system is much preferred, offering incentive to stay alive, while acting a little more forgiving against multiple deaths.

Weapons, defense, parrying, and dual-wielding have kept much of the core intact, but introduced quite a bit more versatility as well. Most all of the weapons in the game now feature a skill which can be accessed from double-handing the weapon and using the off-hand strong attack (in place of the weapon-based parry in Dark Souls II), or using the weapon’s strong attack as a dual-wielded weapon in the offhand. These skills do everything from special attacks to powering up the weapon for the next attack. There’s no lack of variety in skills either as Dark Souls III once again comes forth with a wide variety of weaponry.

From daggers to polearms, Dark Souls III brings one of the all-time largest arsenals in the franchise, catering to any and all playstyles. Shields once again remain a solid choice for the ability to defend against or parry enemies, leading into counterattacks, but thanks to the variety of stats, skills, and strategies offered by each weapon, dual-wielding is a much more viable option than it has ever been in the series. Additionally, Dark Souls III, not only brings back the Estus Flask for restoring health, but introduces the Ashen Estus Flask, which restores FP or mana required for weapon skills and spells. Having a constant mana restoration tool on hand made it easier than ever to live as a mage flinging spells all over Lothric’s nasty inhabitants. We played several different characters, from sword-and-shield knight, to dual-wielding mercenary, to spell-weaving sorcerer and each of them brought their own unique challenges, opportunities, and rewards to the journey.

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Of course, regardless of who you’re playing as or what you’re using, you’d better be prepared to die to fearsome bosses. Besides the aforementioned Lords of Cinder, there are numerous other bosses to take on and slog through on your path to salvation in the lands of Lothric and beyond. In Dark Souls III, bosses have taken on a bit of the Bloodborne formula, often working in two-stage battles. You get a taste of what the boss is like and work out a strategy and then they change and you must adapt to match them. This often means looking out for new devastating attacks or a new opening or weakness. Many of these bosses are enjoyable to figure out, working sort of like frantic active puzzles. That said, there are some that might just be a bit too easy. Once you’ve got a boss figured out and have solved the puzzle, it’s easier to go back and do it again on a new playthrough than we would have liked, which is a shame because visually many of them are just plain stunning and/or terrifying.

In between the long treks of battle and boss fighting, there is a small semblance of social interactivity to ease your weary burdens. There is once again a hub world that offers shop, level up, and equipment modification services for your hard earned souls. You power up your equipment with Titanite once again, which can be found throughout the world in various forms, the rarity or power of your equipment determining what materials you’ll need for upgrades. In addition, there are the usual NPCs scattered throughout the wilderness which offer little side quests. Accessing and completing these side quests, while always optional, offers access to new and unique gear or new opportunities. It’s not exactly complex, but many of the quests depend upon you exploring the world in full to find your objectives. Finally, there are eight factions, both new and familiar to explore in the game, which provide a number of benefits and functions to your character in player vs. enemy and player vs. player.

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Speaking of PVP, many of the social features return in Dark Souls III. You’ll once again find messages scattered throughout the world leaving helpful (and a little too often, not so helpful) hints as to what to expect around each corner. Bloodstains also return, showing you how and where other players died. As usual, spotting a ton of bloodstains concentrated in one area is a pretty good cautionary warning of danger in a given area. Co-op and slight competitive elements are back too, though it’s of special note that you need your Embers to be active in order to access them. Embers are scattered throughout the world and not the hardest to collect, but you’ll want to keep track of your stock and stay Enkindled if you’re going to play with and against others.

Our return to the Dark Souls series was one steeped in joy, anger, frustration, triumph, fear, and awe. It contains so much of the standard elements and mechanics that play to fans familiar with From Software while introducing nuances that once again raise the bar. Dark Souls III is a world that is absolutely fantastic and worth exploring despite dreary conditions and there’s a rich variety of options that cater to whatever playstyle you want to bring to your adventure. There is an occasional lack of variety or oversimplification that comes to the forefront when it comes to enemies or locale, but it is often quickly buried in the amazing visuals, enjoyable gameplay, and rewarding lore of the game. If Dark Souls III is the final visit to this series, then it is the apex the series deserves and certainly one of the most worthwhile adventures we’ve embarked on in a long time.

This review was completed with a retail copy of Dark Souls III provided by the publisher for PlayStation 4.