Catering specifically to a hardcore gaming crowd has allowed FromSoftware's landmark Souls series to pick up an impressive head of steam over the years. The franchise has earned cult status for its punishing difficulty that keeps hardcore gamers coming back again and again. Now, for the third year in a row since 2014's Dark Souls II, a bittersweet death knell rings out, as players prepare to throw their hard-earned cash on the counter for a hefty dose of pain and frustration.
For some, the return of series godfather Hidetaka Miyazaki will be enough to bring them back into the fold. The guru in all things Souls, Miyazaki created the series and served as the director for Demon's Souls in 2009 and Dark Souls in 2011. He took a backseat during the development of the next sequel, staying on as supervisor while heading up his own development team on the PS4's Bloodborne. For Dark Souls III, Miyazaki is back at the helm, and with his return to the driver's seat comes several noteworthy gameplay aspects, both new and old.
Dark Souls III will be all about fire: fire, and the absence thereof. The so-called Lords of Cinder, grave beasts that infested Lothric, have lain dormant, waiting for their time to come again. However, the fires that hold back darkness have gone out, and with their dying, a bell tolls sadly, summoning the Lords of Cinder from their slumber: Aldritch, the Saint of the Deep; Farron's Undead Legion, the Abyss Watchers; and Yhorm the Giant.
The Lords of Cinder are not the only threat players will face. Legions of lesser undead, the Unkindled, will do their best to make life a living hell for those foolish enough to go on the quest to seek out new Lords of Cinder. What is touched by fire turns to ash, and these ashes themselves play a part in gameplay. For example, health and magic points can be refilled by consuming items known as Ash Estus Flasks.
The lion's share of the gameplay follows suit with what Dark Souls I and II offered, so series veterans should have no trouble feeling right at home. The new game is set in the same game universe as its predecessors, in the land of Lothric, which acts as a merging point between the worlds of the first two games. Like the other settings of the series, Lothric is a world steeped in dark medieval fantasy, a world of rotting castles, armored knights, dark magic, and fire-spewing dragons. This is where Miyazaki feels most at home, having come off the Lovecraftian locations of Bloodborne.
Simply being in the same universe isn't enough for Souls fans, however. Die-hards live and breathe for the sheer challenge these games dish up. It seems players need not be worried: the game's enemies and map layouts are expressly designed to kill players, according to Miyazaki himself.
The promise of brutal difficulty goes hand-in-hand with some new abilities available to players. First and foremost on the list are Battle Arts, which let players shift between two available battle stances for each weapon. One stance will allow players to attack as they normally would, while the other enables a special, heavier attack that is able to inflict much more damage or break through an enemy's defenses and opens up a weak point to strike at. As a whole, combat and movement have been made faster and more fluid.
The series tradition of pitting players against intimidating, screen-filling bosses continues unabated in Dark Souls III. They run the gamut from the mundane (if a roaring drake can ever be called "mundane") to some amazingly creepy and original adversaries. Enemy designs take full advantage of the additional horsepower of next-gen consoles, as the game is the first in the Souls series to have been designed from the ground up for these machines.
Dark Souls III makes a concerted effort to emphasize its RPG elements more thoroughly than they have been in the past. The character builder has been made more robust, allowing for more personalization options, and weapons are once again able to be upgraded. Players looking to delve deep into stats to improve the nuances of their performance won't be disappointed. However, the agility stat from Dark Souls II has been removed from the sequel.
There is an additional focus on in-game world building. The Souls series has traditionally been lighter on its story-telling elements, preferring to let the gameplay do its talking. Dark Souls III will introduce small gravestones that serve two purposes. For one, they offer bits of in-game lore when inspected, and when activated, they will also light up and act as impromptu torches.
Dark Souls III goes back to exploration being a prime directive for players, with larger, more open areas. There will be fewer environments than in its predecessor, though they will be once again interconnected with each other, whereas Dark Souls II featured a more scattered layout. Multiplayer again forms a key component of the game, and it will appear in the by-now familiar form of players being able to leave messages in the environment to aid (or hinder) others, and being able to summon other players to participate in their struggles side-by-side.
Though Dark Souls III marks Miyazaki's return to the series he helped create, it will also mark his final outing as director. With his recent advancement to the post of president of FromSoftware, future games in the series (which Miyazaki did confirm) will likely bring about further changes. For now, however, players are invited to do as the game's tagline says, and "Embrace the Darkness."