Ashes to ashes
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. earn to die
In actual fact, Unepic 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.
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.