If you believe games should be hard – really hard and unforgiving, offering you no respite and requiring total concentration all the way through – then the chances are that you have played one of the first two Dark Souls games. Their developer, Japanese company From Software, is famed in the world of video games for its pig-headed refusal to contemplate even the tiniest hint of compromise. Strangely enough, it hasn’t abandoned any of its principles for Dark Souls III – and the result, as long as you’re the right sort of gamer – is something of a masterpiece.
Like its predecessors, Dark Souls III is an action-RPG, set in a gloomy, gothic world populated by the undead. You, too are undead, undertaking a quest which, when fulfilled, will earn you your humanity back. The game starts with the usual character creation setup – what really matters is choosing which class to play as. There are various forms of knights, archers, necromancers and so on, each with very different attributes. I chose to be a pyromancer – a class that first appeared in Dark Souls II – simply because I can never be bothered with wielding a shield, and as a pyromancer, you can replace the shield in your left hand with the ability to throw fireballs. Typically, I later came across a boss which was more or less invincible unless countered with a shield.
Once you’ve finished tinkering around with your character, Dark Souls III provides gameplay which will be very familiar indeed if you played either of its previous iterations. Although admittedly, it’s a tiny bit more forgiving than its predecessors in its earliest stages. The general principle is as simple as they come: you make your way through the game-world, killing everything you see, until you reach the next campfire, which operates as a checkpoint and lets you restore your health and magic abilities.
But that is easier said than done. Sometimes, reaching the next campfire might only mean traversing a few hundred yards, but in order to do so, you’ll have to take out scores of different undead, each of which require wildly different strategies to defeat. Whenever you die, the souls you’ve collected from the undead you’ve killed – the game’s currency, which you can also cash in to level up – remain at the spot where you died. So if you die before you get back to them, you lose them.
In atmospheric terms, Dark Souls III is impeccable. It’s relentlessly, deliciously dank and grim, taking in a variety of ill-lit, inhospitable castles with weird, aggressive creatures lurking in their darkest corners, creepy forests, gloopy swamps which poison you when you set foot in their fetid mud and so on. Story-wise, it’s rich without being in-your-face: in typically contrary fashion, From Software has pretty much eschewed story-advancing cut-scenes. The ones you do find are mercifully short, and generally mark the beginning or end of an encounter with a boss. Instead, it’s up to you to piece the story together from snatches of conversations with characters you meet on the way.
The game’s lore is as arcane as that of any fantasy RPG – the loot you pick up has all manner of bizarre uses – sometimes you’ll find something whose purpose only becomes clear hours down the line. In a way, everything you pick up contributes to the storyline.
Then there are the bosses. From Software hasn’t stinted on them, and each is terrifying in its own way – either because it is vast and imaginatively ugly, or because it’s seemingly invincible. It always takes you a while to work out how to overcome each boss, and you always have to employ a patient and strategic approach. Go in flailing wildly with your sword, and you’ll get cut to pieces in an instant. Oddly, though, in Dark Souls III, some of the best bosses, like a giant tree that you can only damage by targeting hard-to-reach pustules, are optional – that is, you can bypass them.
One aspect of Dark Souls III that marks it down – like its predecessors – as a special game is the way in which its gameplay reveals a sort of twisted logic which sucks you in, leaves you thoroughly addicted and remains utterly distinctive, even when you compare it with its two predecessors. You’ll get to know every inch of its game-world, and the peculiar rhythms that govern how everything you encounter moves and acts. Sure, it’s a game that demands total concentration all the way through – it never gives you a moment’s respite – and at times, playing it feels like an act of masochism. But thanks to its refusal to compromise, the pleasure it gives you when you make even the tiniest bit of progress feels immeasurable. If you see yourself as a hardcore gamer, you can prove that you deserve that status by mastering Dark Souls III.
• Game reviewed on PlayStation 4