The first few undead warriors in Dark Souls III’s Cemetery of Ash might fail to gut players, but there’s one hiding behind a gravestone, eager to finish the job. Should he fail, an archer waits in the distance, piercing players with arrows until they figure out how to roll out of the way. There’s a gigantic crystal lizard lurking down a swampy sidepath, waiting to devour anyone brazen enough to ignore the bloody message warning players to turn back. The first boss, the towering knight Iudex Gundyr, seems manageable at first in that he telegraphs each long-range swipe of his hefty halberd, but whittle away enough health and a black, raven-like mass of shadows erupts from his back, as unpredictable and violent as his new set of moves.
Surprises like Iudex Gundyr’s mid-fight transformation are commonplace throughout the game, and ensure that even longtime fans of the Dark Souls series cannot be complacent: Everything is out to kill you. But there’s an artificiality to this sort of difficulty, because once players know where enemies lie in wait, or what special moves are at a foe’s disposal, it’s not particularly difficult to clear an area. It’s one thing for a player to die because they weren’t skillful enough to dodge an attack; it’s another for them to die because they were overwhelmed by a sudden volcanic explosion they didn’t know they’d have to dodge. There are two types of experience to be earned, then. There’s the traditional sort, gained by killing enemies for souls that can be exchanged for actual increases in levels. But there’s also the more practical sort: the wisdom that’s gained from being killed by enemies, assuming that players learn how to avoid as much in the future.
This has always been the case with Dark Souls games though. The setting may be a dark, medieval world replete with dragons and giants, but the gameplay hews closer to reality, in that those creatures can often kill the puny player in a few hits. This is where fantasy goes to be bludgeoned to death by said reality. Dark Souls III, to its credit, is the most evolved and accessible entry in the series, and makes a lot of intelligent choices from its faster, sleeker cousin, Bloodborne, when it comes to enlivening combat.
Magic is now tied to FP (Focus Points), a resource that players can replenish by converting some of their HP-recovering flasks into FP-restoring ones. As a result, long-range magic builds are more viable, and spells can be more frequently deployed in combination with other techniques. And those who choose to focus on weapons will find that they have far more range, with both one-handed and two-handed options. A katana-wielder can utilize a secondary stance from which they can quickly parry or lunge. Those with daggers can Quick Step around opponents; those with a scythe can attempt a more direct and lethal Neck Swipes on enemies without proper protection.
That said, Dark Souls III isn’t very good at encouraging players to experiment. Trial and error can reveal enemy weaknesses, but because errors in the Dark Souls universe lead to immediate death, it’s often easier to stick with a familiar weapon. Along the same lines, weapons have stat requirements to effectively wield them, just as characters have weight limitations that prevent them from swapping on the fly between, say, a barbed whip and a greatsword. You can turn the basic knight class into a pyromancy-focused wizard, but it’s a lot of extra effort for relatively little gain.
It’s far easier to allocate points specifically toward the strengths of a nimble assassin or well-armored warrior, and the only downside to this inflexibility is that players may acquire powerful gear from bosses that they end up not being able to use. That said, there are skills for every character; High Lord Wolnir’s soul can either be exchanged for a poisonous, a Black Serpent spell, or a Holy Sword that can unleash a massive shockwave. Either way, players have ample opportunity to literally act like a boss.
Moreover, while Dark Souls III encourages players to stay locked into their initial builds, the game itself is anything but constant with regard to the various locales found across Lothric. There are wide-open poisonous bogs in the Farron Swamp, but also cramped and twisting halls in the Catacombs of Carthus. The churches found in the Cathedral of the Deep and along the old streets of Irithyll of the Frozen Valley are similar in their gothic flourishes, but sunlight dapples the crumbling ruins of the former, whereas the latter is drenched in moonlight and snow. Boss fights are especially compelling, for they often introduce new mechanics: The Deacons of the Deep are a giant mob of slow-moving foes that must be targeted in the correct order, whereas the Curse-rottted Greatwood—a giant tree with a grasping skeletal hand stemming from its center—is best approached at range, forcing it to stand and, ultimately, trip over its own roots.
At this point, Dark Souls is catering to a specific hardcore audience, and for all the incremental improvements, Dark Souls III is very much more of the same. To those gluttons for punishment, then: Enjoy the feast.