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...So I've got a title motif going now for sequels? Huh.
Dark Souls III bills itself as the grand finale for a series, a series I've played three installments of, neither of them Dark Souls II. And purely on that front, it largely delivers. There're callbacks and thematically-rich retellings or refashionings of stories from earlier games galore, plus a likable cast of characters with good arcs, in that Dark Souls sort of way. Almost all of it strikes a great balance between its debt to prior games and standing on its own. I appreciate that you can pick which of three endings you want to pursue, based on which characters you agree with or how you interpret earlier games and events in this one. And it's all wrapped up in the usual experience of exploring, fighting, piecing things together from subtle environmental clues and item descriptions, which is about the best the series has to offer.
Fittingly, too, while I prefer the visual aesthetics of Bloodborne, the setting design is equally lovely, with fantastic visuals and incredible level design that borrows the best from both the original Dark Souls and Bloodborne, honeycombed passages that lead to shortcuts that open up. There're one or two places I wish had an extra checkpoint or two, but it's all very encouraging to the player. And the bosses are full of variety and creativity, all of them fun (mostly) whether you're the sort of player who prefers to fight harder and brute-force learn enemy attack patterns, or smarter by figuring out enemy weaknesses and resistances and bringing the right tools for the right jobs.
Plus, the combat is as chunky as ever. It's subtly sped up to be slightly less methodical, without going full Bloodborne. The usual array of weapons and spells are augmented with new but logical additions, like paired weapons whose two-handed grip is dual wielding, and giving every weapon rather than just a few special cases its own "weapon art," making the variety enormous and no weapon a true replacement for the others.
And upgrading weapons is the best its ever been in any title in this franchise. Upgrade materials are actually fairly common, with the DLC, and if you can solve the riddle to access Archdragon Peak (which I managed on my own, though admittedly after knowing that peak existed ahead of time), you can buy everything you need but Titanite Slabs, which are themselves very common by the series' standards, so there's no element of opportunity cost stress to throwing some upgrades on cool new boss weapon and seeing if you like it. And compared to the incredibly obtuse way boss weapons and infusions worked in Dark Souls, the method here is infinitely superior.
Unfortunately... well, here's where I start to get a bit critical. Because, while upgrading your weapons has never been more painless, upgrading your character is not nearly as nice. I really liked Bloodborne's system of streamlined stats, so when I jumped straight to here from there originally, some gears shifted without a clutch. Coming back in, long after the fact, on its own terms it's still better than the original Dark Souls, even if there are more stats total, simply because none of them are truly useless the way Resistance was. And hallelujah, the game offers a respec option, if one gated behind a limited number of uses and an item that can only be obtained five times without online play. But still, Attunement, Vitality, and Luck absolutely should've been collapsed into other stats.
"Oh, but Endurance was broken when it also decided equipment capacity!" Even that's arguable. And the solution shouldn't be to make a new stat whose only function is upping equipment capacity, since then that stat is punishing to raise compared to others that do other things too.
Anyway. There're also some combat mechanics changes I don't like. First of all, my favorite kind of casting, Pyromancy, whose entirely-upgrade-based progression and lack of stat requirements was balanced by its relatively slower casting times and mediocre damage type, now has hefty stat requirements on all its spells, split between the casting stats no less, so it's ineffective and all the good weapons for it are late-game and require beating bosses that're nearly immune to fire damage.
But even setting that aside, all spells not only consume FP, a sharply-limited resource that already makes playing with the Weapon Arts more trouble than it's worth most of the time for most character builds who have better places to put those upgrades than Attunement, but Stamina, meaning Endurance is still one of the most important stats in the game for absolutely everyone. There're ways to mitigate the former, but not the latter.
And even for a Dark Souls game, those NPC quests and storylines can be stupidly obtuse, locking out not only fun and satisfying character moments, like Siegward fighting side by side with the player in a battle as triumphant a thematic moment in the series as a whole and his character arc in particular as it is an awesome spectacle, or Anri taking revenge on their abuser for the sake of all the others they couldn't save, are gated behind some of the most unfair, under-telegraphed, time-sensitive puzzles in the series. That one invisible assassin you have no reason to expect coming in particular can go play in traffic.
Finally, the Ashes of Ariandel DLC is poorly-balanced. By which I mean, rather than moving from easier to harder zones, you move through a series of locales that wildly zig-zag in difficulty, from fairly-easy soldiers to impossible armies of wolves and super-tough tree-women that can practically one-shot you, with one direction featuring an army of ultra-tough knights and one absolutely piss-easy birdmen. It's just not got the same level of polish. Thankfully, this was tightened up considerably for The Ringed City, where the harshest thing I can say is there probably ought to be another bonfire or shortcut near the top of the stairs.
I also wish the endings had been a bit more elaborate. I understand they're against the series' idioms, but it is the grand finale, after all. My personal choice felt a bit perfunctory and matter-of-fact, though I suppose it fit the theme of gathering up the embers and waiting for Age of Fire to come again.
For all my complaints, I do quite sincerely think Dark Souls III is a great game, and competes with Bloodborne for the title of best in the series. I'm not sure it's a good entry point, since much of the experience, especially later on, involves callbacks and nostalgia for earlier titles, but within that context it succeeds brilliantly, and even without it the gameplay's as polished as its ever been. I just wish the makers could've shed a few bad habits for the finale.
...So, as I start a New Game+ in earnest for the first time in the franchise, a few thoughts:
First, I appreciate that the New Game + bonuses to enemies aren't as ridiculous as in Bloodborne, where I briefly tried it and was turned off by seemingly ineffectual my max-upgraded weapons backed by my softcapped stats were on the low level early enemies. Here, I do feel like an unstoppable murder engine, having respec'd for 40/40 in Vigor and Endurance, 18/18 in Strength and Dexterity to qualify for a few shields and bows, and just dumped all my other Soul Levels into Luck to use a +5 Anri's Sword to great effect.
Second, I don't appreciate the loss of many of the "Metroidvania" elements from the first game. Okay, yes, actually getting the Rusted Iron Ring required either an online walkthrough or psychic powers and a bunch of awkward and unintuitive platforming, but I'm willing to cut Blighttown more slack than it really deserves because at least it had an item that would mitigate its drudgery. The equivalent item in this game doesn't exist. You have to trudge through the hip-deep, poisonous muck of the Farron Woods the old fashioned way. And while I appreciate that there's an item to negate falling damage that isn't going to outright kill you, priceless for adventuring, actually getting it not only requires getting a ways into the game, but foregoing the use of respec features for the duration. At least there's no lava this time around. Well, no required lava. Bleh.
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