With "Dark Souls II," the most significant changes FromSoftware made to its action RPG series were internal: Your character's health bar shortened with each death, your equipment was repaired when you rested at bonfires, and you no longer had to Google "How does my Humanity work again?"
"Dark Souls III" retains some of these changes — bonfires still have blacksmithing powers and Humanity is still extinct — and repeals others, like throttling your HP. But the more significant changes the series makes in its (full) next-generation debut are external: Bigger maps, more enemies and a gallery of bosses as gimmicky as they are deadly.
The latter change, in particular, works in concert with a theme of cloudy nostalgia to blunt "Dark Souls III's" thrust. Spectacular as its environments are and harrowing as its enemies can be, when the game departs too forcefully from the series' scriptures — some mythological, some mechanical — confusion and frustration are the result.
The series' basic story beats are intact. You're a chosen one called upon to scour a medieval nightmare land and kill a few weirdly named monsters in order to stave off some apocalypse. In "Dark Souls III," the theme is fire: You're the Ashen One, the monsters the Lords of Cinder. Replacing Humanity and its own replacement, Human Effigies, are Embers, which buff your health and enable other players to invade or help you.
I've never strained to understand the story of "Souls" games, their Captcha-named settings or their offbeat non-playable characters. Before "Dark Souls III," I never felt like I had to. However, this third and final chapter in Hidetaka Miyazaki's trilogy is the first to be even somewhat self-referential. It revisits several experiences from the first "Dark Souls," and two of them — one a place, the other a boss — are unmissable and unmistakable.
On the surface, such callbacks are small thrills. But in seeing them, I was made to realize just how little I understand what they mean. "Why is this place the way it is?" "How is this boss back the way he is?" I'm trying not to give anything away with those questions, but I also really don't grasp "Souls" lore enough to refine them further. I'm just left to wonder at the gates of an obfuscatory mythology that had always managed to make its outsiders still feel welcome. That said, I can't be that mad at a longtime series for throwing its lorists such catnip.
More than any game in FromSoftware's "Souls" series (including last year's "Bloodborne"), "D…
Said boss brings me to my other major complaint with "Dark Souls III": The two-part battles and other gimmickry that bogs them down. Four of the game's 19 bosses can be dispatched rather quickly once you realize the cheap trick to doing so. All of those tricks are somewhat obvious, with the exception of one that seems obvious at first, but then requires some familiarity with the game's new — and, to that point, unexplained — Weapon Arts mechanic. Regardless, I'm not exactly looking forward to sleepwalking my way through any of these four battles on my New Game Plus run.
Another four of the game's bosses are, for what I believe to be the first time in a "Souls" game, two-parters. That is, you think you defeat them, but they return, beefed up, for a second round. Again, the surprise will be gone on New Game Plus — but, because these bosses are much worse kinds of surprises, so too will the despair that takes hold when you realize you wasted most of your Estus on their first stages.
The weaknesses of "Dark Souls III" mostly end with the bad apples and the confusing nostalgia connected to two of them. The rest of the game's bosses represent the best of the series: Duels you can only win with patience, attention and planning. In both their dreamlike visual character and their brutalizing challenge, Pontiff Sulyvahn, Aldrich and Dancer of the Boreal Valley stand with Sif, with Gwyn and with Smelter Demon.
With the series' jump to PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, "Dark Souls III" recaptures the awe of some of the first game's vistas with the glimmering first sight of Irithyll of the Boreal Valley. It reclaims the outnumbered horror of Undead Burg's choke points in the maze-like cemetery cupping the Cathedral of the Deep. And nothing in the series, not even in sister entry "Bloodborne," comes close to the vertiginous rush of stepping off the elevator at Farron Keep's central tower, walking out and seeing in the distance everywhere you've traveled, blurry but still not beyond your Ashen One's reach.
Those environments in "Dark Souls III" may feel less impressive and more linear upon return. FromSoftware may also need to fix the game's useless poise stat. And the studio may have lost the point of Mimics by making almost every single chest in the game into one of the kung fu-kicking cretins. But only the game's more dogmatic changes can weigh down yet another odyssey in this series that grips your pulse as much as your imagination.