What do you expect of a sequel? Do you expect it to reinvent itself and alter its DNA in substantial ways, or do you prefer that it refines its formula and tastefully enhances its best qualities? If the latter is your preference, you'll be delighted with Dark Souls III. Developer FromSoftware has taken the foundation from past Souls games, spliced it with traces of the PS4-exclusive Bloodborne, and sprinkled in a few new features and improvements to make for what is quite possibly the ultimate Dark Souls experience.

The kingdom of Lothric is in a state of turmoil. Actually, it's well beyond turmoil. This is really more of an "end of days" situation. Now that four of the five Lords of Cinder have left Firelink Shrine, the fire that sustains life is fading from existence. As a nameless Unkindled who's just risen from the grave, you're tasked with hunting down and returning these defecting Lords to their thrones by any means necessary. In typical Souls fashion, the plot details are shrouded in ambiguity, and it's up to the player to piece it all together from terse item descriptions and cryptic dialog exchanges with NPCs. It's convoluted, sure, but there's much to glean if you're paying attention, especially for those with a prior knowledge of the series.

Firelink Shrine, which bears a resemblance to the Firelink Shrine from the original Dark Souls, serves as the base of operations throughout the adventure. This is where NPCs set up shop and come and go depending on your decisions, and it's also where you can see what kind of progress you're making when it comes to rounding up the Lords of Cinder. Fast-traveling to and from the shrine to level up and engage in commerce can sometimes wear on the nerves due to loading times, but from a design perspective, it's a great homestead that's worth the minor hassle. Witnessing weary travelers and discarded misfits slowly populate the barren halls feels like progress, and it's also motivating.

Right out of the grave it's apparent that Dark Souls III has received a massive visual overhaul when compared to its last-gen predecessor, Dark Souls II. With the kingdom of Lothric in utter decay, the amount of detail found in the crumbling castles, ravaged villages, and mystical forests appropriately reflects the bleak state of affairs. The environments don't just serve as routes that funnel you to your destination; they're a storytelling mechanic, providing a glimpse at the lore of the land without explicitly spelling it all out for you. This is the way the Dark Souls series has operated since its inception, but Dark Souls III takes things to new heights due to fantastic art direction, thoughtful blueprinting, and the graphical capabilities of a new hardware generation.

Like Bloodborne, however, performance isn't as pristine as it should be. Not only does the frame-rate drop below 30fps from time to time, but awkward graphical occurrences – clipping and asset/texture pop-in – are also present. Considering the largest dips in frame-rate usually only surface when traveling through the brief segues between regions, they very rarely interfere with gameplay. Same goes for the other visual oddities, which are unmissable but far from problematic. We hope FromSoftware will subdue some of these cosmetic woes in a patch as it did with Bloodborne, so players can observe this peculiarly fascinating world without distractions.

Thanks to a broader range of build possibilities than ever before, an increase in movement speed, and extremely aggressive enemies, combat is more fluid, intense, and rewarding than it's been in a game with "Souls" in the title. If you want to rise to the challenge with a character who moves similarly to a deftly agile hunter from Bloodborne, you can totally do that. If you want to bulk up in the densest armor to shield yourself like a turtle, you can do that as well. A breadth of spells and magic abilities also provide plenty of options for players who prefer to admire their foes from a distance. The amount of freedom available to cater to your preferred style of play is impressive.

Speaking of spells, Dark Souls III crams an FP meter between your health and stamina meters, much like Demon's Souls. This blue bar represents the allowance you have available to perform sorcery, pyromancy, and miracles. In addition to the traditional Estus Flask, which replenishes health, the newly introduced Ashen Estus Flask restores FP. The thing is, you have to decide how you want to distribute these two liquids among your available flasks, adding another layer of strategy and a greater sense of risk/reward to the proceedings.

But the FP meter doesn't just dictate the amount of magic you're able to disperse; it's also linked to the newly implemented weapon arts, which offer stylish and powerful attacks to players who aren't afraid of two-handing their weapons. For example: The Dancer's Enchanted Swords allow you to do multiple 360 degree spins with the grace of a ballerina, while the Dragonslayer Greataxe allows you to summon bolts of lighting and bring them crashing down to the earth. There's a ton of variation here, and it adds further depth to the smorgasbord of weapons available. Anyone can have fun incorporating these moves into their routine, but veteran players looking for fresh ways to approach combat scenarios will likely appreciate this inclusion the most.

While Lothric is stitched together in a manner that's similar to Drangleic of Dark Souls II, the labyrinthine level design is much more intricate and interlaced than it was last time around. Even when lethal adversaries stand guard in numbers, it's nearly impossible to resist poking your head into areas that could potentially contain secrets and yield sweet rewards. Hell, simply finding a shortcut that leads back to a bonfire and opens a direct route to a boss is more fulfilling than it is to complete the entirety of some games. Like Metroid Prime or even Rise of the Tomb Raider, curiosity-driven exploration is the backbone of the Souls formula, and Lothric is such a mesmerizing place that you'll likely want to explore every inch of it – it took us approximately 65 hours, but that's exactly what we did.

Stumbling upon NPCs while out in the wild is one of the greatest rewards for committed explorers. As we mentioned earlier, some of these characters will permanently relocate to Firelink Shrine to sell weapons, consumables, and spells, while others will unexpectedly show up throughout your journey to serve as allies or foes in battle. FromSoftware knows how to develop compelling characters whose true intentions are often impossible to read, and it keeps things interesting. Finding out how these interactions and questlines can affect each other and potentially lead to alternate endings is also a major part of the appeal. You might not always know why a certain event was triggered, but that uncertainty is part of what gives the Souls series its depth and begs players to dive into multiple NG+ playthroughs.

As most people are likely aware, the Dark Souls series is notorious for its unwavering, unrelenting difficulty, and Dark Souls III continues this trend without reservations. While the first few destinations feature a surprisingly friendly difficulty curve, things get immensely challenging about halfway into the game, with a final stretch of locations and bosses that should prove formidable even for well-versed players. If there's one shortcoming in regards to difficulty, though, it's that Dark Souls III sometimes cheaply resorts to bombarding the player with a herd of opponents. In these situations, running past the crowd feels like a necessity if you're unprepared or under-leveled and desperate for the next bonfire or shortcut.

But it needs to be said that there are many optional in-game solutions for overcoming just about any pesky problem. If a boss is too hard, search for a summon sign to invite an ally into your world for some jolly online cooperation. If you find Dark Spirits to be too oppressive, join the covenant that offers automatic NPC assistance in the event of an invasion. If online connectivity isn't your thing, Dark Souls III provides the option to go into offline mode and suspend matchmaking entirely. Trust us when we say that there's always a weapon, buff, consumable, or tactic that can turn a boss battle from seemingly impossible to completely doable (we made it through our first playthrough without any assistance), but if you can't get there on your own, there are options to help you should you seek them out.

In typical fashion, bosses will put your skills to the test and intimidate even the most collected players with their imposing size and/or ceaseless attack patterns. From the Curse-Rotted Greatwood, a towering tree that only takes damage when you attack the vulnerable pustules on its body, to the Crystal Sage, a witch who spawns duplicates of herself to cause a diversion, there's a decent amount of variety in these encounters. The number of boss battles is significantly less than it was in Dark Souls II (19 vs. 32 not including mini-bosses), but we think that's a good thing; the more boss encounters there are, the less impact they have. When you do finally work your way to a fog gate that leads to a duel with one of these proficient killing machines, it feels like a crucial moment.

And that's what Dark Souls III is for the Souls series – a crucial moment. With this game supposedly rounding out Dark Souls as a trilogy, FromSoftware hasn't skimped on use of nostalgia to wrap things up. There are a bunch of blatant connections, as well as subtle winks and nods to past games, meant to bring the saga full circle. Familiar faces and locations show up somewhat regularly throughout the quest, and it's handled in a tasteful manner. There's an air of familiarity here, sure, with some gothic architecture and ghoulish enemies that could pass as leftovers from Bloodborne, and while that does curtail apprehension at times, Dark Souls III remains a feral beast with more than enough surprises to offset any known quantities.

If you want to see everything that FromSoftware has done to make this the most focused, refined entry in the series, it will take a few playthroughs to peel back the game's many layers. It's the subtle things – like the ability to take multiple swigs of Estus in the same animation, holding down on the D-pad to return to the first equipped item, and the new co-op password system – that take some time to unearth, and these additions will make it hard to revisit Lordran and Drangleic down the road. We still have quibbles with the lock-on system and camera, which can be stubborn in a few environments, but these awkward circumstances can typically be avoided if you're mindful of your surroundings.

It's incredible that, after five "Souls-Borne" games, the urge to jump right into NG+ is as strong as it's ever been. If this is truly the end, we're happy to see Dark Souls go out in style, never compromising its unique composition or losing itself along the way. Its popularity has grown to unexpected proportions, which is especially impressive given that the developer never intended for this to be a series with mainstream clout. It reminds us of this quote by Krist Novoselic regarding the overwhelming success of Nirvana: "Nirvana didn't go to the mainstream; the mainstream came to Nirvana." That's a sentiment that applies to Dark Souls, as well, which is proof that FromSoftware has birthed and fostered something very special. Dark Souls III is a prime example of the developer's commitment and talent, and it's a stellar sendoff for this beloved series.

Conclusion

Dark Souls III improves on its predecessors in nearly every way, making for the most masterfully-crafted, tautly-paced entry in the series. The combat is faster and more flexible, the world design is complex but never bloated, and the atmospheric presentation makes you feel like you're completely engulfed in the unsettling sights and sounds of this volatile fantasy world. Should this truly be the last time we seek respite in the warm glow of a bonfire, we can rest easy knowing Dark Souls III is a deserving and satisfying end to a phenomenal series.