Living large in Lothric.
It's always interesting going back to games in a series that you love which, for whatever reason, you haven't played. With the benefit of hindsight, a first playthrough of Dark Souls 3 would have been a logical step shortly after finishing off Bloodborne - for reasons that I'll come on to shortly. Instead though, I did my usual trick of searching out an experience that was intentionally as different as possible to the one I'd just enjoyed. Coming to the game as late as I have - in the aftermath of both Bloodborne and more recently Elden Ring - really serves to highlight the game's position in the development of the seminal From Software series.
Playing it now, it's interesting to look at how it sits as the game that bridges the gap in many ways between Bloodborne and Elden Ring. Where Bloodborne moved away from the series' traditional dark fantasy setting as a way of allowing underlying changes to the combat model to be realised, and the move to a gothic Victorian setting helped to give the IP its own breathing space, so Dark Souls 3 absorbs some of these changes back into the franchise that popularised the model in the first place. The further I get into it, the more firmly I believe that Elden Ring could simply never have existed without Dark Souls 3 coming before it.
Nowhere is this more apparent in the game than in the world itself - in terms of both its art design and its geography. Lothric feels like an almost perfect blending of Lordran, Drangleic (the settings for the first two Dark Souls games, respectively) and Yharnam (where Bloodborne is set) - with caves and castles that harken back to the earlier Dark Souls games. Other areas (Irithyll of the Boreal Valley and the Undead Settlement being among the most obvious ones) are a love letter to Bloodborne; both in their appearance and in the enemies that populate them. In case you're reading this as a longstanding Soulsborne fan though, don't worry - there are a couple of poisonous swamps and lava filled pits for you to navigate, too.
That feeling of being a mix of Dark Souls and Bloodborne extends beyond the simple look and feel of the game - while the tendency to reward aggression in combat that had become a core part of Bloodborne's focus has been slightly dialled back here, the introduction of weapon arts (that allow you to carry out a series of attacks that deal massive damage at the risk of exposing yourself to a counterattack) makes aggression a more viable strategy here than it was in the first two games. The other obvious reference point for Bloodborne is in how the world is constructed - with Firelink Shrine replacing the Hunter's Dream as the area that you'll return to for respite from any bonfire, and fast travelling between locations enabled from the very beginning.
As ever, these changes feel as organic as the world that binds them together. Playing a From Software game usually takes the form of a largely unaided wander through an incredibly hostile environment - where anything and everything is out to kill you, and singularly capable of doing just that. Dark Souls 3 is no exception to this, very much falling into the 'if it isn't broken, don't fix it' category of video game sequel design. It doesn't really do much that's never been seen in these games before - instead polishing every single facet of them up to the highest possible shine. It looks and plays beautifully - playing to the 'very hard but ultimately generally fair' strengths of the first game in the series. It's a testament to the strength of these design pillars that they still stand so strong today - to the point that playing a game that originally launched in 2016 has been more enjoyable in many ways than playing anything that has come out so far this year... with the one exception being a later game from the same developer.
Every time I write about a Dark Souls game, I always end up looping back to the same things - my enjoyment of the ways in which they encourage exploration, and don't hand hold. The way that the combat encourages caution and precision - and ultimately, the way in which a game environment that begins as a forboding, dangerous and unknowable place can eventually become a place that you can grow to know and, in an especially masochistic sort of way, love. In these ways, Dark Souls 3 is really more of the same - and honestly that's something that I was relieved to discover. I went into it wanting more Dark Souls, but something that I could experience for the first time - and that's exactly what it's giving me. As seems to be the way, I'd argue that it's a friendlier entry point to the series than the first game - but not as friendly as Elden Ring; almost as though with each entry in the series, From Software is trying to ease up on players in the early hours. Fine by me - the more people that play these games, the better.
As ever, I'm playing it blind - and I've got no idea how far through it or not I am. I'm level 51 and currently having the living daylights beaten out of me by a particularly vicious chap by the name of Pontiff Sulyvahn - who has a nasty habit of spawning a twin when he hits 50% health. I'm living large in Lothric... and I'm loving it.