Lacking maps or any form of guidance, I had only my senses, exploring with my eyes as much as my ears. The way the world looked never let me forget that something went wrong here. Everything had an air of tragic decay to it. Hints of past glories were everywhere, but everything was a shell of what it used to be. All feels cursed; nothing left but ash and dust. Instead of music, all I could hear were my footsteps and ambient sound effects. Leaves rustling, water flowing, growls, moans, groaning, creaking. From the start it felt like a special game. Traversing the world was a lonely and terrifying experience; there's nothing like it.
The world is the highlight of Dark Souls 3. Although massive, the world is linear and broken up into interconnected, labyrinthine levels. I loved going through a level over and over, soaking up its unique atmosphere and finding its secrets. With enough repetition the sense of unease gave way to cautious confidence.
Most RPGs fill the player's quest log with things to do, whereas Dark Souls 3 doesn't even have one. Progress is through exploration. There are plenty of shortcuts, hidden areas, and alternate routes to find. Besides, those who rush through levels are often punished with a fatal encounter. The same encounter tends to be much easier if approached from a less obvious route.
After exploration, the biggest part of the game is the combat, and I found it enjoyable most of the time. It's simple and revolves around timing. Attack when the enemy won't dodge, block, or interrupt. Defend when the enemy has committed to their attack and won't be able to readjust.
Each weapon comes with its own unique moveset, with plenty of weapons to choose from. The system of gear progression is atypical and works well. Sticking to its ethos of less is more, there's no gear treadmill. Every weapon is upgradeable starting from +1 all the way to +10. Weapons can even be augmented with gems, tailoring them for specific playstyles. This makes even basic weapons usable throughout an entire playthrough. By the end of the game I still found use for my starter weapon. A quick, beloved longsword with a handy guard break ability.
The combat system broke down when facing large groups of enemies. The game degenerated into tedium; roll, roll, roll and look for an opening. Instead of an epic fight, it felt gamey and cheap. After a while I realized this was the game's way of telling me not to engage large groups. I started playing smarter. I drew enemies out with my ranged attacks. I used the environment against them, and tried to choose smart places to fight. Rather than charging in, I tried to find the safest way to finish a fight. It still wasn't perfect, but failure is an inevitable part of Dark Souls 3.
In Dark Souls 3, death has a cost. Die once and you drop all your souls. Die again before you can retrieve your souls and you lose them forever. This matters; souls are a dual currency used as XP for leveling up and money for buying items. When defeat felt near, fights became more difficult. I became distracted by thoughts of how much I'm going to lose. The core challenge of the game lies in supressing these thoughts and concentrating.
So few games have punitive punishments for death that Dark Souls 3 is almost refreshing. Death is not a reset button, but a gameplay mechanic. When it works it's incredible. After each death, I had a strong drive to try my best so that I wouldn't have to pay again. The triumph of an earned success is far more satisfying than reloading from a checkpoint. Unfortunately, it doesn't always work.
There's a reason most developers shy away from punitive death mechanics. For it to work the gameplay needs to be sharp, fluid, and free of gimmicks. The player must have the sense of almost controlling the game through telepathy. Think Counter-Strike, Unreal Tournament, or racing simulators. That way, failure always feels like it's the player's fault and not the controls, the camera, or the game engine. Dark Souls 3 is nowhere near sharp enough for the punitive way it punishes failure.
Too often my death felt cheap and out of my hands. The game is heavily reliant on memorizing enemy patterns and ambush locations. A single mistake plus a bit of misfortune was often enough to cause my death, even against enemies I knew. Dying is how I learned, but receiving a punishment I couldn't avoid was frustrating.
Dark Souls 3's difficulty trope seems to be there to serve its image as "hardcore". Something to set it apart from the crowded third person action RPG market. From a gameplay perspective, I'm not sure it contributes anything. It's as if the developer worried that without it, Dark Souls 3 would be yet another forgettable action RPG. FromSoftware should have had more confidence in their game.
Art direction and subtle sound design work together like few other games. The result is a tragic world with a thick, ever-present atmosphere. Its lore is intriguing. There's enough to set a tone, but it never becomes tedious with details. Despite its sparseness, it never feels hollow. Its many levels offer true exploration of the sort few games provide. It's an incredible, unforgettable world. Would it become worse if it weren't so punishing? I can't say for certain. But I do think it's a shame it isn't more accessible.