Masochists rejoice: From Software's legendarily uncompromising dark gothic RPG is back and its mission, as ever, is to make all other games seem laughably easy. Say hello to frequent profanity spilling from your mouth as a result of playing Dark Souls III.
Although while you wouldn't exactly say that the third instalment of Dark Souls shows signs of mellowing – the word "mellow" is complete anathema to the franchise – it is, at least in its early stages, ever so slightly more forgiving than its predecessors. So maybe, just maybe, this is the only accessible title in the series.
As anyone who has played a Dark Souls game would expect, Dark Souls III is huge, gothic, creepy, studded with bosses which, when you first encounter them, seem impossibly daunting, yet irresistibly addictive. At times, you will curse the impulse which propels you back into its fetid world, as you struggle to advance even a couple of hundred metres. But the pay-off is that any small triumphs you manage to pull off will be so hard-won that they feel like mighty victories.
Is it worth all the pain? For fans and those who seek the most daunting of challenges, the answer is an overwhelming yes. Or fu*cking yes.
Dark Souls 3 review: Borne of blood
Initially, Dark Souls III evokes memories of From Software's allegedly less uncompromising Bloodborne, as it shares the latter's near-monochrome colour palette and takes place in similar-looking settings. But it preserves all of Dark Souls' trademark attributes. So you're undead, seeking to track down the slumbering Lords of Cinder in order to regain your humanity.
You can choose from a large number of classes, depending on whether you favour swordplay and shield-defence, archery, magic and so on. We took the Pyromancer route – a class which is pretty handy with an axe, but can also throw fireballs.
Once you've sorted out your character, all you have to do is make your way from campfire to campfire (each restoring your health, known as "estus"), opening up shortcuts, until you've traversed the underworld, taken down the Lords of Cinder and brought them back to Firelink Shrine.
Which, you will discover, is an epic task to which you will devote tens of hours (Dark Souls III's game-world is giant, and even if you're a total gaming ninja, you will die a lot).
Dark Souls 3 review: Gothic styles
Story-wise, From Software has again pulled off the trick of providing a gloriously rich experience yet only ever resorting to cut-scenes when you meet a boss. Instead, the story assembles itself from conversational snatches gleaned from characters you meet along the way.
Dark Souls III's settings, while always dark, gloomy and imbued with a sense of foreboding, also manage to be diverse – there are castles galore, each creepier than the last, mediaeval-style villages, a gloriously gloopy bog that poisons you whenever you squelch through it and so on.
At first, the campfires are close and the enemies easy to dispatch, but soon you encounter all manner of outlandish freaks with distinctive powers and attacks, each demanding a different approach. As you die and make your way back through the respawned enemies, the game reveals a twisted logic and rhythm all of its own – a feeling that only the very best games generate.
A patient approach is an absolute must – indiscriminate weapon-swinging will just drain your stamina and leave you a sitting duck for retaliation. And that is particularly true when you meet bosses. There are some particularly fine ones in Dark Souls III – although, oddly, many of the best ones, like a huge tree that you can only damage by targeting its egg-like cysts, are optional (that is, you can bypass them). You could argue that the later ones become a bit samey, but they are all formidable and incredibly satisfying to take down.
Dark Souls 3 review: Ebb and flow
One aspect of Dark Souls III which feels like an improvement on its predecessors is a new-found sense of ebb and flow. Which doesn't mean that you can relax for a second – you still need to achieve near-perfection to progress and sometimes, taking a single unnecessary hit can induce near-despair – but villages packed with streets full of enemies to dispatch make way for more open areas containing fewer (but more fearsome) enemies, with loot glinting at you from their most obscure corners.
At other times you'll encounter hostile knights which, if you hang back and get your timing right, can be employed to take out lurking demons while you sneak past. And, in typical fashion, the game occasionally plays cruel tricks on you – such as resurrecting one boss in more powerful form when you think you've taken him out.
There's a ton of loot to find, too, some of which appears mystifying at first but ends up being extremely useful. Indeed, objects you find effectively contribute to the storyline, as they detail different factions you encounter (and, for example, allow you to summon helpful allies in specific areas of the game-world).
The sound and music are impeccable, and Dark Souls III is by far the best-looking game that From Software has ever made. All of which adds up to an amazingly intense atmospheric experience – at times, it will deliver similar chills to a high-quality horror-movie.
Dark Souls III is the finest realisation yet of From Software's deliciously hardcore approach to games development, which dictates that in order to extract the maximum satisfaction from your gaming, you must first put in a near-superhuman amount of effort.
As with its predecessors, however, environmental objects can occasionally obscure your view, invariably at precisely the wrong moment (or maybe we're just making excuses and swearing too much). It will also still feel inaccessibly hard to some who try it, because it is, unequivocally, bastard hard as you progress.
If all that sounds appealing then you will grow to love Dark Souls III with a passion. It's compelling, addictive and unlike many other games these days presents a huge challenge.