The first Dark Souls was a masterpiece. It made Demon's Souls look like a half-baked tech demo, it featured some of the best level design and gameplay mechanics in the history of the industry and it single-handedly created its own role-playing sub-genre. For fans, it's the standard by which all other action-RPGs are measured.

Dark Souls II, on the other hand, was a major disappointment. It had all of the core features and mechanics of the original game, but none of the character. Playing the game felt like a chore, like it had been made in order to fill a gap in the release schedule. Even with some well-made DLC bolstering its content, Dark Souls II stands out as the black sheep of the series.

Dark Souls III has some pretty big shoes to fill. The spin-off Bloodborne took the series in an interesting direction, but fans are clearly hoping for a return to the classic sword-and-shield antics of the original game.

So, where exactly does Dark Souls III fit in terms of the series? Let's take a closer look:

The Story

Winner: Dark Souls

Seeing as we've only just started to dig into all of the hidden lore and story bits of Dark Souls III, it's hard to judge which of the three games have featured the best story. That being said, from what we've played, the original Dark Souls still comes out on top.

There's no denying that the story of Dark Souls III is good, it's just that the original game had a clearer purpose. Even if you skipped over all the item descriptions and hidden lore, the quest of the Chosen Undead felt epic the entire way through. Dark Souls III, on the other hand, can get a bit muddy at times - though we suspect that's exactly how a lot of fans like it.

The Characters

Winner: Dark Souls III

When it comes to the Souls series, the original game certainly featured some iconic characters. Solaire, Siegward, Patches - they've come to represent the series over the years. Dark Souls II featured a smaller cast of characters, though they were all extremely likable - but both games simply can't compare to the cast of Dark Souls III.

To avoid spoilers, we won't go into too much detail, but the various NPCs inhabiting Lothric are the best examples of From Software's characterization yet. Everyone, from the new faces to the old friends, are represented beautifully - don't be surprised if you start revisiting previously-explored areas just to see if anyone new has turned up.

The Gameplay

Winner: Dark Souls

In a lot of ways, all of the Souls games play the same way. It's all about the sword and shield, and the franchise's signature gameplay hasn't changed all that much over the years.

As such, the original Dark Souls still stands over the rest. The latest game in the series may be a slightly faster take on the same mechanics, but the first game in the franchise is still a blast to play, even five years later. There's really nothing quite like it, even within the series itself - you just don't find staying power like that very often.

It's almost impossible to explain without handing someone the controller - just go ahead and play Dark Souls for yourself, and you'll understand what we mean.

Level Design

Winner: Dark Souls III

At first, it seems as if Dark Souls III plays it safe. There's nothing quite as otherworldly as the Crystal Caves or Ash Lake, and the opening hours are dominated by the same old castles and settlements that fans of the series have come to expect.

Looking past the setting, however, it's clear that Dark Souls III features the best level design in the series. The winding, interconnected world may be a bit more streamlined than the original, but the end result is worth it. Players always have an idea of where they should go next - or, if they're completely lost, there's usually something hidden within the environment that'll point them in the right direction. True, the settings themselves may not be as awe-inspiring this time around, but Dark Souls III is the most well-designed game in the series.

The Bosses

Winner: Dark Souls III

It's hard to forget faces like Ornstein and Smough, the Gaping Dragon or the great Lord of Cinder. Much like the original game's extended cast, these foes have become synonymous with the Souls series, but that doesn't change the fact that many of them are relatively simplistic. They're not bad, far from it - they're just not necessarily all that innovative.

Dark Souls III, on the other hand, is constantly tossing new ideas at the player. There are a few one-on-one fights, sure, but the originality of the game's bosses is so consistently amazing that it's hard to imagine where From Software could go from here. Not all of Dark Souls III's bosses are worthy of such acclaim, but there are so many amazing fights that it's easy to forget about the few lackluster bosses.

The Difficulty

Winner: Dark Souls III

To be clear, we're not talking about the hardest game in the series - instead, we're looking at which games balanced their difficulty the best. There's a fine line between frustration and giving up, and the Souls games have always been great about toeing that line ... but Dark Souls III ultimately comes out on top.

True, there are a few cheap moments throughout the game, but the experience is so consistently well-designed that the frustration seemingly never overpowers the desire to continue on. The original game was held back by some strange design decisions and poor technical performance - and, while Dark Souls III does feature from some similar troubles throughout its runtime, those moments are far less frequent or frustrating. Long story short: if you die in Dark Souls III, it's probably your fault.

Let's be honest: both the original game and Dark Souls III are amazing games. Dark Souls set the bar for what the genre would become, and Dark Souls III is the finest realization of From Software's design philosophy so far. As far as picking a definitive winner goes? Well, it's hard to argue with the quantity and quality of the content in Dark Souls III - but instead of picking just one of the games from the series, why not play them all?

Except for Dark Souls II. Nobody liked that one. You can skip it.

For more on From Software's latest action-RPG epic, make sure to check out our ever-growing Dark Souls III coverage hub.

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