Best Setting 2016: Dark Souls 3

Lothric is our favourite game setting of the year. GOTY gongs are chosen by PC Gamer staff through voting and debate. We'll be posting an award a day leading to Christmas, along with personal picks from the PCG team. Keep up with all the awards so far here.   

Andy Kelly: No one makes evocative fantasy worlds quite like From Software, and Lothric is one of its most haunting, beautiful creations yet. It's a bleak, broken place, like a faded memory of an idyllic fairytale world. Lothric Castle, which looms impressively in the distance, gives you a fleeting glimpse of the beauty and grandeur this world once had before it was overrun by demons, dragons, and the undead. From are also masters at telling stories through the worlds they build, and Lothric is rich with an arcane history that's revealed through its statues, architecture, and shrines. The evil-tainted Cathedral of the Deep, with its sinister sculptures of weeping women, is a highlight, and every step you take into it is more intimidating than the last. And the unforgettable introduction to the eerie, desolate Irithyll of the Boreal Valley is one of the best moments in the Souls series.

James Davenport: Irithyll’s introduction is unforgettable. One of the most gorgeous vistas in games, peaceful and shimmering under a soft moon. Then a giant ratdog chases you across a bridge. But if you survive, ghosts walk the streets, elegant warriors and witches from a bygone era lash out, and as you venture further into the city, the architecture begins to feel familiar. It should. Dark Souls has always done this, foregoing generic environmental design in favor of building out the history of entire civilizations in how a building looks and the posture and dress of statuary. Where most games fill out their world with light set decoration, it’s rare to encounter anything in Dark Souls 3’s world that doesn’t carry meaning.

Lothric is a world that feels left behind. It’s the fantasy equivalent of a seaside tourist town out of season—faded grandeur, now abandoned by all but the mad and the bad.

Tim Clark: I finally popped my Souls cherry this year. Having spent a ridiculous amount of time reading about the games, I was already fascinated by From Software’s esoteric approach to world building, and diving into Dark Souls 3 didn’t disappoint. As James noted around release, all the talk of how hard the series is actually does it a disservice, but one welcome side-effect of the harshness is that it opens up your synapses to the decrepit beauty of the environments. If you’re expecting death by spectacular evisceration around every corner, then you inevitably start paying closer attention to what those corners look like. Lothric is a world that feels left behind. It’s the fantasy equivalent of a seaside tourist town out of season—faded grandeur, now abandoned by all but the mad and the bad. I don’t pretend to understand the lore and its implications, but you absorb the Dark Souls vibe by osmosis regardless. It was definitely the setting I most enjoyed inhabiting this year. If enjoyed is really the right word.

Wes Fenlon: We know what Dark Souls looks like now, after three games. There will be a sprawling city of the undead, an incredible, towering castle, a swamp of puke and pus. These are familiar sights, and Dark Souls 3 isn't as varied as its predecessor Dark Souls 2. But it feels so much more like a cohesive vision, and much of its familiarity is actually intentional, imbued with meaning connected back to the vague history of this place fans know from playing Dark Souls 1. There's an intentional cycle at play here, blurring sights new and old. You can almost feel the creator of this world saying this is the last time I will return to this place, with all the weight and passion that entails. There's some melancholy, but mostly a team liberated from the confines of old technology making a world as exactly as majestic—and disturbing and disgusting—as they've always wanted it to be.

For more Dark Souls 3 coverage, here's our review, and here are the reasons why this game pulled Andy Kelly into the series properly for the first time.