When talking Souls, be it Demon’s or Dark, it’s hard to avoid the subject of difficulty. To the casual observer, frequent deaths followed by a taunting ‘YOU DIED’ screen makes player persistence seem borderline masochistic. Add this to the tantrums thrown when a Souls game aims to be more “accessible”, and it’s easy to misconstrue intentions. But those more experienced with Dark Souls as a series know better. So, to get this out of the way: is Dark Souls III difficult? You bet it is. In the five or so hours spent with the title I was stabbed in the back, burnt to a crisp, frostbitten and even torn apart by tentacles. But it wasn’t the difficulty that kept me pushing through, nor the variety of ways in which I died (although it does keep things interesting). It was everything else around it.
A WHOLE NEW WORLD
Our preview began in a dark chamber, where upon an altar sat a twisted, bonfire sword. But instead of being thrust into the ground waiting for a desperate warrior to kindle the flame, it rested against a large bowl with its point facing upwards. This took me back to the Gamescom trailer, in which a warrior plunged one such sword into a corpse to ignite a bonfire-like flame. Since then, rumour has spread that this is how players will in fact create their own bonfires—or even enter other gaming worlds—an aspect which (at the time of writing) devs have been decidedly tight-lipped about. If, in fact, bonfire swords could be collected to make a one-off respawn point, this would drastically alter the game’s structure, and yet the twisted blade remained there, untouchable, mocking me with its very presence. While the two bonfires I did end up kindling simply adhered to standard bonfire mechanics, remember that this is Dark Souls, and in Dark Souls everything has meaning.
As I pushed through the large doors—two-handed Aragorn style—to exit the room, I found myself on The High Wall of Lothric. The view was equal parts spectacular and threatening: wooden corpses grew from the ground like trees taking root, their twisted arms reaching for the skies; hot ash floated through the air, singeing the seams of red and gold billowing banners; and great dragons lay draped over turrets and walls, surrounded by hollowed beings face down in prayer. From this vantage, the golden skies that canvassed the maze of barracks and balconies were reminiscent of those that looked over the famed Anor Londo, yet the spiraling towers in the distance and the darker, rustic mix of cobblestone and wood speak more of Bloodborne than anything else. Fully plated knights littered the landscape, some nothing more than metal pin cushions with swords and spears piercing every facet of their bodies, while others still patrolled the battlements, determined to defend their keep. This place was obviously on the tail end of a horrific battle—touching on the familiar theme of a once great kingdom in decline—yet what separated this scene from the traditional Dark Souls landscape was just how recently the events seemed to have occurred.
Already the beauty of Souls storytelling was making itself known, relying on the player to engage with the environment. Even outside his games, director Hideo Miyazaki is reluctant to give any concrete answers—but his signature attention to detail was evident all the way through Lothric, laying out just enough visual clues for players to piece together their own unique version of events. Progressing down stairs and ladders, through large rooms and secret paths, I began to notice that the fallen warriors wore either red or blue capes. As the banners surrounding were red, I took these to be the knights of Lothric. My thoughts on the other side formed just before entering a corpse heavy courtyard. A large armoured warrior in a blue cloak was surrounded by red Lothric knights—both sides frozen in a gruesome tableaux of death—propped up by the very weapons that brought an end to their lives.
Upon entering the courtyard, I encountered the giant warrior’s axe-toting twin. As before, Lothric corpses were scattered about him, only this time the imposing knight was very much alive, and pissed-off to boot. Where do the dragons fit into all this? I’m not quite sure, actually, as this is only one interpretation of events, but hidden throughout the level were tiny tombstones, each with a cryptic epitaph to help reign in some of the wilder speculation. One such epitaph read “To honour and shadowy retreats. Fear the sun’s temptations, and the Winged Executioner” which could be read as any number of things, really.
A CLASS ABOVE
I should at this point mention that nothing listed here is permanent. The two self-contained demo builds I played offered a taste of what might come, nothing more. The deeper RPG elements such as weapon stats and descriptions, access to menus and customisation were all withheld—but there was a lot to be gleaned from what actually was shown. Although they were set in the same level, a lot had already changed between the two builds. While most of this was cosmetic stuff like graphics, titles and lighting, gameplay factors such as moves with a numbered use were changed to rely on a mana bar instead, and the initial two classes offered expanded to four. These were the plate clad Wandering Knight, the barbarian influenced Northern Warrior, the robed Herald of White and the Bloodborne-esque Academy Assassin, complete with tricorn hat and pole-based weapon. Despite their armour ratio, each class was able to duck, weave and move with the fluidity found in the PS4’s gothic offshoot (for those of you who went console darkside) yet the developers have made it clear that this won’t be the case in the final product; weapon and armour weight will very much play a part.
The Knight and the Warrior offered standard melee options, with the first wielding sword and shield and the latter a one-handed axe and circular board. These were the no frills kind of characters that required you to get up close and personal with the enemy, blocking, ducking and attacking to the best of your ability. The other two repp’d the magic wielders, each having three spells apiece. The Herald of White was all about holy Miracles, utilising Heal, Sacred Oath (a defence and attack buffer) and Lightning Spear—all pretty self-explanatory. The Academy Assassin was on the other side of the spectrum with three sorceries: Soul Arrow, Soul Dart (a faster, less powerful soul arrow) and Soul Great Sword, which is nothing short of a lifesaver. Both these characters were extremely formidable as the Herald’s mace/shield combo and the Assassin’s spear/buckler kit gave them both ranged and close-combat abilities, yet somehow I always find myself gravitating towards the simpler things like, say, a good old axe.
ESTUS REAL LIFE?
Before we get into the intricacies of combat there’s one important change that will severely alter how classes are tackled. There are now two types of Estus flasks; the first—the standard health Estus—is a flask of bonfire flame with a finite amount of sips that restore player health points. The second, an ash Estus, functions in much the same manner, only this blue vial recovers a player’s mana points instead. In previous titles, magic use was governed by a number dictated on the scroll used to activate it, while simultaneously having to juggle MP replenishment via disposable items. Now however, it seems magic use is infinite, only being limited by the amount of mana and Ash Estus left in the tank. It’s a shake up that could really go either way for those who choose magic-based characters, especially if disposable MP replenishing items have been given the boot. At the very least it will change the way veterans look at building their characters, but it could also drastically affect how PvP plays out. Surprisingly enough, this addition also applies to non-magic users, though not as drastically.
All offensive weapons, whether it be magic or physical, now have an alternate use that adheres to a new system known as ‘Battle Arts’. While the standard combat techniques have returned (weak attack, strong attack, block, dodge) Battle Arts add a unique function to each weapon, drawing from the mana bar with every use. Take the Wandering Knight’s longsword for example, when activated this Battle Art shifted the Knight’s stance entirely, moving from the standard squared-shoulders stance to a guarded crouch, grasping the sword with both hands and holding the hilt high, blade pointing forward. From here players have different weak and strong attacks, changing the way they approach an enemy. The axe on the other hand triggered a berserker cry which boosted attack damage by around 30% for a short amount of time. While this was active, it also unlocked a special two-handed strong attack, which caused the player to charge at an enemy, breaking their guard before delivering a powerful downward finisher. Magic catalysts had a bit more of a supportive role, with the talisman’s Art increasing character poise while casting. This worked to avoid interruption from aggressive enemies—something that could very well save a life during a desperate heal. The sorcerer wand, on the other hand worked very much like the axe, increasing the power of the next attacks, yet this time coming at the cost of greater mana use.
It’s an interesting way to make a large array of weapons even more diverse. If you think about the sheer amount of swords alone in previous titles, now each one of those will come with a special ability, some that may well make up for a lackluster move-set. Personally I found the buffer abilities of the axe and wand far more useful than the straight sword’s stance change, but when facing enemy knights that altered their pose (that’s right, enemies get to use Battle Arts too) I found it hard to adjust my defence in time to avoid the unexpected attack, which probably means I just need to get used to things. Come PvP times, it will be absolutely crucial to understand each weapon’s special, as not doing so will give opponents a guaranteed advantage. The downside is that these arts can’t be used with just any shield, they either have to be activated from a two handed stance or with a specific shield that forgoes it’s secondary attack—like parry—for Battle Arts functionality. Weapons also now come with a strong attack charge, an ability that is incredibly useful on enemies recovering from a well executed backstab. As we progressed we came across other weapons such as the great sword, whose Battle Art launches enemies skyward with great force, and the legion scimitars which, instead of a two handed option, allow players to dual wield, complete with a deadly spinning special attack.
THE CYCLE CONTINUES
What we saw of Dark Souls III wasn’t all innovation though, there was still plenty that made the game feel like the series we know and love: clumsy hollowed humanoids came at me in hordes, climbing over walls, bursting through planks and hiding behind doors. An ash dragon that refused to die flew overhead, dishing out timed, fiery death as the red dragons before it had in Dark and Demon’s Souls. Paths twisted and winded, concealing hidden passages that looped back on themselves as well as keys that required backtracking for some special loot and secrets. But by far the greatest return for me was the sense of achievement present in every scenario. I felt this when scouring the landscape for lore. I felt this when parrying blows that would have sent me straight back to a bonfire. I especially felt this when defeating a particularly hard quasi-boss known as the Frost Knight. Sure, this was difficult, but it’s not about that. It’s the fact Dark Souls has enough faith in its players to present them with great challenges, knowing they will find ways to defeat, even excel, in the face of these. From the looks of things, Dark Souls III will deliver this in spades.