A NOTE ON SPOILERS: This preview will be as spoiler-free as possible, although I do describe enemies, locations and a cutscene. You can find my impressions of the bosses I fought at the bottom of the page, so if you want to spoil yourself you can, otherwise you can stop reading once you reach that section.
Dark Souls 3 is a familiar yet undeniably changed experience, just like visiting your old school ten years after graduation. From Software president and director of the original Dark Souls, Hidetaka Miyazaki has returned from Yharnam brimming with new ideas and horrifying creativity, ready to take the series in a bold new direction. Bloodborne’s influence is certainly apparent, in both the visuals and gameplay, but the essence of the Dark Souls series still shines through.
Speaking of what makes Dark Souls feel like Dark Souls, Firelink Shrine makes its triumphant return, this time functioning a lot like the Hunter’s Dream in Bloodborne. Firelink is a lot more populated in Dark Souls 3 than in previous iterations. There’s a blacksmith, a merchant, some fellow unkindled warriors and a solemn woman whom you’ll need to speak to in order to level up. There were also a few other mysterious figures hanging back in the shadows that I didn’t get a chance to interact with. Firelink’s central chamber houses the empty thrones of the Lords of Cinder, looming ominously overhead. There were many tunnels and stairways leading off into darkness that I didn’t get to explore. From Firelink you can travel to any bonfire you’ve managed to light out in the world, and vice versa.
The tutorial area leading up to Firelink Shrine was straightforward enough, although it culminated in a rather deceptive boss fight (see below section on bosses). The real test came when I arrived at the High Wall of Lothric. The city is crawling with undead, some passive and prostrating, others of course trying to decimate me on sight. Enormous dragons, both living and dead, drape themselves across the battlements. Ash, decay and death are everywhere and it’s hard to escape the reality that you may never leave this place. Bizarre, twisted corpse-trees strike upwards into the sky, surrounded by lesser undead praying to god knows what. The nearby dead dragon appears to be rotting, its flesh turning to ash clouds that drift past in the breeze. I hear a chilling shriek and an undead knight charges at me.
The combat is as solid as ever, the focus definitely being on a more deliberate, careful style of fighting. Relying on your agility and forgetting to use your shield will get you killed very quickly. A lot of the enemies I encountered, even ones that took only a few hits to kill, would rush me with sword or dagger raised, forcing me to think on my feet. When I got impatient and took a swing at one too early or too late, or deemed them too weak to require my shield, I was soon looking at a half-empty HP bar. Some of the larger undead were even more aggressive, leaping great distances with huge axes or polearms, knocking me off my feet. You also have to be very spatially aware, especially on the relatively narrow battlements of Lothric. Enemies could be hiding anywhere, often jumping me when my back was turned.
By pressing R1 and forward on the thumbstick you can kick an enemy to knock them off balance, allowing you to walk right up to them and perform a critical attack, complete with its own animation and sound effect. Particularly useful against the otherwise impervious shielded enemies. There’s also the classic backstab, which requires some deft timing, but after some practice it was surprisingly easy to pull off. New to the series are abilities called ‘weapon arts’, these are attacks you can carry out while using your weapon with two hands. My character, a ‘herald’ class warrior wielding a spear, when pressing L2 would leap forward to strike across a large distance. These attacks consume blue FP, which is displayed as a third bar across the top-left of the screen, sitting snugly between your HP and Stamina.
To complement this addition there is now a new type of flask called an Ash Estus Flask which restores FP. When you speak to the Blacksmith at Firelink Shrine you can choose how many of each flask to take with you. For example if you currently have four Estus charges, you can choose to have two normal/two ash, three normal/one ash or four normal/zero ash etc. The total number of charges can be increased by reinforcing your flask, as in previous Souls games.
During my session I noticed that after consuming all of my Estus Flasks, I would sometimes regain a charge. What I did to trigger this I’m not entirely sure, but it perhaps happened after killing tougher than average enemies. Another thing I noticed with flasks is that you can now ‘chug’ them, so to speak. You press square once then while the flask is still to your character’s lips you press it again and they’ll ‘sip’ another charge. This avoids the lengthy animation of lowering and raising your arm again, which is very helpful during difficult encounters.
Your character can become kindled by consuming and item called Ember. This appears to raise your HP by a set amount, and will no doubt be required for certain online interactions. When you die you lose your kindled status, and can only regain it by consuming another Ember. This basically takes the place of humanity and human effigies from previous games.
After facing another boss it’s time to leave Lothric. I step through an enormous gate and find myself on a precipice overlooking the vast lands below. I can see a run-down wooden village, an overgrown temple and, right on the horizon, a large city nestled between snow-capped mountains. I raise the banner the old woman in the cathedral gave me and wait in silence. After a brief moment an immense, pallid claw appears over the edge of the cliff and up climbs a sickly winged creature. Half harpy, half gargoyle, with a little bit of sun-starved hellbeast thrown in for good measure. Three of these creatures appear, grabbing me in their claws. They take flight and we descend into the abyss below. Soon I’ve arrived at my next destination, the wooden village I had already spied, the Undead Settlement.
This area was probably the most reminiscent of Bloodborne. It’s a rather drab wooden village, populated with cultists, cackling inanely. The level design here seemed to favour a more chaotic, sprawling philosophy. There are still some immensely satisfying shortcuts to uncover, but it’s nowhere near as tight and claustrophobic as the battlements of Lothric. The sense of scale is great, I could see a tower in the distance with a giant archer standing guard. As I delved deeper into the settlement I could use the location of the tower to get my bearings. Fifteen minutes later I was running for my life trying to avoid the gigantic arrows this archer was now firing at me.
There were some very unique enemies to discover here. One type resembled the pygmies from The Mummy Returns wearing the sorting hat from Harry Potter. They were low on HP, but made up for it in sneakiness. They would drop from ceilings suddenly unleashing a barrage of quick, dagger strikes: deadly if they catch you in a corner. I encountered horrible fat things wielding two-man saws, or huge cauldrons. There was a pig lady that wore a ruffle and laughed like Cruella de Vil as she flung some kind of magic at me. There were the Souls equivalent of the scurrying beasts from Bloodborne, although I was unable to kill one so couldn’t find out what loot they dropped. The most surprising enemy was a birdcage full of corpses coming to life to attack me. Something I thought was just part of the level design was suddenly a real danger.
After defeating the boss in this area I appeared to reach a dead-end in terms of exploration so I brought my session to a close. Dark Souls III is as terrifying, challenging and rewarding as ever. The sense of triumph and exploration the series is known for is definitely back with a vengeance, and the lessons learned from Bloodborne have only added to the experience. While there are some who are concerned we’re getting too much of a good thing, with Scholar of the First Sin coming out in early 2015, I for one can’t wait to return to Lothric. And die. A lot.
Dark Souls 3 is set to release on April 12th, 2016 on PC, PS4 and Xbox One. Check out our bosses section below if you would like to know more about what you’ll be up against.
Iudex Gundyr – Cemetery of Ash
A hulking knight in silver armour wielding a long halberd. The black tentacles wriggling on his back is the only hint of what’s to come. Get him to half health and these tentacles explode into a huge black mass with a snake mouth and a giant skeletal claw, all pouring out of the now dwarfed body of the knight. This… thing that comes out of him looks like a mix between Resident Evil 4’s Las Plagas virus, and Bayonetta’s hair demons. First phase is quite simple, although he can catch you off guard with a few quick follow-up attacks. It really threw me when he transformed. It’s hard to tell exactly where to hit, and which part is about to hit you. You basically want to get in close and do as much damage as possible, all the while dodging his huge claw and snake mouth thing.
Vordt of the Boreal Valley – High Wall of Lothric
Basically a giant, armoured bulldog. Was a fairly simple fight once again, just get in close and do some damage then dodge past him to avoid his quick frontal swipes. Not sure if I was somehow over-levelled but I killed him pretty quick. Had an AoE frost attack if my memory serves.
Cursed Greatwood – Undead Settlement
By far the most interesting and fun boss in my play session. It starts in a huge open area with some trees growing out of the brickwork. There’s a bunch of weaker undead and after you kill a few of those one of these trees detaches from the wall and you realise it has arms and legs and wants to smoosh you into jam. For the most part it’s body, arms and legs take no damage whatsoever. You have to target specific weak points that take the form of white sacs attached to its main body. Once you burst these it loses a large chunk of HP. After you do this the first time it destroy the entire floor, yes that’s right, and you fall into the enormous cavern below. The Greatwood sprouts a huge white arm that it uses to spin itself around with far greater speed than before. On top of this you have to attack more of these white sacs on its arms and legs, all the while dodging it’s white arm. Every now and then it will stand up to its full height, then come crashing down, a great time to go on the offensive if you survived.
Darcy attended the Dark Souls 3 Preview Event as an invited guest of Bandai Namco.