At the bottom of a tower, past a horde of undead, through a dungeon lined with instruments of torture, beyond a courtyard filled with flames, under the gaping mouth of a massive dragon, lies a chest. The first you’ve discovered on this god-forsaken quest and its contents surely the secret weapon to aid you, at least something to help you survive just a little longer, after all it took to reach here. You reach down to lift its lid. This is surely progress, finally. Suddenly, arms sprout from the sides of the chest, reaching and pulling you in, before swallowing your helpless body whole. You Died. Yes, this is definitely Dark Souls.
Okay, a small fib there for dramatic effect. Having played enough From Software games, I know never to trust anything I see. A quick prod with the sword and this mimic is unveiled and swiftly defeated with the trademark Souls rolling and swinging fighting style. I may know my Souls games, and yet a few moments later I die to a beast whose head explodes into a pulsating ball of black goo, pummelling me off a rooftop. You Died. Dark Souls III is due out in Europe on the twelfth of April, and we’ve got our hands on the first few hours of the game.
It opens with that familiar Souls feeling, the characteristic clanking metallic noises echoing through the menu screen. The rudimentary character creation screen that felt archaic five years ago, but now manages to feel nostalgic and wonderful. They wouldn’t change that. There’s a few new classes, now totalling ten, not that they make all that much of a difference since your avatar can be moulded into whatever you choose throughout the game, through the similarly archaic point based leveling system. Choosing the mercenary, with his emphasis on dexterity and being able to dual wield from the start, suited my aggressive playstyle. The opening video, as has become the signature of the series, serves to create more mystery than explain. An old lady cackles, her grating words perhaps explaining how the world has slipped further into darkness since the time of Dark Souls, the flames that held the world together slowly burning down to tiny embers. It’s hard to tell though.
There seems to be an emphasis on fire (akin to blood in From’s other recent action RPG Bloodborne) in Dark Souls III, your own character tinged with flames that dance off the body when it moves. Humanity is replaced with embers, found by defeating bosses and certain items, giving the player (the ‘unkindled’ as the game calls you) a substantial boost in health. Perhaps you are the last remaining flicker of hope for the world, the last tiny flame served with defeating the Lords of cinder and maybe reverse this falling darkness.
You begin in a canyon, creeping trees climbing the walls around you, graves litter the floor. There are those glowing familiar lines etched into the ground again, words guiding you on how to play. It’s a tutorial area of sorts, though smaller and less rigid than either of its prequels. Quickly you find yourself at the game’s first boss. A statue impaled by a sword. You may remove the sword; you probably shouldn’t, but there’s nothing left to do. Then a fight breaks out, this statue coming to life, a tutorial boss, metamorphosing into a putrid black oozing beast (this ooze some form of disease spreading across the land) halfway through. For a Souls veteran he’s easily defeated. You Died. Of course I did.
Not long after, you find yourself in the main hub of the game: the firelink shrine. While it shares its name with that area in Dark Souls, it is actually more reminiscent of the central area in Demon Souls, the Nexus, NPCs hugging corners while massive thrones tower above them. Here you can level up, have your weapons upgraded and purchase items. It’s something From Software learnt from the original game and added into Dark Souls II, providing the player with a safe area to return to (teleporting between bonfires again available from the start) rather than confusing them with no way of selling items, and hiding smiths away out of sight. That being said, there’s something about the mysterious nature of the original (and indeed Demon Souls before it), those hidden shops, secret routes, concealed characters filled the player with joy (a break from the melancholy and death) when they discovered them.
Many feel that Dark Souls II was a step back from the original and while I tend to agree with them you can see why From Software made the changes they did. Having produced such a successful game, they wished to appeal to a wider audience and so cut back a little on its bizarre and mysterious nature. It was more clearly marked where to go, who to speak to, how the multiplayer elements worked (at least to a certain degree) so as not to put people off. Sadly in doing so they also lost some of its magic. The world didn’t twist around itself, no longer this glorious and believable map that could surprise you at every turn. Meanwhile the addition of consumables that could heal the player seemed to take the edge of the series’ renowned difficulty. Having now played a few hours of Dark Souls III I can say that it is a step back towards its twisted tangled roots.
The High Wall of Lothric is the first area we discovered in this short playthrough, and it is pleasingly reminiscent of the Undead Burg in Dark Souls though with perhaps a touch more grandeur. Starting at its peak, staring out across a stunning landscape (the graphical fidelity much improved in the move to the next generation), you descend into a maze of stone walls and roofs that spiral around each other, messing with the player’s sense of direction before a helpful lift suddenly returns you to a familiar area. The undead wait at every junction, lurching forward with their weapons raised, easily dispatched but still deadly if your guard is down. So far so Souls.
Estus flasks again return to their pivotal role in restoring the player’s health (there was no other obvious way to heal), but also now can converted back and forth into Ashen Estus flasks that refill your FP (your magical well of power). This creates an interesting balance, particularly for those that favour the magical side of the game. Do you risk having less chance of healing if it allows for more spells to be cast? In a way it is a rather clever balance between the original Dark Souls where a fixed number of spells could be cast between rests at a bonfire, and the sequel where you had to find consumables to refill your magic.
Venturing deep into the walls of Lothric we discover a host of creatures that could have just as easily resided in the earlier games. Shining knights with frighteningly quick reflexes. Huge hulking obese warriors with massive hammers waiting to club you into oblivion. Dragons! Indeed the first major boss of the game, a beast like creature name Vordt, could be so easily likened to any number of other bosses in the From catalogue that it begins to seep in that this is all rather too familiar. There is certainly a risk that Dark Souls III may be too unambitious, particularly when compared the superb Bloodborne. However for many, and I would include myself in this, it may actually be a blessing. Souls fans hunger for more Souls.
Vordt finally defeated we continue onto the next land, a gaggle of scary looking gargoyles grabbing the player and descending down to the foot of the wall into a messy quagmire named the Undead Settlement. It’s an interesting thematic disparity compared to the original Dark Souls where the player ascended to the godly (yet deserted) city of Anor Londo on the wings of similar beasts, now it seems we are descending into the decaying pits.
With only a few hours of playtime it is hard to read much into the game’s theme and plot, something that is always a substantial part of the enjoyment of this series. No real time to check item descriptions or read much in the architecture, no way to unravel the mysterious nature behind the action. Certainly there are hints, the very nature of being ‘the unkindled’ suggests the dying embers of a flame, all but extinguished. Some of this can be seen early in the game as well. The skeletons of dragons (along with those still just surviving) line the walls of Lothric, dragons with their heated breath the very essence of fire, their death perhaps signalling the end.
The next area, the Undead Settlement, continues this theme of degradation. A swamplike town with putrid undead writhing around in its midst. In design it is similar to that of Hemwick Charnel Lane in Bloodborne, indeed the monsters seem to be markedly alike with cackling witches armed with sharpened farming tools. Time was short at this point and progress was hampered by a rain of vicious spears from the sky (perhaps signs that those in the towers you have just left behind, are destroying the peasants below?) and another plague of giant rats. Strangely though this location did seem easier than the walls of Lothric, perhaps it was just those rusty but hard-wired response times finally kicking in.
In the dying moments I managed to reach the next boss: the Curse-Rotted Greatwood. You would think defeating a tree might be simple, but this is a Souls game. As my body plummeted through the floor into a cavern below, health dropping to virtually zero, I knew this battle would not be won on its first attempt. It is an interesting and refreshingly different fight: a host of undead charging towards you while you attempt to kill the static tree with its swinging roots smashing everything in range, friend or foe. This, more than anything else I witnessed, showed that From Software still has some tricks and ideas left. Sadly, rolling and dodging these flailing limbs, only prolonged the agony. Death was always a certainty here and as a root crashed down upon my character’s head, time came to an end. You Died.
Many people will be expectantly looking forward to the twelfth of April and Dark Souls III’s release. This short preview of the final content of the game has not dulled my desire. Yes, I’m worried that there may be a lack of originality here, the monsters and locations all almost too reminiscent of those in previous entries. Yet there’s something enchanting in those walls of Lothric, the way they twist and turn in on themselves. It feels like From Software know that the people want more of the elegance of Dark Souls and less of its slightly rushed sequel. Meanwhile you can see the elements and lessons learnt from Bloodborne leaking their way into this game: the way the enemies move, the slightly increased pace of combat. It’s certainly a more refined game than the original or its sequel. Also with Hidetaka Miyazaki back holding the directorial reigns (after an absence to work on Bloodborne) there’s a much greater chance of success. Many players will be asking whether it will manage to improve upon the superb Bloodborne? With less than a month to go, it is not a long wait to find out.