Into the heart of darkness

Dark Souls IIIWe sent Josh West into the Belly of the Beast to go hands-on with Dark Souls III’s fresh hellI would like to tell you that I had just died in battle facing overwhelming odds, brawling with the scourge of warped figures lining The Wall of Lodoleth. But the reality is far less heroic. After 132 minutes with Dark Souls III, I found myself looking upon a daunting dungeon door, concealing an inevitably soul-crushing boss within. As I prepared for conflict, imbuing my sword with Gold Pine Resin, a super-charged Knight ran me through off-camera, his glowing red eyes a haunting reminder that you are never safe in Dark Souls. The familiar ‘You Have Died” scrawl of shame faded from the screen as I sighed deeply. That was death number nine.But it’s the tenth I want to tell you about. The tenth death caused a controller to be violently thrown at the floor. This came, embarrassingly, as I made a desperate dash back from the Bonfire: dodging flickering dragon fire and rolling past enemies with abandon. What I didn’t account for, though, was that while everything else resets upon death in DSIII, the lift linking one of the shortcuts doesn’t. Number ten: death from overconfidence. Well, that and fall damage. Cue the Bandai Namco rep beside me: “Hah, classic Dark Souls.” I’m not so sure that’s something to be proud of, but perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself.
You might say I’ve become something of a villain to the Dark Souls apologists. Just because something is critically acclaimed doesn’t mean that it is free of criticism. But luckily for Dark Souls, the majority of its player base bang their heads so forcefully against its crushing barrier of entry that Stockholm syndrome eventually sets in. Players respond to the countless deaths, continuous loss of souls, and formation of calloused thumbs with gratitude instead of hostility. I’ve been diving into these games since Demon’s Souls back in 2009, and you know what? I just don’t get it.
My theory is that this feverish scouring of forum threads – a necessary evil to understand the needlessly obtuse elements that pervade the game experience – has led to a casual elitism developing around the franchise, which is then often misconstrued for having a good time. Either all of its fans are entertaining a shared delusion – or I’m the gaming hipster, too stubborn to accept a new trend of developers cutting out the sweaty hand-holding and letting us run freely through their game worlds. As far as I’m concerned, this is why I’ve been sent into the depths of Dark Souls III; to give a view free of the hype that will form the closer we get to the game’s launch in April 2016.
And yet, in spite of my reservations, I’m pretty damn satisfied with what I’ve discovered. Director Hidetaka Miyazaki, Souls’ creator, was merely a consultant on Dark Souls II while he thrashed out Bloodborne, and his influence is noticeable. That isn’t to say I’m about to start praising the sun or anything, but the Lords of Cinder know all too well how I spent a solid two hours banging my head against that “classic” Dark Souls wall of difficulty.Dark Souls IIIThere were four character builds to choose between: an armoured soldier (Wandering Knight), a lightly armoured traveller (Northern Warrior) a spell-caster designed to showcase the overhauled magic system (Academy Assassin) and a fourth designed to showcase Miracles (Herald Of White). Opting for the Wandering Knight with his light armour – for added dexterity, maybe. Who knows? This is Dark Souls after all – a variety of shields and long sword seemed like a good fit for the preferred play style that I’ve clung onto desperately since Demon’s Souls back in 2009.
I felt prepared, but I wasn’t. As soon as my dark hero threw open the doors to The Wall of Lodoleth I was taken aback by the information my eyes were receiving. An enormous castle stretches off into the distance, a towering gothic structure eerily reminiscent to the thematic presence of Anor Londo, blended coolly with the aesthetic design of Dark Souls’ Undead Burg. The scope is staggering, but it isn’t especially remarkable graphically – but at this point I have resigned myself to the fact that no Dark Souls game will be.
The general scale is far improved, with the buildings and rooftops adorning the environment feeling grander than anything that’s come before in the series. The smouldering ashen remains of ancient dragons that lay sprawled out across entire buildings act as imposing warning signs of what’s to come, while withering undead figures refuse to attack – too concerned with worshipping sacrificial corpses – and shadowy figures stumble on the horizon, the shape of a battle axe just about visible through the fog. With six months until release, there’s every chance From Software will improve the washed-out textures to match the rather breathtaking lighting effects and draw distance, but I’m not holding my breath. Thankfully, it was soon after I stopped rubbing my thighs at the medieval architecture that I stumbled upon my first bonfire of the demo – my best friend for the next two hours.
It took just four minutes for death to find me. There were plenty of staple Souls enemies in the branching castle grounds to acclimatise to the combat. Lightning-fast skeletal dogs struck with ferocity, throwing me off balance – and making me vulnerable to devastating counter attacks – but I survived that first scare. Familiar Hollow enemies flailed wildly with torches, while lumbering knights took their best shots with giant axes and pikes, but I still survived (in a fashion that would have made Gloria Gaynor swell with pride). What took me down a confidence peg was that there was no preparation for an almighty dragon that swooped in out of nowhere and doused everything, including me, in fire. ‘If you die in Dark Souls, it’s your own fault’: that’s the narrative that’s been cultivated around this series, but there’s truly very little you can do when a screen-dwarfing beast blindsides and subsequently incinerates you in a corridor. Fair my burnt arse.
I attempted to fight through a different path on the castle, but the doors were locked. Go figure. Back to the dragon path of fiery disaster it is, then. This time I triggered its descent and rolled knowingly away to safety, waiting for it to perch atop a spire before moving forwards. Luckily, the mighty beast’s fiery rage eventually came to my advantage as I lured a group of seven enemies into the space, causing them to take the brunt of the burns on my behalf.
Pushing on through haunting  courtyards, beckoning towers and dank basements, I began to notice the first subtle alteration to the flow and pace of Dark Souls III compared to its most immediate predecessor. While core movement and combat seems to be faster than ever – for those of you that have ever crossed the generation/console divide, imagine a harmonious blend of Demon’s Souls meets Bloodborne – enemies no longer hunt relentlessly in packs, but they are way more dangerous as solo entities.
Knights return and – while they aren’t quite as difficult to take on as the Black Knights of Dark Souls – they did force me to stop and re-consider my blasé approach to combat. These were the first enemies I noticed to actually employ different tactics; actively swapping stances and attack patterns to take out players that let their attention wane for a second. With backstabbing essentially out of the question, (like hell are enemies going to let you roll around them any more), the fight relied heavily on cautious counter-attacking. I honestly wasn’t prepared for one switching between a ‘Come at me, bro’ stance to slapping its shield on its back, gripping its sword between both hands and charging at me like a rabid lunatic mid-battle. ‘You are dead.’Dark Souls IIIDark Souls III, for the most part, feels like Dark Souls II – and even more like the original Dark Souls and Demon’s Souls that came before it. There’s been a lot of talk to it being made more accessible, but the truth is that an inherently unhelpful design masks its simplicity. If you’ve never played a Souls game you should know that, with no combos to speak of or complicated controls to wrap your head around, the move set is actually quite basic. Keep your shield up and attack when you see an opening – easy, right? The challenge comes from ensuring that you commit everything to memory, don’t get bored of playing slowly, and that you check every shadowy corner and doorway. Basically, be prepared for anything it might throw your way – no game since F.
R has made descending a ladder so unrelentingly terrifying. On the plus side, at least you have more ways to fight back now.
There’s a significant new combat feature being introduced in the form of ‘battle arts,’ which are essentially special moves for each weapon type. I activated it accidentally as I attempted a parry against a hulking, behemoth lightning-spouting sub boss. As it turns out, battle arts change the way parrying is handled. A new shield system has been introduced, meaning only some have the ability to parry now, letting you utilise battle arts for your weapon whilst still holding your one and only defence against slashing enemies.
Still, the new arts technique is classic Souls. A seemingly simple new mechanic that is able to significantly alter the flow and nature combat. Wield a sword two-handed and hold down the left trigger, and your character raises it in preparation, entering its own ‘Come at me, bro’ stance. From this you can perform rush moves that break through shield-blocks, tear away life, and close the distance between you and opponents quickly. The trade-off? It leaves you exposed and shieldless. In an effort to balance its power, From Software has ensured it can only be used a certain number of times before it needs to be recharged at a Bonfire (or with a new form of blue Estus Flask). Long-time players will probably love it, while newbies will likely detest how vulnerable it leaves them.
I would like to tell you about two of the most horribly disturbing things I discovered in Dark Souls III. In one of the more memorable moments of my hands-on session, I rushed towards a group of careless worshippers and began to slash wildly at them. Like every other similar group thus far, they refused to attack back – except, this time, for one hiding in the middle of the pack. Once hit, this particular enemy began to leak black fog, before, out of nowhere, a giant, almost worm-like, Resident Evil-style tentacle burst out of his neck. It made me leap out of my seat. In fact, consulting my notes, my exact reaction to the jump scare was: “Holy shit, what is THAT thing… oh crap, oh crap,” before proceeding to throw every firebomb I was carrying in its general direction. It died, granting a Divine Blessing. Bully for me. It’s made me question just what these undead citizens are worshipping – Miyazaki has inferred time and time again that Dark Souls III could bring about the end of the Souls world – what could they be hoping to summon? Oh no, it’s happening, I’m getting drawn into the lore of Dark Souls. It’s all over.
And then there’s the other thing I discovered, that’s perhaps even more terrifying than almost shitting myself in public after getting a face full of tentacles. By the two-hour mark I felt ready to take on the boss, the Dancer of the Frigid Valley. Stepping through the fog, I witnessed a beautifully deadly creature emerge from a portal. An unsettling body of smoke and fire, a graceful creature with a penchant for one-hit kills and swinging sword attacks. As we battle, the chapel begins to burn around us. The fight continues, the Dancer begins to ‘heat up’ pulling out a second fiery sword, unleashing new AOE attacks and pulling off ridiculous spinning assaults that can cut a player down in seconds.
On my second attempt, when I killed the Dancer with a quarter of my life remaining, she was halfway through a flame AOE animation, which kept going after she fell. Killing me. Now that’s classic Dark Souls, to me. Bosses tend to hatch their patience-assaulting plans in technically inefficient environments, which tend to get a free ride, the spectacle masking its lack of refinement. Still, I went back for more. Dead. Dead again. On the fifth attempt, I leapt through the spinning blade attacks, rolled around the burning flames, downed Estus Flasks like they were beers at a festival and blocked everything. Roll in, two hits, get out; learning an attack pattern hasn’t been this easy since Metroid Prime. Eventually it fell. The screen faded to black, the demo was over, and I was breathing heavily into my hands in relief. I just couldn’t stop grinning.Dark Souls IIII hate to admit it, but when that boss went down I felt like the god damn king of Dark Souls. It was exhilarating, tense throughout and felt like a genuine achievement to best. The PR rep informed me that I’d downed the boss pretty quickly, with fewer deaths, in fact, than many others so far. Does that mean I have a knack for kicking ass, that Dark Souls is now easier, or that maybe I’ve finally got on board with its particular brand of punishment? It’s too early to tell.
Maybe I get it now. Misunderstanding the draconian mechanics is the punishing challenge; the reliance on poorly-translated mythology makes the mystery; From Software’s lack of game balance is disguised by the notion that you simply aren’t good enough; and misinterpreting the basic systems isn’t just part of the experience, it is the experience. That’s Dark Souls: it’s a purposefully miserable experience designed to attract and capitalise on millions of self-loathing narcissists’ willingness to persist in the face of adversity.
I did enjoy playing it, though. Improvements to technical and graphical aspects since the Xbox One remake of Dark Souls II are welcome, as are the enhancements to AI and speed of combat. It feels like Dark Souls’ familiar faults are more finetuned. I’ve been diving into the Souls series for six years now, and every time I’d ask myself why. This latest iteration, however, seems to be doing something for everyone: blending its obtuse nature with a refined and competent design. Dark Souls III is launching in April 2016 and I’m going to play the shit out of it. If that isn’t an endorsement that From Software should stick on the box, I don’t know what is.
A BRIEF GUIDE TO THE RETURNING DARK SOULS MECHANICS YOU MIGHT REMEMBERWhile it wasn’t present in the demo, weapon durability will return. Your weapons will still break down, though Miyazaki has been quoted as saying he felt they wore out too quickly in Dark Souls II.
If you were attentive enough in previous Souls games, you might have come across a few giant crows. They will return for Dark Souls III, letting players trade trash for treasures at the giant nests again.
It almost goes without saying, but New Game+ will indeed return for the sequel, and it’ll work in a similar fashion to Dark Souls II – offering new items and changing the placement and location of enemies.
Players don’t look upon fast travel in Dark Souls all too kindly, but it will be coming back, and this time it’ll be there from the start – no ridiculous quest items required.
Dark Souls III will implement a similar summoning system to the one found in Dark Souls II, and it’ll use soul level for matching you against players for Summoning and Invasions. Apparently, no cracked red orbs will be necessary either.Dark Souls IIISPELLS AND MIRACLES ARE CHANGING IN DARK SOULS IIIBattle arts aren’t just for melee weapons, you know. The new skill, which lets you unleash a risky but powerful attack that’s limited by a new resource, and also works for Magic users. Spells and miracles also have heir own specific battle arts to help you through the struggle.
Academy Assassin – one of the playable templated character builds – was focused on spell damage, and had three magic attacks: Soul Arrow, a spell that fires  bolts of energy; Soul Dart, a spell that shoots a lower-damage magical projectile; and Soul Greatsword, a spell that unleashes ghostly slashing damage. These are performed with LB, letting you use magic to fight enemies at range. LT, on the other hand, lets you charge up the magic attack – consuming resource from a blue Battle Arts gauge – and appeared to have 25% boost in power, though as we weren’t able to view stats in menu this is an estimate.
Then there’s The Herald Of White, another pre-built character that focuses on Miracles, a form of magic in Dark Souls focused on defensive buffs. There were three Miracles: Lightning Spear, an electricity attack; Heal, restorative; and the Sacred Oath that buffs up defensive and offensive abilities for a while. Battle Arts have an impact on Miracles – pressing LT provides the player with different buffs, but the extent of their impact is still unclear. With Lightning Spear equipped, for example, activating the Battle Art seemed to give an extended boost that pumped extra power into attacks for a brief period after activating the Miracle.
That blue bar we mentioned before governs your Battle Art use and can either be refilled at a Bonfire, or on the move with a new item for Dark Souls III, the Ash Estus Flask. It looks like you can use a Battle Art around ten times before it needs to be recharged, though it’s still being balanced so this could change.
FANS WILL WANT TO TAKE NOTE OF THESE ALTERATIONSWhile it looks like the Soul Vessel item won’t be returning, there will be a way to reallocate your stat points, letting you change builds without having to roll a new character.
Miyazaki has discussed the possibility of a Dark Souls game mixing up the beginning of the game; instead of immediately facing insurmountable odds with a broken weapon, it’s likely this adventure will start a little – dare we say it – easier.
While dragon weapons will be back, they won’t be hidden in ingenious places. Basically, don’t expect to find an OP Drake Sword by firing arrows into a tail for ten minutes – that won’t be happening again.
Magic is being completely overhauled for the sequel, giving ranged players more potency with spells. See boxout Magic Changes Explained to the left for more details on the new way to do battle in the darkness.
Like the original Dark Souls, enemies will now respawn constantly upon your death or a Bonfire reset – instead of being limited as in Dark Souls II – letting you farm for souls to your heart’s content.
Covenants will be coming back, though they won’t be so needlessly obtuse, apparently. They will still be multiplayer-based but are being simplified so more players experiment with them.

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