Four hours with any Dark Souls game is not enough to judge it, but I had a tremendous time with the opening hours of Dark Souls 3. Years and years since I first played Demon’s Souls, I still experience that incomparably exhilarating rush of triumph that you get when you fell a boss. The core appeal of Hidetaka Miyazaki’s fabulous games does not wear off: you try, you fail, you try again, and through some combination of skill, knowledge and self-belief, you eventually triumph.
I’m going to refrain from describing much of what I saw, because there’s such joy and majesty in that first time you clap eyes on a new place or boss in Dark Souls. Consider this as spoiler-free an account as possible.
But I must temper my (considerable) enthusiasm for Dark Souls 3 by pointing out that there are a lot of repurposed assets from Bloodborne in here, by which I mean that several of the enemies and environmental details in the game are essentially Bloodborne enemies and environmental details with slightly different colouring. There are lots of random wagons dotted about the place, for instance, lots of medieval-style chairs with chains hanging off them, quite a few long, bridge-like areas with portcullises either side. There were corpses intertwined with trees, twisted towards the sun (instead of the moon). The run-up to one boss area was just like the run-up to The One Reborn: a long, wide path down to an enclosed chamber, flanked by masonry either side.
This was particularly noticeable in the second large area I visited, which is extremely similar to Bloodborne’s Hemwick Charnel Lane, complete with rag-clad witch-like villagers rushing you with pitchforks. You can even stun them by rolling into their legs, making crowd control more manageable – a technique I learned last year. After a few minutes in this area, I emerged from a rickety old wooden building to see a collection of villagers gathered around a flaming cross, worshipping it. Some enemies, as you’ll know if you played the Dark Souls 3 beta, have a habit of transforming grotesquely. The déjà vu was very strong indeed.
We should perhaps not be overly surprised by this. Dark Souls 3 will be coming out less than a year after Bloodborne and only two years after Dark Souls 2; one studio can only do so much. Creating a current-gen game of this size on this timescale clearly necessitated some shortcuts. If it’s the environmental detail and architecture that had to be short-cutted, better that than the combat. Dark Souls 3 feels fresh to play, combining Bloodborne’s speed of movement and Dark Souls’ extensive arsenal of different medieval weapons.
New weapon skills push you towards new styles of play, inviting greater experimentation. The move-set of each individual sword, dagger, spear and axe has expanded, making it much more exciting when you find a new one to try out. When you two-hand a weapon, there’s now a special move attached to the L2 button: you can rush forwards with a halberd, pierce shields with a longsword, enter a ready-stance with a broadsword that both makes it easier to parry and enables a couple of new blade manoeuvres. Whenever I saw a new foe rushing towards me, my first thought was “ooh, what weapon do they have?” (My second was usually “Oh, shit!”)
The starting classes, too, are more varied, with more combination-type options. I went with Assassin, which started me off with a catalyst, a sound-dampening spell and a rapier-like sword. It was a fun style to play, in theory, but I quickly realised my mistake when I came up against the first boss and realised I could only take two hits from it before collapsing. A less adventurous choice of Knight or Warrior would have been more sensible for a first run-through, but I persisted with my assassin, and once I found a bow a stealthier style of play suddenly became much more practical. Plus, the rapier was more flexible than I thought it was: holding back or left or right on the stick with a light attack suddenly opened up a different range of moves. It’s faster, more flexible, more kinetic than the other Souls games.
Individual enemies in Dark Souls 3 often pose a much stiffer challenge. I was not at all fond of Dark Souls 2’s habit of throwing five or six of the same enemy at you or “surprising” you with irritating ambushes, and I am pleased to report that there is little evidence of that here. Often you will find yourself facing off against just one foe: giant skeletons, or knights that recall the dread I used to feel when I spotted a pair of glowing red eyes at the end of one of Demon’s Souls’ corridors.
Thematically, Dark Souls 3 leaves the idea of humanity behind: without spoiling anything, I got the feeling that this is a time long, long after what happened in Lordran, where even the cursed Undead are wretchedly aged, withering to nothing. You can tell from the opening cinematic that everything seems to be disintegrating. It’s about ash and embers rather than fire and darkness. There are callbacks to the previous Dark Souls games, though – phrases, Fire Keepers, mentions of Velka and Eingyi in the item descriptions I read on the loading screens, even one actual character. The hub area, meanwhile, is a callback to Demon’s Souls’ Nexus.
I can see all of From Software’s previous work in the opening hours of Dark Souls 3 – most obviously, some re-used visuals from Bloodborne, but also the grand far-off vistas of Dark Souls 2, the interlocking map design of the original Dark Souls, the tense one-on-one fights and grand central safe-haven of Demon’s Souls. I was already trying to piece together clues about the lore, about what happened in Lothric (I’ve written some observations and speculation about that here, for the less spoiler-wary).
The familiarity is at once reassuring and disappointing: with series mastermind Hidetaka Miyazaki back a the helm for Dark Souls 3, we are all expecting revolutionary things, but From has not had a lot of time on its hands. It might be wise to adjust those expectations.