When I previewed Dark Souls II way back in 2014, I compared the evolution of the Souls series to Irish comedian Dylan Moran’s views on Hangovers. When you’re young – they’re forceful and direct, they beat about the head until you’re a simpering mess on the floor. But, as you get older, they start to creep up on you. The blunt force trauma is replaced with the unwitting certainty that you’re OK, when the truth is you’re probably still pissed (which is certainly true if you’ve been at the Rum) or the curling-up-into-a-ball has merely been waylaid via some kind of internal coping mechanism.
It doesn’t matter how seasoned a drinker you are, if you know the rhyme about beer and liquor, you’ve moved on and, in your mind at least, matured past the need to drink ten pints of Wifebeater before redecorating the downstairs bathroom a fetching shade of stomach-lining orange. The hangover will find you. And eventually, that all-too-familiar pain in the back of the head returns.
From my three hours bumbling through the opening stages of Dark Souls III, the thing that struck me most about my experience was how the game successfully toyed with my expectations, and it’s clear that From Software have found new and inventive ways, not only to welcome new players into the fold, but create a game that will make veterans second-guess both themselves and the way that they approach different situations. They’ll be forced to adjust their tactics accordingly, or end up with a hangover they’ll sorely regret. I don’t want to give too much away at this point, because it will ruin the experience. When it happens, oh, you’ll know.
Oddly though, most of what I said about Dark Souls II once again feel relevant when talking about the third instalment of the series. It certainly isn’t a complete reinvention of the formula, and there’s nothing as drastic as the changes seen in Bloodborne, but From Software’s gothic sister-series has certainly bled into the main Souls games. Most notably, the addition of Master Arts, which give different classes of weapons different abilities if you move to a two-handed stance, working in a similar manner to the expanded moveset allowed by the trick weapons in Bloodborne. On the whole, combat feels faster and more ferocious. Standard enemies still have the ability to take you apart if you let your guard down, and to make things a little more even, mobs are larger and generally more unpredictable to boot. Likewise, the knight enemies have been powered up to be able to dish out an almost Demon’s Souls levels of pain, and after a couple of harsh beatdowns, I found myself dreading the sound of clanking armour once more.
How you manage your health has also been reworked; Unlike Dark Souls 2, it no longer chips away at your health each time you die. Instead, it feels more like a less harsh version of the system found in the original Dark Souls. The first time you die, you’ll lose your cinder form and 30% of your health along with it, along with the ability to summon (though I didn’t get a chance to test this one). Using an ember will restore your Cinder form and a nice chunk of HP. Embers, the item used to rejuvenate your character, were also fairly easy to find in the preview build. Though this may change, or they might become harder to obtain later in the game.
Lifegems have also been removed from the game (well, I didn’t find any) and Estus is once again your primary means of rejuvenating health, though this has also been modified. For a start, the speed at which you use the estus has increased, and you can move at similar pace to using a Life gem in Dark Souls II. The standard Estus is now also accompanied by the new Ash Estus, which is used to replenish your magic meter. Rather than the two being separate entities, you simply have a pool of Flasks which you can set the ratio of by visiting the Smith in the game’s version of Firelink Shrine. So, if you’re playing a more melee-based fighter, you might want to favour being able to rejuvenate health by carrying more standard Estus flasks than Ash, and conversely, a magic user might want to do just the opposite.
When playing as the new Pyromancer class (which sits nicely between the two), a 50/50 ratio seemed to do the job nicely. As new classes go, I really like the Pyromancer. Like many others, i’m someone who loves the Souls series, but has never been that good at them. Having a class that balances both sword and shield (or in this case Axe and Shield) with a couple of cheeky offensive spells thrown in (for when you’re feeling overwhelmed) gives you a nice advantage when facing the mostly melee-focused enemies of the early areas. It seems like a great way to help out less experienced players, without simply making the game easier for those that want a challenge (the deprived class is still an option for the wholly masochistic).
Finally, Dark Souls III is a beautiful game, and sometimes I would just take a step back from the death and pain to enjoy the gorgeous vistas. From your first tentative steps into the world of Dark Souls III through the misty, wraith-infested Cemetery of Ash, you’ve overwhelmed by breathtaking cliff-side vistas. This continues throughout, and at the Walls of Lothric, with tattered banners fluttering in the breeze and strange warped trees that look like they’ve grown out of the ghouls praying to some eldritch horror, I was all-too-often taken aback by just how huge the gameworld feels. I have the feeling that the environment in the far-flung distance could all eventually be explored.
Put simply, I can’t wait to get back to the decrepit ruins of Lothric when the game launches 12th April.