One of the challenges developers face is drawing in new players to their games, something that’s especially difficult given that series’, sequels, and offshoots make up the vast majority of the medium. So, how do you draw new people into the third entry of your franchise? Well, the answer is you don’t – at least not if you’re FromSoftware.
In my limited time with the Dark Souls III network stress test over the weekend, it appears the developers haven’t done much to ease new players in. Instead, they’ve introduced mechanical accoutrement that fiddles with the formula fans have come to love. The base systems are largely untouched, with minor visual flairs or thematic changes being the chief differentiators.
The demo opens up with class and kit choices. There’s the Knight, Northern Warrior, Herald of White, and the Academy Assassin. The cursor defaulted to the Knight, so I decided to roll with him. He came in fluted plate armour, and equipped with sword and shield. He also had high health and stamina, making him a bit of a damage sponge.
The game then dropped me in a zone named the High Wall of Lothric. While it’s a bit of a fantasy-mouthful, it should be familiar to veterans – sharing design and visual cues from the Undead Burg in Dark Souls, and the Forest of Fallen Giants from its sequel. It’s all very boxy, with wide castle ramparts connecting highly vertical buildings and open courtyards.
The dark stone masonry and dull colour palette aid the look, pushing it from imposing to oppressive. The inhabitants of the region drive that sense of societal decay that only FromSoftware have really mastered. Gaunt humans with pallid skin pulled taut over their bones contrast with the once grand surroundings. The jump in fidelity that Bloodborne introduced is noticeable here too, with environments filled with a lot more clutter and smaller details that would have been impossible on older hardware.
The core systems and gameplay loop are still the same. Swinging your weapon, dodging, and blocking all consumes stamina. If you run out of it, you can’t do any of these actions until it refills. You can attempt to parry attacks, requiring you to hit a button at the exact moment an enemy strikes. The reward for this risky manoeuvre is that enemies become susceptible to critical strikes.
You can do similar strikes by backstabbing opponents too. Initiating parries and backstabs is a lot easier than it was in Dark Souls II – returning to an almost magnetic, invincible animation that was seen in the original game. One slight alteration is that only bucklers now seem to allow parries. In previous games, as long as the shield wasn’t horrendously huge, you could parry with it.
If the shield you’re holding doesn’t allow for parries, you’ll instead utilise the new weapon stance system. By holding down L2, your character does a weapon-specific attack. For the longsword this changes your stance, slowing you down but allowing you to do a vertical swing. The great sword has a jittery half-step forward, followed by a large upswing. Compared to both of these, the spear simply has a forward charge.
Based on footage, some people likened the system to Bloodborne’s Trick Weapons, but they’re not really comparable. One of the main differences is that you’re not swapping between different combo strings – it’s just one attack. Further, its use is controlled by your mana pool. The attacks do extra damage, but you’ll burn through your mana in a few swings, reducing the damage back to that of regular strikes.
In previous Dark Souls games, there was the concept of Humanity, and Hollowing. Dying would make your character Hollow, reducing your overall health. It also had the rather unsettling side effect of making your skin slough off, to physically mirror all the deaths you had accrued. You could reverse the process by gathering Humanity – a resource that you would find littered throughout areas, on enemies, or from bosses.
The Hollowing/Humanity concept returns, but it’s been renamed. After dying I couldn’t determine if my character had deteriorated physically (because access to menus was restricted), but mechanically it was the same. Reversing the process requires Ember. When you cash it in and ‘Restore Ember’, as the game calls it, you get an accompanying visual treatment, with flames licking up your body and wisps of ash falling off your shoulders.
After working my way through hordes of zombies, undead dogs, and fallen knights, I came to the level’s boss. At the back of a dark cathedral a cutscene triggered, introducing me to the Dancer of the Frigid Valley. She descended from the ceiling with an armoured bellydancer’s bedlah wrapped across her gangly, warped frame. It was a nice bit of culture shock, in a zone that was the typical dark medieval fantasy you’ve come to expect from Dark Souls.
The fight was pretty cool, as she elegantly wielded two blades. Fire effects would spark up from one of them, illuminating the room in fits and starts. It was visually stunning, and gave the boss some flair over the standard ‘big-dude-in-armour’ archetypes we saw a lot of in Dark Souls II.
With Dark Souls III, FromSoftware seem to be augmenting the base experience, rather than reinventing it. While it’s impossible to say whether any of the tweaks will be completely game changing, the level design and artistry is more of what fans have come to know and love. It’s lonely, haunting, and as disturbing as it is beautiful.
Dark Souls III is set to release March 2016 for the PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.