Dark Souls 3 is like returning home, only somebody has knocked out a dividing wall and transformed your living room into a veritable paradise.
I played Dark Souls 3 at Tokyo Game Show 2015 and it was the most relaxing appointment of my entire trip.
I’ve played all the Souls games so far, including Bloodborne if you want to lump them together. My personal favourite is Demon’s Souls, but I think all things considered the first Dark Souls is the best one.
Bloodborne wrecked me: it’s a very different style of play, favouring aggression and speed, and while that kind of play is more than possible in the core Souls series it normally comes after you’ve developed a build specifically for it.
I am a big fan of slow and shielded (and stealth and cheese and over-levelling and everything but white-knuckle action) and playing Bloodborne for editorial deadlines nearly gave me a nervous breakdown. Firing up the Dark Souls 3 demo at TGS, picking the Knight build and immediately slamming my finger into place on L2 felt so, so good. I was safe at last.
Of course, I wasn’t actually safe: this is a Souls game, after all. In the short, linear section I managed to explore during my time I was ambushed at least half a dozen times.
Every one of these little spats delighted me. Even on high alert I was taken by surprise at least once, when a crossbowman perched on a ledge overlooking a gallery sniped at me from behind (just to brag a little, I rolled at the first twang of the string and dodged the shot, and I’d been so careful in advancing towards the decoy foes ahead that I had no trouble dispatching him).
But that’s just one example; baddies were constantly popping up from side paths and behind cover to give me a piece of their minds, and also their spears and axes and enormous swords, ah ha ha.
It was such a small area that we can’t draw conclusions about overall level design and layout, but I enjoyed exploring multiple loot-filled dead ends as I progressed in one direction, before my time ran out. It was nice to be alerted to these interesting locations by attacks as well as through searching.
Because I’m a veteran (although not a very skilled one) I survived every ambush encounter, but I suspect the difficulty had been tuned downwards for demo purposes – this is a pretty common practice.
But even if the baddies were hitting a little less vigorously than usual, they still held my interest. The most common grunts I encountered seemed built on a larger scale than in past games, and had more interesting move sets.
You know how in Dark Souls those first guys have three or four well-telegraphed moves that leave a few frames (a wind-up, a leap) for you to take action after they start? Well, these new guys don’t give you that gap. Their attacks come much more swiftly and unpredictably, which is great fun, and perfectly suits the sword-and-board approach.
Stamina management means Souls players have always had to balance shield use with attacking and rolling, and find openings to drop their defences and refill the gauge. This leads to precise fencing, circling and feinting to find openings in the enemy’s guard.
In Dark Souls 3, fencing feels better than ever. Something about the timing of the animations on sword swings feels weightier, as if each blow is delivered with all the force of the body behind it. It’s like time – hovers, in the transition to the downswing.
I don’t know how else to describe it. It doesn’t slow you down. It just feels more real. It feels great.
It also feels like a natural evolution of core Souls combat to date, which serves to highlight the difference between Dark Souls and Bloodborne. Where cousin Bloodborne has founded a new family name, Dark Souls 3 is the brighter, shinier child of Dark Souls 2.
And what an heir it is. The first thing I noticed when I arrived in-game was my character’s armour – the cloth wrappings between plates, the ragged chain mail dripping from the hem of the surcoat. The chain mail in particular got me; I have a real thing about how chain mail is depicted in game, and seeing a detailed texture showing individual links and watching it ripple with movement pleased me greatly. You can tell this is the first Dark Souls game built specifically for new-gen – and that From Software learned a lot making Bloodborne.
I was also really impressed by the sound design. I rely on sound a lot when playing Souls games, and even in the noise of TGS while using Sony’s demo station headphones, I could tell that 3D positioning has improved. One other related touch I enjoyed was the huge number of non-hostiles about the place; I murdered them all, of course, just in case any of them turned out to be baddies just biding their time, but their moans and movements help to disguise the approach of genuine threats, which is unsettling and awesome.
Dark Souls 3 doesn’t feel precisely like Dark Souls 2. The combat has been finely tuned to even better reflect the brutal risk-reward reality of hacking away at each other with crude lumps of sharpened metal. The trademark ruinous world setting is brighter, clearer and more beautiful than ever before.
It was like one of those home renovation reality shows where someone comes home to find their crappy ex-council house has been rebuilt into an architectural marvel: familiar, yet dazzling. Dark Souls 3 made me feel at home, but also surprised me – and delighted me.