Dark Souls III
Hands-On Preview
"I did die. Frequently."

Last week I had a chance to get some hands-on time with Dark Souls III at Bandai Namco's offices here in Australia. If you scroll further down the page, you'll see this is my second round with the game, though there was plenty of new content to see. I'd encourage you to take a look at that previous preview first, as I won't go into detail about the new game mechanics again, but it's all covered there. I'm glad I prepared to die before I spent some hands-on time with Dark Souls III though, because I did die. Frequently.

During my hands-on time, I began at the very beginning of the game and could create my character from scratch. The creation system is essentially the same as the previous games in the series: pick a gender, a class, a starting gift and then you can further change the appearance of your character if you so desire. There were also age-related options if you wanted to add some wrinkles. Once the game kicked off, I found myself literally climbing out of my grave and exploring a cemetery. As in past games, a few basic signs explained the controls to me before I was left on my own to explore and discover.

The graveyard was a fun, but typical Souls area to explore. There were plenty of undead-like enemies to take on, most of whom were easy unless they snuck up on you (which, if you've played any Souls game, you'll know happens more often that you might expect). There was also one giant enemy adorned with a crystal-like shell that proved far too strong for my cleric; after a couple of failed attempts I high-tailed it out of there. As a cleric, Heal and Force were my two starting miracles, and the new MP bar dictated my usage rather than a set number of casts. As in my previous preview, I enjoyed this change and found spellcasting less frustrating as a result. There's the new Ashen Estus Flask to restore MP when you get low too. In fact, later on in the demo I came across a blacksmith who could re-balance the number of uses for both my Ashen and regular Estus flasks. For example, I started the game with three regular and one Ashen, but the smith could change that to two and two or one and three if I wanted. For casters of sorceries this could be particularly useful.

After the half hour or so it took me to fight my way through the graveyard and uncover a few well-hidden items, I encountered a boss. For the first half of the fight the large warrior felt like a standard encounter: he'd poke me with his lance and I'd block/dodge before whacking him back with my mace. The tone changed when he hit half-health and a black, miasma-like substance erupted from his back and grew on top of him. With a range of new attacks he killed me a handful of times, sending me back to the last bonfire before I finally took him down. For Souls it was a fairly easy fight, but certainly a much more challenging encounter than early on in most other RPGs.

Pushing onward, I found myself in an area called Firelink Shrine, which is sure to catch the interest of Dark Souls lore fans. I met a few NPCs, including the previously mentioned blacksmith, and levelled up a few times with the Fire Keeper. Surrounding the shrine were a number of blood- and candle-covered thrones, each with an inscription on the back. One NPC suggested it would be my job to find these old lords, though there was no further explanation. The gothic-style aesthetics of the shrine were terrific, though I did experience some framerate slowdown a few times during my adventure. The combat and gameplay moves much faster though, so I found it less annoying than in previous titles.

From Firelink, I had to teleport to the first area of the game: the High Walls of Lothric. I covered this area extensively in my last preview, so please scroll down if you'd like to read more about it. The use of a bonfire teleport so early on from a hub area seems to indicate Dark Souls III's world may function more like Demon's Souls with individual levels, rather than its Dark open-world-style predecessors. I found Lothric significantly more challenging this time around than in my last preview where I was given more powerful pre-made characters to use. Without Lightning Spear or a decent shield, Lothric became a real Souls challenge to progress through, especially when an enemy burst with the same black miasma substance as the game's first boss.

Dark Souls III looks to be an excellent entry to the series. The gameplay is faster and more intense and new mechanics like the MP bar bring a welcome change to how many classes are played. I was always a fan of Demon's Souls' level design, so I'm personally pleased to see a return to that this time around too. Keep an eye on RPGFan, because we'll bring you a review for the full game as soon as we can.

Hands-On Preview
"Essentially, Dark Souls III feels like a combination of Demon's Souls level design and a faster-paced version of Dark Souls II combat."

After E3 this year, the RPGFan team came away with quite varied opinions on Dark Souls III. Notably, our resident Souls expert Robert Steinman was rather unimpressed by what he saw of From Software's latest entry in their notoriously challenging series. While I did attend E3 this year, I didn't have any time with Dark Souls III, so I began the Network Stress Test last weekend cautiously, not quite sure what I would be in for. To my delight, Dark Souls III was a joy to play.

While the full release will have the usual character creation and customisation options, the Network Test demo only allows a choice of four pre-made characters: a sword-based knight, an axe-based warrior, a caster of miracles and a caster of sorceries. The hour or so of gameplay takes place on the High Walls of Lothric, a Demon's Souls-esque castle environment. Interestingly, the level design was reminiscent of the series' first entry rather than the more recent Dark Souls I and II titles. The Walls of Lothric is a relatively linear environment that opts for fewer bonfires and a greater emphasis on unlocking shortcuts. There are a number of diverging paths with hidden items to explore too, though they rarely netted any worthwhile treasures.

If you've been following news on Dark Souls III at all, you've likely heard that the game uses a magic/mana/MP bar for spell usage. Gone are the limited uses of miracles and sorceries. Instead, each cast drains your magic bar, as in most traditional RPGs. I found this to be a wonderful addition. In past entries, I'd often run out of particular spells while exploring new areas and then be out of options when engaging a boss. Now you can re-use the same equipped spells as often as you want, restricted only by remaining mana. With a new MP-restoring Ash Estus Flask (in addition to the usual health recovery flask) these worries will be a thing of the past. For magic and non-magic users, new Weapon Arts give each weapon type a special attack: with an axe you can increase your attack power, you can lunge with a sword, or increase your resistance to interruptions while casting miracles. A Hollow-like system also returns where after each time you die your maximum health is reduced by a small amount. It can later be restored by consuming an Ember item.

Combat on the whole is now a faster and more fluid experience, too. While the concept and controls are the same as in Dark Souls II, Dark Souls III kicks the pace up a notch. The core mechanics of observing an enemy and playing defensively remain the same, but faster attack speeds and a vastly improved framerate (hooray!) deliver a more up-tempo and engaging experience. There are only a handful of familiar enemy types to take on in the demo, such as knights with different weapons and undead dogs, but a brand new boss encounter had my heart racing (as did dodging dragon fire a la Dark Souls I) as all good Dark Souls bosses should. The lanky human-like creature wielded two blades and spun around as if dancing. The foe was a unique encounter quite unlike any past boss offered by the series. It took me a few attempts to win, but the sense of accomplishment that drives Dark Souls players forward was worth it — as it always is.

Assisting in that heart-thumping endeavour, the visuals further drive up combat intensity with impressive new effects and animations. Huge knights march menacingly back and forth and a bizarre scorpion-like creature slithers in a way that makes it even more visually terrifying. Magic effects have been upgraded as well; most notably the Lightning Spear miracle, which now looks less like a blob of yellow and more like thousands of tiny electrical bolts zapping wildly in your hand. One particular moment, where a dragon flies overhead and lands on a tower above you is particularly impressive. Distant textures still suffer some blurring, but it's a huge step up from Souls II.

Essentially, Dark Souls III feels like a combination of Demon's Souls level design and a faster-paced version of Dark Souls II combat. There are plenty of welcome tweaks too, such as a streamlined HUD and interface, new items, new magic, and more. From what I've seen so far, Dark Souls III is a return to form after the problems and frustrations found in Dark Souls II. If III hasn't been on your radar yet, it definitely should be now.

E3 2015 Preview
"It's another Dark Souls game."

Hearing the initial leaks of a Dark Souls III announcement at E3 sent my eyes rolling in the back of my head. I know, I know, Iím supposed to be the champion for Souls here on RPGFan, but it's hard to stay excited now that we're seeing the fifth game in this style in the past six years. Sure enough, Bandai Namco had a closed theater with a hands-off demo for DS3 and when I saw it, although there were some positive moments at times, I find myself utterly frustrated with the direction of the franchise and use of its innovative inventor.

The demo started with a castle setting in the supposed apocalyptic throes of a dying world. The standard sword and shield combat remains a focal point, as do heavy hitting enemies and lots of rolling around the environment. Things definitely look a lot prettier thanks to the horsepower in the new consoles, especially considering some of the drab locales we saw in Drangleic. Enemies spill a great deal of blood, and it congeals nicely on our stalwart protagonist (a clear carry-over from From Software's efforts on Bloodborne).

Our presentation showed off two new gameplay mechanics. Certain weapons featured a special stance, allowing for new attacks to unleash on your foes. The greatsword, for example, had a vicious upward swing that launched the raggedy undead into the stratosphere, and the broadsword got a nice lunging attack with decent range. Outside of that, we saw gravestones that, once "activated," give lore descriptions to detail the world. The story revolves around The Lord of Cinder, who fans will remember played a very important part in the original Dark Souls.

Perhaps the biggest complaint lobbed at Dark Souls II was the lack of enemy variety and reliance on humanoid enemies with similar attacks. Unfortunately, the demo of III did little to assuage these fears. There was a lot of emphasis on hard-hitting knights and mobs of dagger-wielding fodder enemies. A black oozing... thing and lithe dual-wielding boss offered a slight glimmer of hope, but things seemed far too safe to get overly excited. Perhaps this is all a result of the fantasy setting, but I kept yearning to see something that truly shocked me the way the Cleric Beast demanded my attention in this very building last year.

But the most interesting part of our demo came from the very person who was presenting, as Hidetaka Miyazaki, the director of Demon's Souls, Dark Souls and Bloodborne, ran us through his latest creation. During a Q&A session, I had the opportunity to ask who exactly was directing DS3, and Miyazaki said that he was the director, followed by a clarification that he joined the game as a second director "late in development." It was an awkward moment to be sure, especially when one considers that a Bloodborne expansion is supposedly in the works.

And, well, that's it. It's another Dark Souls game. There were precariously placed exploding barrels, enemies lying in wait to ambush careless players, fire-breathing dragons, bonfires, and shortcuts galore. It honestly took far longer to write this preview than it may appear because there just isn't much to talk about with this latest entry that hasn't already been said before. We are now in the middle of seeing Souls as a AAA franchise with yearly installments based around incremental enhancements that aren't necessarily carried over from title to title. There were no signs of Bloodborne's transformable weapons, quickstep dodges, and unique aesthetics. Unless something drastic changes, I won't be playing this game. It just looks too similar to DS2, which was already uncomfortably close to Dark souls and Demon's Souls. Whether it was a mistranslation or merely an utterly bewildering admission, the fact that DS3 is already two years into development proves that From was working on this before we even set foot in Drangleic. Whatever the case, the hope to see lots of new ideas or Miyazaki's genius turned loose on a new setting and/or genre seem all but shattered at this stage. I shook Miyazaki-san's hand, and I'm hoping that he'll have a chance to do something new in the near future. Maybe Dark Souls III will pleasantly surprise me when it's released in early 2016, and I really hope I'll be sporting a "Rob was wrong" t-shirt at next year's E3. For now, fans can rest easy knowing that they already have a good idea of what's coming from DS3.

© 2015 Bandai Namco, From Software. All rights reserved.