Be it a long, pointed Estoc or the reliable sword and shield combo, one thing is for certain: in a dying, fading world, you, Ashen one, are not welcomed by the inhabitants of this decaying land. The odds are against you in your search for the Lords of Cinder, as the bell awakens your Unkindled body from slumber.
Dark Souls 3 makes it known that you are nothing, just like you were nothing in the first and second games in the series. You’re unfit to be cinder, only surviving on the small embers that form the final stages of what was once the great First Flame.
The Fire fades, and the Unkindled and Lords of Cinder have risen. The latter have abandoned their thrones, and you are one of many worthless Unkindled who seek to bring them back, for reasons unknown.
That’s the beauty of Dark Souls – it makes sure you know your insignificance in a transitioning, struggling world, but it doesn’t enforce it.
Your tattered clothes and pitiful equipment doesn’t stick with you permanently, nor does your skill and incompetence against the most average foes. You make your worth as you go on, surmounting unprecedented odds against the terrors of this deathly, ashen land.
Yet, the game reminds you in every nook and cranny that it’s not as simple as collecting new gear and exploring new regions. Your average enemy can get the better of you within seconds if you show lacking ability, which fends off the casual gamer and only really invites those who are willing to explore through a thousand deaths, and then some.
Dark Souls 3 certainly sticks to its roots, but it’s not going to offer you a stale experience – far from it. It takes many inspirations from Bloodborne in its art design and even its gameplay mechanic, and combines it well with the basics of the original Dark Souls.
Yet it promptly ignores the existence of Dark Souls II for the most part – perhaps (speculatively) not altogether from the story perspective in the grander scheme of things, but most certainly in-terms of gameplay. The game design, its method of story-telling, and its atmosphere resembles the original game more than it does its immediate predecessor, and the reasons are obvious.
Hidetaka Miyazaki wasn’t really a part of the core team that worked on Dark Souls 2, and the community was quick to point out the evident differences in quality between it and its predecessor.
The game lacked the environment design of the first, as well as the creative thought-process behind the enemies, bosses, and lore. It’s not to say Dark Souls 2 was a bad game – far from it, but it wasn’t one that could be deemed as a true successor to the original game.
Dark Souls 3, however, attempts to be exactly that.
From the extensive coverage of the game’s content since its reveal at the E3 last year, Dark Souls 3 is set to be the densest of all the Soulsborne (a portmanteau of the Souls and Bloodborne games made by Miyazaki) titles.
The keyword here is obviously ‘densest.’ It does not mean the game will necessarily cover a larger area – in fact, there are suggestions by Miyazaki that it actually may be smaller-scaled than the original game.
What it does mean though is that it will have the largest amount of content. The game already showed off its verticality and demonstrated its density in the starting few hours available to those who were invited to the San Fransisco event by FROM Soft.
Just past the starting area where the Unkindled awakens from his/her grave, we’re treated with lore-dense instances. A broken Lord Vessel (an iconic item from Dark Souls 1) rests on an altar in the middle of the forest where you collect your Estus Flask, and lying in front of the altar is the unfortunate cadaver of a familiar character from the original game.
Making it past the first ‘trial’ boss, you come across the Firelink Shrine. It resembles in no manner to the open-skied, grassy region of the first game that shared the appellation.
Instead, it’s a large, spacious tower that houses five thrones, an additional Lord Vessel in which you can create your first bonfire with the acquired bonfire sword, and half a dozen or so NPCs to meet and greet.
The NPCs themselves are nothing short of extraordinary – each one with fantastic voice-acting, depth, and history. Each NPC for once feels significant, unlike the somewhat underwhelming and forgettable folks that resided in Majula in Dark Souls 2.
The Firelink Shrine makes for a hub separated from the rest of the in-game world, much like in Demon’s Souls, and more recently like the Hunter’s Dream in Bloodborne.
However, there’s something entirely unique about this hub; as time goes on, and as you meet more NPCs during your deadly explorations, the Firelink Shrine becomes more populated. Nooks and corners of the shrine gradually become occupied with enigmatic NPCs, each with more depth, more tasks, and more interesting back-stories.
All this combines to make Firelink Shrine a hub that – unlike Hunter’s Dream and Majula – gives players an excuse to revisit aside from leveling up. Beyond the hub lies the great city of Lothric, a city the lore hints being north of wherever Lordran and Drangleic were in the previous games.
The timeline is unknown, but the deliberately greyish palette, the rebirth of stone dragons, and the distinctly decaying nature of the world indicates it’s the final days of the age of fire and dark.
Dark Souls 1 and 2 largely featured the curse of the undead, with the atmosphere feeling ‘plagued’ and sick – yet the world still felt populated, active (despite being tainted), and alive.
In Dark Souls 3, the atmosphere is old, tired, and indicative of the inevitably upcoming death of the standard model of the world that has been prolonged by Lords of Cinders for eons.
It’s not to say the world isn’t densely populated though – dying, decaying enemies swarm the regions, attacking relentlessly on site. Stone dragons swarm the skies, resting wherever pleased. Demons of unknown origins lurk the streets, and the world is as dangerous as it ever was.
It’s a great misconception to believe the Souls series is almost exclusively gameplay-oriented – far from it. Yes, the gameplay, the skill requirement, and brutal difficulty is the signature appeal of the franchise, but the enigmatic lore is just as important to the series’ brilliance as the gameplay.
Dark Souls 3 is distinct from the first and second because it does not shy away from letting this known.
You’re bombarded (in a wonderful way) with NPCs and lore-heavy content right from the start, and though every sentence ushered by the characters you meet and item descriptions still succeed in remaining distinctly cryptic, they all ultimately lay foundations of a grandeur plot that also helps shape the locations and setting of the game.
The design of these locations is visually stunning, taking inspiration from Bloodborne yet retaining iconic Souls-esque fantasy, each place a glimpse of its own past.
One distinct feature of Dark Souls 3 is that its locations seem to be connected in a less seamless manner than in the first game, and like in Dark Souls 2, traveling between bonfires is an option from the start (though it seems to be closer in function to the lamps in Bloodborne).
This is admittedly a feature that may not appeal to many, but it’s a little less cumbersome to have an intertwined world where backtracking is a necessity, especially when the hub is separate from the rest of the region.
Within regions, we do expect more intertwined areas with multiple paths to a common destination, and shortcuts that give ease of access.
The implementation of such a level design is second-nature to Miyazaki, and despite voiced concerns over some of the gameplay footage of the first four hours of the game, there’s little reason not to expect interconnectivity in larger, more pronounced parts of the map.
We also expect many optional areas that players will unknowingly stumble upon, being forced into battle against terrifying enemies (or even bosses) they’re simply not ready to duel with. These features are what make the Soulsborne franchise a truly wonderful experience, and Dark Souls 3 should be no exception.
The game itself is most certainly expected to host an abundance of deadly bosses. So far, we’ve seen four bosses at display, and apart from one (the Curse-Rotted Greatwood) all have been nothing short of exceptional.
The first boss is a mere ‘test’ for users, warming them up with demands of perfectly-timed rolls and swift change in tactics as it transforms into an amalgam of dark goo and claws halfway through the fight.
It’s a confirmed feature that will be observed in every boss fight: two stages will separate each battle, with a boss changing its attack patterns, speed, or weapons (at times all of them together) in between (usually halfway through) to force players into adapting new strategies.
This will not only make the bosses more challenging, but will also encourage players to introduce new tactics in their gameplay. As always, boss fights will reward you with souls, and some will grant their unique soul that could possibly be used to create unique boss weapons and items.
The gameplay itself has been slightly altered from Dark Souls 1 and 2. It seems slightly faster like Bloodborne, yet still retains the technicality that made the Souls games so different from last year’s incredible PS4 exclusive title.
Shields play an essential role in blocking and parrying, and combine brilliantly with a massive array of weapons to choose from. Backstabs are an effective strategy against most humanoid enemies, though the tendency of their abuse is greatly lowered in PvP.
Rolling and speed is once again greatly influenced by the equipment you wear, and attributes like Poise are integral to your survival. The great thing about Dark Souls 3 is unlike its predecessors, it offers a wide variety of weapons in early game areas to facilitate your playstyle.
You’ll come across a semi-naked unique enemy wielding an Uchigatana shortly after fighting the first boss (which happens within the first 15 minutes of the game). Incredibly tough and surprisingly relentless, the foe may have the better of you for the most, forcing you to flee to the nearby Firelink Shrine, but defeat him and you get his set and his katana.
It’s not just a one-off incident though – each enemy type that possesses a weapon seems to drop them (drop-rates obviously wary), and at the start you’re given opportunities to acquire great gear that may as well serve you effectively for the rest of the game.
This is a great feature, considering how the quality of a weapon in Soulsborne depends less on the weapon stats and more on the user’s skillset and build. It only makes sense to give players something use-worthy at the beginning – a weapon they can truly consider to upgrade early and create a build around.
Speaking of builds, the game retains its iconic leveling system, with familiar stat like Vitality, Endurance, Strength, Dexterity, Attunement, Faith, and Intelligence making it back. However, one little addition is the Luck stat.
Luck dictates the item discovery rate, and gives players the liberty to create a character that can acquire even rarer equipment earlier on in the game.
In the longer run, it certainly feels like an attribute that would be ultimately rendered useless as your level goes beyond the 50s, but Miyazaki has confirmed that, like in Dark Souls 2, there will be options to reinvest your skill points later on the in the game.
This is great news, and makes Luck a relevant stat at the start of any fresh character campaign. It also definitely gives players an opportunity to redeem mistakes they may have made in developing their character, or to simply change the style they play with to make the game feel fresher and different.
The stats will primarily dictate which abilities and equipment you’re able to use. The frequency of use of the magic spells however is no longer dictated by Attunement (which now primarily only dictates how many spells one can have at a time), but by a new MP Bar that sits between your health and stamina bars.
This mana bar can be replenished by a separate flask (Ash Estus Flask), allowing players more effective use of magic. The MP Bar isn’t exclusively for magic though – a new introduction in the game is what is being termed as Weapon Arts.
Weapon Arts are unique special moves that consume a portion of the MP Bar. Each weapon has a different Weapon Art, which grants depth to it. A straight sword’s weapon art is a powerful thrust, while wielding two Scimitars will have you perform a spinning deadly attack that hits enemies around you when you trigger its Weapon Art.
They aren’t restricted to unique attacks though; certain Weapon Arts will give you monumentally different abilities as well.
For example, the Weapon Art with an Axe is a war cry that boosts your Stamina regeneration. The most interesting Weapon Art so far shown though is the one associated with the Thief’s Blade: a dash instead of a roll that greatly resembles the strafing in Bloodborne.
Weapon Arts are a response to criticism of Dark Souls’ weapons of how many of them were effectively useless or had better alternatives. Comparisons were often made to Bloodborne’s limited yet profoundly unique and practical list of trick weapons.
Weapon Arts certainly don’t boost all Dark Souls 3 weapons to that level, but they do improve the effectiveness of each weapon.
As spectacular as the game seems to be, Dark Souls 3 is not without its flaws. The biggest is perhaps the oldest one: magic.
Magic in the Dark Souls game has never been a viable option exclusively. It certainly works well when combined with melee weapons, but it’s never been successful as a sole source of damage to base your entire playstyle on. This seems to be the case with Dark Souls 3 as well, with limited projectile spells being the predominant type of magic.
Yes, there have been several players who have attempted magic-exclusive builds, but it’s the most limiting and uninteresting way to play the game. The design of the enemies and areas almost discourage players to play as a pure spell-caster, and you’re likely to run into situations (primarily enemies) where melee weapons are almost a necessity.
Of course, that doesn’t prevent Dark Souls 3 from being mightily impressive. FROM Software has done a great job in promoting the game, but they couldn’t have done it if they didn’t have the large amount of confidence in the brilliance it has to offer.
There are still 21 days to go before the western release of Dark Souls 3, but Miyazaki’s genius is already on display.
Bar a catastrophic launch or other unfathomable disappoints that have evaded the keenest of eyes so far, Dark Souls 3 is all set to be one of the greatest games of 2016, and a true heir to Dark Souls 1 and last year’s Bloodborne.