Look, I didn’t like Dark Souls 2 all that much, alright? There was something missing. Something that Dark Souls 3 appears to have. That thing is majesty.
I don’t want to go off on Dark Souls 2. It is still a great game - even a mildly disappointing Souls game is still a great game - and I’ll happily admit that I didn’t finish it, so Drangleic Castle and the (reportedly excellent) DLC might well elevate it to the level of the other Souls games in my estimation. But here’s what I didn’t like about it: its version of making things more difficult quite often boiled down to “here, have more enemies at once” (eg. the Ruin Sentinels - nope); and not one of its bosses sticks out in my memory except the Executioner’s Chariot, which at least looked spectacular. Many of them were basically large versions of normal enemies. That is not what a Dark Souls boss should be. Compared to the variation and personality of the enemies in Demon’s and Dark Souls, Dark Souls 2 felt dull. I liked it, but I couldn’t love it.
I always suspected that this might be because Souls’ mastermind Hidetaka Miyazaki was away working on Bloodborne. This theory is lent weight both by Bloodborne itself - which was in no way lacking in majestic, breathtaking, horrendous bosses - and the half-hour I’ve now played of Dark Souls 3.
It was set in an enormous castle that stretched well off into the distance and up into the sky, taking advantage of the PS4 and Xbox One’s ability to render scale as well as detail. Withered undead prostrate themselves in obeisance to corpses skewered on trees, turned to face the sun, and to the ashen remains of ancient dragons whose fossilised forms splay across entire buildings. One surviving dragon sears the pathways with its fire-breath (yes, just like that dragon in Demon’s Souls), daring you to try to get near it. Outside, pale light half-heartedly illuminates the ancient structures; inside, undead wait for you behind piles of crates and barrels, in total darkness, as you forge your way forward with torch held aloft.
And the boss! The boss - which you can get a look at in the Gamescom trailer above - is called the Dancer of the Frigid Valley. It is an unsettling, graceful, dangerous creature with two swords (one of which is aflame), birthed from the blackness of a dark portal that opens up in mid-air an enclosed chapel (like Bloodborne’s One Reborn). It turns its covered face towards you and circles, swirling its weapons around you in discomfiting, sinuous movements. As you fight it, its sword sets the structures in the chapel alight, so that you’re fighting bathed in the light smouldering wreckage. I wanted majestic. This is majestic.
There’s definitely a lot of Bloodborne in the couple of Dark Souls 3 bosses I’ve seen so far. They move in beastlike, unsettling ways; another boss I was shown fights bent over, almost on all fours, and lethally fast.
Some things that fellow Souls fans will want to know: Souls 3 plays like a mixture of Bloodborne and Demon’s Souls. The pace of combat is faster and the enemies move faster, too. Instead of throwing lots of aggressors at you, Dark Souls 3 prefers to confront you with individually challenging opponents. Remember when you’d see the eyes of a knight glowing at the end of a corridor in Demon’s and feel a cold wash of fear? Dark Souls 3 is all about that. The knights are formidable - they’ve got all the moves that you’ve got, a variety of weapons, and thick armour. There’s a definite “back to roots” vibe around Dark Souls 3 - I’m seeing plenty of echoes of Demon’s Souls, which makes me extremely happy.
The backstab - which a faction of hardcore Souls players aren’t enormously fond of, especially in PvP - is once again a crucial tool, along with parry and riposte. It does massive damage and you’re invulnerable for the entirety of the animation. When I was playing, though, I didn’t find it at all easy to get behind enemies, especially not the knights, which would sweep their swords in wide arcs to catch me as I tried to circle around. Only the big lumbering skeletal sorts with huge axes were vulnerable to a backstab, as they drove their huge weapons into the ground and struggled to lift them again. I struggled to find parry timing, which suggests that the window for success is small.
There’s a very significant new combat feature in the form of “arts,” special flair moves for each weapon type. Wield a sword two-handed and hold down the left trigger, and your character raises it in preparation, entering the “ready stance.” From this you can perform rush moves that break through shield-blocks and close the distance between you and opponents quickly. This is a very significant addition to Souls’ combat mechanics and I had a lot of fun playing with it. The ready stance leaves you exposed and shieldless, but it’s powerful. Advanced players, you’ll really enjoy playing with it.
Each weapon I tried had a different flair move. The longsword and greatsword both had shield-break and launching sweeps, but a pair of scimitars I picked up had a series of swirling connecting moves on the left trigger instead, letting me string together left and right-hand attacks. The short bow, meanwhile, can now be quick-fired from the left-hand inventory slot.
Your shield is useful again - Bloodborne’s one and only shield was literally a joke - but you can’t hide safely behind it any more. Any halfway smart enemy can break your shield guard now, using those same alternate ready-stance moves that you can use. I presume Bloodborne will have gotten many of the more combat-shy Souls fans out there to get used to playing with two weapons or wielding weapons two-handed, sans shield, and I think we’re all going to need those skills here.
I’m very excited. I got the impression that Miyazaki felt like he was done with Souls after Dark Souls was finished, but early indications suggest that his and FROM Software’s collective imagination has much more in store.