Dark Souls III Hands-On Preview

Dark Souls III Hands-On Preview

Bob checks out the first few hours of From Software's latest to see if it stacks up against what came before.

If Dark Souls exists to teach us anything, it's that life can often be unfair.

And that's certainly the case with the series' third installment. We Americans have to wait until April 12th to play it, while our Japanese friends can start digging into this undoubtedly beefy RPG tomorrow. This approach definitely stands as a new one for Bandai-Namco, who previously shrouded the series in the secrecy its creators prefer. If you're prone to spoilers, the Internet will definitely be a dangerous place until Dark Souls III's US release—thanks to the series' absolutely rabid fan base, you'll likely be able to watch full playthroughs (and be privy to many of its secrets) before April 4th arrives.

That's not to say the US version of Dark Souls III isn't finished, mind you. Being a member of the gaming press, a code for the PC version unexpectedly dropped into my lap during a preview event held yesterday, leaving me with a very Dark Souls situation. My gaming PC, built during the summer of 2010, isn't quite equipped to handle the leap in complexity from 2014's Dark Souls II (which, unfortunately, you can see in the pictures embedded throughout). And since I'm saddled with a version running on inferior hardware until a console copy finds its way to me, I have no choice but to suffer through stuttering frame rates and downgraded graphics because, hey, I can't not play Dark Souls. But the fact that I've stuck with it for so long despite my self-imposed technical problems means very good things for the small portion I've played thus far.

Bloodborne Borrowings

If you've played the three Souls games to date and last year's Bloodborne, you should notice a bit of the latter creeping into the steady improvements of From Software's RPG template. Souls III contains the build options you've come to expect from the series, but leans a little more on Bloodborne's faster-paced combat. It could be that I'm just used to Bloodborne after 100-plus hours in its world, but this time around it seems as if From wants to discourage the time-tested turtle tactics of sticking behind a shield and only attacking when you spot an opening. I've noticed it's a little harder to sneak behind enemies for those all-important backstabs—even the easier ones—and even bosses aren't so keen to let you roll around to their backsides.

And the healing system definitely reinforces this faster-paced combat. While pausing to chug life-giving estus always left you open to the possibility of attack, in Dark Souls III, this animation plays out much faster—not quite as fast as Bloodborne's blood vials, mind you. Tactical retreats have always been a useful strategy in Souls, but in III, they don't feel quite as necessary—often, I only needed to roll away once to give me time to heal, instead of running to some faraway room for safety.

Souls III's Weapon Arts system also feels very Bloodborne-y in that if gives your standard weapons much more to do. The arms in III aren't quite as complex as the transforming trick weapons of Bloodborne, but each one comes equipped with a special skill that can range from a simple buff to a devastating attack (or series of attacks). In most cases, you'll have to go into a power stance (holding it with both hands) to unleash a Weapon Art, but the type of shield you use can affect your move set as well—some shields have their own attacks, while others are specially designed to let you use a Weapon Art while holding said weapon with only one hand. In the time I've spent tinkering with this new system, I've found that it adds just the right amount of complexity without giving the player too much to think about in the midst of combat.

Everything is Terrible

Above all, Dark Souls III feels as if it's finally giving its developers some breathing room. While the series has grown into one of the most lauded new brands in recent memory, the console versions in particular have been plagued with technical problems—just ask anyone who suffered through Dark Souls' Blight Town on the PS3 or XBox 360. In Souls III, the environments I've travelled through feel just as dense and rich with details as those in Bloodborne, even if From Software is shooting for a much different vibe.

And that vibe for Dark Souls III is "ugly," albeit intentionally so—it's very well-crafted ugliness. 2014's Dark Souls II contains some pretty picturesque environments—like the main hub, Majula—but Souls III's sense of drabness feels ripped straight from Demon's Souls. I expect some future areas to break a little from this trend, but so far, I've been wandering through a world of browns and greys, which is actually pretty fitting for a game that uses ashes as a key element of its premise. And it's not just the backdrops that portray a hopeless and hateful world; the enemies feel much more rotted, deformed, and ugly in this latest installment, and will often transform into horrible, asymmetrical abominations like something right out of Bloodborne.

Die, Rinse, Repeat

Of course, there's something to be said about the possibility of the Souls series growing stale—especially since From Software has been developing these massive RPGs annually for the past three years. Even so, no one has outdone them at their formula—and few have even bothered trying—meaning there's really nowhere else to go for this kind of an experience. And even though the unstable frame rate of my aging PC sent me to bed with a literal headache last night, I woke up bright and early this morning to sink a few more hours into Dark Souls III, and not just for the sake of writing this article. Simply put, the game has been a damn good time, even though I have to wonder how From hasn't simply burned themselves out of existence with so much stuff in the pipeline.

And, as with any Souls game, it's hard to even know where to begin talking about the complicated creation in front of me. Since I'm part of the privileged few allowed access to Dark Souls III, I'll turn the floor over to you kind readers. What, exactly, do you want to know about this new game? Please leave your answers in the comments, and I'll respond to them in my next round of pre-release coverage (or the upcoming review-in-progress). Keep in mind, though, that we're limited to which areas we can currently write about, so broader questions are preferred in this case.

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