I previewed Dark Souls 3 about two months ago back at E3, where I was fortunate enough to watch a hands-off presentation of the game with Game Director and From Software President Hidetaka Miyazaki guiding a group of journalists through an area of the game called The Wall of Lodoleth.

It was an impressive demo, but it left me hungry to get my hands on it. I wanted to experience the thrill of facing off against the Dancer of the Frigid Valley, I wanted to get a feel for how much the combat has changed or stayed the same, and to experiment with the new weapon arts system that gives each weapon type unique abilities that further differentiate them from the others.

At a recent press event in Napa, California, held inside an actual castle by the way, I was afforded a chance to do all of that and more with nearly two hours of hands-on time with Dark Souls 3.

Let’s get the disappointing news out of the way first: The demo was almost entirely what I had already seen at E3, so any sense of surprise or fear of the unexpected was gone. There was also no magic, no bow and arrow (that I could find, at least), no equipment management, and outside of the new weapon arts, there were no new game mechanics that Souls veterans haven’t seen before.

So the truth is, the Dark Souls 3 that I played didn’t really feel like it had its own unique identity yet. This is in stark contrast to the first public Dark Souls 2 demo which introduced life gems, showcased several new magic spells, was full of new enemies types that we hadn’t seen in prior Souls games, included pitch black areas that required you to use a torch in your off-hand, in addition to featuring a revamped dual wielding system designed to make dual wielding a viable combat option.

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Weapon arts were really the only thing that felt truly new in the Dark Souls 3 demo. Fortunately, the idea behind them is very cool.

Every weapon type has a unique ability tied to the left trigger called a “Weapon Art.” With a longsword, the weapon art puts the player into a ready stance, and from there you could use one of two powerful moves that not only deal heavy damage, but also blow away an enemy’s guard. I know what you’re probably thinking: “But if weapon arts are an ability that’s tied to the left trigger, how do you parry?”

Good question! The answer is that unless you’re utilizing a shield that is specifically designed to parry attacks, you won’t be able to parry. The premade character that I used came with two shields: One was a standard metal kite shield that could block 100% physical damage, allowed me to use weapon arts while wielding a sword with one hand, but couldn’t parry; the other was a small round wooden shield that did not block 100% physical damage, but allowed me to parry an enemy attack with a well timed press of the left trigger.

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Personally, I love this change. I found myself frequently changing between my two different shields depending on the situation, which was a lot of fun. My hope is that in addition to making the many different weapons in the game more distinct, the weapon arts mechanic also succeeds in making more substantial differences between shields.

While I didn’t get to use it myself, the most unique weapon art that I saw was the one for the battle axe, which was the default weapon for the second premade character. Pressing the left trigger with the battle axe equipped would initiate a temporary power buff similar to the one given by the Channeler’s Trident in previous games.

Interestingly enough, you are not the only one able to use weapon arts. There were several times when fighting a knight where he would get in the very same ready stance that I could get in, and then all of a sudden explode out with a powerful attack that would blow away my guard and stamina.

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Knights had even more new tricks up their sleeves. One particularly neat attack was a simple and super fast shield jab to the side that’s meant to curb players from doing the typical Dark Souls tactic of fishing for a backstab. If all you’re doing is holding up your shield and trying to circle around to the knight’s back, the knight will effortlessly smack your shield away, depleting about half of your stamina bar, and leave you open for a follow up attack. If you want to get a backstab on a knight, you’re going to have to earn it in Dark Souls 3.

Of course, it isn’t a Souls game without epic boss battles, so let’s talk about the Dancer of the Frigid Valley. While it wasn’t a particularly difficult fight — at least by Dark Souls standards — I really enjoyed it. The dancer herself is hauntingly beautiful in the way she fluidly moves and swings her sword.

Her attacks weren’t all to hard to avoid though. My go to strategy of keeping close and rolling to her backside whenever she attacked seemed to work pretty well, outside of when she did her fiery explosion attack. Because everyone has to have a fiery or electric’y explosion attack.

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Once you get her down to about half of her health, she takes out a second sword with an eerie dark glow. It’s not long after that when she starts doing a whirlwind attack that will do bad things to anyone caught in its wake, shield or no shield. It’s a particularly dangerous attack because of the various benches and pillars that the player could be potentially be backed up against and forced to either go around or roll through.

The Dancer of the Frigid Valley may have been the only actual boss in the demo, but there was a secret room that I don’t believe many others at the press event managed to find. To reach it, you needed to find a Dungeon Cell Key and then return to a locked door found earlier in the area. Inside was an elevator that led down to a circular prison with about 20 dead bodies strewn across the floor, and standing at the end of the room was a monstrous four legged ice beast.

It was this battle actually that proved to be the most difficult test in my playtime with Dark Souls 3. He was super aggressive, capable of leaping across the entire length of the room, and could inflict a new status effect called frostbite that would slowly build if you kept close to him. While I got afflicted with frostbite several times, I couldn’t precisely tell what exactly it was doing to me. If I had to guess, I’d say that it caused his attacks to deal more damage while the affliction was active, but I can’t say for sure because once I got frostbitten, I went into full defense mode.

After several attempts, many firebombs, and all of my remaining charcoal resins, I finally took the ice beast down and was rewarded with an epitaph, a new environmental object in Dark Souls 3 that tells the game’s lore in small bits. The epitaph said:

“Died in solitude. May his soul find its way back to the frigid valley.”

Other small things to note about the differences in Dark Souls 3 compared to prior games would be the fact that estus flasks seemed to be faster this time around, life gems were completely absent, the jump attack could be used out of a run by simply pressing strong attack, and while nothing was explained regarding how covenants would work, the upper left hand corner had what appeared at a glance to be Solaire’s sun symbol.

Overall, despite being slightly disappointed by the lack of any new info that would cement Dark Souls 3‘s unique identity, I walked away from the demo itching to play more, which is always a great thing. Fortunately, the wait isn’t too far off, as Dark Souls 3 is slated to hit next gen consoles and the PC in early 2016.

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