Dark Souls III is the first From Software game I’ve played at launch. I’ve yet to play Dark Souls II, and in the case of both Dark Souls and Bloodborne I played them long after they released. In the tutorial area, there were fifty bloodstains leading up to the optional crystal monster fight which, like the message telling players to turn back, only enticed me to fight it (and die six times). Playing a Souls game with a procession of players fighting and dying in the same areas as me has been a delight. After four hours, I want to discuss how playing a Souls game changes at launch and share some initial impressions.
God, it’s wonderful to have varied soapstone messages. In Dark Souls, a few messages popular are repeated endlessly, having ascended to meme status in the years since the game was published. When you meet Gwynevere or Andre, expect ‘Amazing chest ahead,’ when you enter Blighttown, you’ll see a dozen ‘Try jumping’ messages. In Dark Souls III, though, the community is really learning and cooperating. I was lucky enough to see a note indicating an ambush in –, where a sorcerer fired at me from a rooftop and crazed villagers burst through a door. Because I was prepared, I ran underneath the sorcerer’s awning and killed the villagers before she came down. In cases like that, the extent to which the world of Dark Souls III is trying to kill you is mitigated by indirect player cooperation. Souls games encourage cautious, observant play, but the messages are a nice supplement, allowing for a sense of community in an otherwise deliberately lonely and hostile world. Later in the same area, I died to another ambush in a basement and, before venturing in again, left a note to mark the upcoming ambush. Every commendation the message got was a treat, since it gave me the feeling of helping someone without actually entering their world.
I’ve been happy to die – a lot – to Dark Souls III’s ambushes (is it just me or are there more now?) because the areas in which they take place are fascinating. The High Wall of Lothric has the same interconnectedness we value in the Undead Burg, and much of the same verticality, though descending rather than ascending. Both areas make believable use of space, where rooms take up the area they seem to from the exterior, and importantly allow observant players to look ahead at later areas. I spotted a hollow hanging from a ledge near a crossbow hollow from a balcony, so I wasn’t surprised when I got to that area and he climbed up. Secrets are abundant, like the NPC in the cell beneath the second tower. Optional challenges are widespread, too, like the knight in armour resembling Smough’s, and the hollow knight near the cathedral. The High Wall has an extremely good mix of claustrophobic and open areas, as you navigate both the tunnels beneath towers and their wide roofs, and, most significantly, the aforementioned area near the cathedral. I’ve been occupied through my exploration with drawing narrative comparisons between Dark Souls and Dark Souls III as well. The High Wall seems to have a lot of connections with Anor Londo: the knight in armour like Smough’s, the presence of the Bat Wing Demons, that the area is the highest. In most other games, I would consider these coincidences or Easter eggs, but the environmental storytelling here is so rich that I get a great deal of joy from drawing connections even if I’m ultimately wrong.
For lots of people, the best question you can ask of a From Software game is: how good is the combat? Dark Souls III, so far at least, has the best of any From game I’ve played. Much more than Dark Souls, and more even than Bloodborne, enemies respond to your attacks by staggering, and there is an appropriate jet of blood. Being hit even by very early enemies takes off a chuck out of your health bar and, on my PS4 controller at least, causes just the right amount of rumble to increase the impact. Earlier, I expressed scepticism about strength builds in Dark Souls, and as a result I’m playing a dexterity character here. That means lots of dodging into my enemies’ thrusts and swipes, backstabs and parries. In one early fight with a spear wielding knight, the speed with which his charges and combos could exhaust my stamina (and consequentially my guard) made me take the fight to him. Much more so than in Dark Souls, I’ve had to predict my enemy’s attacks and either attack myself to make them cancel it or dodge around and engage while they recover. Two enemies in my four hours of play have been able to kill me in one (admittedly heavy) hit, so I suspect that even strength characters won’t be able to sit behind their shield forever. At the risk of sounding like a psychopath, killing is more satisfying than ever since combat is a pacier, meatier experience.
There is, of course, far more of the combat to explore. I’ve hardly used the new battle arts for weapons, and so far I’ve only used different kinds of swords. That’s not for lack of choice – unlike Bloodborne, Dark Souls III gives players an impressive arsenal early – but for lack of ability. The soundtrack is also astounding. Every area so far deserves more detailed dissection. The bosses ought to have an article of their own. That can wait, though. For now I want to play more Dark Souls III.