I’m a big fan of Dark Souls. Ever since playing through the tutorial in Demon’s Souls (it counts!) all the way to the end of the epic ‘Crown of the Ivory King’ DLC for Dark Souls II, I’ve found myself deeply engrossed in the franchise. It’s no surprise really, what with the excellent combat mechanics, grotesque boss encounters and stunning world to explore. It really is just a pleasure to play through the game – even if the difficulty can have you smashing your controller in fits of rage…

Dark Souls III

It’s hard to put into words the joy I felt when Dark Souls III was announced at E3 last year. Sure, the information got leaked a little early, but when I saw that initial reveal trailer I was pumped. After playing through the beast that was Bloodborne I’d been eagerly awaiting something new from the team at From Software, so what better than the supposed ‘final entry’ in the Dark Souls franchise?

Ahead of Dark Souls III’s launch on April 12th I had the opportunity to try out the first few hours of the game, starting with the opening introduction all the way to the epic battle with the third boss of the game, the Curse-Rotted Greatwood.

Dark Souls III begins with an awesome CGI cutscene (you can actually view it through this link) that tells of the main enemies of this entry – the Lords of Cinder. I’ve never been one to properly understand the lore of Dark Souls games, but I kind of gathered that you need to return the Lords of Cinder to their thrones to protect the ever-present fire? Maybe?

After the opening you get to create your character. There are ten different classes to choose from, each coming with varying stats and equipment. You could play as the strength focused Warrior, the magically inclined Sorcerer or if you’re feeling particularly brave the ill-equipped and weakened Deprived. I went for the Knight – I like to get up close and personal in battle and his shield and balanced stats would certainly get me out of a few sticky situations.

You can customise your character’s appearance, but I didn’t spend a whole lot of time looking through all the options. I only had three hours with Dark Souls III and I wanted to spend that time killing enemies and exploring the world rather than making sure my character looked glamorous.

Dark Souls III

The game begins with your character awakening in a foggy graveyard known as the ‘Cemetery of Ash’. Anyone who’s played a Dark Souls game will know the score in the opening area – it offers a brief tutorial that teaches you the basics of the game. There are the series trademark messages on the ground that give instructions on the controls of the game and how each mechanic works. There was nothing overly complicated and the game played very similar to previous Dark Souls games – if you’ve had any experience with previous entries in the franchise you’ll be right at home here.

Dark Souls III feels a lot quicker than previous entries in the series, in turn offering more fluid combat. There were times in the past where Dark Souls’ combat could feel a little clunky, but the increase of pace results in much quicker attacks and manoeuvrability. This could possibly be owed to the success of Bloodborne – Hidetaka Miyazaki is back on board after skipping Dark Souls II, so it’s no surprise to see a few of his design choices from Bloodborne’s gameplay being brought in to Dark Souls III. The increase in pace is a definite improvement though and will certainly be more appealing to any newcomers to the series.

Of course the Bloodborne similarities aren’t only noticeable in the gameplay changes. The third area I visited in the preview, the ‘Undead Settlement’, bore many similarities to the ‘Hemwick Charnel Lane’ area in Bloodborne – even some of the enemies shared a familiar design. Despite these similarities, the area still managed to feel unique with the level working down an incline that’s connected with buildings, caves and even a sewer system that homes a giant rat.

My favourite location I got to explore during my time with the game was the ‘High Wall of Lothric’. This area featured the gothic architecture and design we’ve come to love with the Dark Souls series – it reminded me a lot of the opening area from the original Dark Souls. I particularly liked the remains of dead dragons that were scattered throughout the level, even if they did lull me into a false sense of security that this was a ‘dragon free’ environment. It wasn’t. I got burned to death. Twice.

Dark Souls III

Throughout all of the areas I explored in the demo there was always one consistency – they looked absolutely stunning. Dark Souls III is the first entry in the series built from the ground up for current gen consoles and it really shows in the beautiful landscapes you get to visit in the game. I was left in awe staring at the stunning vistas in the background, with mountains and buildings seemingly going on for miles. It has me eagerly anticipating the later levels in the game – From Software are typically creative with their level design, so I can’t wait to see where they take me later in the game.

The main hub of the game consists of the familiar ‘Firelink Shrine’, though this time its location bares more similarities to the ‘Nexus’ from Demon Souls rather than the mountainous area fans will remember from the original Dark Souls. It’s a dark and gloomy environment that still manages to offer a sense of solace. Dark Souls III has took the same approach as the second game in the series by only allowing you to level up by speaking to a woman in the ‘Firelink Shrine’ as opposed to at any bonfire in the game. It’s a shame as I prefer levelling up on the go rather than travelling back to a particular location each time, though it’s easy enough to just quick travel between bonfires so it wasn’t too much of a hindrance.

Speaking of hindrances, Dark Souls III has made the bold decision to not make your character go hollow after death. No more max health being eaten away, lack of invasions or degrading appearance – you simply respawn at the last used bonfire. I think this decision may divide some fans, with certain players enjoying the challenge of being hollow and the increased pressure on trying not to die. On the other hand it makes the game a lot more accessible to new players or anyone who was put off by the extra challenge that faces you with each death.

Perhaps my favourite aspect of any Dark Souls title are the boss battles. The series has given us a ton of epic battles against a myriad of different foes ranging from man, beast, dragons and even mutated blobs throughout the series. What I encountered in my time with Dark Souls III didn’t disappoint.

The first boss encounter, Iudex Gundyr, opens in a familiar way with a large, suspiciously barren open area that homes a statue of what appears to be a knight in the middle. Upon interacting with the statue and removing a sword from its chest it comes to life, taking you on in what is the first boss encounter of Dark Souls III. It’s a fairly straight forward affair with your foe trying to take you out with swipes of his sword, but it’s nothing a bit of patience and movement can’t deal with. At roughly half health he throws out a nasty surprise by mutating into a nastier form, the transition baring some similarity to the effect the Uroboros have on the enemies in Resident Evil 4. Now with a black, gigantic snake like mutation, the boss was equipped with a set of nastier moves and an increased range. Still, nothing could stop this Dark Souls veteran – I took him down in my first attempt.

Dark Souls III

The second boss, Vordt of the Boreal Valley, offers a whole different kind of battle. The giant four legged beast will charge at you, slash at you, breathe ice at you – he has a strong repertoire of moves that will certainly cause you problems. At half health he buffs himself up too. I kept up close and personal with Vordt and utilised the roll to dodge his attacks, a strategy that worked pretty well in taking him down with minimal fuss.

Last but not least was the Curse-Rotted Greatwood. Now this was an encounter I initially struggled with. The best way to describe the Curse-Rotted Greatwood is as a giant tree with anger issues. It’ll stamp its roots on you, jump up and smash down at you or even unleash its health draining sap upon you. It’s seemingly resistant to damage too with any hits made against its body seemingly nullified.

Of course, there’s always a way to take down these bosses and our giant tree friend was no different. He had weak spots on his body taking the form of weird white egg-like things that when hit repeatedly would explode and take off a decent chunk of health. Keep destroying these weak points and you’ll slowly see the Curse-Rotted Greatwood’s health dwindle away. He has one more surprise on offer though – once he hits half health he destroys the ground from under you and the rest of the battle takes place in a cave like environment. Oh, and the Curse-Rotted Greatwood now has a giant arm that’ll smash at you and crush you with ease. This is Dark Souls III expect the unexpected, but most importantly expect to die.

Upon defeating the Curse-Rotted Greatwood my time with the preview build of Dark Souls III was over. It was devastating – I just wanted to play more of the game. Seriously, Dark Souls III is fantastic. The visuals are fantastic, the gameplay is faster and feels more refined, whilst the boss battles are as intense as ever. There were a few little bugs that I noticed such as the frame rate dipping and some textures taking a little extra to load, but given this was a preview build of the game I’m not too worried. Console gamers should know that the game was running at 30fps though.

Dark Souls III

I think gamers are going to love Dark Souls III – I know I did. There’s some changes made to the gameplay and there’s certainly little bits of Bloodborne’s influence that show, but there’s nothing that makes it lose its identity. Let’s not forget that Bloodborne is Dark Soul’s little brother after all. It’s certainly going to keep Dark Souls veterans happy, but I think there’s plenty on offer for new fans too – as long as they’re prepared to die of course. For me, April 12th can’t come soon enough…