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Early Impressions: Dark Souls III

Preparing for anything

Dark Souls III [official site] is already out in Japan but the rest of the world has to wait until April 12th. I received review code late last week and have spent a few hours kindling bonfires and carving my way through the early stages of the game. I've also, as you might imagine, died quite a lot.

Our full review will be closer to the international release but I wanted to share some thoughts about the opening areas, the PC version and the overall quality of what I've seen so far. No spoilers regarding bosses or locations.

It's good. Possibly very good, although it's too soon to say how it'll all hold together. An enormous part of Dark Souls' appeal is the level design and subtle world-building, and the effectiveness of both of those things isn't entirely clear until the whole picture can be seen. Right now, I've barely seen one edge of the world so can't be certain that it'll fit together like a beautiful labyrinth.

Visually, it's doing all the right things in terms of creating the kind of ruined landscapes, castles and dungeons that are a hallmark of the series. I'll talk about the technical aspects in a moment but it's worth spending a few paragraphs to touch on the actual designs.

If you're in a particularly picturesque part of the world (the real world), you might find signs at certain points along a trail drawing your attention to a good sightseeing spot. Such a spot might provide a view of a panoramic vista or a specific feature, ideally framed.

Dark Souls III is full of spots like that. Lothric might be going through a bit of bother at the moment – something to do with dead kings who need to be returned to their thrones and/or re-killed – but it clearly had a cracking tourist board in better times. I search every nook and cranny in the hope of finding a big stack of souls or something sharp or explosive to lob, but more often than not I just find spectacular views.

Even as I scratch the surface, with only a few bonfires within the initial castle ruins unlocked, I'm able to stitch the world together, connecting one vantage point to the next. There are threads that pull the whole place together, including the disintegrating corpse of a dragon at one section of the high wall that both encircles and penetrates the stronghold, and a fire-spewing living dragon perched atop another part of that wall. Below, there is a cathedral, with neighbouring gardens. The stained glass windows catch the light and draw the eye, and the patches of green round about would make the whole place look like an oasis of calm if it weren't for the bodies piled high, burning and rotting, and the robotic march of the giant knights that still patrol, even though there is nothing left to guard.

The atmosphere is almost perfect. My one minor concern is tied to the creature design rather than the world design. The Souls games have always delivered on the monster front. They're full of demons and dragons and knights, but like the worlds they inhabit, those critters aren't quite what you'd expect. If the ruins are a sort of post-apocalyptic Forgotten Realms – Mad Max meets Middle Earth – then the monsters are typical fantasy fare seen through the lens of surrealist horror. They're broken, mechanical things, a quality emphasised by their predictable behaviour patterns.

While that horrific quality has been evident since Demon's Souls, some of Dark Souls III's depictions of corrupted and bloodied forms feel a little too on the nose. On a couple of occasions, the apparent physical manifestation of ruin spilling out of the bodies of enemies, transforming them, has felt like a visual motif more suited to one of the weaker Silent Hill games than to Dark Souls. It's the rare occasion when the game feels as if it's using an exclamation point rather than an ellipsis.

It's worth noting that this may well be an idiosyncratic criticism targeting an aspect that won't bother the majority of people, but complaints about the visual aspect of those enemies aside, I also feel as if they're the cheapest combatants I've encountered so far. The corruption, which takes the form of an oily serpentine mutation, is (intentionally) difficult to read, its animations overwhelming and uncomfortable to track.

No doubt some people will enjoy the challenge as they learn to dodge and deflect those messy strikes, but I've found them to be frustrating in a way that encourages button-hammering and a reliance on luck rather than a close reading of action and intent. Dark Souls is at its best when it's teaching you how to succeed, through a process of repetition and gradual improvement. Perfecting almost any sequence of combat, kills and forward motion grants one of the greatest moments of catharsis available in any form of entertainment – all frustrations and despair purged to be replaced by confidence and elation – but in these rare instances I didn't feel as if I'd earned the progress I made.

The important word is 'rare'. On the whole, I've been delighted by the early hours of the game. Combat has an extra bit of pace and fluidity, but is missing none of the weight of the original Dark Souls, and experimenting with character builds and classes shows just how many solutions are actually possible when faced with seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Surviving a bossfight with a sword and shield in hand, an empty Estus flask and a sliver of health remaining makes that particular victory feel like the only possible happy outcome, but approaching the same encounter with a ranged setup, a two-handed axe or a whisper and a prayer could be just as effective.

My main character is an agile mercenary – cutting, slashing and blocking – and I'm making slow but steady progress. Upgrading weapons and Estus capacity felt like a drag at first, necessitating a trip back to the Firelink Shrine, which is located in a separate, safe hub area, accessible only through teleportation form a bonfire.

I'm becoming accustomed to the Shrine as a separate place though. It gives me time to breathe and to explore stats and character builds, as well as fiddling with Estus balance. That's a new feature for the game, linked to the FP bar that acts as both mana and 'skill juice'. In short, both spellcasting and use of new weapon-specific skills drains FP, which can be regenerated using a second variety of Estus Flask, the 'Ashen' flask, received during the game's introductory tutorial.

Two flasks to replenish two bars, health and mana. That seems fair. Dark Souls III is ever-devious though and at the Firelink Shrine you can rebalance the amount of Estus used in each flask, thereby complicating the decisions you're making even more. A particularly bold player might move all of the Estus capacity to the Ashen flask, giving them plenty of ammunition for spells and skills but not allowing even a single health top-up. I'd love to tell you that I'm good enough to get away with that kind of power-trip but it would be a lie.

The splendid thing about Dark Souls is that no matter how punishing it becomes, you're rarely limited in your choices. You can teleport to any unlocked bonfire, allowing you to start from any area of the world and approach a problem from the best possible angle, and you can chop and change your character build by adding equipment. Sure, you can't build a character capable of wielding every weapon and casting every spell effectively, but you won't up using a totally inflexible character either.

Although I've been critical of some of these early experiences, I'm thoroughly enjoying Dark Souls III. Briefly put, at its best the combat is as good as the series has ever produced and the world is so beautifully designed that seeing a new section is reward enough for the trials endured to unlock it. Technically, it's solid. I'm playing with a 360 pad because mouse and keyboard controls simply don't make sense in relation to the series for me. The option is there though if you can stomach it.

FRAPS reckons my framerate is fluctuating between 30 and 60, though I rarely notice any changes as I play. That's most likely because the rate settles in the middle of that range and doesn't change during combat - the drops are related to large, open vistas, in which many distant points can be seen, with enemies in place, marching and marauding. During combat, the camera tends to be focused on the immediate vicinity and everything is steady. I'm running this machine at 1080p, with settings on Ultra. Knocking them down to High makes very little difference either to the framerate or the graphics.

I'm going back in now, powering through to the finale so that I can bring back a full analysis. Wish me luck.

Our full review will arrive ahead of international release on April 12th.

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