Last weekend, Dark Souls 3 was available as a playable demo at Manchester’s Play Expo, and I was fortunate enough to get some hands-on time with the title. In the game’s first public hands-on in the UK, and in the somewhat surprising absence of queues, I managed to get a fairly lengthy look at the same PS4 build that was recently shown off at Tokyo Game Show.
After the game loaded, I immediately chose the Knight build, mainly because my previous experience with Dark Souls games suggested that I would spend most of my playthrough hiding behind the comfort of a shield; and I wasn’t far wrong. My usual strategy is to keep my shield up, circle around an opponent and stab them bravely and valiantly in the back, so I was quite relieved to see that this was still a viable approach. However, there are fairly large tweaks to other approaches, most noticeably the changes to the magic system.
In previous Souls games, magic has been a finite resource that can only be replenished at a bonfire. This time around, Dark Souls III reintroduces a mana bar (missing since the original game in the franchise, Demon’s Souls), which tweaks the way in which magic can be used. Not only do you have Estus Flasks for restoring your health, but you also have Ash Estus Flasks, which regenerate mana. This allows you to manage magic in the same way that you would manage your health, and it also comes with the same risks and rewards, in that sipping from your Ash Estus Flask will leave you exposed in the middle of a fight.
While giving players another resource to juggle will no doubt force spellcasters to change their playstyle somewhat to accommodate, this system also makes magic an easier prospect for newcomers to grasp. In fact, the ability to replenish your mana might allow players to be a little more adventurous with their magic repertoire, meaning that they don’t have to save their spells for boss fights.
Mana ties into the combat in another unexpected way. Pressing L2 will unleash an attack that depletes your mana as well as stamina, making this type of attack risky, but rewarding. This adds another tool to your arsenal of light and heavy attacks.
Taking its cues from Bloodbourne, the combat felt a little faster and more deliberate than previous Souls games. While this could be down to the generally decent performance of the demo (with fairly consistent frame rates), and also due to my reliance on quick attacks in between turtling behind my shield, the to-and-fro of exchanging blows seemed to flow more than before. Rolling behind an enemy and backstabbing them felt fluid and satisfying to pull off.
I barely ran into any occasions where stamina was a problem. It was difficult to tell if this was a design choice, my strategy, or whether this was toned down to make the demo more forgiving, but I never found myself unable to fight back with a string of light or heavy hits. While this may sound like the game has uncharacteristically softened in its latest outing, Dark Souls III still requires a level of trial and error before you learn how to tackle each enemy. In other words, I died quite lot, which is generally a good sign in Dark Souls.
The area that was available on the demo was reminiscent of the Undead Burg from the first game in the series. As you would expect, the enemies found here were ghoulish humanoids with a penchant for stabbing folk, and the visual cues as to when they would attack were all there.
As with all Dark Souls games, the artistic design totally makes up for any lack of visual fidelity, and Dark Souls III looks rather remarkable. Sunlight shimmered off of the drab, derelict architecture, and the backdrop was more extensive and detailed than any game in the series so far. The foreground was littered with ghouls who seemed oblivious to my wandering knight, more concerned with preying avidly on their knees. This made it more difficult to pick out the actual enemies, but visually it was impressive to see so many moving parts to the game.
Overall, Dark Souls III is being tweaked in many of the ways that you would expect. There seems to be a series of sensible evolutions on the tried and tested formula, and they are ones that should engage fans of the series. For newcomers and rusty returners, the game seems to be taking steps to integrate you into its world more seamlessly. Dark Souls III may have a fair way to go before its projected April 2016 release date, but the early signs are certainly promising.