Dark Souls 3 preview: a grander sense of scale, but still familiar

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Dark Souls 3 has given me an emotional ride this E3. First, its existence was leaked. Could it be real!? Would it, like the last, come to PC? Anticipation! Then it was revealed, and confirmed for PC. Celebration! Then I wondered: has it been long enough since Dark Souls 2? Will the series still have the depth and nuance that makes it so special? Dark Souls 2 was great, but lacked that certain something that director Hidetaka Miyazaki brought to the first game. Uncertainty. Then Miyazaki spoke out, stating that he’s co-directing the game, with a hand in worldbuilding and level design. Praise the sun.

I had the opportunity to see half an hour of Dark Souls 3 in action in a small demo room at E3 2015. I was not the first, and if you love Dark Souls, you’ve probably already read a summary of what From Software and publisher Bandai Namco had to show. Miyazaki himself talked through the demo and answered a few questions at the end. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to ask about the PC version of the game—how it will differ from the consoles, and if it’ll offer all the same graphical features of Dark Souls 2, but I think that’s likely. Skip down to the bottom for observations from the slice of Dark Souls 3 I watched From Software tour through.

The story is focused on the Lords of Cinder. The presentation had “Lord of Cinder,” singular, written out, but Miyazaki said that the giant in the Dark Souls 3 trailer was one of these Lords of Cinder. The dark hero (hello, player) is trying to kill them.

Estus flasks, bonfires, jump attacks, greatswords, and dual-wielding weapons are back.

New weapon arts will add extra abilities to different weapons, beyond their typical attack animations. The longsword has a “ready” position where the shield is put away and two special attacks can be triggered that break blocking stances. Greatswords have a powerful lunging upward strike that can launch enemies into the air. Dual wielded scimitars have a whirlwind attack that can hit multiple enemies.

Knights return to the series, and are strong and aggressive.

You can now fire the shortbow quickly while locked onto enemies in third-person.

Player movement has been improved and made “more intuitive.” Movement is definitely faster in Dark Souls 3, sitting somewhere between Dark Souls and Bloodborne.

Magic was not in the demo, but Miyazaki confirmed it would be in the game. He played coy about how the magic system would or wouldn’t be changed, but in answer to one question during the Q&A, he hinted that ash would be important—perhaps a branch of magic.

Miyazaki cited Berserk, the dark fantasy manga starring greatsword-wielding hero Guts, as a direct inspiration for the greatsword attacks in Dark Souls 3.

The agility stat from Dark Souls 2 is not returning.

From Software is planning to support up to six players online, like in Dark Souls 2: Scholars of the First Sin. That number is the goal, but it sounded like they were hedging a bit in case it didn’t work out.

Dark Souls 3 shares the same “worldview” as the first two games. The demo featured two dead dragons and one live one. Someone asked if the presence of so many dragons implied that this was a prequel to Dark Souls, and Miyazaki wouldn’t directly confirm it, but his answer seemed to suggest a yes.

Miyazaki’s goals with deepening the game include improving the sword action and expanding the roleplaying experience through a wider variety of viable character builds.

In the demo, one undead suddenly explodes into a giant writhing, amorphous black blob, like a less fleshy version of something out of Resident Evil. When asked if this was something players would see throughout the game, Miyazaki said yes. When asked if the enemy had ties to the Abyss, he smiled and said that giving away details would be a spoiler.

When the demo player picked up Elite Scimitars, I believe it said “Elite Scimitars,” plural. This made me wonder if there are weapons in the game that come in twos. He used the scimitars individually, as well, but I believe there was always a secondary sheathed scimitar on the character model, even when one was being wielded with a shield.

Dark Souls 3 runs on DirectX 11.

There were no fog doors in the demo area we saw.

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From Software showed us about half an hour of Dark Souls 3, with an area specially prepared for the E3 demo. It’s an area that I assume will be in the final game, but Miyazaki specifically mentioned one shortcut added for convenience in the E3 demo, for when the player intentionally died and skipped past a chunk of just-explored area.

The slice of Dark Souls 3 we saw captured the same majestic, eerie ambiance of the first two games, with a towering gothic castle reminiscent of Anor Londo, at once beautiful and imposing. The difference, in Dark Souls 3, is scale. The castle is huge, even off in the distance, and clearly rendered in 3D. The player worked his way towards that castle during the half hour play session, and I’d say the art direction will feel instantly familiar to Dark Souls players. But there’s a noticeable chunkiness to the graphics this time around: a thickness to walls and rubble and other geometry that wasn’t there before.

The general scale of the environment, the buildings and rooftops, feels grander and more imposing. Dark Souls has always created a feeling of isolation and vulnerability as you traverse its environments alone, and I think that sensation will be heightened in Dark Souls 3 by taller buildings and more geometry being rendered in the world. From the bits and pieces I’ve seen of Bloodborne on the PS4, the size of the environments will feel similar, but with Dark Souls’ art style intact.

One genuinely breathtaking moment of the demo came near the very end, when the player finally reached a courtyard before the area’s boss. He was finally close to the castle, and it absolutely towered above him, while light cascaded down into the courtyard with an ethereal glow. A couple people in the audience ooohed softly.

I noticed some other graphical details here and there. Cobblestones on the ground look more prominent and three dimensional than before, due to some tessellation or great texture work. The character models were definitely more detailed, with the same twisted, creative monster design we’ve come to expect. In a dark interior room, the player took out a torch, which cast dynamic lighting around the room. But even without the torch it was nowhere near as dark as the early trailers for Dark Souls 2—clearly From Software isn’t going down that road again.

The boss at the end of the area, called Dancer of the Frigid Valley, was everything I expected from a Dark Souls boss. It was large, dwarfing the player character, but thin, all hunched over gangly limbs, a twisted death bride with a flowing translucent veil whisking along behind. And it had very large swords.

From what I saw of Dark Souls 3, it’s more of the same in style and spirit and structure. It has no intention of reinventing the series, but with Miyazaki calling the big shots it seems to be in good hands, expanding in scale and refining the combat and movement systems of the first two games. I think that’s all most Dark Souls fans would ask for.

Wes Fenlon
Senior Editor

Wes has been covering games and hardware for more than 10 years, first at tech sites like The Wirecutter and Tested before joining the PC Gamer team in 2014. Wes plays a little bit of everything, but he'll always jump at the chance to cover emulation and Japanese games.

When he's not obsessively optimizing and re-optimizing a tangle of conveyor belts in Satisfactory (it's really becoming a problem), he's probably playing a 20-year-old Final Fantasy or some opaque ASCII roguelike. With a focus on writing and editing features, he seeks out personal stories and in-depth histories from the corners of PC gaming and its niche communities. 50% pizza by volume (deep dish, to be specific).