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Certain assumption pop into your head when you learn you're going to be exploring a new Dark Souls 3 location called “Undead Settlement”. I expected the hanging corpses, carcasses broken on wheels, and the wet mud, almost the colour of dried blood. I didn't expect the sunshine, or the greenery. A massive amount of time seems to have passed since the events of Dark Souls and Dark Souls 2. Somehow, on the brink of its destruction, the world has been lifted out of the dark.
The zone is a vast, knotty township that displays all the hallmarks of a good Souls location. You arrive with a view of the whole area. The path slopes down towards a crevasse and a few huge structures sit on the horizon. From Software excel at using vantage points to tie locations to one another, creating a web of landmarks that you encounter from various angles. In the distance I see the silhouette of a giant firing a greatbow from the top of a tower. Later I walk through a graveyard below, and have to dodge his huge spear-sized bolts as they crash into undead townspeople. Later still I scale the tower and stand at the giant's knees. There I get an extraordinary view of the entire zone—a bizarre coiled wooded town perched on huge cliffs. To the left I see the previous area, a stunning castle the size of a small city, with huge bridges link its pointed spires. Miyazaki says that's explorable, too. The whole area is bigger and more detailed than any place in the previous games.
Between bonfires and vantage points Dark Souls likes to send you into a twisting mire of enemies to test your resolve and furnish you with souls. The Undead Settlement is no different. Tiny creeps in frayed pointed wizard hats lie in ambush in the township's dark attics, and clutch to the cliff faces, ready to drop on you as you wind downwards towards the chasm. At first you're lost. You take each new building a step at time with your shield up, and pray that a bonfire is around the next turn. Gradually, a mental map forms, and you experience the sense of mastering a location that makes exploring in Dark Souls such a pleasure.
Down in the slums, battling the crowds, Dark Souls 3 starts to feel even more familiar—almost to a fault. Enemy archetypes return from the previous games, often with the same attack sequences and animations. The robed outcasts you fight in the very first areas have the same drunken flurry as the undead loitering near the river at the beginning of Dark Souls 2. Souls and Bloodborne players have already fought the Undead Settlement's townspeople a thousand times. Some excellent new enemies stand out, however. I loved the grotesque warbling old folk mages who can give you a fiery hug, or just hit you with their magic book. Robed hulks, who I think might be giant undead chefs, throw boulder-sized cauldrons, and then pull out a huge saw to charge.
I dismembered dozens of these chefs with Dark Souls 3's new 'weapon arts'. Every weapon has a new stance or move on the L2 button. The knife gives you a Bloodborne-style shadow step that gives you easy access to backstabs if timed correctly. The broadsword stance gives you an upward attack that goes through shields—very useful against knights. The rapier gets a stance that lets you lunge backwards before striking to counter enemy slashes. You now have three weapon slots and three shield slots, which suggests you're encouraged to switch a lot to take on different enemies.
It's a good system that makes discovering new weapons exciting. However, it's, hampered by the fact that the shield parry command is on L2, and parry takes precedence. That means you have to put your shield away and double-hand an eight-inch knife to use shadow step, unless you've found a shield that explicitly lets you use your weapon art instead. It's an annoyance, especially when it would deepen the combat system to allow players to both parry and use weapon arts.
There are more changes. Humanity is gone. Now you shove cinders into your chest to improve your damage and open yourself up to invasion. The veins of magma that appear on your avatar are neat, but the change signals a larger move away from the key lore principles of the first game. Dark is still present, at least as an element that you can smear onto your blade. Some enemies have been corrupted by the abyss, too, and can explode into huge oily snake monsters and become unexpected mini boss fights.
However, from the four hours of the game I've seen so far, Dark Souls 3 is more concerned with fire and frost. You're chasing down the Lords of Cinder, whose empty thrones surround Firelink Shrine in an astonishing piece of scene-building. Throughout the demo I encountered freezing enemies from faraway lands who emit a mist that can afflict you with 'frostbitten' status. It will be interesting to see how these factions fold into existing Dark Souls lore.
One of those frosty fellows happens to be a boss called Vordt of the Boreal. He is a huge armoured beast who can charge and attack with ice breath. As the fight progresses he becomes more aggressive, until he's in an almost unstoppable charge state. The music—elaborate strings and booming choirs—reaches a frenzy as you desperately roll past his charges. The final slash feels amazing.
Dark Souls 3 has taken lessons from Bloodborne's bosses. so expect to endure multiple climactic phases and a lot of palm sweat. After Vordt I fought a huge corrupted tree. Halfway through its huge bulbous trunk split and a huge, pale arm reached out to start swiping at the floor. Later, its thrashing caused the floor to collapse. The boss, the player, and nearby townspeople were dragged into a claustrophobic watery cave where movement was slowed and the monster was harder to avoid.
The bosses are great and the new areas are beautiful. I worry that the series may have completed its transition from from narrative masterwork to repeatable template, but the template has been greatly refined since Dark Souls 2—a patchy game that endured a troubled development. Dark Souls 3 could be the sequel the original truly deserves. Today's tech allows for a new level of scale and detail, and Dark Souls 3 gives us a chance to explore From's vision on a grander scale. It may not reach the standards of the extraordinary original, but that opportunity is just too good to pass up.
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