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Our first look at Dark Souls 3 gameplay and its new changes to combat

Michael McWhertor is a journalist with more than 17 years of experience covering video games, technology, movies, TV, and entertainment.

As Dark Souls makes the leap to a new generation of consoles, developer From Software wants to evolve the series' combat, provide new ways to role-play and increase the viable range of character builds, the franchise's creator says.

Game director and Souls series creator Hidetaka Miyazaki showed a gameplay demonstration of Dark Souls 3 at an E3 2015 presentation today, highlighting what's changing in the sequel and how From Software hopes to expand upon the series' trademark features.

Miyazaki described the "world view" of Dark Souls 3 as "not just dark," but with a withered beauty. It's a world littered with ember and ash, dimly lit by a faded sun. The world of Dark Souls 3 aims for full immersion in dark fantasy, Miyazaki said, with dynamic light sources and wind-blown ash and cloth effects.

The game's story will continue the tale of a lord-slaying dark hero and the "Lord of Cinder."

Miyazaki said From Software hopes to deepen the series' combat mechanics with the introduction of what it calls weapon arts. This new mechanic adds another layer to hand-to-hand combat, giving players additional attacks that are specific to certain weapon types. Miyazaki said he hopes the addition will boost the diversity of sword action and risk/reward strategy.

As an example, Miyazaki showed off how players will be able to use a straight sword to enter a "ready stance." From that stance, players can launch two different types of attacks: one that delivers a devastating blow designed to break an enemy's guard and another that quickly closes the distance between the player and their target.

Dark Souls 3

The weapon arts for the game's greatswords are different. Instead of entering a stance, the player can lunge forward, boosting their poise, and unleash powerful attacks that cause great damage or launch an opponent into the air. Miyazaki showed how dual-wielding a pair of scimitars works with weapon arts as well; players can unleash a powerful spin move that can quickly dispatch a tightly-packed group of undead enemies.

The new weapon mechanic also extends to ranged weapons. Using a short bow, players can use weapon arts to quickly fire off arrows while strafing and dodge-rolling. The option to target and fire from far away is still there, but short bow weapon arts make bows much more effective in fast paced combat situations.

Miyazaki mentioned two sources of inspiration for the new weapon arts: Guts from Berserk when describing how greatsword combat is changing, and The Lord of the Rings' speedy archer Legolas.

During our hands-off walkthrough of Dark Souls 3, Miyazaki said that the game world will feature a greater sense of exploration than in previous installments. That sense of exploration sounded like the standard "See that castle in the distance? You can go there!" promises, but in the environment we saw at E3, a region called the Wall of Lodeleth, there seemed to be more branching paths and a sense of open exploration than in previous games.

Dark Souls 3

The dark medieval setting of Dark Souls 3 will look immediately familiar to fans of the series, boosted by a sense of apocalyptic decay present throughout the fantasy environments we saw. The air is thick with the ash of a decaying dragon. Undead creatures and knights roam the streets and dark hallways of the game world, including familiar foes like undead dreglings and rabid, desiccated dogs. A giant fire-breathing dragon, a Miyazaki favorite, presented opportunity for instant death.

One moment that From Software showed that piqued our interest was on a rooftop environment, where a cluster of undead creatures were seen praying to some unknown force. One undead approached the player aggressively, and a black, dragon-like creature burst forth from his body. It actually appeared more like the dragon — liquid and not fully formed — partially slipped through some tear in reality, immediately reminding me of creatures seen in the original Dark Souls' Abyss.

Miyazaki's demo culminated in a battle against one of the game's bosses, a creature known as the Dancer of the Frigid Valley. The lanky, armored creature moved like nothing else we've seen in a Souls game to date; it skulked slowly around the environment, almost as if it were swimming through the cathedral in which the battle took place. With its iron veil and an ethereal, shimmering cape, the dancer had feminine qualities, Miyazaki pointed out. It's a formidable foe: The dancer wields a burning, curved sword that left scorched marks on the ground when it struck. Columns around the battle arena burned when the dancer slashed them, making them feel less like a structure to hide behind, and more of a hazard.

Dark Souls 3

In familiar Dark Souls boss fashion, the dancer switched up its attacks when its health was depleted to a point. Mid-battle, it summoned forth a second sword, this one coated in ash, from what appeared to be a separate dimension. The boss then lived up to its name, pirouetting with both swords drawn and unleashing a dual-elemental, extended series of attacks. The player knight fell before we saw the dancer defeated.

Miyazaki indicated that ash will be a new element type in Dark Souls 3. He didn't come right out and say it, but ash appears to be a frequently used theme in the game world.

Here are some other random things I noticed during the demo:

  • Players will discover small gravestones hidden throughout the world. Players can "offer flame" to those stones, letting them to read the epitaph chiseled upon them. Those inscriptions will offer hints about the story.
  • The torch from Dark Souls 2 returns. In Dark Souls 3, however, players can not only equip it to light up an area, they can also raise it higher to boost the effect.
  • The estus flask is back. The icon in the UI will actually show that the flask is depleting as players get down to their final few swigs.
  • Miyazaki said he wanted to make the game's knights — a terrifying foe in the early hours of Demon's Souls — more powerful. It looks like he has succeeded.

Dark Souls 3 will be released on PlayStation 4, Windows PC and Xbox One sometime in early 2016.

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