Dark Souls 3: everything we know from playing the first four hours

From Software's latest is full of devious new challenges and many fascinating changes

When we were first able to play Dark Souls 3 late last summer, it was a very early, clearly unfinished and unbalanced version of the game. Whole systems were missing, and we were left with almost as many questions as answers.

Last week, we sat down to play four hours of a new, near-complete build of From Software's latest from the beginning, and we're feeling a lot more confident in our image of what the game is and how it compares to previous titles in the series.

While Dark Souls 3 is obviously a Souls game and reminiscent of what’s come before, it has some major differences and tweaks to the formula. We've compiled a list of everything new, different and notable from our first hours with the game.

You can listen to this story — and much more — in the episode of Polygon's daily news podcast, Minimap, below.


Introducing FP

Where Dark Souls predecessor Demon’s Souls used a traditional role-playing game magic points system for determining how many times you could cast spells, the first two Dark Souls games got rid of that system. You only needed to track hit points and stamina; spells could be cast a set number of times, which refreshed whenever you rested at a bonfire.

Dark Souls 3 goes back to basics in some regards with the newly introduced FP stat. Between your red health bar and green stamina bar is a blue bar that shows your total FP. You drain this resource by using spells, but it's also used for a new type of melee ability.

(Note: If you're wondering what FP stands for, well...so are we! We weren't able to find an explanation during our demo. We reached out to Bandai Namco for clarification, but haven't heard back as of the time of publication.)

If you dual-wield any melee weapon and hold down the left trigger, your character will move into a new stance. From there you can hit the regular melee or strong melee attack buttons to perform a weapon skill. Weapon skills are new super-powerful melee attacks that require a long wind-up and drain your FP bar. You'll need to figure out the proper timing to use them, but they add a strong additional strategy for melee fighters.

More estus options

Dark Souls 3 screen

Since the first Dark Souls, weary adventurers have learned to love their trusty estus flask, an HP-restoring potion with charges that refill at bonfires. With Dark Souls 3's new FP system, the estus expands as well.

Shortly into Dark Souls 3's tutorial zone, you will find an ashen estus flask. This blue flask restores FP and, as with the regular estus flask, is refilled at bonfires.

In addition to giving you options for regaining FP on the go, the ashen estus flask is also a source of new strategic decisions. At Firelink Shrine, Dark Souls 3's hub area, you can choose how many charges of estus are devoted to each flask type.

Don't find yourself using FP much? You can shift all of your estus over to the traditional, HP-restoring flask. Have a build that's all about slinging magic and never taking hits? Dump all your estus into an ashen estus flask for maximum FP potential.

No more hollowing

Dark Souls 3 screen

Both Dark Souls and Dark Souls 2 featured a mechanic where your character became hollow upon dying. In the first game, hollow characters could not summon other players for co-op nor be invaded by enemy players. In the sequel, hollowing reduced a player's maximum hit points up to 50 percent total. In both cases, the effect could be reversed by spending a special resource (humanity in the first game; human effigies in the second).

Dark Souls 3 has done away with these complicated and under-explained systems. It's possible that a replacement mechanic was just disabled in our demo, but in that build the game doesn't track humanity, we found no items to reverse hollowing, and there's no special penalties for dying beyond dropping the number of souls you've collected.

Transformation

Dark Souls 3 screen

There seems to be a sickness of some sort spreading through the lands of Dark Souls 3, and it's having a pretty gross effect on boss encounters and regular enemies. During fights with certain enemies in the game, they will explode with a gross, black slime-like substance and change shape once lowered to half-health or below.

This slime bursts out of enemy skulls and takes a horrifying, almost dragon-like shape. Once this happens, affected enemies become much more powerful, gaining buffed health and significantly increased attack range.

As noted above, this isn't just for bosses. In at least two scenarios, we walked into a random enemy along a regular route who went through this kind of transformation. This turned a weak normal foe into essentially a mini-boss of sorts — albeit one that returned to life whenever we rested at a bonfire.

Whatever the story behind these transformations, they provide a cool effect and lend an increased sense of danger to every battle. The only problem we ran into came when an enemy who’s been changed in this way gets you into tight quarters. Because the shadowy protuberances are so huge, they take up most of the screen and make it hard to find a workable camera angle, much less escape from the enemy. Depending on the level design and frequency of this type of enemy, it may be less of an issue as the game progresses.

Firelink Shrine

One of the more controversial elements of Dark Souls 2 was the game's use of a central hub area that you had to return to in order to level up. Some fans considered this a step back from the freedom of the first game, where you could level at any bonfire. Bad news for those fans: The hub is back and more important than ever.

After defeating Dark Souls 3's first boss, you'll open the door to Firelink Shrine. This circular set of ruins is visually reminiscent of the Nexus hub area from Demon's Souls. In the center of Firelink Shrine is a woman who refers to herself only as "a Fire Keeper." You'll need to return and talk to her any time you want to spend souls to level up.

The Fire Keeper isn't the only reason to return to Firelink Shrine, though. Deeper into the shrine you can meet an unnamed Handmaid, who will sell you various items and spells and purchase anything you don’t want. Beyond her is Andre, a blacksmith who can upgrade your weapons and armor, repair equipment, improve your estus and allow you to tweak how much estus of each type you carry.

Returning faces

Dark Souls 3 screen

Keen-eyed Souls fans may have noticed something important in that last section. Andre? The Andre? Yes, as far as we can tell, the Andre in Dark Souls 3 is the same Andre of Astora who served as a blacksmith for your hero in the first Dark Souls. Or at least someone who looks identical and has the same name.

He's not the only familiar character, either. Later in our play time, we ran into a large knight wearing a recognizable, onion-shaped helmet. He identified himself as Siegward of Catarina, a jovial character presumably tied in some way to the first Dark Souls' Sieglind and Siegmeyer, also of Catarina. If there were ever any doubt that these games take place in the same world, that should be cleared up now.

The plot

Dark Souls 3 concept art

If you watched the game's opening cinematic, you already have a taste of Dark Souls 3's story, which we've previously been told by localization producer Brandon Williams will "bring certain story elements of the series to a close." Upon playing it, we've been able to piece a bit more together.

Upon entering Firelink Shrine, you meet a morose knight who is the first to fill you in on your quest. You are what the game refers to as an Unkindled (or Ashen One), and you have been risen from the dead to hunt down the Lords of Cinder, four big bad guys who have deserted their thrones in Firelink Shrine.

Within Firelink Shrine, you can actually see five thrones, four of which are empty and tell you the names of the enemies you seek: Yhorm the Giant of the Profaned Capital, the Watchers of the Abyss, Holy King Lothric, Last hope of his Line and Saint Aldrich of the Deep. In the fifth spot rests Ludleth the Exiled, the only Lord of Cinder who has not vanished.

Upon talking to Ludleth, he fills in a bit more of the back story. He informs you that all of the Lords of Cinder are people who, at some point long ago, linked the fire, a process we’ve seen repeated time and again throughout the Dark Souls series. That ritual has left Ludleth as little more than a charred corpse, though presumably the other Lords of Cinder are not in such a sorry state.

Ludleth further explains that all five Lords of Cinder must be present on their thrones in order to link the fire again. And the fire must be linked in order to "preserve the world."

Curiously, when you try to talk to Ludleth, the game opens a menu. This suggests that, at some point deeper into the game, he may offer further services beyond just talking — other "talk-only" characters will speak immediately rather than making you select the command from a menu.

A connected but divided world

Dark Souls 3 art

Much has been made of whether and how much Dark Souls 3's world will connect and intertwine after what some deemed a world too random from place to place in Dark Souls 2. While we have yet to see any unbelievable leaps in setting in the early hours of Darks Souls 3, we were also surprised to discover that the world isn't a huge, continuously connected thing.

Upon entering Firelink Shrine and lighting the bonfire there, you're given the ability to travel from bonfire to bonfire. In the first four hours, our travel options were split between three distinct areas: the Cemetery of Ash, the High Wall of Lothric and the Undead Settlement. These all appear to be in the same general location in the world, often visible from one another, but as far as we can tell, you can't actually just walk from one end to the other. You'll need to use bonfires to get to different locations.

Whether you're disappointed about the locations being so distinctly split up or not, take heart that each one of these locales is massive. By an hour into the game, it felt like there were a dozen possible paths to take, some leading forward, some leading to treasure. One path in the Undead Settlement allowed us to circumvent a boss fight. Others opened up shortcuts or led to hidden characters with special quests. There is, as always, a ton to discover here.

Even the new is familiar

Dark Souls 3 screen

Dark Souls 3 brings plenty of interesting tweaks to the series' formula, but unlike in last year's Bloodborne, long-time Souls fans won't have to completely relearn the game. While we died plenty of times in our first four hours, we were able to defeat the game's first two bosses, Iudex Gundyr and Vordt of the Boreal Valley, on our initial attempts.

While some could read this as the game being easier, that doesn't seem like the case. Rather, it's just the nature of this being the fifth game in this style that we’ve played (including Demon’s Souls and Bloodborne). Those skills are clearly carrying over from game to game, and that feels really good.

We can’t wait to play more

Surprise! Our early impressions of Dark Souls 3 were largely very positive, and we walked away from this taste eager to play another four hours. And another after that. And maybe four more, just for good measure.

As From Software's third game of this style in as many years, we were concerned that the developer couldn't keep up the high standard of quality the series has become known for. We'll have to wait until we get our hands on the full game closer to its April 12 release date to know more, but so far, we're happy.

In the meantime, we also got a look at some of the nitty gritty elements of Dark Souls 3 that hardcore fans might care about — the starting classes, starting gifts and revised stats. Take a look at all the details below.

Starting classes

Dark Souls 3 screen

When you create your character in Dark Souls 3, you’ll have a choice of 10 starting classes, three of which are new to this entry. As in previous games, this choice will not lock you into a certain route — you can still develop your character however you’d like as you level — but your class will determine your starting stats and what you’re best at in the early hours.

Here are your choices:

  • Knight - This hardy class begins with high vitality (for increased defense), a full suit of armor and a strong shield.
  • Mercenary - Mercenaries are the starting class with the highest dexterity. While they begin with a single sword and shield, they’re built for dual-wielding blades.
  • Warrior - Though similar to Knights on first look, Warriors are more focused on strength than vitality. They start equipped with a powerful, heavy battleaxe and a wooden shield.
  • Herald - A jack-of-all-trades style of class, Heralds carry a spear at the start and have a healing spell available as well.
  • Thief - A Thief begins the game with higher luck than any other starting class. They have lighter armor but also wield a dagger perfect for backstabs and a bow for picking off enemies from afar.
  • Assassin - An Assassin acts as the middle ground between a melee-focused character and a magic user. They have very middle-of-the-road stats, with bumps for attunement and dexterity, and they begin with a low-power sorcery spell.
  • Sorcerer - Dark Souls 3’s classic caster class begins with low stats all around, save for huge buffs to attunement and intelligence. They also carry two spells from the start.
  • Pyromancer - Where Sorcerers focus on high-damage single-target spells, Pyromancers wield destructive fire spells that tend toward area-of-effect abilities. In Dark Souls 3, Pyromancers begin with high intelligence and faith, and they can generally handle close-range combat as well.
  • Cleric - Clerics have high faith and attunement stats and begin with two miracles, spells focused on healing, buffing and shielding. They also carry a mace for combat.
  • Deprived - Dark Souls 3 is already a tough game, but playing as Deprived is basically the hard difficulty. All stats begin totally level at 10, and your character has no starting armor. You’ll begin with a club and a junky wooden shield, and that’s it.

Burial Gift

Dark Souls 3 screen showing a sword fight Image: From Software/Bandai Namco

In another tradition carried over from previous Souls games, you get to choose one gift to begin your game with. There are nine to choose from, though note that you can also decide to start with no gift at all.

Here are the options:

  • Life Ring - This equippable ring is a great choice for making the early game a little easier, as it slightly raises your maximum hit points.
  • Divine Blessing - This single-use potion restores your hit points to full and cures you of any poisons or other ailments.
  • Hidden Blessing - This new potion type fully restores your FP.
  • Black Firebomb - This is a powerful weapon you can throw at a troublesome enemy, but as with many of these choices, you’ll only be able to use it once.
  • Fire Gem - This seems to be an upgrade material that will be used for enhancing fire-based weapons. The description suggests that Warriors should strongly consider grabbing it.
  • Sovereignless Soul - For those looking for a boost to early leveling, this single-use item will grant you a bunch of souls which can then be spent to level up.
  • Rusted Gold Coin - Using the Rusted Gold Coin will increase the number of item drops you get off of enemies for a short time, including the possibility of getting rare drops.
  • Cracked Red Eye Orb - For the player-versus-player fans in the crowd, the Cracked Red Eye Orb will allow you to invade another player’s world and hunt them down. It’s single-use but should help keep your bloodlust sated until you find an item allowing for constant invades.
  • Young White Branch - This new single-use item allows players to blend into the environment. Presumably it will be most useful for defending yourself or stalking enemies in player-versus-player scenarios.

The stats

Dark Souls 3 screen

Despite using similar, generic fantasy terminology, both previous Dark Souls titles had slight differences in which stats your character could build up and what those individual stats determined. Here are the numbers you’ll be juggling in Dark Souls 3:

  • Vigor - In addition to raising your max hit points, vigor will also determine your total frost resistance. Frost attacks can cause a new status effect, frostbitten, that slows your character and prevents stamina regeneration.
  • Attunement - As in previous games, attunement will determine how many spells you can have equipped at any one time. Now it will also tie to your max FP.
  • Endurance - This stat will primarily be used to raise your stamina, increasing the number of rolls, melee swings and shield blocks your character can perform before they’re winded. Endurance will also increase resistance to lightning attacks and bleeding.
  • Vitality - Vitality is the attribute that most greatly affects your total physical defense (although other attributes will improve it as well). Upping vitality will also increase your poison resistance and your maximum equip load, allowing you to wear heavier armor and weapons without slowing down.
  • Strength - The fairly self-explanatory strength will increase the overall power of your melee attacks. It also ties to your resistance to fire magic. A certain amount of strength will often be required to properly wield large weapons.
  • Dexterity - One of the most versatile attributes, a higher dexterity will improve the strength of attacks, reduce the time it takes to cast spells and reduce the damage taken from falling. As with strength, you’ll often find a minimum dexterity requirement to wield certain weapons — in this case, faster or more agile weapons.
  • Intelligence - A stat for spellcasters, intelligence will determine the overall power of each sorcery or pyromancy spell you cast. It will also increase your total magic defense.
  • Faith - This one bumps up the power of miracle-based spells as well as pyromancy. Faith also improves your defense against dark-based enemies and attacks.
  • Luck - Raising luck increases your odds of getting item drops from each enemy you kill. It also improves your resistance to curses and your ability to cause bleeding and poison on enemies. Babykayak