Last week, Polygon spent over an hour playing Dark Souls 3.
Though we spent that time exploring the castle area that was shown off to press in a hands-off demo at E3, this was our first time going hands-on with the game. While there are details we could spend hours speculating on, here are a few major points that stood out as people who have played every Souls game so far.
Back at E3 2015, when Dark Souls 3 was announced, From Software was showing off a new system it was calling "weapon arts." Those are now known as battle arts, and they're the true star of Dark Souls 3 so far.
Basically, battle arts open up a new set of special, more powerful moves for each weapon. In some cases, battle arts will be accessed by first entering a "ready" stance, which can then lead into a couple of different moves depending on the situation. In others, a weapon will have a single battle art available, such as wildly spinning around in a circle while dual-wielding. These options also play into a new shield system, where only some shields have the ability to parry while others cannot, but still allow you to use battle arts for your weapon while carrying a shield.
"If you have more options for a weapon, it makes the game more accessible"
One concern we heard floating around after this system was revealed was that it has the potential to make Dark Souls 3 too complex, with its ever-increasing move set. In our experience, that wasn't the case. Battle arts are a tool that is quick to learn; within that first hour of playing, we were beginning to recognize the perfect moments to lower our guard and begin one of these powerful attacks.
"We're hoping that the battle arts system will actually make the game more accessible," Brandon Williams, Dark Souls 3's localization producer, told us. "Dark Souls is notorious for its difficulty, but we don't want to turn players off because it's difficult. We're not going to touch the difficulty. That's always going to be there. But we wanted to make the game more accessible for people. So one of those things is more options. If you have more options for a weapon, it makes the game more accessible."
While we can't exactly speak to accessibility, the increased number of options without needing to swap weapons was definitely appreciated and adds a new layer of risk and reward to the gameplay of Dark Souls 3.
While they're really just another tool in the toolbox and can certainly leave you open to powerful counterattacks, battle arts are particularly powerful attacks compared to regular old sword swings. If From is serious about not letting go of that difficulty, they can't let players run around unleashing devastating attacks constantly.
Sure enough, while battle arts were unlimited in the E3 demo, in the updated build we played they were limited to 20 uses. As with the estus flask healing system, battle art uses were restored by resting at a bonfire.
Neither that number nor that exact system are set in stone, though. Williams confirmed that From Software is still tweaking and toying with different systems to see what works best. It could end up as a number like we saw, or it could be a bar alongside your health. Battle art uses could be replenished with an item, and the max number could increase as you explore, whether through being tied to a stat that you level up or an item you collect. Nothing is certain yet.
Williams also mentioned one potential downside or upside of the battle art system, depending on how you look at it. In a move that he likened to "a little bit similar to Bloodborne," Dark Souls 3 will have fewer overall weapons than Dark Souls 2, with the focus on giving each weapon type more functionality through the battle art system.
In a pre-E3 leak, one of the rumored elements of Dark Souls 3 was what was described as a "heat up" mechanic that would change how bosses behave. While Williams told us this language is not accurate, the info sort of is.
See that scary-looking giant lady in the screenshot above? That's the Dancer of the Frigid Valley, the first boss From has revealed in Dark Souls 3, and I got to take her on and witness how she changes throughout the fight for myself.
At the beginning of the fight, the Dancer wields a single curved blade bathed in flames. When her health is depleted to a certain point, she pulls out a second sword covered in ash, a new element in the game. Along with the second weapon, she learns some new attacks and abilities.
This is stuff we've seen with certain bosses in Dark Souls games before, so no surprise here. The news is that From Software wants to bring this kind of unpredictability and shake-up in routine to every boss.
"The plan is for all bosses to have some sort of mode change," Williams says. In the case of Dancer of the Frigid Valley, that means pulling out a second weapon, but with other bosses the changes could manifest in different ways. It's a smart means of forcing players to keep on their toes and take longer to learn the proper approach to each boss encounter.
There's been some confusion over what Dark Souls 3 means for the series as a whole. In its initial announcement, Bandai Namco's press release stated that it was the "final episode" in the series. In a later interview with Eurogamer, From Software president Hidetaka Miyazaki clarified that it was not the last game but a "turning point" for the series.
So what does that mean?
"The story for all the Souls games has been a mystery to us"
According to Williams, whatever the future of Dark Souls, this entry "will bring certain story elements of the series to a close." Of course, with a story as vague as the Souls games' plots often are, that could mean anything, and we're not the only ones being left in the dark.
"The story for all the Souls games has been a mystery to us," Williams said, speaking of Bandai Namco, the publisher of the Dark Souls series. "It's just the way Miyazaki works. He likes to keep things in his head. He doesn't write down a lot of things. He communicates a lot of it verbally to his team. It's just kind of how he is, and I think it's cool, in a way, to keep a lot of that stuff hidden."
What we can say from our time with the game: The initial setting of Dark Souls 3 seems a little brighter than a lot of what we're used to from the series. The Wall of Lodeleth, the area we explored, is sun-soaked to a degree that almost seems cheery at first — sort of reminiscent of the run-down splendor of Majula in Dark Souls 2.
The major difference, of course, is that Lodeleth is full of undead enemies, really driving home the sense of a kingdom that's fallen. It's a place that feels like it could almost be majestic if not for the fact that every living being you encounter is out for your soul.
The concept of a fallen kingdom is, of course, a recurring theme in the Souls series. With Dark Souls 3 representing it so strongly right off the bat, maybe that's one of the elements we'll see wrap up by this game's end.
While Dark Souls 3's story is going to remain a mystery that players must piece together with limited snippets of information, the sequel will offer a new way of obtaining that information. During our exploration of Lodeleth, we discovered a small stone shrine on a side path. Upon approaching the shrine, we received a prompt to "offer up a flame."
Accepting this prompt provided us with a single sentence about a disgraced knight or something like that — the kind of typical Dark Souls story beat that is meaningless on its own without context but will likely be very important when connected to other bits of story gained the same way.
If Lodeleth's design is anything to go by, Dark Souls 3's environments will be a little more complex and full of more branching paths than the previous games. These shrines will serve as a collectible of sorts, rewarding the players passionate enough to fully explore an area with tidbits about the plot.
And what does "offering up a flame" mean exactly? Does it have any bearing on the rest of the game?
"We're not saying if or how it's going to affect gameplay," Williams said. "That's something we'll be revealing more information about in the coming months."
While we don't have much to go on for Dark Souls 3's story yet, we observed that in addition to being full of more aggressive undead soldiers, Lodeleth was also overrun by weaker, passive undead citizens. Many of these lesser foes seemed to be worshiping the skeletal remains of dragons that were spread around the city. They also wouldn't attack unless the player character attacked first, and they died in a single swing or two.
This ended up being one of the most formidable foes we faced
In one of the most memorable moments of our hands-on time, we rushed toward a group of lamenting worshipers cluttered around a single fossilized dragon. We cut a swath through the group, tearing them down one by one, until we reached one of the enemies in the middle of the group. He didn't go down with one hit. And then, out of nowhere, a giant, almost worm-like tentacle burst out of his neck, replacing his head.
This ended up being one of the most formidable foes we faced during the demo (other than that boss). In addition to the hilarious surprise factor, this creature had a ton of health and some very powerful, long-range attacks. It also made us wonder just what it is these undead citizens are worshiping and what other abilities they might gain later in the game.
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Our first hands-on time with Dark Souls 3 only showed us a fraction of what's sure to be waiting in the full game, but so far we're definitely impressed by what we've seen. If the level of quality on display here continues through the full game, it should provide just enough new tweaks mixed with exactly what we've come to expect and want from a Souls game.
Dark Souls 3 is planned to release in early 2016 for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Windows. You can check out its first gameplay footage below, including some bits from the areas and boss described in this feature.
Disclosure: Polygon attended a press event with other journalists, streamers and YouTubers last week for this opportunity to play Dark Souls 3. Transportation to and from the event by bus was provided by Bandai Namco.