gamescom 2015: Dark Souls III is a True Killer App

We raved about From Software’s Dark Souls III back in June, during E3 2015. The first fully next-gen installment in the tense, challenging action-role-playing game series follows on the heels of April’s Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin deluxe release, and it brings a set of interesting new mechanics with it.

My recent Dark Souls III hands-on demo took us through the same geographic slice that comprised the aforementioned E3 presentation: the ruined Wall of Lodeleth. Of course, as is always the case when you watch a Dark Souls pro weave their way through the game, it’s a lot easier than it looks when you actually play it. My hour or so at the Wall of Lodeleth was punctuated by a fair number of deaths… but in this series, that’s part of the learning process, and part of the fun.

The session started with a choice between a couple of pre-generated characters – one with an ax, and one with a sword. Figuring the sword for a faster and more maneuverable weapon (based on my own considerable experience with the series), I chose the latter. The Wall presented me a couple of paths right off the bat; the first led to a few undead dogs, and some zombies wielding very large bludgeoning objects. The thing about those annoying dogs in any Souls game – and, really, any foe you face – is that you have to study their quick moves, get the heck out of the way (the roll is, as always, your best defensive option), and effectively judge your window to counterattack. Any foe in this game can ruin your day if you get caught off-guard, but even a zombie armed with a giant hammer can be taken down safely if you understand what he’s about to do (and avoid it).

The first path dead-ended, so I headed back to the initial bonfire checkpoint and tried door number two. Lots of low-level, accuracy-deficient zombie goons waited for me, along with a watchman who helpfully rang a “hey everybody, attack this guy” bell. Even the lowliest creature is dangerous in numbers… especially when they walk up behind you unexpectedly, and start waving a dagger at your unshielded back. Oops.

Further in, a darkened, barrel-filled tower – a classic, obvious Dark Souls newbie trap if I’ve ever seen one – housed a few sneaky skeleton assassins that I took down without much trouble. A bit later came a major obstacle: a giant, no-way-I’m-ever-gonna-kill-it dragon sat on one of the rooftops, spewing fire down near my approach (and helpfully taking out the annoying archers that choked the next corridor). A quick trip up the stairs would have meant trying to take the dragon head-on, a suicidal move for sure. So, of course, I waited for the flame breath, and then booked it to a safe spot.

Except, no spot in Dark Souls is really safe, now is it? Beyond the mighty dragon’s corridor of flaming death, I encountered the first real roadblock: a knight. Now, these guys may sound like random kill-’em-by-the-dozen mooks in other role-playing games, but knights in Dark Souls III are serious threats. Flanked by a couple of flunkies that I had the good sense (I’m being sarcastic) to alert, the sword-and-shield-bearing knight came racing out of the tower that he was guarding, intent on turning me into a pincushion. These enemies are fast, and they capitalize on your every mistake, while making precious few of their own. In a way, it’s almost like you’re fighting another player.

So die to this guy, I did. Again, and again. And again. I thought it might be time to try out one of Dark Souls III’s swanky new Sword Arts, which is the game’s marquee weapon mechanic. Each weapon in Dark Souls III (and, really, every Souls game) carries a fairly unique set of moves, animations, and timings. But here, each weapon also packs what are basically “super moves” – special stances that allow you to wind up your weapon in a couple of different ways, for big damage.

The trouble is, I’m bad at this kind of timing, what with never having played with this mechanic before. Also, I’ll let you in on a little secret: I’m very partial to magic spells in Souls games, and generally prefer that to prolonged weapon battles. But that wasn’t an option here, and I had to get past this death-dealing knight. So I fell back on the old, reliable Souls progression method: hang back, study the opponent, watch what he does, whittle him down, and for the love of all that is holy, don’t start button-mashing when his life bar is low, because that’s the sort of thing that gets you killed. Rule #1 of Dark Souls may be “shields up at all times” and/or “learn to love the roll” depending on how you build your character, but rule #2 is “never get greedy.”

My methodical approach paid off, and I vanquished the horrible knight (praise the sun!). My reward was another bonfire checkpoint, AKA “at least I don’t have to fight that guy again.”

Of course, the sections after that were just as merciless. An unassuming rooftop zombie exploded into an eldritch abomination straight out of “The Thing,” and a massive, ax-wielding behemoth guarded an enclosed courtyard.  With my demo time drawing to a close, I decided to throw caution to the wind, and just hustle to cover as much ground as possible (hey, running is a valid strategy in these games sometimes!). As my real-world clock ticked down, I was in sight of the door that led to the area’s boss. Victory!

Well, until it was snatched by the jaws of defeat, anyway. Both upper and lower jaw, in this case, took the form of dual knight enemies, who kindly escorted my lifeless body back to the nearest bonfire. But hey, I almost made it. And for anyone’s first hour with this game, that’s pretty darned good.

Dark Souls III hits Xbox One and Windows PC in early 2016. As far as I can tell, everything we recently said about Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin applies, too – so get ready for something special.