Most video game preview events don’t involve a real life sword-fighting lesson. But then, the Souls games have never been typical.
Every Dark Souls player has their own favorite moments from the series, favorites that are often tied to the great challenges those players have overcome. That’s something the Souls games really embody: triumph over hardship. The series’ developers, Japanese studio From Software, do an incredible job of grinding that ethos into every square pixel of these games.
That addictive feedback loop, of hardship and trial and error and triumph and doing it all over ad nauseum, doesn’t exist only inside the games. It’s amplified by players’ environments, their mindsets, the how and where and why they play the games as well.
Players streaming their gameplay on sites like Twitch, where thousands of people can watch you live, feel more pressure and greater pleasure when they beat a tough boss or win a duel with another player. Ordinary people handing a controller back and forth on the couch want to impress their friends with a clutch save, even more than the solo player wants to succeed. And when I’m playing Dark Souls 3 months before it comes out at a winery and “authentically-built” castle in northern California, I really, really want to do it right.
At this elaborate preview event, there was no time for exploration, trial and error, or practice—the normal pacing of these games. I had an hour to reach the end of one area and beat the challenging boss enemy there, and I wanted to win.
BACK TO BASICS
The chunk of the game we got to see at this event spanned a huge area that included sprawling outdoor ramparts and courtyards, cramped corridors, and everything in between. A dragon spewed fire from on high, and undead knights fought ferociously with impressive new moves not seen in previous Souls games. It was a lot of what you can see in the above trailer.
I’ve been skeptical of Dark Souls 3 since its publisher, Bandai Namco, announced it in June. The mastermind behind the series, Hidetaka Miyazaki, infamously was uninvolved in the development of Dark Souls 2, which is widely seen as inferior in many ways to the other games. Miyazaki is reportedly back at the helm this time around, but the game design genius was also recently hard at work on Bloodborne until early this year, and it’s no secret that he has a co-director on Dark Souls 3—someone who is sharing the workload, and who, I’ll bet, will be blamed if the game turns out disappointing.
But I don’t think that’s going to happen. I think Dark Souls 3 will be every bit as good as its predecessors, and most likely better than some. It has the same dark, fantasy aesthetic, each landscape riddled with half-burnt corpses and suffused with bloody atmosphere thicker than poison fog. Bloodborne’s Victorian werewolves and Lovecraftian, cosmic mysteries were the series’ outlier, it turns out—from what we’ve seen so far, Dark Souls 3 seem to be back to knights and castles, though granted still through a distinctly Japanese looking glass.
THE ART OF THE SWORD
Dark Souls 3 feels familiar, but there is at least one major new twist in how you’ll fight—one that I think hasn’t been properly explained since the game was announced. Since the series began, each type of weapon—long swords, short swords, spears, axes, etc.—has had its own attack moves, and many individual weapons have totally unique moves all their own. That makes sense; you wouldn’t swing a spear the same way you do a sword. But Dark Souls 3 takes that farther with “sword arts,” unique moves that are strong but limited in use.
Wielding a scimitar in each hand, you can tap a trigger on the controller to twirl both swords around your body. You can ready a small sword, holding it above one shoulder, to more easily land powerful, shield-breaking strikes. And with a massive longsword, you can grunt your way through an incoming attack, mitigating the damage you take so you can quickly follow up with a powerful swing.
You can only use these moves a limited number of times before resting at a bonfire, which in these games causes your health to regenerate while all the enemies you’ve defeated return to life. But the enemies I fought during this demo exhibited some impressive new strategies themselves, and I think sword arts will be integral to succeeding in Dark Souls 3.
TO BE ALONE
At a 2013 preview event for Dark Souls 2, I was the last one playing, my peers and the game’s publicists gathered around to watch me take on the area’s final boss, a huge knight with a mirrored shield from which smaller enemies can emerge. All eyes on me, the pressure ratcheted all the way up, I failed. That still stings when I remember it.
The more recent Dark Souls 3 preview event included a wine-tasting, a decadent feast and, for some reason, an actual, real life sword-fighting lesson. It was completely over the top, and our actual time with the game was maddeningly limited. But even so, I was focused on one thing: winning this time.
When I finally reached the boss, a lithe creature poetically dubbed the Dancer of the Frigid Valley, I lost. Once injured significantly, her attacks intensified, two swords twirling too fast for me to dodge. With ten minutes left, I tried again, channeling all my years of Dark Souls obsession into this one moment—and I won. The players around me already filing out, I leapt up in triumph. It didn’t matter that no one had seen it happen. I’d done it.
When I sit down on my couch to play Dark Souls 3 for real next year, I won’t have anyone to warn me that my time is running out, or stand around and watch, causing my performance to dip as the pressure increases. Most likely the game’s servers won’t be switched on yet, which means there won’t even be other players in the game, leaving notes with hints for me to find or joining my game to help. I’ll be alone, exploring the game’s detailed new world with the steady, cautious, thirst-quenching pace that I’ve learned over the years is the best way to experience these games.
I’ll be alone, but I’ll always remember that feeling of triumph.
Mike Rougeau is Playboy.com’s Gaming Editor, in charge of all things video games, especially those with “Souls” in the title. He lives in Los Angeles with his girlfriend and two dogs. Follow him on Twitter @RogueCheddar.
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