I sat down to see about 20 minutes' worth of Dark Souls III at E3 2015. My reaction to the first 10 minutes? "Yes, this is Dark Souls." My reaction to the latter minutes? "Yes! This is Dark Souls!"
Game players reserve a special kind of cynicism for series that oversaturate the market, and as special as Dark Souls and its cousins are, any franchise is primed for ridicule if it overstays its welcome. And seeing Dark Souls III in action initially sparked this kind of familiarity in me. I had been here before. Not the specific place, but the specific state of mind. Does the Souls series have more to say?
The answer is "yes," as it happens, though it took a short while to convince me. My first sight of Dark Souls III established the gothic medieval setting, which was lit by a fading sun that From Software's Hidetaka Miyazaki pointed out more than once. Nearby spires rose to sharp points, spiking the sky and making the rooftops look unforgiving in every direction I looked. The architecture and foliage looked more crooked than usual, as if a great being had reached down from the cosmos and given everything a slight twist. As the player walked down a nearby path, living corpses worshiped trees that looked to be made out of dead bodies that had sprouted into a kind of foliage all their own. It was gorgeous and unsettling. It was a place I wanted to be, and also wanted to desperately escape. It was Dark Souls.
The player slashed his way through a number of lamp-wielding enemies using a shield and sword combination, tumbling out of the way when possible. (Clearly, I was watching an agile player in action.) And suddenly, another image caught my eye: that of a giant dragon corpse bridging one rooftop to another, the remnants of a species almost extinct, the wind carrying away the scales that were shedding from the decaying body. What a striking sight, though it was soon left behind when the player dropped to a lower level and lit his torch. Miyazaki promises that the torch will be vital to exploring darker areas, though that is a promise we heard regarding Dark Souls II -- a promise that was broken. Based on what I saw, however, the torch was a helpful aid in navigating the blackness.
The torch will not have limits -- you can keep it lit as long as you wish, and can also offer flames to gravestones that you pass. This is not a major new mechanic, but making such an offer established the stone as a landmark and its epitaph fills in story gaps. (The story, by the way, revolves around the Lord of Cinder, though Miyazaki was mum when I pressed him on whether this meant that Gwyn was being resurrected.)
This being a dark and confined space, it was only right that a mauled ghoul leap from the shadows and sink its blades into the player, an attack that carried a lot of aural power. Luckily, the player was ready to show off one of Dark Souls III's newest attack skills: the longsword's "ready" stance. The stance allows you to use two different attacks, one of which breaks an enemy's shield defenses, a handy skill when so many of the game's enemies take defensive postures.
As the player exchanged sword swipes with his current foe, a line of creeps slowly encroached on his position from the other end of the corridor. To escape peril, he ran up a nearby set of stairs, and came face to face with a looming dragon, apparently the last of his kind to grace this world. The dragon might have been a rare sight, but his flames covered a huge amount of area, offing the baddies threatening the player...and sadly, bringing about the first of two deaths the player suffered. Even the game's developers, it seems, are not immune to Dark Souls' brand of torturous death.
Once the player returned to the area, the dragon fried the nearby foes but left out hero alive, at least for the time being. The dragon wasn't going anywhere -- he clearly wasn't ready to be slaughtered -- so the player moved along and encountered a glowing orb that represented a greatsword, which allowed him to show off another combat move: the lunge. Just in time, too, for a tall knight was swinging in his direction, and the slow-moving lunge was just the right punishment, sending the knight flying into the air. The armored victim landed with a thud, and the two continued their dance until the knight had fallen. The player had clearly taken some damage -- though how much, I wasn't sure, as From had turned the interface off. However, the player did quaff an estus flask, so expect that Dark Souls standby to return in this third game.
The player walked onto a thin ledge and looked down into the room below, which was crawling with low-level mutants -- easily offed with a firebomb, it turns out. A firebomb was not so helpful when a miniboss emerged when the player traversed a rooftop moments later, however. The grotesque beast was a wonder to behold, a living oil slick whose tendrils flailed about as the player slashed away with his recently retrieved dual blades. The dual blades were a boon during this battle, but an even greater boon when the player continued towards the nearby boss arena and encountered a series of leaping skeletal dogs. Dual blades make available to you a spin attack, a wonderful move when dogs and other enemies descend upon you in groups.
Miyazaki says that fluid controls were a major focus for Dark Souls III, and to that end, not only are the dual blades apparently ultra-responsive to player input, but short-bow attacks can be combined with slashes, allowing you to land shots quickly, even under duress. Miyazaki compared these moves to those you might see from "The Lord of the Rings"' Legolas, though I didn't see anything quite that acrobatic. The tour de force of the presentation, of course, was the boss fight that closed it -- and what a boss fight it was. Miyazaki referred to the lithe, imposing knight that descended from the ceiling as the Dancer of the Frigid Valley. This beastly foe moved about the arena with moves you might see in a ferocious ballet, and the creature's ghostly cape and veil made its unpredictable moves all the more frightening.
The fight grew more and more intense as the beast swung its flaming blade, which had an amazingly long reach, and set the room aflame as the battle raged on. Alas, the demo ended when the player succumbed to one last sizzling swipe, and my reservations had been vanquished, at least in part. Do I still worry that Dark Souls III is retreading too much familiar ground too soon? A little. But at least it is ground that has proven itself worth treading in the first place.