My footsteps echo down down the hallway of these castle ruins, and all is quiet as I step into the shadows. But then it's there, snarling and vicious, leaping at me with fangs bared. I roll aside just in time, spinning around for a counterattack. And then they come from behind -- four gruesome, twisted figures with long limbs and drooping skin. My stamina recharges quickly, but my frantic dodges are limited in this cramped space, and the creatures finish me in seconds.
This is Dark Souls III. It's faster and more streamlined than its predecessors, but still brutal enough to kill me without warning. It requires more patience and defense than Bloodborne does, but borrows from it as well; its developer From Software is taking cues from its newest franchise in more ways than one.
"Dark Souls and Bloodborne are two separate franchises, but both have [Hidetaka] Miyazaki-san's personal touch," producer Brandon Williams says. "One thing that people are already noticing is the faster speed at which combat and action in Dark Souls III moves. It's a bit faster than previous Dark Souls games but not as fast as Bloodborne. I'd say it's just right."
This speed is apparent right away. In true Dark Souls fashion, the demo begins at a bonfire, and this is the only respite from the dangers below. I descend a nearby staircase and confront two hellhounds, both of which pounce on me with alarming agility. In earlier Souls games, I might have raised my shield in defense. But because of my time spent with Bloodborne this year, I opt to dodge between the beasts, splitting the difference as they pass right over me.
The roll in Dark Souls III isn't as quick and shifty as the sidestepping in Bloodborne, but it is more responsive than the dodge in Dark Souls II. Stamina is also less of a problem here than it used to be, but if I'm not careful, I can still exhaust my character, leaving him defenseless against the monsters all around me.
If I do conserve my stamina, there are new options for me this time around. As a Dark Souls veteran, I appreciate any new tools I can use against my powerful foes, however rare they might be. And with Dark Souls III, From Software is implementing a feature called Arts.
Much like Trick Weapon transformations in Bloodborne, Arts abilities let me explore alternate attacks without switching items. For instance, with my starting weapon -- a longsword -- I can add two more attacks to my move set. One is a wide swipe, while the second, more powerful strike propels me forward with a heaving thrust. There's a windup period, and timing it so I avoid damage in the process is tricky. But then again -- Dark Souls always is.
"One of the things Miyazaki-san and the team at From Software is trying to do is make Dark Souls III a smooth/seamless experience, without lowering the difficulty; and the new weapons, Battle Arts, character builds will play into that," Williams says. "The heart of Dark Souls will not change, but the team believes that expanding the way weapons can be used will be an important and welcome evolution of the Souls formula."
These Arts are limited to 20 uses between bonfires, so conserving them for tougher enemies is paramount to survival. Toward the end of the demo, in a grassy courtyard surrounding a chapel, I find two knights. They're patrolling the entrance to the looming structure, and as soon as I engage them, their long javelins pin me into a corner, where I can only raise my shield, hoping for a chance to escape. I fight back, but my basic attacks aren't enough to repel the warriors.
I die again, and return to my bonfire, with all 20 Arts at my disposal. The next time, I eliminate the two guards, with both Arts abilities and Estus (health) flasks to spare.
A cutscene triggers, and then, from the dim spires of the chapel ceiling, the boss drops. It's a contorted, towering beast, with long hair and massive blades in each hand. It lunges at me, and dodging its attacks means deciphering its odd spinning technique. This isn't easy, and I die several times before doing real damage to it.
But after resurrecting, the level design facilitates quick access back to the boss, if you know where to go. There are shortcuts behind hidden doors, branching paths that loop back on themselves, and a verticality that's been largely missing since the first Dark Souls. The condensed level design is reminiscent of Bloodborne, but the medieval structures and foreboding dungeons remind me of Dark Souls more than ever.
The next time I return to the boss, I stay close to its body, where its swipes can't hit me. By dodging its attacks, and using a massive uppercut Arts ability with my great sword, I finish it off and absorb the souls from its dead husk.
"With Dark Souls III, we are trying to bring the best aspects of Dark Souls I and II together to create an amazing, truly new Dark Souls experience," Williams says. "The team is exploring ways to bring more players into the franchise, such as increasing the game speed and expanding weapon capabilities, but the characteristic difficulty of the franchise will remain intact."
From what I played, Dark Souls III does feel more accessible than earlier franchise installments. And that's not necessarily a bad thing. It's intuitive and smooth, with tight controls and more abilities than ever before. And based on the difficulty of the demo, I'll need every option I can get.