Slowly we move up a stairwell made of old yellowing limestone. The sombre notes from an organ trail us a few steps further down and distant voices whisper in the church's darkest corners. Step by step we ascend the stairs, heart beating faster with every step. Halfway up there's a message written on the stones underneath our feet: "Treasure ahead!" Is there an actual treasure, or is it just someone's idea of a great joke as they lure us into a trap? Regardless, temptation overcomes us, and on we go. Another ten long steps and we're at the top of the stairs in front of an oak door. Yet another message is scribbled on the floor, but this time with a much more disturbing message: "Prepare for the boss!" Beads of sweat appear. Taking a deep breath we opened the door, stepping through the archway and on to a balcony overlooking the church nave. Below the assembled congregation sits, undead bodies perched on wooden benches, staring at screens. A voice turns to us and makes itself heard over the organ and the growling sounds of zombies: "If you'll wait a moment, Miyazaki will be ready for your interview."
We went to Hamburg to die... and die and die, and when were done dying, we died a little more. Gamereactor was invited to a preview event in Germany to see Dark Souls III. In a bus stuffed full of journalists, we approached the event and everyone starts to chatter excitedly. We had all heard rumors, but it was still a bit of a shock as the bus parked in front of a church. Large torches are burning on both sides of the church door, and banners fluttered on the walls. The gate opened slowly and men in black greeted us and showed us into the church. An organist sets the mood from above us as if he'd been taken straight out of 'The Phantom of the Opera', and statues from the game and large posters adorn the walls while smoke creeps along the tiles. By the pews twenty flat screens are placed, which before long will act as portals into From Software's hellish world. Some might find it a bit blasphemous to play a video game about death and destruction in a holy building, but it's hard not to acknowledge how well it aesthetically fits together, and if you've seen old Renaissance paintings of the purgatory, you know that the Christian concepts of the afterlife can be quite unpleasant. Playing a Dark Souls game can be like playing an interactive portrayal of hell. But before we went there we got a small presentation.
A brand new trailer opens up to the sounds of a sinister cover-version of True Colors: "Do not be afraid to let them show," a woman sings while large demons rise up, and our hero desperately tries to cut them down again. "Find the darkness inside you," we are being asked - you have to assume that one's true colour in this game is pitch black. The trailer ends and people applaud as Atsuo Yoshimura, international producer, emerges on the stage at the back of the church and welcomes us. He promises to keep it short. He knows we are all waiting for 'that guy'. 'That guy' is producer Hidetaka Miyazaki, whom gradually has gained celebrity status in gaming circles. Miyazaki gives us a brief overview translated from Japanese. Bigger worlds, an improved combat system, extended multiplayer and more formidable bosses are some of the main points.
From Software has been able to create far larger areas with the power of the new consoles, which will act as complicated mazes, where there is always something to explore, always another way you can try. This was also our experience as we sat down on a church bench, and picked up the controller. Dark Souls III looks like a you'd expect a Dark Souls game to look, but better. Armour glistens a little more in the sun, the monsters are a little more detailed. It looks good, but don't expect anything massively different. The looks sinister and it's visual strength lies more in the atmosphere it conveys than the technical merits that make up the foundation. That said we think it tends to glitter a bit too much, everything has that liquid look to it.
We are in the land of Luthric, a so-called 'unkindled': a person who has been undead for so long that even the memory of his name is completely gone. This person tried to kill all the existing Lords, but failed, and now in death still persues this goal. Dark Souls III's story is, as in previous games, difficult to get a firm grip on. We asked Myiazaki to elaborate on the story a little closer as we interviewed the friendly, yet somewhat distant director at the corner of a balcony overlooking the church. He sat cross-legged, and spoke towards the ground, into the air or facing the wall. Even he admits it is difficult to explain what the story is really about, but that all characters and creatures have a sad melancholy about them, and there is a loneliness everywhere, even in the most sinister characters. But in all this apocalyptic sorrow there is also a glimmer of hope. Miyazaki seems to want to tell his story on a thematic and emotional level rather than with an outspoken plot. Although we are in an old church, Miyazaki is not a believer. At least not when it comes to ancient legends and myths, but he does find inspiration in them and they fascinate him with the rituals and stories they bring. The vast majority of the ideas for his designs he draws from the world of literature. The joining of European medieval legends and traditions, with a Japanese storyteller and game designer, has given rise to this unique universe we experience in the Dark Souls games.
From Software's first proper meeting with current-gen consoles came in the form of Bloodborne, which was published last year (we're not counting the updated version of Dark Souls II, which also got released on PS4 and Xbox One). During development, they used their time to consider the Dark Souls series in its entirety, and they have taken parts of the Bloodborne experience over into Dark Souls III. The amount of equipment you can take with you, for example, has been limited, but your character also controls a bit differently (attacks are faster). The combat system has been given a slight overhaul, but otherwise it's exactly as we remember it. Any Dark Souls veteran will be able to jump right in and get killed over and over again, just how you like it. However, there are some notable additions in the form of the new skills. These are associated with each weapon. Dark Souls can be played through with only one weapon and to make this more interesting, they have added these skills to deepen the strategies with each weapon, so every item will have a distinct role associated with it. For example, a knight using a Longsword can utilise the Ready Stance, which allows them to initiate much stronger attacks. Each character will thus, in association with a particular weapon, have special skills. This is something which is sure to please those looking forward to multiple play-throughs, trying out different strategies in process. Maybe it's just our lack of skills, or the limited time we had with the game, but we did not get to try many of these skills, so whether they're a good addition or not we will have to see in a final review.
The demo doesn't seem too far from the final version, and we start from the beginning exactly as you will do at launch. Here you choose and design your character, as in previous games. We choose the knight, and after the intro sequence we rise slowly from our grave in 'Cemetary of Ash'. Here we run about, get a reminder of the controls by smashing a few cowled skeletons. It's fairly easy, and confidence grows. We move up a path that runs along the hillside, and soon our eyes meet a beautiful vista, a mysterious monastery sitting on the horizon. The great thing about Dark Souls is that you know you will get there at some point, and you must fight some terrible indescribable creatures to get there. The trail ends with some ruins, and we move out into an open courtyard, stopping abruptly. A large creature in armour is kneeling with a very large axe in hand. We move slowly forwards, but nothing happens. Getting close we notice its chest has been pierced by a sword, and a prompt on the screen tells us that we can pull it out. We know very well what's going to happen if we do it, but we have to ... And indeed the creature promptly wakes up. Its name is Ludex Gundyr, and we start to circle. We do a roll, hitting him in the back. He jumps at us, battering us to the ground. Before we get to our feet, he hits me a few more times. You Died.
We go again. True to tradition, we start at the last campfire and fight towards him again. He is ready to receive us, and before we can say "giant man with an axe" we're dead again. Well, third time's the charm, as they say. But it's not in Dark Souls III. In return, he slays us with only three slashes this time. Slowly, we can feel that oh-so-familiar frustration rise up, and we're starting to get nervous that we won't get to see more of the game before our time is up. We can't seem to get past him. On the sixth or seventh attempt we get his life almost down to half, but then something frightening happens: long black tentacles shoot out of his body, and out of his throat comes a long black snake-like head, looking almost like liquid oil. It reminds of a concept Miyazaki described during the presentation, which we now understand better. In boss battles there will be a heat-up moment. When it seems to be going really well for you, the creature suddenly mutates and becomes an evil hellish monster. We die four or five times before we finally manage to break the beast, and then we remember why we love to play Dark Souls. The game is hard, yes, but only if you're not good enough, and if you're not good enough, then you must learn. You're rewarded for your skills as a player, and every time you get a bit further, you feel a little better and a little wiser.
After our little meeting with Mr. Gundyr we arrive at a castle, and find our way into a large throne room with five chairs, four of them empty. Here should the five Lords of Cinder be, but they have left their thrones, and it seems to be my job to get them back. Of course we don't get to that now, but after this taste we're really looking forward to doing so when the game ships.
Mulitiplayer is still present in Dark Souls III. It works exactly like it used to, but it has been extended to support up to six players. You can have two white phantoms and a red, but if you want, you can summon an additional one of each. This is a very exciting addition that might well open things up nicely. Now even more of your friends can join.
Usually when you try these previews, you often think: "It looks good, but I hope they will tweak a little bit here or improve it technically there." However, in this case it felt like we had the experience of playing a complete game. There was nothing to ignore in the hope that it will be fixed. It's reassuring that everything seems to work perfectly so close to launch. The developers claim that the difficulty was lowered a bit for the event, mainly so we could explore more in the short time we had. If so, we're already starting to fear the final game (in a good way), because Dark Souls III is shaping up to be just as challenging, frustrating and rage inspiring as the series is known for, but it's also just as magical and enchanting. The game looks good, though not dramatically sleeker than its predecessors, and the new initiatives will hopefully open up even more possibilities across multiple playthroughs. If you're a Dark Souls fan, it might be worth taking some time off work when the game launches next month, and you can definitely look forward to once again immersing yourself in all sorts of fantastic horrors. Everybody: "Prepare to die!"