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Dark Souls III

Expert Observations From The First Hours Of Dark Souls III
by Daniel Tack on Mar 01, 2016 at 02:00 AM
Platform PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC
Publisher Bandai Namco
Developer From Software
Rating Mature

It’s been some time since our big Dark Souls III cover story, but we recently played a significant chunk of the opening portion of the game. Our experience gave us concrete answers to many of the questions that have been lingering in the back of our minds for some time. Before we go any further: Massive spoilers lie ahead, both in terms of lore and mechanics. If you’re ready to find out more about the next game in the epic dark fantasy franchise, read on.

We played through what we believe to be the first three “zones” of the game, plus took a lengthy tour of Dark Souls III’s hub, the Firelink Shrine. Yes, as in that Firelink Shrine. Let’s get this out of the way right away: there are lots of familiar faces in Dark Souls III that players should recognize from the first game, some which are direct rips names and all. Many others are left unnamed or have slightly altered names, but absolutely represent direct counterparts. Oolacile, The Witch of Izalith, and many others are directly referred to in item descriptions. 

In fact, things go even further – the Giant Trees that were so prevalent in the final portion of Dark Souls II? There’s one just chilling outside the Firelink Shrine, so if there was any debate about Dark Souls II taking place in the same universe, the case for it being directly associated gains some significant strength. With that said, let’s explore the world of Dark Souls III.

The Cemetery Of Ash and How Humanity Works

This is Dark Souls III’s tutorial area. Like other souls games before it, it’s fairly straightforward and has many different markings on the ground that detail basic game mechanics, like how to roll and swing your sword. Before entering, you must select a class, almost a straight 1:1 replication of the classes in Dark Souls 1, including the nearly nude Deprived. You get to select a gift as well, but sadly there’s no Master Key to break the game available, nor is there any questionable Pendant troll item to keep us guessing. After that, you jump right on the trail toward the first tutorial boss, taking on flimsy foes as you get your bearings and acclimate to the controls. 

You can take one notable detour here, where the etchings on the ground say “turn back.” You can come kill this creature – a spiny, crystal drake – later in the game if you’re completely new to the series and don’t feel like taking on a moderate foe, but it’s easily dispatched with a few rolls and strikes. This battle is a cool taste of these “bigger brothers” to the series’ famous Crystal Lizards, which offer rare resources when killed. This one drops a titanite scale that you won’t have any use for until much later in the game. 

Continuing along the path, we arrive at the classic bonfire, or checkpoint. Beyond that is the first “boss”  – Iudex Gundyr. This guy is the definition of a tutorial encounter; he hits hard and has great range, which offers a good way to practice basics if you’re new to the series, but to veterans the fight should be a breeze. If you are having trouble, you’re just a quick hop away from the bonfire, so try try and try again. This boss mutates around halfway through the fight, something you’ll see quite a bit of later. My assumption is that one of the major bosses in the game, the oozing dragon Aldritch, Saint of the Deep, can project himself into his worshippers, making encounters like standard corpse-hallows much more interesting as he bursts forth from his place below to surprise. Still, the fight should go down without too much effort. Walking up a hill, you come across the familiar Firelink Shrine, even if it does look much different from this vantage. 

A few notable things are located on the exterior of the shrine, but it’s nice to go in and have a look around first. But after you’ve got your bonfire linked up inside the Shrine, there’s a crazy NPC out here that sports a classic Dark Souls weapon, the Uchigatana, that you can wrestle from his hands. He’s much tougher than the tutorial boss, though.

Before we get into the cast of characters in the Firelink Shrine, let’s go over how “humanity” works in Dark Souls III. Each time you take down a boss or use a specific item called an Ember, you get a truckload of hit points as you become emboldened by the fire. This encourages you to go online and help other players out. Only when embered up can you summon other players into your game and have invaders come hunt you down – it’s essentially a lot like how humanity works in Dark Souls 1. So unlike Dark Souls II, you’re not penalized by death, but rather rewarded for taking on tough challenges. Being embered up also helps immensely if you’re taking on difficult bosses, and they can be found all over the world and purchased in limited quantities from the vendor in the Firelink Shrine.

The Firelink Shrine And How Estus Works

The Firelink Shrine is your central hub for exploring the world of Dark Souls III. Here sit the five thrones of the Lords of Cinder. Essentially, these Lords are not happy about giving their flame up to restore the fire, as it requires them to fulfill the conditions of a combined sacrifice in order to restore the flame to the fallen world of ash. It’s your job to go round them up and make sure they get to their seats in time for the big sacrificial show. Three of these lords are prominently called out in the opening cinematic trailer, and the other two are the high lord of Lothric himself and another character we’ll get to later; we got to interact with him over the course of the demo.

Inside the Shrine is a Fire Keeper, a woman who you can level up at in a familiar fashion. A down to-earth knight stands here muttering various clues about where to go and what to do, and a handmaiden sells various weapons and items, whose stock can be upgraded over the course of the game by delivering her various offerings. You can also visit the big blacksmith called Andre, who takes care of a variety of essential functions like upgrading weapons with titanite to plus status, raising your Estus flask count with shards, and the new ability to allocate Estus flasks however you see fit. Let’s say you have six Estus Flasks. If you’re a melee-centric character, you probably want most of those to be health Estus flasks, the traditional undead beverage of choice. If you’re more of a caster build or a hybrid, you might want to go with half Ashen Estus Flasks that restore mana, or whatever allocation you want. It’s up to you, and can be changed at any time at no cost by Andre, so feel free to experiment as you wish.

Over the course of the demo, we acquired some more lost souls for our hub world. First we added a thief, who can actually be instructed to go steal things for you from the world. When given an assignment he disappears for a while, and it’s assumed he will return with some kind of item (he never came back for me during my time with the demo, sadly, but I know he’s out there, looting me something cool). We also found a cleric-type woman who sells a variety of miracles and spells. One rather sinister character showed up a few times, but I could have easily missed him. This fellow handed me a cracked red orb and told me to go invade another player’s game and kill the person. He showed up again later, and told me that if I liked the single-use cracked orb, he could hook me up with the real deal, an item with unlimited uses to invade other player’s games. To acquire it I’d have to prove myself and kill a Darkwraith first. He handed me a key that opens the “lowest dungeon in Lothric” to take on this terror, but unfortunately I never found out where to use it during my play time.

If you buy a key from the handmaiden that costs a whopping 20,000 souls, you gain access to a nearby tower you can climb. Inside you’ll find a Fire Keeper soul, which can be given to can be given to the Fire Keeper to unlock a new ability, allowing the player to "remove the darkness." I have no idea what it does, but perhaps it’s this game’s version of curse.

Join us on page 2 for big bosses and exciting zones!

The High Wall of Lothric

We’ve played through this area to death in various previews, so I’ll just skip to the pertinent changes and important bits. The Dancer of the Frigid Valley, the now famous “demo” boss, is gone. In her place is a woman who instructs you to take on the actual first boss of Dark Souls III, Vordt of the Boreal Valley, located directly across from her room. 

An unnamed ferocious knight is also located to the left of this chapel room. He’s incredibly brutal, almost like a mini-boss, and what I think is this game’s version of the Black Knights in previous games. He drops a gem that can be used to augment weapons at Andre (think Dark Souls 1 augmentation types: Raw, Blessed, Fire, etc).

As for Vordt himself, he’s the first “real” boss, but he plays nice for a Souls foe – a big, heavy handed brute that has a charge attack and frost abilities that can cause frostbite, sapping your stamina regen and making you an easy target. Like many early Dark Souls bosses (Taurus Demon, The Last Giant), he’s a rather unwieldy fellow when you get right down to it, and is easy to take down with a few well timed rolls and slashes. 

After you beat Vordt, you use the banner near the edge of the precipice and guess who shows up? Those demon-gargoyles that once carried you to Anor Londo so many years ago in Dark Souls 1. This time, they grab you and take you to the next area, where Dark Souls meets Bloodborne proper, the Undead Settlement.

The Undead Settlement, Soul Weapons, And Big Bosses

This is the first zone in the game where Dark Souls III “gets real.” This challenging region has a ton of shortcuts, traps, and secrets, and a motley assortment of nightmare creatures that would be right at home in Bloodborne. Players familiar with Bloodborne’s locations should find the place eerily similar in aesthetic to Hemwick Charnel Lane. Dark Souls gameplay, Bloodborne locations; it works out really well. 

The difficulty spike is extremely serious in this area as hooded goblins, evil witches, and insane giantess creatures try to smash you with enormous pots. There’s also a ton of cool things to check out and explore. 

Let’s start with Siegward, the Onion Knight. You meet this little guy near an elevator puzzle, and if you jump off the elevator at the right time, gain access to a secret area in the back of the zone that features a flaming chaos demon creature. Talking to Siegward, he charges into battle and engages in some jolly cooperation with you to help take the beast down. If you follow this little back area to its end you get hooked up with the extremely valuable Chloranthy Ring, a stamina-regenerating Dark Souls staple that you could easily miss. 

If you take that tower elevator to the top, you meet a giant with a bow. Is this Hawkeye Gough? Is it just a friend of his? They look extremely similar, and both wield massive bows. Making friends with this giant (just talk to him and offer him a token of your friendship), makes one section of the Undead Settlement much, much easier, as our friendly tree-shooting giant can launch his massive arrows from the top of the tower to rain down on your foes as they assault you. This saves you valuable Estus as you work your way to the zone’s boss – a giant corpse tree. I had my doubts about boss difficulty in Dark Souls III up until this point, but this one instantly allayed those concerns. This big, two-part battle features awesome mechanics with this absolutely enormous, terrifying tree.

In phase one in the giant flower-filled courtyard, you must deal with a swarm of dangerous enemies as well as the big tree. Stay as close to the tree as possible, as he likes to do horrible things at range, and focus on taking out the most dangerous standard enemies. You can get a big edge up on this before the fight starts by selecting which enemies to kill before the tree activates. Once the fight begins, try to stay at close-mid range, only moving out when the tree does a stomp or dumps a bunch of poison on the ground. His attacks injure and kill his acolytes as well, so move in and target the egg clusters located in his belly and on his critical joint locations on his arms and legs. You won’t appear to be doing much damage, and that can be very discouraging, but smashing one of those egg clusters does a massive amount of damage to the tree, and is the key to defeating it.

Once the tree is down to about half health (one central cluster popped should do the trick) the fight moves to phase two when the courtyard crumbles into the dark pit below. Take heed: there are no additional spawns to deal with in this portion of the fight. A giant hand sprouts from the tree in this phase, and if it grabs you, you’re dead. This takes out the safe strategy of hanging out in the tree’s mid-central box, so you must stick-and-move to finish off the fight, heading out and coming in, keeping note of your timing to dodge the lethal hand grabs. If you run out of egg clusters to pop, you can attack the hand for the last few points of damage to finish off the nasty tree.

After you take out the tree, you receive kiln and a great soul that you can turn into some cool stuff. You turn the kiln over to one of the Lords of Cinder, Ludleth of Courland, who is seated in one of the thrones in Firelink Shrine. Once given the kiln, Ludleth, takes the role of the character who can create “soul” weapons and equipment for the player from boss souls.

That takes us to the end of the Dark Souls preview journey. I can honestly say that the mixing bowl of Bloodborne and Souls elements in the Undead Settlement made for fantastic exploration, and I’m also glad to say that it looks like Miyazaki can still come up with bosses that both delight and terrify. April 12 can’t get here soon enough. Praise the sun.

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