By now, the Souls series has become entrenched as one of the great gaming franchises of the last couple generations. Three titles into From Software’s series (four if you count Bloodborne), the style of design is well-known, the gameplay is rightfully respected and feared, and the fanbase continues to grow. So finely-tuned are the game mechanics that every new title goes under a great deal of scrutiny. What have they changed? What has stayed the same? What weapons have been nerfed? Is it still as difficult as it should be?

Over the weekend, Bandai Namco hosted a “network stress test” of the fifth Souls game, Dark Souls III, and I managed to play a fair bit of it. Obviously, this was a pre-release version of the game, and doesn’t reflect the eventual finished product, and it was a curated slice of the game rather than a fully-functioning copy. With that in mind, let’s dig in.

Prepare to Iterate: Dark Souls III network test hands-on

The network test took place in the same area From has been demoing at trade shows lately (and will demo again at PAX Aus next weekend). Dubbed the Wall of Lothric, it’s a weathered castle, guarded by a dragon, that feels instantly familiar. The art direction actually hews closer to the gothic horror of Bloodborne than to the high fantasy of the Dark Souls games, with twisted statues worshipped by moaning ghouls everywhere you look.

It’s also much prettier than any previous Dark Souls title, taking advantage of new-gen hardware to draw its spindly barbed spikes and cobbled streets, and to drive its much more dynamic lighting system (get ready to use your torch).

Those streets are arranged into an intricate, highly-vertical labyrinth of towers and staircases, reminiscent of Dark Souls’ Undead Burg or Bloodborne’s Central Yharnam. Shortcuts, hidden areas, unlockable doors, and alternate pathways abound, and as always, it is technically possible to run past pretty much any of the enemies. It’s difficult to tell how the Wall of Lothric fits into the larger game world of Dark Souls III (although based on the game map, it seems to be near the top of it), but as an area in and of itself, there’s satisfying discoveries to be made.

Prepare to Iterate: Dark Souls III network test hands-on

Most of those discoveries involve enemies, of course, and in the network test area at least, most of those enemies are pretty standard zombie types. There are a few surprises, though: a seemingly ordinary zombie whose head explodes and morphs into what looks like a gigantic prolapsed colon; lantern-swinging priests who call waves of peons to battle; a rotund, alarmingly fast, halberd-wielding giant.

Down an elevator, there’s a frost knight skulking on all fours, wielding an ice sword that builds up a new status effect called Frostbite. There are also a handful of knights, whose fast and varied attacks force players to change up their tactics moment to moment. And of course, it wouldn’t be Dark Souls without asshole dogs.

Prepare to Iterate: Dark Souls III network test hands-on

Combat, as always, is absolutely central to the design of Dark Souls III, and it’s undergone a number of subtle but important changes from earlier games. Generally speaking, it “feels” most like the first Dark Souls, but with a pace somewhere between that game and Bloodborne. Nearly every melee weapon (at least in the selection available in the test) has an expanded move set, with new options for running, jumping, and charged attacks.

It’s still horrendously difficult, but you don’t feel as awful about failure
Prepare to Iterate: Dark Souls III network test hands-on
Prepare to Iterate: Dark Souls III network test hands-on

Backstabs operate more like they did in the first Dark Souls. The new dual-scimitar weapon has some terrific, fast attacks reminiscent of Bloodborne’s Blade of Mercy. Magic seems more viable than before, with more versatile spells.

The biggest change to combat in Dark Souls III is battle arts. Battle arts are essentially modifiers to attacks, triggered by the L2 button, that differ depending on the weapon you’re wielding. Some weapons get a damage buff for their next attack. Some grant the wielder temporary hyper-armour. Others – and this is where it gets delightfully fun – receive unique attack animations, like the Greatsword, which thwacks enemies into the air. But as with anything good in Dark Souls, battle arts come at a cost.

They require a moment to activate, and those moments of vulnerability can be deadly. Most intriguingly, they cost mana, a new resource bar sandwiched between health and stamina, replenished with a new item called the Ash Estus Flask. Magic use of any kind costs mana, as do battle arts, meaning that for once, melee and magic users alike have to watch their mana usage. It’s a great way of balancing the game and, presumably, making previously magic-specific stats relevant to melee users as well.

I played a little bit of multiplayer, both co-op and PvP. Multiplayer was more or less the main purpose of the network test, with Bandai Namco scheduling it over three three-hour periods in order to get as many people online at once as possible. I found PvP to be hopelessly laggy, with actions registering more than a second after they were made.

Invasions only seemed to work on hosts with at least one co-operator present; it’s unclear whether that’s a mechanic of the game, or a way to increase the server load. But when games hit their maximum multiplayer limits – a host, three co-operators, and two invaders plus in-game mobs – the results were spectacularly chaotic, epic brawls that could take place over large swathes of an area.

Sadly, when multiplayer got seriously hectic, performance tended to take a hit, which was a problem across the test as a whole. I’m not someone who particularly cares about games hitting 60fps, but when a game struggles to maintain 30fps, gameplay really does get affected – and that happened a number of times for me during the network test. I also ran into several bugs, including one that teleported my character into mid-air, where I became trapped and had to restart my game. Hopefully From manages to deal to these issues between now and March.

Prepare to Iterate: Dark Souls III network test hands-on
it “feels” most like the first Dark Souls, but with a pace somewhere between that game and Bloodborne

The most affecting, and most surprising thing about Dark Souls III, though, is a fundamental change in philosophy – certainly coming Dark Souls II, whose special edition I had been playing recently. In that game, dying decreased your health bar by up to 50%, and you had to consume an item to restore your “humanity” and return to normal.

In Dark Souls III, the “normal” state is the lower-HP version of you; consuming the equivalent item (called Ember) gives you an HP boost, as well as opening up multiplayer and giving your character a fancy fiery glow. Turning that mechanic into a boost, rather than a penalty, changes the feel of the game substantially. It’s still horrendously difficult, but you don’t feel as awful about failure, and that makes a big difference.

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Note: Only one area was available (The Wall of Lothric); only four prerolled classes could be selected; levelling and inventory management were disabled; game-saving was disabled from one test period to the next, which sadly prevented me from reaching the area boss. Think “kiosk mode,” and you’ll get the idea.