The High Wall of Lothric is a maze of battlements, basements, balconies and nightmarish bastards with fuck-off enormous axes eager to bury their blades into your skull. My skull. This is my playground for a two-hour hands-on with Dark Souls III. I'm playing the Tokyo Game Show build, albeit at Bandai Namco's West London HQ rather than Japan, a PlayStation 4 demo that ends with a hunchbacked wraith boss beast thing called the Dancer of the Frigid Valley. There's a secret second boss somewhere here, too. I don't find it. Instead, I crack open the first door I see, light my first bonfire, and within two minutes am killed by a pair of spindly undead-looking uglies, whose pointy things move quicker than my own tiny spear. Dead.
Perhaps I chose my character unwisely. I'm playing as the Academy Assassin, one of four classes available to me in this demo. The others: Wandering Knight, Herald of White and Northern Warrior. Each has his (or her, as I assume there will be character creation options in the final game) own set of weapons, and the Assassin is armed with a modestly sized sharp stick and some "soul" magic, allowing for the creation of darts, arrows and an almighty greatsword of brilliant blue energy. The latter is a formidable tool, which takes time to charge, so timing is of the absolute essence as even the dumbest Dark Souls enemy can make mincemeat of the player if they're not concentrating. Sorry, what's that? A cup of tea? I'd love one, thanks... Just milk please Oh Fuck It, took my eyes off the screen. Dead.
Back to the bonfire. Back to the lank-limbed nasties who killed me the first time. Who do so again, easily, as I am dicking around trying to really work out what to do with my soul darts. Dead.
And again, to the same horrors that skulk sluggishly before they spy you and charge, making an awful noise as they do so, like they're gurgling the congealing blood of a previous victim. These are amongst the lowest-level grunts this game will throw at the player, barely tougher than the skin-and-bone hounds that leap around their knees, and yet here I am, sucking awfully, dying once more. Dead.
And now one of the two dogs that I previously did away with in a heartbeat has killed me. Dead.
Followed swiftly by the other one. Dead.
Enough is enough. I'll happily confess to being fairly awful at From Software's Souls series of stress-levels-peaking, acid-piss-in-your-eyes painful to play (well) action-RPGs, of which Dark Souls III is actually the fifth entry (after Demon's Souls, the original Dark Souls and its sequel, and Bloodborne), but this is getting stupid. Assassin, lad, it's not working out between us. Time for some familiarity. I choose the Wandering Knight, whose load-out weapons are a sword and shield (you can switch between a parry-aiding small one or larger, arrow-protecting model). He rolls a little slower, his dodges not quite as dashing, but he's got armour and a greater number of health-restoring Estus flasks in his knapsack, or wherever he keeps them, alongside all those firebombs and alluring skulls and whatever all this resin is. Anyway, time to get the parry practise in. Here comes the first axe maniac. Dead.
If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. Oh shitting hell. Dead.
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This bonfire's feeling colder by the minute. Another attempt and victory is mine. The axe-chaps fall. Their dogs are swiftly slaughtered. I charge up a set of steps, full of confidence, and run into a small group of withered humanoids wailing death in my general direction. I pick one off, quickly and efficiently. But the others come together, and my parrying game is not up to the challenge of taking out a trio of stabby bastards at the same time. I fall beneath their relentless attacks. Dead.
But they don't produce an encore performance. I slice through their frail bodies and leave them scattered on the ground. I come across a huge, very dead dragon, slumped over the ramparts. A number of haggard souls appear to be worshiping its lifeless form. They pose no threat to me. This one does, though, with his dagger. I cut him down. Another comes, shrieking for support. He, too, is silenced. I find a greatsword, twice the height of my now feeling pretty bloody unbeatable knight. I swagger out from the shadows onto a sunlit walkway. The skybox above me blazes orange, as if lit by the fires that once burned in the belly of the monster that is no more. Hell, this whole game, this debut PS4 build, just looks incredible – dirtily inviting. I want to clamber all over its ruins and soil these sabatons into a non-refundable state of filthiness. I do not notice the flaming arrow as it finds its mark in my head. Dead.
I equip my greatsword beside my larger shield and head down to the axe nasties. The heavier weight on my left arm makes parrying impossible. My eleventh life is over almost as quickly as it begins. Dead.
But my twelfth represents substantial progress. A very alive dragon crashes onto the High Wall, spitting crispy death towards all who might attempt to attack it. I seek shelter, and find it. A second bonfire. New challenges ahead. I focus firmly on the future, on what's just down there, at the bottom of that ladder, awaiting me in the dark. And fail to sense the sword-carrying knight that stabs me in the back. Dead.
I'm atop a roof when one of the worshiping ghouls twists and buckles, its form exploding into a Resident Evil-like mutation of once-was-a-man and something entirely unholy. I dodge around its health-halving blows. I take my chances when they open up – a slash here, a stab there, back to using the smaller sword now. The man who handed me a now-drained cup of tea immediately before my second death asks how I found the beastly thing; easy, I say. And it was. Or, more likely, I got lucky. I slide down a ladder and take out a pair of archers unable to get their fiery arrows loosed in time. More death-dealers come over the walls – I love it when they do, it's a nice touch and can scare the shite out of you when you're not scanning the environment for position-giveaway fingers. There's a dull thudding below, in a courtyard; there walks a humungous figure, broader than a Mack truck, arms as thick as three Hulks. I'm not going to approach him yet. There must be another, closer bonfire somewhere. I poke around the area's hidden places, breaking through crates to access previously unexplored areas. I notice, too late, that my Estus supply has become dangerously low – it's so easy to accidentally tap square in the middle of a panicky battle and gulp back a brew when you don't really need one. I'm outnumbered by wights in what might have once been a kitchen. Dead.
Surely there's a third bonfire here, somewhere. Dead.
Watch a trailer for 'Dark Souls III' from Gamescom 2015 (and why not read our coverage of the conference, too?)
Earlier on, a knight killed me. The second time we met, it was all over devastatingly quickly, as I danced around his blind lunges and mistimed swipes and picked his defence apart like I was unstitching a cushion. There's a pair here, that I find, the second patrolling quite near bonfire number two. There's not a great deal of space, tables and chairs everywhere – although you break straight through them most of the time (the workmanship of the furniture in Lothric is diabolical) – but our previous meeting was a swift victory for my Wandering hero. But this time, it doesn't go so well. My rhythm's been disrupted. I was on a good run prior to my last death, this restart, and I can't quite click back into the swing of things. His blows connect. Dead.
And so do his pal's. Dead.
And restart seventeen ends in much the same way as the fifteenth. Dead.
I'm really struggling to get my parry timed just right. It's mapped to the left trigger; I'd like it on a more responsive part of the controller, methinks. A bad player blames their pad, sure, but like I already said: I suck at Souls games. Some wicked thing emerges from the shadows with a knife. It looks eminently killable, but I try to deflect its attacks to open up a single-strike kill, Bloodborne style (and that game I did get along with, and was quickly overcoming enemies of all sizes, bosses excepted). I mistime every counter. Dead.
That second knight's really become a thorn in my side here. Dead.
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Of course, I could just run around him. I'm sure he'd quit giving chase pretty quickly. I know that's an option. But something inside me demands that I get my own back for what he did to me last time, only my digit dexterity has gone completely to shit. Dead.
And when I do defeat him, I fall victim to that force that affects us all, every single day of our miserable, stinking lives: gravity. I roll from an attacker. I miss a ladder. I fall a long way. The drop doesn't quite kill me, but it leaves me stunned enough for a lower-lurking bastard to stick me with their blade. Dead.
Deaths 22 to 29 follow a depressing pattern: all bar two are at the sword-wielding hands of that second knight, who for some reason has transformed from fodder for my own arsenal, an easy handful of souls ready to greedily gobble up, into a double-hard champion of evil, a devastating devil of clanking steel and silky adversary-skewering moves. Rudimentary axe arseholes fill the non-knight role for the standout brace of (re-) runs where I did get past the metal-clad killer. My game's fallen apart, and time's almost up. Dead. Dead. Dead. Dead. Dead. Dead. Dead. Dead.
Fuck this. I'm going for the big guy. I annihilate all before me on my way to the circular opening where his thunderous feet plod so slowly. I chuck firebombs at him from above, chipping away at his health. This definitely gets him pissed. I run at him, and land a very palpable hit. He swings, slowly, and misses – I dodge, and fall down a small set of steps, blocked from fleeing further by a waist high wall that my knight cannot jump. I have to ascend those steps to get back into the fight. The brute seizes his moment. The blunt blow is crushing, shattering my escape and almost completely wiping out my health. I stab square for revitalising Estus. I've still got firebombs selected, and chuck one aimlessly into the air before me. I tap down on the D-pad. Nope, not that. Throwing daggers? Useless, here. Estus, Estus, Estus? Oh, balls. I'll not face the Dancer this day. Dead.
Dark Souls III is released in March 2016.
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