DARK SOUL S III

THE S TORY BE­HIND MIYAZAKI’S MAG­NIF­I­CENT RE­TURN

EDGE - - FRONT PAGE - BY NATHAN BROWN

Hide­taka Miyazaki is not best pleased. For the sec­ond year run­ning, the pres­i­dent of FromSoft­ware, one of the most re­lent­lessly se­cre­tive videogame stu­dios on the planet, has seen his new game leaked ahead of time. Last year, it was Blood­borne that slipped out onto the In­ter­net from parts un­known days ahead of its E3 un­veil­ing on Sony’s stage; this year, it was Dark Souls III that was spread across the web in even more de­tail than Miyazaki had in­tended to give away, just days be­fore a planned de­but at Mi­crosoft’s press con­fer­ence. Sony pub­lished Blood­borne, and Bandai Namco will do like­wise for Dark

Souls III, though we doubt any­one at his new game’s pub­lisher would have had the strength of will to point out to him that the only con­stant in both leaks is his own stu­dio. Miyazaki, cheery and gig­gly as he is in per­son, is not the sort of per­son you want to up­set. Our in­ter­view with him is on, then off, then on again, and off and on a few more times. First, he is avail­able through­out the week of E3, then for a day, then for just an af­ter­noon. Even­tu­ally, we pin him down and find that Miyazaki, a man whose love of se­crets is plain not from just the way he talks, but the very lifeblood that runs through the games he re­leases, feels even less in­clined to show his hand than usual.

There is so much we want to – and do – ask. We want to talk to him about heal­ing in Dark Souls III, fol­low­ing a grad­ual move away from the first game’s slow swigs of a fi­nite Es­tus flask to a stock of speedy con­sum­ables in Dark Souls II and Blood­borne. We want to dis­cuss his new game’s use of bon­fires, a pre­cious re­source in Dark

Souls that be­came more abun­dant in the se­quel. We’re in­ter­ested in en­emy res­ur­rec­tion, too, af­ter Dark Souls II’s con­tro­ver­sial me­chanic of hav­ing foes stop spawn­ing once you’d killed them a cer­tain num­ber of times. But he’s not ready yet.

You get the im­pres­sion that he never re­ally will be, that Miyazaki would quite hap­pily put his games on store shelves with­out ever say­ing a word about them. He is the sort to sit in a pub­lish­ing meet­ing and ask if he re­ally needs to make a tu­to­rial or in­struc­tion man­ual. The more time you spend in his com­pany, the more you be­gin to re­alise why his games are so de­fined by their res­o­lute oblique­ness. He wants his games to speak for them­selves when they’re in your hands – and even then only to a point, leav­ing your imag­i­na­tion, and a mil­lion fo­rum threads, YouTube mus­ings and wiki en­tries to fill in the spa­ces be­tween his del­i­cately con­structed char­ac­ters, lands and lore. All of which makes the process of get­ting a grip on a work-in-progress Miyazaki pro­duc­tion par­tic­u­larly dif­fi­cult. With his an­noy­ance at the leak fur­ther stay­ing his hand and stiff­en­ing his tongue, there are times when get­ting de­tails out of Hide­taka Miyazaki feels like fight­ing a dozen Smoughs and Orn­steins, in a poi­son lake, at a cliff’s edge, in the bow­els of the pitch-black Tomb Of The Giants. What he doesn’t re­alise is that across De­mon’s Souls, Dark Souls and Blood­borne,

THERE ARE TIMES WHEN GET­TING DE­TAILS OUT OF HIDE­TAKA MIYAZAKI FEELS LIKE FIGHT­ING A DOZEN SMOUGHS AND ORN­STEINS

he’s coached into us a cer­tain stub­born­ness. An in­sis­tence that we will pre­vail is in­stilled within us now. We just about do.

Yes, Miyazaki is di­rect­ing, but this has not been his pro­ject from be­gin­ning to end. It en­tered the pro­to­type phase around two years ago, while Miyazaki and his Dark Souls team were hard at work on

Blood­borne. With Sony’s Shuhei Yoshida con­firm­ing that Blood­borne DLC is in the works, it may seem Miyazaki is di­rect­ing the Dark Souls

II team here, but that isn’t quite the case. “FromSoft­ware doesn’t have a strictly con­nected team sys­tem,” he tells us. “The team is op­ti­mised for each prod­uct; there’s no shift­ing of en­tire teams be­tween the pre­vi­ous prod­uct and the next. New staff joined us af­ter Blood­borne, or af­ter Dark Souls II’s DLC. It feels like a new team to me.”

He has a new co-di­rec­tor, too, in Isamu Okano, who headed up 2012 Kinect experiment Steel Bat­tal­ion: Heavy Ar­mor. Okano is look­ing af­ter day-to-day oper­a­tions and man­ag­ing the team while Miyazaki is in charge of world de­sign and me­chan­ics. What, then, of Dark Souls II’s two di­rec­tors, To­mo­hiro Shibuya and Yui Tan­imura? We get noth­ing on the for­mer, but the lat­ter is still very much in­volved. “Tan­imura is do­ing some map de­signs with me, and he’s giv­ing me ad­vice on how we should man­age bring­ing across some el­e­ments from Dark Souls II. While I was a su­per­vi­sor on Dark Souls II, I made sure to keep my dis­tance, so his ad­vice is very valu­able to me.”

The most com­mon crit­i­cism lev­elled at Dark Souls II con­cerns its ap­proach to level-to-level co­her­ence, which con­trasts against that of the first game in the se­ries. Dark Souls II’s Dran­gleic didn’t have the co­herency of the world­build­ing in the games Miyazaki di­rected per­son­ally; it was big­ger, per­haps, but flat­ter, more di­verse but less co­gent, a bunch of dra­mat­i­cally var­ied ar­eas laid end to end in­stead of smartly fold­ing back on them­selves and each other. In Dark Souls II you took a 30-sec­ond el­e­va­tor ride to a moun­tain-top pa­trolled by dragons and then warped back to the Ma­jula hub; in Dark Souls, you kicked down a lad­der to an area you’d left hours ear­lier, a mo­ment of such bril­liant power that not even all the wyverns in Dran­gleic could match it. “The world de­sign,” Miyazaki says, “is sim­i­lar to Dark Souls or Blood­borne.” In per­son and in his games, he has a flair for say­ing just enough and no more. That will do nicely.

Af­ter that, get­ting some­thing out of him on the set­ting and story seems un­likely, but he proves sur­pris­ingly forth­com­ing – rel­a­tively speak­ing, of course. Miyazaki, like many Ja­panese de­vel­op­ers, re­lays con­cepts through key­words, and one of Dark Souls III’s is ‘the end’. He does not in­tend for this to be the clos­ing part of a tril­ogy; in­stead, he means that the world it­self is ap­proach­ing its end, some­thing that’s sig­nalled vis­ually by a washed-out sun we see be­ing wor­shipped by des­per­ate un­dead as the hero struts past along ram­parts and rooftops. The world it­self, Miyazaki says, is shared with Dark Souls and its di­rect se­quel, though given the ex­tent to which those two games’ worlds dif­fered, that may not mean much. There is, how­ever, a stronger nar­ra­tive tie here to the first Dark Souls, re­vealed in the trailer shown on Mi­crosoft’s stage. It ended with the res­ur­rec­tion of a Lord Of Cin­der – a gen­eral, sym­bolic term, we’re told, but one that

“THE WORLD DE­SIGN IS SIM­I­LAR TO DARK SOULS

OR BLOOD­BORNE.” IN PER­SON AND IN HIS GAMES,

MIYAZAKI HAS A FLAIR FOR SAY­ING JUST ENOUGH

raises ques­tions about the cen­tral an­tag­o­nist. Could this mean the re­turn of Gwyn, fi­nal boss of Dark Souls? Or the per­son who killed him? In Dark Souls III, could we re­ally be set­ting out to de­stroy our

Dark Souls selves? Miyazaki is, of course, not about to give that one away (“If Dark Souls was the story of killing a god, Dark Souls III will be the story of killing a lord,” he says; days later, we’re no closer to pars­ing that one), but we cer­tainly wouldn’t put it past him.

Thank­fully, he is a lit­tle more open about the me­chan­ics – it would be hard for him not to be, given that the game is run­ning on a big screen in front of us. At first glance, it’s Dark Souls’ look and feel mar­ried to Blood­borne’s pro­duc­tion val­ues, a con­glom­er­ate of ev­ery­thing that Miyazaki learned while mak­ing his PS4 ex­clu­sive and ev­ery­thing that he loves about the se­ries with which he made his name. “Per­son­ally, the ex­pe­ri­ence of sink­ing deep into [ Blood­borne’s] Gothic, cos­mic hor­ror made me re­dis­cover the charm of a fan­tasy set­ting,” he says. “I wanted the chance to ob­serve its char­ac­ter­is­tics from a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive. I think that ex­pe­ri­ence could be what makes Dark Souls III feel unique.”

There are traces of Blood­borne in the com­bat, too. While the new hero is no Hunter, he cer­tainly seems more ag­ile than be­fore. The back­step in par­tic­u­lar has been sped up, and a longsword is swung more quickly too, with no ap­par­ent dam­age penalty (though en­emy health bars – along with the en­tire HUD – have been dis­abled here, just as they were at last year’s Blood­borne un­veil­ing). That in­creased flu­id­ity is mir­rored in the weapon­set as well; we find a scim­i­tar on a corpse later in the demo that is, in fact, a pair, and when dual- wield­ing them, the pro­tag­o­nist strikes with a level of grace and speed un­matched in pre­vi­ous Souls games. They can also be de­ployed in a spin at­tack, a tor­nado of flash­ing steel that, when prop­erly timed to ac­count for its wind-up an­i­ma­tion and cor­rectly spaced to al­low for the step for­ward at the start, can clear a four-strong mob of en­e­mies.

That move – the log­i­cally, if rather unimag­i­na­tively, ti­tled Spin – is pow­ered by a new core me­chanic, dubbed Ready Stance. It’s a pose you can en­ter from which new types of at­tacks are launched. With a longsword equipped, for in­stance, the re­sult­ing at­tack is a for­ward-mov­ing swipe that hits with enough force to break through an op­po­nent’s guard; later, we’ll use a greatsword for a charg­ing up­ward slash that launches an en­emy into the air, slams then back to the ground and deals enor­mous dam­age in the process. Not all the changes are about hit­ting hard: the short­bow can now be used to speed­ily chip away at an en­emy’s health from mid-range while locked on (ad­her­ents to a rang­ier, more pre­cise school of archery can stick to the long­bow). Over­all, there’s been a clear fo­cus on im­prov­ing the range of at­tacks at your dis­posal, and the dam­age you can dish out. That, in­evitably, comes at a cost; this isn’t just about Miyazaki giv­ing the player more tools in com­bat, but also giv­ing him jus­ti­fi­ca­tion to ratchet up the chal­lenge fur­ther still.

With no idea of where­abouts in the game the demo is pulled from, Miyazaki telling us that the dif­fi­culty has been toned down to en­sure his E3 au­di­ence sees as much of what he has to show as pos­si­ble, and the re­moval of the HUD mean­ing that we can’t see how hard op­po­nents hit, it’s hard to gauge the pre­cise ex­tent to which the odds have been restacked against us. But on this all-too-brief show­ing, the fo­cus ap­pears to be a re­turn to the Dark Souls ap­proach, where sin­gle en­e­mies or small groups ap­proach from un­ex­pected an­gles, rather than Dark Souls II- style mobs that rush you from the front. What these op­po­nents lack in num­ber they make up for with raw ag­gres­sion, but these are no brain­less charg­ers, fight­ing smartly in­stead and at­tack­ing in un­ex­pected ways. One spear-wield­ing knight, for ex­am­ple, stops pok­ing at us from be­hind its shield and closes in with a two-handed dash at­tack in­stead.

There are signs, too, of a de­sire to in­tro­duce Blood­borne- style jump scares. As we pass by a group of Hol­lows pray­ing harm­lessly to the corpses of the fallen, they are sud­denly en­gulfed in black, liq­uid smoke and a grotesque, in­de­fin­able black mass ap­pears. There’s a face in there some­where, as well as a blood­ied claw, but de­spite his ex­tended health bar, our hero quickly suc­cumbs, slump­ing dead to the floor. Miyazaki apol­o­gises for the in­ter­rup­tion; we respawn at the last

THERE’S BEEN A CLEAR FO­CUS ON IM­PROV­ING THE RANGE OF AT­TACKS AT YOUR DIS­POSAL, AND THE DAM­AGE YOU CAN DISH OUT

bon­fire, head off in a dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion us­ing a short­cut opened es­pe­cially for the show, and head straight for the area boss.

Un­sur­pris­ingly, the Dancer Of The Frigid Val­ley doesn’t mess about ei­ther, swing­ing a long, curved, flam­ing sword that’s one of sev­eral fine show­cases of FromSoft­ware’s dras­ti­cally over­hauled fire tech. The flames look fan­tas­tic, both here and in an ear­lier en­counter where a dragon sat on a ram­part and scorched the ground be­low with a sweep­ing breath of fire. Get hit by an at­tack that burns, and you’re set ablaze for a few sec­onds; evade and the scenery takes the blow in­stead. Dancer’s cathe­dral arena be­comes pro­gres­sively more aflame as the fight pro­gresses, pil­lars that you’ve used to put space be­tween you sur­rounded by lick­ing flame as you plan your next move. Half­way through the fight, Dancer pulls out a sec­ond sword en­veloped in the same dark magic as our hor­rid amor­phous foe from be­fore. She gains an AOE at­tack too, and it’s not long be­fore our hero falls again, the big screen fad­ing to black as it tran­spires that our time is up.

As ever with a Miyazaki game, we’ve at once seen plenty and noth­ing at all. When you know the man’s work this well, the scant­est de­tails can prove tremen­dously in­struc­tive, but with that knowl­edge comes the in­evitable re­al­i­sa­tion that you are merely deal­ing with sur­face de­tails. Yet with each new game, it be­comes a lit­tle more straight­for­ward – some­thing that must be a chal­lenge to a man who prizes se­crecy yet here finds him­self work­ing, af­ter Blood­borne’s shift of the­matic and me­chan­i­cal tone, back on more well-trod­den ground. Is Miyazaki not tempted to sub­vert ex­pec­ta­tions by dis­re­gard­ing the things play­ers have come to ex­pect from Dark Souls to en­sure he main­tains the ca­pac­ity to sur­prise them?

“To us, these things might seem like noth­ing spe­cial, but there must be a rea­son they’re so well ap­pre­ci­ated. We can’t dis­re­gard them,” Miyazaki says. “It’s a dif­fi­cult ques­tion, and we an­swer it on a caseby-case ba­sis, but this is a se­quel – we must keep the at­trac­tive or good points of pre­vi­ous ti­tles. We may re­in­force cer­tain things [or change them], but never re­move them.”

Miyazaki of­ten sounds like a man puz­zled by his suc­cess. On the eve of Blood­borne’s re­lease, he was mod­est to a fault at the no­tion of FromSoft­ware’s games be­ing pop­u­lar. Even now – af­ter that game’s feat of selling through over a mil­lion units – he finds it hard to ac­cept. Here, at last, comes what feels like true, un­fet­tered hon­esty. “I don’t think I, my­self, have fans,” he says. “I think play­ers de­mand sim­ple, in­ter­est­ing and wor­thy games. If the games I’ve di­rected or de­signed have met those de­mands, I’ve been very lucky. What I’m think­ing is, I want to make as many games as pos­si­ble while my luck’s in.” Maybe one day he’ll be lucky enough to keep one un­der wraps un­til he’s ready to talk about it. He might not have been able to an­nounce Dark

Souls III on his own terms, but it’s clearly a game be­ing driven by his care­ful hand. Those mil­lions of fans, whether he re­alises it or not, wouldn’t have it any other way.

Nat­u­rally, ex­plor­ing these en­vi­ron­ments is at its most fraught when you’re alone, but the game will al­low you to team up with other play­ers. In­va­sions, mean­while, will have more in com­mon with pre­vi­ous Souls sys­tems than that of Blood­borne

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