DARK SOUL S III
THE S TORY BEHIND MIYAZAKI’S MAGNIFICENT RETURN
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