Old Souls

Hide­taka Miyazaki rekin­dles the flame in a re­turn to the se­ries that made his name

EDGE - - CONTENTS - BY NATHAN BROWN

Hide­taka Miyazaki rekin­dles the flame in Dark Souls III, a re­turn to the se­riesser ries that proved his ge­nius

NEVER HAVE DARK SOULS AND ITS SPIR­I­TUAL COUSINS BEEN SO EX­PLIC­ITLY LINKED

Even from a dis­tance, he is un­mis­tak­able. We turn into a cor­ri­dor and hear his repet­i­tive, metal­lic clank. We see his sprawl­ing grey mane and, below that, a burly, hair­less torso. This near-fi­nal build of Dark Souls III has just ar­rived in Bandai Namco’s UK of­fice, and we are the first to play it. The PR rep look­ing over our shoul­der gasps. We just about keep our cool. We ap­proach An­dre the black­smith and his west coun­try lilt is ev­ery bit as calm­ing, yet mo­ti­vat­ing, as it was in 2011’s Dark Souls. “Prithee, be care­ful,” he ooh-arrs when our busi­ness is done. “Wouldn’t want to see m’work squan­dered.” For you, An­dre, any­thing.

Yet as de­light­ful as it is to lay eyes on him again – and he re­ally does look great, putting the gen­er­a­tional gap be­tween

Dark Souls III and its pre­de­ces­sors in de­tailed, wildly hir­sute con­text – An­dre’s re­turn also lays bare the ten­sion at the heart of Dark Souls III. This se­ries, along with its spir­i­tual pre­de­ces­sor De­mon’s

Souls and PS4 spinoff Blood­borne, is built on a foun­da­tion of mys­tery and sur­prise. Five games in, the big ques­tion fac­ing

Hide­taka Miyazaki and his team at FromSoft­ware is how to con­tinue to work with that ap­proach when play­ers be­come more fa­mil­iar with your tech­niques with ev­ery pass­ing game. How do you sur­prise peo­ple who think they’ve seen it all be­fore?

“This is a dif­fi­cult ques­tion,” Miyazaki ad­mits. “I be­lieve all game de­vel­op­ers face this from time to time, in­clud­ing me. And I don’t have a con­crete an­swer to it.”

No, his an­swer is ren­dered in iron and steel, bent over a work­bench at the end of a cold stone cor­ri­dor. Dark Souls III’s first and great­est sur­prise is the one thing we’ve been trained to least ex­pect from a Miyazaki game: fa­mil­iar­ity. There has been con­nec­tive tis­sue, of course, con­ti­nu­ity across his games – a warm­ing, wel­com­ing hub area; re-used weapon names and voice ac­tors; sim­i­lar upgrade, travel and check­point sys­tems. But never have Dark Souls and its spir­i­tual cousins been so ex­plic­itly linked.

An­dre may have moved from the bow­els of a church in Lor­dran’s Un­dead Parish to a dimly lit build­ing in Lothric’s Ceme­tery Of Ash, but his new digs are fa­mil­iar, too. We’re in Fire­link Shrine. It’s not quite the Fire­link you know – it’s an en­tire build­ing here, with a net­work of cor­ri­dors and a se­cond floor, where a huge empty throne over­looks the bon­fire. Could the stonework that sup­ports it be the same as that which forms the crum­bled ru­ins around Dark Souls’ Fire­link? Be­hind the fire is a lit­tle set of steps lead­ing to an al­tar; is that not where the Crest­fallen War­rior sits in Miyazaki’s 2011 mas­ter­piece? Are Lothric and Lor­dran one and the same?

Not quite. You ar­rive at Fire­link af­ter the cus­tom­ary tu­to­rial sec­tion and open­ing boss fight. The screen-sized stum­bling block this time is Iudex Gundyr, a colos­sal knight who leaves be­hind a Coiled Sword when he dies.

It’s not a weapon, but an item, to be plunged into the ashen pit in the cen­tre of Fire­link Shrine, mag­i­cally cre­at­ing a bon­fire. While all of Dark Souls’ roads led back to Fire­link, and like­wise Ma­jula in

Dark Souls II, we warp from this bon­fire to the first proper area, High Wall Of Lothric. The world we ar­rive in is a co­her­ent, flow­ing whole, but that ini­tial warp im­plies that Fire­link and Lothric are sep­a­rate lands, giv­ing Miyazaki cover to bring back a beloved base of op­er­a­tions, and the even more adored An­dre.

High Wall Of Lothric con­tin­ues the theme of fa­mil­iar­ity: it was the set­ting for the be­hind-closed-doors demo when

Dark Souls III was an­nounced at E3 last year, and the one used for net­work stress tests in the in­ter­ven­ing months. Even so, there are sur­prises, like the

archer ping­ing fire ar­rows from a small ledge above a door­way, or the ban­dit that at­tacks from be­hind while your eye was drawn to the hol­low climb­ing up a lad­der in front of you. But Miyazaki saves his great­est trick for the boss fight. We had long as­sumed, and at E3 learned for sure, that FromSoft­ware’s pres­i­dent was no great fan of the pre­view cir­cuit – that he would pre­fer his games landed on shelves fully formed, with­out any sort of prior show­ing. Pub­lish­ers and fans de­mand oth­er­wise, how­ever, and so at E3 last year we saw a bat­tle with a boss, the Dancer Of The Frigid Val­ley, in the nave of a burn­ing church.

WE MAKE FULL USE OF THE SHIELD THAT WAS TAKEN AWAY FROM US IN BLOOD BORNE

So af­ter we ar­rive at the church­yard, and have bat­tled on burnt-red au­tumn leaves with a suc­ces­sion of in­tim­i­dat­ing knights, we turn to­wards the church and pause. We know there’s a boss in there. So we turn and head the other way, down a long flight of stairs and through a door into a large, empty arena. But hold on a minute. This doesn’t look good. A cutscene trig­gers a fight against a boss we’ve never seen be­fore, Vordt Of The Bo­real Val­ley, an ice-blue ca­nine with a gi­ant mace. Af­ter a cou­ple of deaths, both caused in part by a new, stamina-hin­der­ing sta­tus ef­fect called Frost­bite, we put Vordt to the sword. We head back up the stairs, take a breath, and en­ter the church, braced for an­other boss bat­tle. In­side, sat on a chair, is a friendly NPC who of­fers up warm words of re­as­sur­ance, and an item that’s es­sen­tial to our progress. We’ve been had. E3 was a prank. Hide­taka Miyazaki spent the big­gest videogame show on the planet set­ting up a quite ex­quis­ite piece of trolling.

De­spite Miyazaki’s sleight of hand, we know what to ex­pect from the first hours of one of his games. We are still as cau­tious as ever and make full use of the shield that was taken away from us in Blood­borne, inch­ing cau­tiously around blind turns, check­ing our cor­ners like a Navy SEAL. But our fo­cus is no longer squarely on the path in front of us: we’ve zoomed out a lit­tle, try­ing to de­ci­pher what th­ese open­ing hours can tell us about the game as a whole.

We look for lit­tle de­tails, see what’s changed from pre­vi­ous Souls games, what’s been brought across or left be­hind. In Dark Souls, your first weapon upgrade re­quired a sin­gle Ti­tan­ite Shard; in

Blood­borne, you needed three. Here,

you need two. Los­ing Hu­man­ity in Dark Souls pre­vented you from sum­mon­ing; in the se­quel, you lost a chunk of health. Here, a new sta­tus, Em­ber, boosts your health bar un­til your next death. Dark Souls gave you five swigs of your health-restor­ing Es­tus flask; the se­quel gave you one at the start, though let you in­crease that with Es­tus Shards, and off­set the pain with an­other heal­ing item, the Lifegem. Here, you start with three swigs, and Lifegems are gone.

It’s tempt­ing to see this as drab, it­er­a­tive se­quel-mak­ing, re­struc­tur­ing pre-ex­ist­ing sys­tems in an ar­bi­trary way to jus­tify the new num­ber on the end of the game’s ti­tle. But there is logic here:

Blood­borne had far fewer weapons than a Souls game, so its upgrade econ­omy was bal­anced in kind. Dark Souls II’s heal­ing sys­tem was a lit­tle too gen­er­ous and its Hu­man­ity sys­tem too puni­tive. And be­sides, Dark Souls III will fun­da­men­tally al­ter the way you view, and use, the weapon in your hand and the flask on your hip. For all the fa­mil­iar­ity of its setup and sys­tems, Dark Souls III’s com­bat in­tro­duces sub­stan­tial change.

“Af­ter de­vel­op­ing the first Dark Souls, I started think­ing about how we could make ev­ery weapon feel unique, and give more depth to the RPG,” Miyazaki says. “In Blood­borne, I in­tro­duced the con­cept of trans­form­ing weapons, which I thought re­ally fit the Blood­borne world. For Dark Souls III, we have weapon skills. In the first Dark Souls, play­ers could use the de­fault longsword from be­gin­ning to end if they wanted to. So we thought we could give more depth to a sim­ple longsword with the ad­di­tion of skills. We re­ally en­joyed com­ing up with ideas for them; when you use one, I think you’ll see how much fun we had.”

“BE­CAUSE WE TOOK AD­VAN­TAGE OF THE NEXT-GEN CON­SOLES, THERE’ S SO MUCH MORE COM­PLEX­ITY”

He’s not wrong. The longsword of­fers a charg­ing thrust and an up­per­cut. The rapier gains a flighty back­step into a sharp thrust, or a surg­ing flurry of at­tacks. The whip comes with a swirling, multi-hit combo that stag­gers mul­ti­ple en­e­mies at once; spear-users can thrust for­ward with enough force to pen­e­trate the heav­i­est shield; and cross­bows let off a rapid vol­ley of bolts. Magic users ben­e­fit too: spells be­come more pow­er­ful, and mir­a­cles of­fer ex­tra buffs. It’s a dra­matic change. Souls weapons have his­tor­i­cally been spread­sheets first and fore­most, their worth de­fined more by the num­bers on their in­ven­tory de­scrip­tion than their ef­fect. Stats are still im­por­tant here, but the ac­tual busi­ness of slic­ing and dic­ing feels more im­por­tant, more dy­namic, and a good deal more per­sonal than in Souls games past.

One of the church­yard knights drops a greatsword, which we know will numer­i­cally favour our strength build. But we rather like our longsword’s skills, and a cou­ple of min­utes later we’ve switched back to it de­spite the dam­age deficit. It means that, as in Blood­borne, you foster a closer re­la­tion­ship to the weapon at your side than you have in Miyazaki’s other games. Find­ing new loot is more ex­cit­ing as a re­sult: you don’t just ex­am­ine the stats screen of your new toy, but equip it in­stantly, and fid­dle around with its abil­i­ties. “There are more than 200 weapons to choose from,” Miyazaki ex­plains, hap­pily.

This new sys­tem also adds a much­needed layer of com­plex­ity to en­sure even Souls veter­ans have some­thing to think about. Skills for heav­ier weapons are slow to start up and many an­i­ma­tions move you sig­nif­i­cantly for­ward; you can’t spam them out as an act of des­per­a­tion, but must plan to use them and ex­e­cute them cor­rectly. There’s a del­i­cate risk/ re­ward in the fact that you can only ac­cess them while hold­ing a weapon with both hands, forc­ing you to put your shield away. And their use is re­stricted by a new blue bar that sits in be­tween health and stamina me­ters in the top-left cor­ner of the screen. Dark Souls has al­ways been a game of me­ter man­age­ment, of de­cid­ing whether to gam­ble your fi­nal chunk of stamina on an­other swing of your sword, or use it to roll to safety know­ing you’ll have to work your way back in. Now there is one more thing to think about.

The bar can be re­filled by rest­ing at a bon­fire, but in be­tween rest­ing points can be topped up with the new, ice-blue Ashen Es­tus Flask. At the start of the game, you get one swig of Ashen and three glugs of reg­u­lar Es­tus. How­ever, a visit to An­dre yields a new menu op­tion, Al­lot Es­tus, that lets you choose how to split your avail­able to­tal be­tween the two. Af­ter one too many deaths on a tricky boss fight, we warp back to Fire­link and put our en­tire stock into health re­fills. Magic users, who can heal with spells or mir­a­cles, and PVP play­ers who rely heav­ily on skill us­age, may pre­fer to do the op­po­site. As if a game with 200 weapons needed any more pos­si­bil­i­ties. Skills are, like Blood­borne’s shapeshift­ing weapons, a trans­for­ma­tive ad­di­tion to a fa­mil­iar tem­plate.

‘Like Blood­borne’ isn’t some­thing we ex­pected to say much when dis­cussing Dark Souls III. Af­ter all, Miyazaki’s Gothic-hor­ror mas­ter­piece was a spinoff, one that took a few sharp turns from the FromSoft­ware house style. We ex­pected the two games to be sim­i­lar tech­ni­cally: Blood­borne was the first game From built from the ground up for the cur­rent gen­er­a­tion of con­soles, and Dark Souls III uses its en­gine. But we didn’t ex­pect so much stylis­tic com­mon ground. Com­bat is more dy­namic in Dark Souls III thanks to the skills, and a good deal faster too – not quite Blood­borne’s pace, but cer­tainly brisker than its di­rect fore­bears. En­e­mies be­have in Blood­borne-like ways, pa­trolling ar­eas rather than ly­ing in wait, com­ing at you with un­pre­dictable at­tack strings. And they work in groups, hit­ting ex­tremely hard from the word go, those three swigs of Es­tus fre­quently used up within sec­onds of respawn­ing at a bon­fire.

It’s a nat­u­ral con­se­quence, Miyazaki says, of de­vel­op­ment of the two games over­lap­ping. “It def­i­nitely takes a lot of in­flu­ence from Blood­borne. There’s the tech­ni­cal side, of course, and its com­bat cer­tainly in­spired the bat­tle sys­tem in Dark Souls III. But more im­por­tantly

Blood­borne gave me the op­por­tu­nity to look at Dark Souls, and fan­tasy, from a fresh per­spec­tive. I re­alised the beauty of sim­ple longswords, full sets of armour, stout shields, kings, knights and dragons.”

Yet it’s af­ter we down the frost-breath­ing dog Vordt, step out onto a cliff­side and travel by harpy-claw to Dark

Souls III’s third area that the Blood­borne in­flu­ence is most ap­par­ent, and most sur­pris­ing. If you told us that Un­dead Set­tle­ment was a new Blood­borne DLC area, we would be­lieve you with­out hes­i­ta­tion. Visu­ally, you could bolt this tum­ble­down vil­lage onto the end of Hemwick Char­nel Lane and we’d have been none the wiser.

En­emy de­signs are more Yhar­nam than Lor­dran here, too. Ashen-faced gi­ants hurl gi­gan­tic urns and charge at us with blood-splat­tered saws. Singing, screech­ing, gar­gan­tuan sorcer­esses fling hexes from dark cor­ners. Wizard-hat­ted midgets drop from the ceil­ing, and cages full of bones come alive and lurch for us as we draw near. There are still traces of

Souls’ DNA – a gi­ant rat lurks in the sew­ers; a pack of dogs waits be­fore the boss – but it’s sur­pris­ing, even a lit­tle jar­ring. To be fair, we should’ve seen it com­ing: be­fore we’ve even plunged a mys­ti­cal sword into the pit at Fire­link Shrine we’ve seen a gi­ant turn into a de­mon, and the hol­lows that wor­ship the de­cay­ing sun along the High Wall Of Lothric are prone to sud­denly sprout­ing gi­ant ten­ta­cles and one-shot­ting you.

And what of the world be­yond it? An NPC warns us against go­ing into a chapel in the Un­dead Set­tle­ment, but the pres­ence in­side of an­other friendly face from the past com­pels us on­wards. Sadly, on or­ders from Ja­pan, we’re for­bid­den from ven­tur­ing into the next area, Road Of Sac­ri­fices. But from what we’ve seen, Lothric is closer in de­sign to Dark Souls or Blood­borne than Dark Souls II. You may be able to warp be­tween bon­fires but they’re spaced far­ther apart than in the se­cond game in the se­ries, and in be­tween them are plenty of short­cuts and short­cuts-to-be; el­e­va­tors that aren’t there, doors that are locked or only open from the other side, and so on. As for the game’s over­all size? Miyazaki, pre­dictably, isn’t giv­ing much away.

“There’s al­ways the temp­ta­tion to make a se­quel big­ger in size – do­ing so can ef­fec­tively at­tract fans,” he says. “But I don’t per­son­ally be­lieve we have to do it. The size of this game is about the same as Dark Souls II, maybe even a lit­tle smaller, but be­cause we took ad­van­tage of the next-gen con­soles, there’s so much more com­plex­ity and depth there. The game may fea­ture fewer ar­eas, but you can never say it’s not enough.”

Miyazaki’s love of se­crecy may make for an oc­ca­sion­ally frus­trat­ing in­ter­view – and in this age of in­for­ma­tion he must be in­fu­ri­at­ing to his pub­lish­ers’ PR de­part­ments – but those who know his games un­der­stand pre­cisely why he does it. Sur­prise is ev­ery­thing in a Souls game. “I want to keep it a se­cret for now,” he says, an­swer­ing a spe­cific ques­tion about his in­flu­ences but which might as well have been the first line of his an­swer to ev­ery­thing. “I want play­ers to en­joy sim­ply play­ing the game. I don’t want

“THE STORY OF DARK SOULS III SUG­GESTS T HE SE­RIES’ CLO­SURE, BUT THAT DOESN’T MEAN IT WILL END”

to dis­tract them with too much in­for­ma­tion be­fore its re­lease.”

We’ve said it be­fore, but the magic of the Souls games comes not from the chal­lenge they pose to the player, but the re­spect that chal­lenge rep­re­sents. It’s an ex­pres­sion of a de­vel­oper’s be­lief in its au­di­ence, that it need not pa­tro­n­ise with ex­ces­sive sign­post­ing and hand­hold­ing, that the player is ca­pa­ble of any­thing. It might not feel like it some­times – there were those few deeply un­pleas­ant evenings we spent with the Capra De­mon dur­ing our first Dark Souls playthrough, and Un­dead Set­tle­ment’s boss, the Curse-Rid­den Tree, soon makes us feel like all hope is lost – but FromSoft­ware loves its play­ers. And Miyazaki knows that the feel­ing is re­cip­ro­cated in kind.

“We need ideas to chal­lenge our play­ers,” he tells us. “To come up with ideas we need ex­cite­ment, thrills and mo­ti­va­tion. Player feed­back is a great mo­ti­va­tor for us. The Dark Souls se­ries has diehard fans, and what they tell us gives us a real sense of thrill and ex­cite­ment. They’re a real source of en­ergy for me. We don’t ac­cept all of it – we have our own vi­sion to achieve – but it’s pre­cious to us. All of it.”

Blood­borne proved that the eas­i­est way for Miyazaki to sur­prise veter­ans of the Souls se­ries was to walk away from it. He’s spo­ken in the past about his de­sire to make some­thing dif­fer­ent. Af­ter Dark

Souls shipped he said he wanted to make some­thing lighter in tone; he ended up mak­ing Blood­borne. And he’s talked air­ily about his de­sire to ex­plore sci-fi. Yet he seems un­will­ing, or un­able, to turn his back on Dark Souls for good. He has, in pre­vi­ous in­ter­views, de­scribed Dark Souls

III as a turn­ing point for the se­ries, but also its clo­sure; we press, but he stands firm. “At this mo­ment, I don’t know the an­swer to that. The story of Dark Souls III sug­gests the se­ries’ clo­sure, but that doesn’t mean the Dark Souls se­ries will end. An at­trac­tive story leads to an­other story. I’m look­ing for­ward to hear­ing what play­ers think of it.”

And we’re look­ing for­ward to find­ing out. Be­fore this, our two ways of play­ing a Souls game were a frus­trat­ingly short ten-minute demo on a show floor or a 60-hour ben­der in which our ev­ery wak­ing mo­ment is spent ei­ther play­ing the game or wish­ing we were. This has been a gen­er­ous sit­down with an un­fin­ished game. It has told us plenty, but also nowhere near enough. The ques­tion of what Miyazaki and FromSoft­ware will do next can wait. First we’ve got an­other few hun­dred hours of wary ex­plo­ration, pun­ish­ing com­bat, build ex­per­i­men­ta­tion and wild lore the­o­ris­ing ahead of us. An­other game in the com­pany of Dark Souls’ faded beauty, of Miyazaki’s beloved knights with stout shields, of a se­ries that might be grow­ing fa­mil­iar, but is still un­like any­thing else. April 12 can’t come soon enough.

Com­bat may be slower than in Blood­borne, but the in­flu­ence is clear. An­i­ma­tions are weighty and bloody, while en­emy move­ments are as un­pre­dictable in Lothric as they were in Yhar­nam

Few stu­dios can cre­ate quite so much ten­sion with a sim­ple por­tal as FromSoft­ware. A re­turn to day­time af­ter Blood­borne’s dark­est night means open­ing doors onto new ar­eas fre­quently floods the scene with bloom The themes for the game are ‘de­cay’ and ‘with­ered beauty’. They’re con­cepts that run through the en­tire vis­ual and nar­ra­tive de­sign of the game, but are es­pe­cially preva­lent in the en­vi­ron­ments, lit through­out by a fad­ing sun Af­ter Blood­borne’s flow­ing robes it’s good to get back to steel and chain, though over sev­eral hours we do not find a sin­gle piece of armour – just weapons and shields. It’s a smart way of con­vey­ing the greater fo­cus on com­bat Un­dead Set­tle­ment’s dan­gling corpses and cages full of bones – and the boss char­ac­ters’ de­monic trans­for­ma­tions – sug­gest that Dark Souls III is about more than just the lo­cal pop­u­lace go­ing hol­low

There’ll be no fuss about light­ing down­grades this time. When Dark Souls III gets dark, it gets very, very dark. A hand­maid at Fire­link sells a torch for a pit­tance – and you’ll need it There’s an in­trigu­ing treat­ment of trees in the game: here, a group of en­e­mies kneels in prayer around one, and on the High Wall Of Lothric other hol­lows have be­come en­twined in them and died

We don’t yet know why he’s here, or what new pow­ers his smithy­ing might be­stow this time around, but it feels good to see hairy old An­dre again

They call it the High Wall Of Lothric with good rea­son. Dark Souls III’s start­ing area takes you across ram­parts to rooftops in a fine call­back to the first Dark Souls’ open­ing hours

This church­yard leads up to what we thought was go­ing to be a boss fight – in fact it’s down the stairs to the right. One of the knights here drops a greatsword, though its stats don’t put it on par with the leg­endary

DarkSouls equiv­a­lents

We hate th­ese guys al­ready. They use their saws for a combo that might stop short or hit you a dozen times, and get­ting be­hind them is no guar­an­tee of suc­cess, since they of­ten turn around mid-combo

While some weapon skills trig­ger as soon as you press L2, oth­ers re­quire that you hold it down, dur­ing which you adopt an al­ter­nate stance The NPC in the church gives you a ban­ner, which you wave at a cliff­side to sum­mon harpy trans­port. It re­calls the trip to Anor Londo, though your desti­na­tion is very dif­fer­ent

ABOVE The now-re­lo­cated Dancer Of The Frigid Val­ley. Ear­lier demos ended with the church cov­ered in flames; we don’t know where From has put her now, though it’ll strug­gle to match the sym­bol­ism of faith on fire

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