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