There might be a Bloodborne influence, but the latest from Miyazaki is much closer to the original Dark Souls formula.
“Dark Souls is as brutal and as punishing as ever – and my immediate impression is that it’s likely that even deeper into the third game its difficulty will likely line up more with the first than the second.”
While it probably shouldn’t after three games in this series and five with this basic formula, the core gameplay loop of Dark Souls is still a pleasant surprise. On paper I can’t help but still feel like it shouldn’t work – and yet here I am, addicted, at a Dark Souls 3 press event where I’m surrounded by hissed expletives as people on the screens next to and opposite me die repeatedly. And yet… it’s still bloody good fun. People are frustrated, but nobody is complaining.
As part of a lengthy press hands-on session I’d reached a new and nasty boss beyond what I’d seen at Gamescom. Now comes the desperate loop of the Souls series – I sprint through the gorgeous world design without a second thought to get back to the boss, avoiding as many enemies as I can along the way in a desperate attempt to preserve health and health-restoring flasks before reaching the boss room to go another round. I dodge around the boss and scoop up my lost souls before turning to face it.
At the top of the event we’re told that the difficulty has actually been dialled back a little for us press wusses, but to me it doesn’t feel it. Dark Souls is as brutal and as punishing as ever – and my immediate impression is that it’s likely that even deeper into the third game its difficulty will likely line up more with the first than the second, something sure to please hardcore fans.
At least some of this can likely be chalked up to original Dark Souls director Hidetaka Miyazaki returning to the director’s chair. He appears to bring with him a development viewpoint that is both expanded by the existence of Dark Souls 2 and Bloodborne while also laser-focused on retaining the simplicity of mechanics and the difficulty that helped to make Dark and Demon’s Souls such a huge success.
The influence of Bloodborne’s faster-paced gameplay is obvious in some places, it’s true, but it’d also be silly to suggest that Dark Souls 3 is now simply ‘like Bloodborne’. It takes lessons from that title in the form of a slight increase in character mobility and movement speed, but it still absolutely has the more measured block-and-parry driven feel of the previous Souls games. The control feels tighter and more responsive, but I don’t feel any less vulnerable or fragile for it as I play.
This appears to be a driving force behind some of Dark Souls 3’s development, and is something that’s highlighted with its very own slide in a presentation before the press sit down to play.
“This is based on the intention to let players challenge the difficulty at any cost,” Miyazaki says of the improvements to the controls via translator. “It removes the execution excuse – it allows us to set an even higher difficulty level, because players now have better tools to challenge that difficulty level.”
After hours’ of hands-on time this all rings true – this is the best-controlling title in the Souls series by a country mile, and even when occasionally the game had some spots where the frame rate lurched a little bit in this non-final PS4 build I felt completely in control. What arguably makes Souls’ brutality work is that it never feels cheap or unfair; improving the controls goes a step further in ensuring you never feel cheated when you fail.
The world is as well designed as ever, the highlight of my hands-on coming as I raise a banner at a gigantic ledge with a beautiful vista before me. It remains as story-light as possible, with the narrative told more through subtle cues in the environment over cinematic sequences or lengthy dialogue – something that might not necessarily be the most immediately accessible, but still as satisfying to experience as it always has been.
Beyond the broad improvement to the controls the other major addition to Dark Souls 3, the Weapon Arts system, is actually less notable in practice than it is on paper, at least so far. My weapon of choice is the Longsword thanks to its range and power, and the longsword’s unique weapon art skill helps to further accentuate those qualities. Holding L2 enters a poised ‘ready stance’, while then pressing R1 or R2 causes your character to shift from that stance into a special attack that’s ideal for breaking the enemy’s guard but also so slow that it does leave you vulnerable.
“Dark Souls 3 feels like it might well end up marking a special moment, with Miyazaki’s return to direct the series the perfect way to close out this chapter or the series as a whole.”
Some are more simple – the Sorcerer’s Wand has a weapon art that simply boosts magic, while daggers feature a ‘quick step’ ability that offers even more speedy movement to the fragile characters built that way. “It can make things pretty similar to Bloodborne,” Miyazaki adds.
Miyazaki explains that he envisions the skills mechanic as something that adds a new level of strategy and greater RPG depth. When combined with switching equipment, Souls’ open-ended levelling system and the ten different classes available from character generation, there’s a lot of breadth of choice in how you play the game. Moment to moment, however, I feel the weapon skills aren’t quite so important; they offer an additional skill that might get you out of a tight spot, and I found my Longsword weapon art particularly useful for battling Knights, but it’s not something that I feel is going to significantly change the flow of the game.
That judgement of Weapon Arts seems to be one that can be used to talk about Dark Souls 3 at large – it’s different, but nothing has been done to significantly change the flow of the game. It is absolutely more Dark Souls. Bosses now all have a ‘heat up’ mode that essentially means they all have two phases, there’s more RPG choice in how your character grows, and Namco promises larger maps and a grander scale thanks to the power of the new consoles – but nothing here is reinventing the wheel.
I’m not sure that could be construed as a bad thing, however. While it’s true that there’s been an awful lot of these games now under a number of different guises, the actual Souls series remains the core of it all, with Dark Souls 3 looking like it’s shaping up as a solid attempt to make the definitive version of that experience.
The quality of combat is still there, as is the difficulty. With them comes the excitement and terror. Your heart pounds when you have thousands of souls on the line and you’re rushing to a bonfire for safety. At the tail end of the event a gaggle of press surround one player’s screen as he draws the one boss nobody else could quite beat to the end of its life bar. All the conversations cease, the group watching in silence, barely daring to breathe until he lands that difficult killing blow – that, to me, is the beauty of this series.
It’s probably true that Dark Souls 3 could do more if it wanted to. It could break the mould and do something radically different with the formula that has helped to catapult From Software, already a storied developer, to new heights. The real question is if it needs to just yet – if you would want it to. Dark Souls 3 feels like it might well end up marking a special moment, with Miyazaki’s return to direct the series the perfect way to close out this chapter or the series as a whole. I’m curious what Miyazaki and his team will do next, and if it’ll be significantly different – but before that, I’ve discovered I’m completely ready for one more dose of Dark Souls. If the early hours are anything to go by, it looks like a fitting finale.
Dark Souls 3 will be released on Xbox One, PC and PS4 April 12.