Dark Souls 3 [official site] is in the shadow of a giant. The giant probably has a wound for a face, not a single leg to stand on and spends his days dragging his torso around the ruins of a throne room. After one slightly uneven sequel, the Souls series has returned to the guidance of creator Hidetaka Miyazaki. Rather than replicating what worked so well four years ago, however, From Software are tweaking their design. The architecture of the world is immediately recognisable but combat is changing.
After half an hour with the game, I'm half-way convinced it might be able to step out of the shadow of its predecessors and find a new sun to praise.
When the announcement came that Hidetaka Miyazaki would be acting as director of Dark Souls III, after concentrating his efforts on Bloodborne during production of Dark Souls II, there was much rejoicing and praising of the sun. Although much improved in its Scholar of the First Sin incarnation, Souls II was a disappointment – as much of a disappointment as a very good game can be. Its world didn't cohere thematically and architecturally, in the way that the first Dark Souls had, and it was easy to assume that Miyazaki's absence was responsible for the rough edges and occasional gaps.
A great part of me has always wanted to reject that assumption. Games as large, complex and beautiful as Dark Souls are collaborative efforts, and to ascribe an auteur role to a single person seems too neat to be realistic.
It's fair to say I felt like a right chump when I got my hands on Dark Souls III last week and immediately saw that it was back in the safest of hands. Half an hour with an early stage of the game doesn't mean the whole thing will hold together, sure, but that half hour reintroduced the maze-like verticality and scale that I've been craving since closing the door on Lordran.
Miyazaki is back but Dark Souls III isn't seeking to re-establish the status quo. It's an altered beast, as was obvious even before I got my hands on a controller.
In previous Souls games, my characters always felt like they were wading through air grown thick with decay. Even a mostly-naked, dagger-wielding backstabber carried a weight – possibly metaphysical – that made movement sluggish. It's a sensation emphasised by the roll; the most agile move in your repertoire sees you dashing yourself against the floor. In these dark fantasies, everyone is wearing concrete shoes.
Dark Souls III is faster. Surrounded by enemies of the regular undead variety, I was harder to pin down than in previous games. There's still a wonderful sense of momentum to strikes and parries, but recovery times from swinging, lunging and rolling aren't quite as punishing. That's not to say the game has become a hack and slash power fantasy; clambering across rooftops, I found myself attacked from all sides, often by a group of enemies whose variations were implemented to cause maximum distress. Example: a knight who lumbered about with a gargantuan weapon was in the company of a sidestepping, combo-striking bastard, forcing me to switch from defense to offense rapidly and repeatedly.
Knights are terrifying again. Their relatively innocuous appearance hides fearsome strength. They're common enemies but they demand absolute concentration as they're more than capable of capitalising on sloppiness or over-confidence. That's Dark Souls in a nutshell.
Along with the increased speed, combat has been tweaked through the addition of secondary stances for each weapon type. Similar to the switch from a one-handed to a two-handed grip but only applied for as long as a button is held down, the stances provide alternative attacks. Dual-wielded sabres perform a spinning strike that leaves you vulnerable for an uncomfortable period but can make short work of grouped and unprotected enemies. With a sword and shield, I was able to knock enemy shield's aside as they circled me, lunging for the jugular as soon as it was exposed. Greatswords allow you to 'uppercut' enemies into the air and while there's no reason to expect Devil May Cry style juggling and aerial combos, there are certainly more herding and crowd control possibilities.
Also, watching an enormous bothersome knight flailing into the air and landing on his arse is extremely cathartic.
The move to new tech (no previous-gen console releases this time around) is partly responsible for the stunning scale of the Wall of Lodeleth, the area that surrounds the player. Dark Souls had a way of submerging the player in its map – it entombs you – and Dark Souls III seems to have recaptured that. As soon as I moved to the edge of the rooftop that contained the solitary bonfire in the demo region, I was pleasantly bewildered to see an enormous spire towering above and a cluster of similar spires below. Cities upon cities, and labyrinth castles and spires hammered like nails into the world. Immediately, the visual storytelling and sense of being in a coherent and yet surreal place is as strong as it's ever been in the series' history.
The environment is heavy with the kind of unobtrusive lore that is one of the great strengths of Souls. Miyazaki's narrative designs have been making audiologs and bloody graffiti epitaphs look unimaginative or years, and the corpse-trees and liturgical prostrations of the undead demand to be unpicked. The hollow worshipping ashes and ruin, or the damned praying for salvation? An enormous dead dragon forms a startling centrepiece to the cult-like activities around the wall, flakes of ash escaping from it in flurries like an awful black snow.
The extraordinary design of the world carries across to the larger creatures as well. The Dancer of the Frigid Valley, a boss that I failed to reach but saw a fellow journalist actually defeat, is a long-limbed female knight that seems half-puppet and half-ghost. That's ignoring the other half which is entirely focused on killing you, with attacks that make excellent use of the uncanniness of her animations. Limbs have joints where no joints should be and the looseness of the Dancer's spine makes predicting where her dervish-like strikes will land extremely difficult. Importantly, she is predictable, eventually, but the strange nature of her form must first be understood.
From Software are also promising improved RPG elements (which they damn well should be considering Dark Souls is the best RPG ever made), allowing for a greater range of viable character builds. To that end, there are changes to ranged weapons as well as the new stance modifications for melee attacks. Shortbows can be used while moving (even rolling). These improved abilities should allow for a more flexible approach but, From claim, won't make the player character overpowered. You're still up against formidable opponents – the knights are trickier than ever – and the variety in weaponry should allow for an increase in enemy variety as well.
There has been talk, from the developers, of Dark Souls III as “a turning point”. Whatever might come next, and this is unlikely to be the end of Miyazaki's dark fantasies in this particular form, my brief hands-on with Dark Souls III left me feeling confident that this might be a fitting statement on which to close the trilogy. Not just a return to form but a subtle reformation, it's already looking formidable and I've spent the day since playing re-running those first steps and slaughters in my mind. It's already made a home there.