THE UNLIKELY FRANCHISE
The Souls series officially began with Demon’s Souls, which garnered a hardcore but niche following when Atlus brought it to North American shores. But the roots of the series go much deeper into From Software’s history. From its first title in 1994, King’s Field, the company’s forte has always been dark fantasy action/role-playing. The King’s Field series (and other similar From Software titles like Shadow Tower) didn’t catch on with Western audiences, but Demon’s Souls proved to be the right game at the right time. While many titles in 2009 were trending toward handholding tutorials, casual difficulty settings, and linear crafted experiences, Demon’s Souls offered gamers a challenging experience with almost no direction at all. With very little explanation of systems or guidance, players were expected to explore and discover things on their own; finding their own methods to battle difficult bosses and unlock hidden secrets.
Communities formed over these discoveries, and when Dark Souls launched in 2011 the series was in the spotlight for the first time. Like Demon’s Souls before it, Dark Souls became a critical darling, and when Dark Souls II came around in 2014 it hit the high-water mark for the series in terms of both sales and critical reception. To date, the Dark Souls franchise has shipped more than eight million copies.
From Software followed Dark Souls II up with this year’s Bloodborne, a game that shares most of its traits with its predecessors, which currently sits at a 92 on Metacritic and cracked one million sales after just two months on the market on a single platform, the PlayStation 4. While it’s not officially a Souls game, Miyazaki’s mind and mechanics stand out as hallmarks of the horrific jaunt through Yharnam that’s slightly more accessible than the titles before it, eliminating some of the player choices involved in character builds and removing the “hollowing” death penalty from Dark Souls II or loss of humanity from Dark Souls.
Dark Souls III continues the trend toward accessibility (not to be confused with difficulty – Dark Souls III will be just as hard as its predecessors), but maintains important factors that distinguish itself from Bloodborne, like build differentiation and player options. “The Bloodborne team and Dark Souls III teams are different, so [there is] no direct relationship, but elements such as the action speed and gameplay elements that worked well in Bloodborne are things we wanted to bring over to Dark Souls III,” Miyazaki says. “The action speed and controllability felt good when developing Bloodborne, and was an element that influenced the tuning and adjustments made in Dark Souls III. By developing Bloodborne, it was a good opportunity to realize again the good elements of the Dark Souls series. Examples are the variation on character types that can be created and the role-playing elements that aren’t available in Bloodborne. This helped us to understand the key elements, and enhance them further to really capitalize on the features that make Dark Souls unique.”
INSIDE THE MIND OF MIYAZAKI
Given the dungeon crawls through damp poisonous hells Miyazaki puts players through, one might expect a misshapen, shambling hermit that oozes venom with every breath. Instead, the cheery, animated Miyazaki displays an enthusiastic, almost bubbling personality, gushing about his favorite aspects of everything from tabletop games to curry rice. That’s right – Miyazaki loves to cook.
“It’s like playing an RPG,” Miyazaki says about his hobby. “I like cooking by taking time, paying attention to all details, gathering the proper equipment, and taking all steps necessary to create something great. The more time and care that is spent, the better the food becomes. Curry rice is my favorite to make.”
Miyazaki’s unassuming office at From Software reflects his love of games and lore, stacked high with shelves containing books and board games (with a copy of Arkham Horror that looks like it was from the first run in 1987), a meeting table overflowing with stacks of Magic: The Gathering cards and a wayward Dungeons & Dragons manual, and a whiteboard with the frantic scribblings of an impromptu design meeting.
Miyazaki’s presidential abode isn’t a palatial barrier between himself and the production team, but rather a cozy nook that exudes all of the influences that go into the warped worlds of the Souls titles. Miyazaki is unguarded as he speaks about his passions, often going quiet in thought for a few moments before beginning a torrential, enthusiastic rant about a favorite level or feature.
Despite the grotesque terrors and uncompromising difficulty that Miyazaki is known for, the director says it’s all about making the player happy in the end. “For me, difficulty is a tool to express the challenge in the game, and the overcoming of the challenge is what we want players to experience,” he says. “I want to have the game be worth something, and one of those elements is the satisfaction of overcoming the challenges. The difficulty is one of the tools we use to portray this. It’s not necessarily the only method, but it’s something we use to express the worth of the game.”
Miyazaki was warm and personable during our extensive time with him for this cover-story trip, but the director can be notoriously taciturn when it comes to dealing with gaming press and public relations, and his direction is absolute within the office. Miyazaki is the gatekeeper of all things Dark Souls III, with no one else on staff allowed to discuss the project on or off camera, according to publisher Bandai N amco.
Some of the exclusive material that Game Informer flew out to Japan to see for the first time was deemed off limits after we stepped into the halls of From Software, even though we confirmed these topics mere days before our Tokyo trek. Among the promised conversation points were specifics regarding the ceremony gameplay mechanic, an in-depth look at magic and the magic system, and playing through a portion of the Tokyo Game Show demo build,
which includes the new magic-wielding class and a wealth of other new content. The extent to which we had access to this material can be summed up with my first question of our lengthy Miyazaki interview. “Can we talk about what ceremonies are and how they work?” I ask. The answer is a simple, “Not at this time,” which was a common refrain for every question on the subject matter we were promised to see. Despite repeated questions about where this communication faux pas occurred, whether it was in Bandai Namco’s hands or simply Miyazaki’s last-minute change of heart, we were unable to confirm the true cause for the severe lack of new information about the game.
According to multiple sources in the industry, who wish to remain anonymous, Miyazaki has a reputation for changing intentions on a dime, forgoing established plans to discuss or show his titles and refusing to bend once that position has been made. After being assured that answers to some of our specific questions regarding these topics would be available shortly when we returned to American soil, the Japanese branch of Bandai Namco went silent on the topic for days and eventually told us nothing else was on the way because Miyazaki and his team were behind on the Tokyo Game Show build, and ceremonies were being redone and may not even be available in the TGS build. No one we talked to from Bandai Namco knew what was going on with the state of the TGS demo or even the features we planned to discuss. It’s pretty clear that at From Software, it’s Miyazaki’s way or the highway.
While Miyazaki’s relationship with the gaming press is hardly a concern to the average gamer, working with From Software and Bandai Namco on this cover story can only be described as confusing and punishing – much like a first-time player stepping into the world of Dark Souls. Regardless of the problems we ran into in securing new information, Dark Souls III shows that Miyazaki’s approach to difficulty when making video games is in high demand.
NEW DIRECTIONS FOR THE SOULS SERIES
Coming down the pipe shortly after Bloodborne, Miyazaki quickly transitioned to Dark Souls III. “I was originally offered to work on Dark Souls III, and I accepted because I have always liked the Souls series and also because I was able to realize once again the great elements of Dark Souls while working on Bloodborne,” Miyazaki says. “I thought that if I worked on Dark Souls III, it would be a good time and opportunity to create something great. Working on Bloodborne, I started to miss working on magic, dragons, and fantasy.”
While players can expect to see many of the same classic Dark Souls tropes like knights, spells, bonfire checkpoints, and larger-than-life bosses, Miyazaki is making serious changes to some systems in this installment as he returns to the director’s chair, having sat out in that capacity for Dark Souls II. Many of the little tweaks and decisions reflect Miyazaki’s own choices from Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls, and perhaps a bit of Bloodborne as well. Combat is noticeably faster than previous entries in the series.
One of the completely new concepts in Dark Souls III is the ceremony ritual. Based on our cover artwork and the Gamescom trailer, it’s reasonable to infer that what we’re seeing is a new mechanic that allows players to create their own bonfires through a special ritual. While From is being secretive with details, this new mechanic is one of the big new features that comes into play in this latest installment.
Battle arts add a new element to physical combat, allowing players to tap into weapon-specific special abilities that have a certain number of charges that can be refueled at bonfires. These range from things like the Guts-inspired Players will notice blood gushing out of enemies in Dark Souls III. Not as much as Bloodborne, but it’s noticeable greatsword lunge, rapid-fire bow attacks, or the dual-wielding scimitar whirlwind. Special moves like these provide players with greater tactical options when faced with daunting boss encounters or tough enemies like knights. Don’t confuse battle arts for a system where you can just button-mash to win, though. Many of these abilities require timing and come with their own risk/reward assessments that players must gauge in the heat of combat.
Another major feature in Dark Souls III is an overhauled magic system. Players have had access to magic in previous titles, but From Software is doubling down for Dark Souls III. The new system is built on magic points – or a mana bar similar to the health bar – that gives players more management options instead of the limited charges from previous Dark Souls titles. Essentially the goal is to no longer have magic governed by an explicit finite resource from fire to fire, like estus flasks. “By changing the magic management system to an MP scheme, options and freedom of utilization should increase,” Miyazaki says. “This way we can better clarify the differences in managing items and magic.”
Not to be outdone by battle arts, magic users are getting new options with their spells as well. “We will make sure that they are not just the same type of spells with different attributes (i.e., spear type, lightning type) but actually have specific characteristics that can enhance the players play styles and strategies,” Miyazaki says. “Players have more criteria to accurately choose the different types of spells to best fit their tactics and strategies. This is similar to the thinking behind the characterization of each weapon and their specific battle arts.”
Optional online play has always been an interesting way to engage with the Souls games, and From Software is shooting for six-person multiplayer functionality in Dark Souls III, but we’re not certain if it will make the final version of the game. According to Miyazaki, players should also have an easier time engaging and summoning NPCs in Dark Souls III compared to previous titles. Players do not require a limited item to invade, a system that many PvP fans disliked in Dark Souls II. Don’t be surprised if there is an arena area for those looking for an epic fight, but we don’t have any details on it other than its likely existence.
“Summoning and invasions will probably not change very much,” Miyazaki says. “Summoning signs will be used, and PvP will use the invasion system. Invasions do not involve limited resources. I don’t think that people wanting to play PvP should have to work to acquire the limited resources. Further, for matching, we plan to implement the soul level (character level) system, not soul memory.”
Covenants that players can align with for various bonuses are coming back for Dark Souls III, but Miyazaki is changing some of the aspects around to make them easier to understand.
“Covenants to this point had separate rules depending on each of the covenants, but this time I am thinking of maintaining a common rule across the covenants regarding invasions and summoning,” Miyazaki says. “Within these rules, various characters appear and various events will occur. For example, in previous games, each covenant had different rules. For Dark Souls III we’re hoping to maintain the basic rules of invasions and co-op for each of the covenants, but each particular covenant will determine who invades, who cooperates, what events happen, etc.”
The demo places the player high atop the Wall of Lodeleth, a castle-style area that’s similar thematically to the Undead Berg from the original Dark Souls. Other similarities exist as well, including an encounter with a dragon on a bridge that can lead to fiery disaster for unwary players – though clever ones will quickly tip the situation in their favor, leading mobs of dangerous enemies into the dragon flame for easy souls.
Travelers encounter many of the staple Souls enemies in this area, including lightning-fast skeletal dogs that can
throw the player off balance and make them vulnerable to more devastating attacks, the all familiar hollow with a torch that flails like a madman, and larger lumbering foes wielding axes. Amongst these adversaries are knight enemies that aren’t quite as difficult to take on as the black knights from Dark Souls, but they force a player to respect them. Knights have access to a variety of abilities depending on their type and weapon, and I even saw them switching stances a few times during combat. Knights are intelligent and deadly opponents, and can kill a reckless player in mere moments.
The Wall of Lodeleth is clearly infused with philosophies from the first Dark Souls, with locked doors and looping connections opening up new routes. The melee attacks (even with medium to heavy armor equipped) mixed with the new battle arts is faster than anything the series has ever seen, resulting in what feels like a harmonious mix of Dark Souls and Bloodborne. As I explored this area’s dark towers (with the assistance of a torch and a pile of firebombs), I eventually stumbled into the lair of one of Dark Souls III’s new denizens, the Dark Knight.
While The Dark Knight doesn’t have a boss health bar, he serves to display a new debuff that players must have to deal with: frostbite. Much like poison or toxin, a frost bar will fill up when wandering into cold areas or hit by special attacks, and the consequences are dire, draining the stamina bar and hindering stamina recovery, making the player an easy, crippled target.
Like in Bloodborne, Dark Souls III bosses feature a transformative or “heat-up” system that alters their behaviors and abilities over the course of a battle. One of the signature boss encounters that many players have seen at this point is with the Dancer of the Frigid Valley, a dangerous battle with a blazing backdrop that ups the ante halfway through by giving the Dancer an additional sword and new attacks.
FAME, FRANCHISES, AND THE FUTURE
Miyazaki’s critical role in one of the most acclaimed series of all time has thrust the From Software president into the spotlight, which he rarely chooses to embrace. Miyazaki says this recognition and acclaim hasn’t changed him, pointing out his lack of interest in the pursuit of fame. “I personally don’t feel there is a value to me presenting the games I create,” he says. “I feel the value in me is with the games I develop, and that is something I would like people to experience. But other than the game I develop, there is very little value in me, and so I tend to avoid presenting myself. I feel that the best means of expressing myself is by having players play my games, and not being very good at carrying out presentations, I try to refrain as much as possible.”
Miyazaki realizes that is a natural conflict in speaking to Game Informer about his upcoming title while attempting to refrain from presenting it. “I always enjoy talking about games and having this type of discussions with people like yourselves, but when I go home tonight, I may think back to the things I have said and regret how I have presented it or explained the details,” he says. “This may be a little contradicting, but it is why I try to stay out of the spotlight.” Whether Miyazaki is interested in recognition or not, the Souls franchise has moved far away from the niche audience it started with. Coming to all major platforms in early 2016, Dark Souls III shows promise to continue the cycle by igniting the flame all over again.