All screens from 'Dark Souls III', via Xbox Wire
Fans of the From Software's Souls series got pretty much everything they could have wished for at this year's E3. Not only was Dark Souls III unveiled, but it was also confirmed that Hidetaka Miyazaki, the much-lauded director of Dark Souls who gave up the reins of the sequel to make Bloodborne, would be back in charge of proceedings. It was like Christmas morning, only one where the presents are all deadly traps and your relatives have started finishing their sentences with deeply unsettling laughter.
But since then, feelings towards DSIII have turned to trepidation. Now that the hype has died down, and we've all acknowledged that the second Souls is the weakest of the series, an early 2016 release for the third game means that development time is short. Only a year, give or take a month or two, will separate Dark Souls III from Bloodborne, with many of the former's creative team crossing over from working on the latter. Miyazaki, now installed as president of From, has promised longer gaps between Souls games in the future, to allow for revitalising breathing space. But Dark Souls III will be on us before we know it, so here are some suggestions for its makers to heed for the remainder of its development, if they're to produce the very best Souls game yet.
LINK THE MAP
"Linked maps are my favourite," Miyazaki said at E3, which was music to the ears of Souls fans. The world of Lordran, from the original Dark Souls, has a unique sense of place that's often cited as the key to what made the game special. But whereas Lordran was a masterpiece of design, an ingeniously interconnected realm of sadness and chaos, the sequel's Drangleic was more a series of disconnected levels. The infamous lift from Earthen Peak, a huge structure in a barren valley, inexplicably leading up to a realm of volcanic lava, is the most egregious example of its lack of logic.
The smaller design choices were also what made Lordran feel so magical – every enemy and collectable item in Dark Souls is placed with care, providing hints towards the game's arcane lore. On DSII things were much more scattershot. Grave Wardens in the Undead Crypt makes sense, but what were they doing in Earthen Peak? Even the rabid Souls community couldn't dream up a reason. That lack of attention to detail caused a gnawing sense that things weren't quite what they could have been.
RECAPTURE THE SIGNATURE SENSE OF RUINED BEAUTY
There was a now-famous exchange between Miyazaki and one of his designers while making Dark Souls that perfectly sums up his sensibilities. On being presented with an early design of the Gaping Dragon boss, which had been sketched as a Resident Evil-style grotesque horror, he responded by saying: "This isn't dignified. Don't rely on the gross factor to portray an undead dragon. Can't you instead try to convey the deep sorrow of a magnificent beast to a slow and possibly endless descent into ruin?"
You have to wonder what he made of DSII's The Rotten, a creature made of hundreds of rotting corpses smushed into one disgusting bloody cleaver-wielding mass. Throughout DSII you could sense the absence of Miyazaki's guiding hand, with many of its bosses missing that weird grace that the Souls' best possess. Their design also fell into the pattern of big-humanoid-creature-with-even-bigger-weapon a few times too many – From need some inspiration to stop players feeling like they've seen it all before in DSIII.
FINISH THE DAMN GAME
The Scholar of the First Sin expansion for DSII was a strange thing – a remixed version of the game with a smattering of added content it was, in itself, rather good. But coming so soon after the original release it smacked of From trying to hastily fix their mistakes and add some polish that should have been present at launch. Its release also split the player base – SotFS players can't interact with those running the vanilla version. This is poison for a game that thrives on its unique multiplayer. Up until this point From was one of the few developers doing DLC right. SotFS was a blow to that reputation – and if they can't get it right first time around on DSIII, they could lose the fanbase's faith altogether.
BE CAREFUL WHEN RETREADING THE PAST
There were large chunks of DSII that were more or less reskinned parts of its predecessor – Blighttown had its analogue in The Gutter, Heide's Tower of Flame looked a lot like Anor Londo, and so on. It is suggested that the realm of Drangleic is actually the land of Lordran set thousands of years later, which is a decent excuse for all the similarities, but the longer you played DSII the more the same enemies and locations started to feel less like welcome déjà vu and more like lazy design. There are strong clues in the E3-shown DSIII trailer that point to the forthcoming game taking place in the same locations yet again, but From need to get the balance between nodding to the past and cynically reusing assets right this time.
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DROP THE EARLY GAME FAST TRAVEL
In DSII the ability to warp between bonfires, something only available in the later stages of the original, was available from the off. It may sound masochistic to ask for something so handy to be removed, but for many this ability spoiled the rhythm of the game. The Souls series' difficulty is more than just a badge for hardcore gamers to show off – it's key to their appeal. There's something about the lonely trudge through such relentless cruelty that gives the games their grim charm. Dark Souls' most infamous area, Blighttown, would not have been quite so notorious if players were able to beat a hasty retreat to wherever they liked when things got tough. Making the game more accessible is no bad thing – Souls' popularity has skyrocketed since Demon's Souls launched the series on the PS3, and there's nothing wrong with making things more welcoming to newcomers. But giving them a watered-down version of the game is robbing them of the true Souls experience.
'Dark Souls III', E3 2015 announcement trailer
KEEP TWEAKING THE COMBAT
If this all sounds damning to DSII, it's worth remembering that it's still a very good game that only struggles to impress when set in the shadow of two great ones. And it did take the series forward in terms of its mechanics – the faster, more versatile combat was brilliantly realised, and the addition of dual wielding gave the more adventurous a chance to play in a more attack-minded fashion. The early showings of DSIII suggests that From has made further tweaks to enable even more varied play styles, and there will no doubt be lessons learnt from the very aggressively focused Bloodborne added to the mix. The combat in Souls is amongst the most precise and most challenging in gaming, and with each iteration From has managed to improve it. If the studio can do so again, while returning to the detailed world building and creativity of the first two Souls games, then Dark Souls III could well be their finest hour yet. Could.
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