A hollow bursting through a barrel, or a knight waiting poised around a stonewall corner; Dark Souls has excelled at surprises just as much as it has its sense of rich, clotted enigma. How dispiriting, then, to be faced with a sequel that, from first impressions, felt so familiar. More Dark Souls will always be a welcome thing, of course, but could this sequel that's been fired off in quick succession after sequel expansion Scholar of the First Sin and spiritual partner Bloodborne be the proof that you can have too much of a good thing?
On the evidence of playing a new build at Bandai Namco's headquarters ahead of this year's Tokyo Game Show, probably not. Despite some initial concerns, Dark Souls 3 feels different enough to what's gone before to justify its existence, and to justify the tingling excitement that comes with the prospect of a new From Software game - and one helmed by Hidetaki Miyazaki, no less. This is a sequel that folds in some of the philosophies of the brilliant Bloodborne, while reintroducing some of the series' elements that were perhaps lacking in Dark Souls 2.
What's changed since the reveal, then? Well, amazingly, it's what's changed since Gamescom only a few short weeks ago that brings Dark Souls 3's promise into focus. Back then in the first hands-on it was about getting our head around Critical Arts, special attacks tailored to each weapon and available when you're two-handing. With a scimitar, for example, you launch into a dervish of blades, while a greatsword can be used to launch enemies comically high into the air. Their use is limited, however - back in Cologne, the system was governed rather clumsily by a number by your health bar that would deplete with each move, being restored once you'd found your way back to a bonfire.
Now, though, a more elegant solution is in place. There's a magic meter sitting between your health and stamina bar, a throwback to Demon's Souls own approach, and performing critical arts as well as summoning spells eats into this. Restoring MP's more straightforward than the spice gathering of Demon's Souls, too - you've now got in your possession a second, blue estus flask that can be glugged to top up that bar.
The result is a game that feels rich in options, especially coming so soon off the back of the relatively streamlined Bloodborne. It's something I felt when playing Scholar of the First Sin in the immediate aftermath of Bloodborne, and something that's felt even more keenly when playing Dark Souls 3: the flexibility offered in your load-out, and the sheer breadth that's now in your vocabulary, is overwhelming, especially in a 30 minute demo where you're busily trying to take them all in.
Even then, it's easy to resort to old favourites - my own being a great sword that can be brought crashing down on hollow heads - and going back to turtling larger foes. Dark Souls 3 accommodates that, but it still pushes you to play a little differently. Enemies seem keener to draw you out, and to invite you to rush in, which conspires to make for a much more aggressive game than what's gone before in the Souls series. It's not the out and out hack-fest that was Bloodborne - you won't gain health back by swiping at enemies, with the character builds supplied at least, so you're only ever a few well-placed blows away from being sunk violently to your knees - but there's definitely a faster, more intense feel to its combat.
What Dark Souls 3 also takes from Bloodborne is the sheer density of detail. The sparse, sprawling environments of Dark Souls 2 are no more, with a return to more intimate spaces that double back on each other in mind-melting configurations. It's a density that's more pronounced than that of the original Dark Souls, perhaps down to the fact it's allowed to lean hard on the current gen, something also told by the floating ash particles that seem central to Dark Souls 3's themes. That, and there are plenty more dragons this time around.
Dark Souls 3 still feels familiar, and comforting even - a strange situation given the hostility the series has often been renowned for. Meddle with those new systems, though, and get lost in the options the Critical Arts bring, and it'll soon yank you out of your comfort zone. There's never been any doubt over Dark Souls 3 being a great game - the interesting thing right now is how different it could well be.