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Dark Souls III is faster, weirder, and far more beautiful

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When you enter the South Hall of the Los Angeles Convention Center at this year's E3, the first thing you see in the lobby — before the Halo soldiers and Forza cars — is a knight on his knees after plunging a sword into a helpless demon's heart. Sometimes fake blood spurts 20 feet in the air. Behind the gory scene glow the letters: DARK SOULS III.

The elaborate display is emblematic of how From Software's bloody, brutally difficult series has become the biggest, most relevant Japanese franchise in the West. The Souls games' rise to global success seemed unlikely just a few years ago, after Sony turned down the chance to publish Demon's Souls outside Japan, but now they're an established fixture. And with director and visionary Hidetaka Miyazaki's latest game Bloodborne widely considered one of the best reasons to buy a PlayStation 4, Dark Souls III has more converted to preach to than ever. The game's initial announcement brought the roof down at Microsoft's Xbox conference on Monday.

The most striking entry in the series to date

I myself am not one really of those converted, barring flirtations with Demon's Souls and Bloodborne. But after watching Miyazaki play through about 20 minutes of Dark Souls III, I think this might be the point where I jump in. The stage I saw was called Wall of Lodeleth, and its gothic medieval setting is instantly evocative, with ash-covered dragon corpses and jagged spires silhouetted against a hazy sun. The Souls games have never been the most technically accomplished, but stylistically they achieve a lot with a little; combined with Dark Souls III's smoother performance on Xbox One, it's the most striking entry in the series to date.

Miyazaki says Dark Souls III is intended to be "faster" and "more intuitive" to play than its weighty predecessors. Bloodborne remains the speedier game, but Dark Souls III has options like a short bow that you can fire in the middle of rolling dodges — "just like Legolas," Miyazaki quips — or dual scimitars that can take out multiple enemies at once. Shields return as a primary defense option after Bloodborne largely abandoned them, but overall the combat appears to be a lot more fluid; the faster speed appears to make it easier for the player to take on groups of rank-and-file enemies, flipping between targets before cutting them down with smoothly animated sword slices.

dark souls 3

That'll come in handy, based on the boss fight demonstrated at E3. The giant creature, called Dancer of the Frigid Valley, is one of the oddest enemies I've seen in a recent video game, a towering, willowy knight that suggests a twisted cross between Slenderman and General Grievous. Her movements and attacks with a jagged, flaming sword are erratic and unsettling, which Miyazaki says is designed to confuse the player and create a different kind of challenge.

"We're trying to go to the next level in Dark Souls III in terms of the character design," says the director; if the Dancer and another bizarre, sinewy creature that burst through a roof at one point are any indication, his team may well have succeeded. From Software has done a fantastic job of adapting fantasy tropes into an unmistakable signature aesthetic.

Dark Souls III isn't a revolution, and the series probably doesn't need an entry every year or two. But with its faster pace, more comfortable performance, and peerless visual design, this might be the most broadly appealing Souls game yet. It'll be out for Xbox One, PS4, and PC in early 2016.