Blocking is Cool Actually

It is easy to focus on a myopic view of skill in video games as pushing a button to hit a tight timing window. It’s a common skill test. It’s a very obvious demonstrable skill. Most laypeople can easily recognize that it takes skill. However, there are a lot of other skills that are common in video games, and the purpose of these skill tests is not just to test skills in a vacuum, which is easy, you could go hop on human benchmark and do that all day, but to create a larger system of choices and interactions that test a variety of skills at once, and creates variety in the way each skill is tested. Continue reading

Sekiro is not a Souls-like

I have previously written on what I feel makes a game souls-like or not. I think Sekiro has a lot of the same feeling that Souls games do, being made by the same developer and having a world that reacts similarly to your actions, but I don’t think it’s a Souls-like game because the combat doesn’t emphasize the same skills. I think Sekiro is closer to Batman Arkham Asylum than the Souls games.

Demon’s Souls was a critical innovation in combat systems compared to other 3rd person action games because of a few key decisions: Slow player attack speed, uncancellable attacks, shared stamina across running/dodging/blocking/attacking, a realtime healing animation. Sekiro has 1 of these, realtime healing, which is the least essential. Instead, Sekiro has fast attacks, it lets you cancel them for a significant portion of the startup of the move, and it does not have a stamina system, only a guardbreak meter.

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The Traveling Soulsman

So, I’ve been playing Elden Ring lately, and taking some notes. In the process of drafting up my thoughts on it, I ended up with a long tangent about non-linear interconnected maps in Metroidvania style games, and how the souls series tackled this precisely once with Dark Souls, and never again, because they made every bonfire warpable. I decided this tangent was long enough to deserve its own article.

The open world of Elden Ring creates a level of non-linearity and interconnectedness that hasn’t been seen in the series since Dark Souls 1. Ordinarily, fast travel to every bonfire would ruin this, but I think it works fairly well in Elden Ring’s case. Areas aren’t connected by corridors like the Soulsborne games, so you end up doing a lot of exploration anyway, instead of just teleporting to the level you want to go through. Given the distance between locations, going without fast travel wouldn’t really have been viable, because you might end up needing to travel a really REALLY far distance.

The benefit of nonlinear games (like Demon’s Souls) is that you can complete content in differing orders, making it so that no two playthroughs repeat content in the same order, adding a degree of depth. Nonlinear interconnected games (like Dark Souls) expand on this by having you traverse mixed portions of content forwards and backwards, even after you’ve beaten it, meaning you don’t just experience content out of order, but in a varied stitched together order many times over, while also having to engage in pathfinding challenges. In a nonlinear game, you might simply select the content you want to complete as need arises (eg. figure out what level has the thing you’re after, warp to it, progress through the level until you get it).

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What is “Souls-Like”?

A lot of people have covered this topic before. I’m more doing this to pin the idea down in case it comes up in conversation again, than because it’s something that really needs to be discussed.

Souls-like is a subgenre of Action RPG games, formed by the unique conventions of Demon’s/Dark Souls. Similar to a roguelike, the Souls series of games have come up with a number of unique conventions that many other games have taken some degree of inspiration from. Games that follow enough of these conventions can be called Souls-Like. Some of them are more influential than others.

High Influence

  • Collecting a currency that is lost on death, but stored at the place where you died, and erased when you die again.
  • There are standard action RPG trappings: levels, equipment, consumable items,
  • The player’s standard attacks have a startup of about half a second or longer (30f at 60fps)
  • Players and enemies can have their attacks interrupted by hitstun.
  • All combat actions (attacking, dodging, blocking, running, parrying) are rationed through a shared stamina bar.
  • You are committed to attacks once you start them and generally cannot interrupt your attacks, except by being hit by enemies.
  • Attacks have actual hitboxes during their animations, not paired animations.
  • There is a dodge and block ability.
  • Using checkpoints resets your health, healing items, and the enemies in the level, but don’t reset items collected or changes to the level’s state.
  • Level design based on checkpoints and opening up shortcuts to earlier checkpoints.

Low Influence

  • Spells, items, and other actions have associated animations that can be interrupted by hitstun before they take effect.
  • Other players can join you to cooperate in beating levels.
  • Other players can invade your single player session to try to kill you in PVP
  • The actions of other players on the network can have an effect on your local session, such as leaving messages behind.
  • You can warp between checkpoints.
  • Some moves have super armor, or there is a poise system that confers armor
  • No pausing, except at checkpoints
  • The controller convention of having attacks and blocking on the shoulder buttons, and item management on the Dpad.
  • Having a classless RPG system, where the only differentiation between characters is their stats and equipment, no fundamental new abilities, or permanent bonuses.
  • Having a metroidvania style interconnected world that becomes more interconnected over time.
  • There aren’t many cutscenes, or canned animations.
  • The setting of a kingdom that was once great, but some calamity connected to the main plot befell it, and now you’re wandering through its corrupted remains.
  • NPCs that all have a sinister chuckle.
  • The game is hard.

Which Should be Faster? Players or Enemies?

Should an enemies attack speed be faster than the players? Or should it be the other way around?

The player’s attack should be faster than enemies. Enemy attacks should always be 20 frames or more of startup, assuming 60FPS. You can dip below that into the 16 frame range if there’s a setup where the player knows to anticipate it. You can dip into the unreactable range only if it’s guaranteed in specific scenarios, so the player knows it will always happen going into those scenarios.

Players should generally be faster than enemies so they can deliberately choose to attack to beat out an enemy’s attack. The downside of this is players can continually attack a single enemy to beat them, always counterhitting their attacks on startup, but that’s what you have multiple enemies and super armor or poise for.

Dark Souls was smart and decided, “What if player attacks were on the same timescale as enemies, or only slightly faster?” Which makes committing to attacks versus enemies risky. Even in dark souls, average weapon startup tends to be slightly faster than enemy attacks.

If you have enemies be uniformly faster than players, then the player needs compensation in some way, like superior range, or whiff punish ability, to reasonably compete with enemies.

Would a Harder Zelda be as good as Dark Souls?

Do you think that the difficulty is important in defining the level of quality in a game’s combat? For example, if the Souls games were a lot easier, would the combat’s simplicity become more of a problem? Is the average Zelda game’s combat the equivalent to a much easier Souls game?

The average 3d Zelda game isn’t really equivalent to the Souls games because even if you run a 3 hearts challenge in Zelda, the game won’t get any deeper. I did this in Breath of the Wild, and the additional penalties aren’t bringing out more efficient use of alternative options, the base combat system largely lacks alternative options.

Souls did something super smart by having attacks from the player come out slower, it put the player on the same pace as enemies. It then has other factors like stamina, which help connect the system together, requiring you to manage that factor over time in addition to the complexities of combat. Stamina also discourages shield use, makes the shield system actually work by giving people a reason to not block. Dodges have iframes instead of purely being evasive. Etc.

You can’t just make Zelda games harder and end up with something like dark souls, you need to make the enemy designs more complex, and the design of each move more multi-faceted.

Difficulty is important for making players pursue the higher efficiency of using all their options, but it’s not everything. Difficult games aren’t better by default, and making a game too difficult can end up making the game extremely restrictive, eliminating depth from the game.

You want to encourage actual use of the widest array of options. Which means first, those options need to actually exist, and second that the difficulty needs to be high enough that they’re necessary, and not so high that they’re rote.

Further reading:

Hollowing/Embering in Souls

Any thoughts about hallowing/embering in Souls, especially how it’s handled in 2?

Okay, so, the whole system starts in Demon’s Souls of course. You have body form and soul form. In body form you have full health, in soul form you deal more damage the more white your character tendency is. Then you have the cling ring, which is kind of hidden, but it’s available in the first level, gives you 75% of your health in soul form. Body form is restricted to non-renewable resources, bosses, and stones of ephemeral eyes. How often are you really gonna kill a boss or pop an eyestone to get full health? So what’s the real default health that the game is balanced around? Realistically, the game is balanced around you having half health, and full health is a bonus. Soul form is actually easier than body form. You don’t need body form at all to beat the game.

And these forms have another effect, they control online play, limiting the ability of people to summon help for levels. The bonus to damage in soul form means that invaders are balanced out against people in body form. And then there’s another knock-on effect, deaths in body form affect the world tendency of a given area, making body form increase the difficulty even more.

So what’s the purpose of this? How does it affect the game? It means occasionally you get this bonus to health, nerf to damage. What does that do? What problem does that solve? Not really anything. Realistically, you’re gonna play most of the game in soul form anyway, and if you’re not in the know, you have the potential to use up all your eyestones, make the world tendency of every area pure black and make the game super hard for yourself. Playing around with world tendency is pretty fun for players in the know who do repeat playthroughs, but the idea behind taking your health away and giving it back sometimes doesn’t seem to have a real purpose, it’s just there for flavor.

Dark Souls dumped the concept, made humanity renewable, just had forms affect the online element.

Dark Souls 2 did basically the same thing as demon’s souls, made human effigies non-renewable, gave you a 75% health ring at some later point, and made the decrease in health extremely gradual, but still balanced the game around the 50% health mark.

Then Dark Souls 3 was like, “Okay, people don’t really get that the health is supposed to be a temporary bonus to add some variance because it looks like we took something away from them, lets show it as a bonus instead” And they made embers renewable.

The whole thing gets played up a lot as being bad game design, “punishing” players for dying, making it so bad players are punished even harder. I saw one guy call it “republican dad game design”. I mean, the exact same thing happened in WoW with the rested/unrested bonus/penalty.

And people know about this now and still say they like Dark Souls 3 better for framing it as a bonus. People are dumb, about all I can say.

Favorite Nioh Bosses

Surprised no one’s asked you that much of Nioh outside of general impressions, do you have any favorite Bosses?

In order of appearance, Hino-Enma, Tachibana, Yuki-Onna, Okatsu, Saika, and Oda Nobunaga. Plus of course the combination fights of Oda and Yuki, and Tachibana and Honda.

I think each of these bosses emphasized the core group of skills that the game was based on, had varied movesets that controlled different areas of space over different lengths of time, and were generally challenging. They’re some of the best bosses I’ve ever faced in a video game. Continue reading

Why Dark Souls 2 is Worst Dark Souls

What makes Dark Souls 2 the worst game in the series?

A lot of things. Lets ignore the downgrade and everything involved in that.

Like, a lot of the shit with dark souls 2 was just people being disappointed because they were shown a better product than they actually got.

Probably the biggest thing I’d fault the game for is the return of healing items and Soul Memory. Giving a practically unlimited source of grindable healing was a terrible idea. Upgrading the flask over time made sense, but starting with only 1 flask was also terrible, meaning you’d have almost no healing in early areas where you needed it the most.

Soul memory was an attempt to prevent people from “twinking”, meaning collecting high power gear on a low level character, but it ended up making power levels even more disparate between PVPers, and it punished bad players who replayed areas a lot and lost a bunch of souls. Plus it eventually pushed everyone into the same soul memory tier on top, regardless of how powerful they actually were, and it made co-op with friends way more complicated. Invasions almost never happened (I literally did not get invaded once), it was a total mess.

The netcode was abysmal, somehow worse than the already bad netcode of its predecessors.

For some reason, if you used up all your stamina, you were not allowed to run until it all regenerated to the top, and then some, and if you used up some before it filled all the way, you still couldn’t run. In the other games this debuff only applied if you used up all your stamina by running and in games after this it only lasts to 75%. In DaS1 and DeS, you can undo the debuff by rolling or attacking.

I thought giving mini-bosses multiple lives was a good idea, but then it turned out you could kill any enemy repeatedly to despawn them, so being persistent through a tough level would slowly make the level easier, which is lame. This also acts as anti-grind, since you have a definite limit to how much you can grind, which is sort of good, but in all practical terms it sucks if you just need a few more souls to buy healing or want to get a specific rare item drop, and doesn’t realistically limit people enough to prevent grinding.

Fall Damage is calculated differently. Instead of the distance correlating to a percentage of your HP in damage, instead fall distances just scale a static amount of damage. So you always take the same amount of damage for a given fall distance, regardless of whether you have enough HP to survive it or not. I think this change was made purely to gate off the pit until you’re stronger or can afford the cat ring.

Recovery time relative to IASA frames in Dark Souls 2 is also highly skewed, so that on most attacks, you were negative on hit if you waited the entire recovery time, and positive if you canceled into a dodge or another attack. It’s just kinda weird.

Attacks for some reason have no hitstop, making them feel a lot weaker, and making it harder to tell whether they hit or identify the point of contact.

The adaptability stat was a wash, since it would invisibly add more iframes to dodges.

Then they had poison behave like toxic and drain health quickly, and they still kept toxic for some reason.

Mytha the Baneful Queen was just miserable, both that they decided to make an arena like that in the first place, and that you had to take a torch from the bonfire and set fire to the metal part of a windmill to get rid of the poison. That literally makes no sense.

Some enemies had hitboxes that made no sense, like the grab attack on the ogres, mimics, and a lot of different attacks on all the different giant enemies and bosses.

Vendrick and the ancient dragon were just poorly considered. They have like, infinity HP and will kill you in one hit. Plus the ancient dragon has a few attacks that are pretty much guaranteed to kill you if you’re not careful or if you’ve never seen them before, like him flying in the air and torching everything beneath him. Because of the massive amount of health they have, this fight goes on forever and you can’t take any damage during it.

The way dodges are implemented is really offputting. Instead of having different dodge animations of different speed and different iframes, equip burden affects the distance the dodge will move across, which isn’t actually that useful, since you usually want to have a lot of iframes, but stay reasonably close to enemies while moving around them. Instead, low equip burden in dark souls 2 doesn’t actually affect your iframes at all, it only changes the animation, and now with low equip burden, an attempt to roll around the enemy can move you really far away from them in the process, making it harder to punish enemies with dodge rolls at lower equip burden than at higher equip burden, unintuitively.

An additional weirdness of dodges is that the frames immediately after the iframes have hyper armor, so you can take damage during them. Since there’s no hitstop in this game, it doesn’t clearly register as a hit, it’s sort of like a phantom hit or something that you take damage for even though it seems like you avoided the attack. And the hyper armor makes it seem like you phased through the attack as if you were invincible, but you take damage anyway. This is especially disconcerting versus grab attacks, since you can appear to dodge them, then it catches you on the hyper armor frames and you teleport into the grab animation.

And the way you move around is just weird. You can sort of spin in place without moving, unlike the other souls games, and you won’t run if you’re up against a wall. I have no way of summing up how weird it is.

The jump is also kind of weird, but it has tradeoffs. Unlike in the other games, it’s actually a jump, but it’s a really small jump, but you can get way more distance off it. The downside is that sometimes you can get a “baby-jump” that doesn’t go anywhere. Nobody knows what causes this, people just know that it’s not random, but it happens without any known cause.

Beyond that, the game is just underwhelming in terms of its content. It didn’t really go out of its way to deliver masterful levels or enemies or bosses, they’re just average generally. It doesn’t have Dark Souls 1’s lows, but it also doesn’t have its highs. It’s more consistent, avoiding gimmick bosses, but the bosses & enemies aren’t amazing all around, just average.

Sure a lot of Souls question lately huh? Jumping on the bandwagon by bumping an old question of mine (DeS’s strong points and if it does something not completely outdone by its sequels) and asking more insight on DaS2’s animations and why people call them clunky, floaty and other buzzwords.

Sorry, I’m pending a replay of DeS to answer that one. Intuition tells me it holds up, I’m 90% certain, but I doubt my recollection.

I’d say primarily the issue with DaS2’s animations is that attack animations have a really long recovery compared to other games in the series. I just tested it and their IASA frames kick in really really late, and unlike the other games, don’t vary the IASA timing based on whether you hit an enemy or not (in Dark Souls 1, many weapons would take longer to recover on whiff than hit, in DaS2, they take the same amount of time regardless). Also it all feels kinda weird because it’s the first time From experimented with animation blending instead of just canceling the animations, so there’s an unnatural smoothness to the recovery as one animation leads into the other instead of a snappy instant response to let you know it’s totally done.

The other weird thing is that with a lot of weapons, you’re actually minus on hit. Your recovery animation is longer than the enemy’s hitstun animation, which is really weird feeling. So if you hit them, then try to walk away, you can actually get punished for that. This means you need to either spend stamina on dodge rolling out of the way, or use the weapon’s combo cancel point to do the next hit in the weapon’s combo, which will then put you back in the same situation of being minus on hit again. It’s weird, doesn’t feel right.

I think the reason they did this was to make whiff punishing more viable in PvP, just a guess, but it has weird consequences on the PvE.

That and the animations just aren’t as high quality. They’re serviceable, but not great. Not as much exaggeration as the other souls games, which is part of what helps sell the weight of the different motions. During the roll, your character moves at a constant rate and seems to glide across the ground, augmented by how the roll distance scales depending on your equip burden, so it’s playing the same animation scaled to different lengths than it was originally animated for.

Plus the way you accelerate in general is just weird. I can’t even describe it. Like, semi-rapidly rotate your stick, and instead of running around in a circle, you’ll be stuck in one place spinning around a central point. They changed something about the way walking itself works, and there’s so many possible ways they could do that, and it’s such a subtle thing, I can’t tell exactly what it is.

The Majesty of Dark Souls 3’s Backstab

Can you explain how the backstab mechanic is different in the Souls games and why you think 3 has it best?


Backstab works basically the same in Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls. If you’re behind the enemy, standing within a certain area, and press R1, then at that moment both you and the enemy will play a joint animation where you backstab him. During this animation you’re both invincible. It’s sort of like a 0 frame throw in old versions of street fighter. Oh, and you can’t backstab if your shield is up.

This meant that backstab, no matter what weapon you had, was essentially instant and inescapable. Your only defense was preventing the enemy from getting behind your back at all. Backstabs were more powerful than regular attacks, so a lot of PVP was just about backstabbing and avoiding backstabbing.

In Dark Souls 2, they decided to mess with backstabs a little. Instead of instantly going into the combined animation where you’re stabbing them, they gave you a little punch animation first. This punch was unblockable and would cancel on hit into the full backstab. If it missed then nothing else would happen. This is a bit more like a modern fighting game throw. You have a chance to roll out or walk away before getting hit by it. This significantly reduced the role of backstabs in PVP, while keeping them viable. Backstabs were still really powerful in PvE however. Also from a thematic standpoint it’s kind of weird that you punch the guy then stab them, didn’t really match the prior games.

In Bloodborne it seems like they REALLY didn’t want anyone to fuck with backstabs at all. In order to get a backstab, you needed to charge your R2 attack all the way up and hit the enemy in the back with it, much like the positioning for backstabs in the other games. Then they’d become vulnerable and you’d get to do the 0frame throw thing for a ton of bonus damage. So overall you were getting a lot more damage out of successful backstabs in bloodborne, but it was a lot harder to set them up mid-combat, and they were now basically completely irrelevant to PVP.

In Dark Souls 3, they clearly wanted to have backstabs match demon’s souls and dark souls 1, and to do this they assembled a mechanic that’s practically a work of art. Basically, when you press R1 within the activation range, instead of directly entering a joint animation with the enemy, you’ll instead play a specific backstabbing animation. If the enemy stays close to you, then at a certain point in this animation, there’s an invisible unblockable hitbox that comes out that forces them into a joint animation with you, canceling whatever they were doing, and canceling your lone backstabbing animation into the joint backstab (using animation blending). If they aren’t in range of this hitbox, then you’ll just continue to play the lone backstab animation, which functions as a regular (slower) attack basically. So you smoothly either get a backstab or just stab without needing to punch them first like dark souls 2, and without an instantaneous startup like DaS1 and DeS.