Dark Souls: The Combat

I got the chance to have a brief sitdown with Bioware last week, and in the course of our discussion my interviewer asked me the following question:

“What would you say is good about the combat in Dark Souls, what’s bad, and what would you change to make it better?”

That’s tough.  The combat in Dark Souls contributes to its signature skill-based feeling, being both tough but fair.  I appreciate that each weapon feels distinct, that the combat is responsive for each weapon, and that you can create an unfair advantage for yourself by swapping your playstyle.  Choosing your preferred weapons and then turning them into victory over the next challenge is the greatest source of reward in Dark Souls, for me.  It’s a validation both of my choices in the game, and of my learning and skill as a player.

I’ve heard people describe Dark Souls as both “fair” and “unfair”, which I think are two sides of the same coin.  It’s fair because you have the same capabilities as your enemies.  It can feel unfair because playstyles counter each other; when your enemy’s style counters yours, you’re in for a serious challenge.  You can always change your style, however, and earn an advantage for yourself.

The toughest question is what’s bad about the combat, and how to improve it.  Changing the combat risks toppling the careful balance of emotion and skill that it sets up.  My answer during the interview was that I don’t think the animation system does a good job of broadcasting when  you’ve successfully parried an attack.  I recall in Demon’s Souls that if you parried, the enemy was knocked back into a very obvious “open” animation; in Dark Souls, the enemy simply interrupts their attack and stands in a neutral pose.  This seems like a problem of animation blending, and to improve it I would look at ways to tweak the animation system to transition enemies into a clear “parried” state.

What else could be improved with the combat system?  Not regeneration-over-time, as it would only encourage players to wait and regenerate after every fight.  A conning system, displaying your enemies’ strength, would reduce the tension, fear, and ultimately the sense of victory.  I feel limited by the fact that my weapon upgrades consume resources, and I don’t know if those resources are unlimited or not; this encourages focus.  Improving communication of a weapon or armor’s effects on your playstyle might be nice, but investigation and discovery is a core part of the Dark Souls experience.  Tweaking any of these things would alter the emotional impact.

So what would I change?  I guess I need to know why we want to make a change at all.  To know how to change Dark Souls’ combat, I would need to identify a new direction for the game.  More accessible?  Less punishing?  More punishing?  More responsive?  There are certainly options for all of these, but it might shift the emotional experience at the core of the game.

For the experience that Dark Souls currently offers, I would only refine animations to ensure the greatest clarity.