Dark Souls Combat

Isometric Dark Souls

You’ll be hard pressed to find someone who hasn’t heard of Dark Souls at this point, but without actually having a chance to play the game yourself it’s hard to summarize why it’s good other than to say it’s satisfyingly difficult.  That’s quite true, but the satisfaction comes from the depth of its combat system.  You have a myriad of tools and options at your disposal in the game and because of this, repeating sections of the game doesn’t have to feel like you’re doing the same thing over and over and over again.  It’s a playground for exploring the combat mechanics that’s incredibly well realized.

What makes combat in Dark Souls deceptive is that at first glance, it appears to function as a run of the mill hack-and-slash dungeon crawler.  As soon as you begin to treat it like one though, it just doesn’t feel right (especially since you’ll be dead.)  Your avatar doesn’t act the moment you hit a button, and they will become almost entirely unresponsive.  One of the first things to stand out will be the stamina meter, which falls at a steady pace while you are engaging enemies.  Your stamina represents how much energy you have to expend on any given physical action.  In other tactical games, this would essentially represent action points.  However, it is also depleted when deflecting blows or running.  When your stamina is exhausted you will no longer be able to attack, and the next blow you receive will cause you to stumble.  You’ll also stumble if you try to strike the enemy and they successfully block it.

This alone still doesn’t quite set it apart from hack-and-slash games.  Managing your stamina, selecting where and when to engage an enemy, and when to let your guard down to recover is fun.  What really makes it interesting is that all enemies also have stamina meters.  It incorporates a whole new layer of challenge and advantage to the experience that forces you to think about the game in a very measured way that’s more similar to strategy games than action games.  For many enemies, your goal is to first exhaust your target’s stamina as to make them stumble.  The easiest way to do this, many times, is to simply block one of their attacks against a shield.  You’re not simply deflecting the blow in order to control the timing of your attacks against theirs – you are leaving them unable to react at all since they exhaust their stamina.  From there you have the opening to attack them with your weapon, with one hand, both hands, or to flank them and execute a backstab for critical damage.  You must remember though that the enemy will recover stamina shortly and return blows, at which point you must have enough stamina to deflect them or roll out of the way to recover yourself.

This balancing act between using your stamina to attack and to defend is a huge part of the game and what makes it a dynamic experience.  There are ways to rely less on stamina.  Sorcery, archery, and advanced combat techniques (e.g. parry and riposte) allow you to choose a different type of risk (you will be attacked without shielding yourself) in exchange for ranged attacks and conservation of your stamina.  The game comes up with many different ways to throw you off balance while trying to manage your stamina (or control range.)  Here are a few examples.

  • Sen’s Fortress will force you to manage combat while simultaneously navigating environmental hazards.  You don’t exactly have room to put distance between you and your target, and when you’re hit with an environmental hazard you’re either already dead or vulnerable to enemy attacks.
  • Blighttown assails you with enemies that will afflict you with status ailments.  Poison and toxin will build up in a meter in the middle of the screen, and when it fills you’ll lose HP at a slower (poison) or quicker (toxin) pace.  Either way, you’re forced to strategically disengage the enemy long enough to drink from your estus flask to restore your health or to cure yourself of poison/toxin.
  • The Tomb of the Giants is pitch black.  Unless you have a lighted helmet, you must carry a lantern in place of either your sword or shield.  Even then, you cannot see very far in any direction.  When you do see an enemy, if you are not moving slowly, you will almost immediately be attacked by large enemies with fearsome attacks which quickly deplete your stamina.
  • The Duke’s Archives features enemy mages which have strong, ranged magic attack.  They are usually defended by several regular enemies which force you use special magic resistant equipment and use careful crowd control methods
  • There are many enemies that can break your weapons and armor (which can only be fixed at bonfires or blacksmiths) rendering them ineffective.  Weapons will also break after prolonged normal use if not regularly repaired.

Of course stamina is only one part of Dark Souls, but I feel it’s the keystone around which the rest of the game is able to shine.  It drives the game’s PvP community where creative strategies can win over sheer numbers.  Duels are popular and have led to the emergence of PvP etiquette as opposed to open free-for-all.  It gives the game life beyond it’s already entertaining (and repeatable) campaign.  The combat system is a thoroughly rewarding game mechanic that’s encompassed by a game that realizes its full potential.  That’s a rare accomplishment, and is why the game enjoys such enduring popularity.  I can only hope that lightning strikes the same place a second time when Dark Souls II is released this March.


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