Digital Media PhD Student
Kenneth is a doctoral student in the Digital Media PhD program. In his series “Kenneth on Games” he writes about his passion for games and game design.
When I first played Dark Souls, I thought “wow, this game sucks.” Then as I kept at it, I started saying “you know, this isn’t terrible.” Now, I’d sell my firstborn child for a new Dark Souls. Luckily, I don’t need to because the third game has been out and I’ve been busy racking up my death counter. But Dark Souls 3 implements something we haven’t seen since Demon Souls: a mana bar. These new “focus points” add more options to your combat repertoire, but they come at a cost to not only the complexity level, but also the thematic core of a Souls game itself.
Fixing The Mana Problem
I have a bit of a personal vendetta with mana systems. There are always going to be problems when you try to balance a game mechanic using an external resource as a lever. When you do something, whether it’s swinging a sword or casting a spell, it should be as self-contained as possible, with enough room to express skill and style just by itself.
The Dark Souls series has historically had problems balancing mages for this exact reason. Previously, mages had attunement slots where they could put in magic spells, and each spell would have a certain number of uses. All of these uses refill when you reach a bonfire, but until then you have to calculate what spells you want and how many you’re going to take (duplicate spells will give you more uses at the cost of taking up more attunement slots).
But the act of casting a spell itself was very boring. You roll away from your enemies until you’re far enough that you can cast a soul arrow, then rinse and repeat until they’re dead. Doesn’t matter who you’re fighting, mindless hollows or glorious kings, you just roll and shoot. Instead of the moment-to-moment engagement with enemies, you focused on juggling numbers in the big picture. It’s no wonder that sorceries were the easiest way to clear the first two Dark Souls games.
Melee combat was so much more nuanced and deep than spellcasting. There was rolling and there was backstepping and blocking and parrying and poise and all sorts of things. When you encountered an enemy, you didn’t just keep your distance and shoot them until they died. You had to get in their face and understand how they worked.
Sorcerors in the first two Dark Souls games eventually turned into what I would call “resource tanks.” They just stack spells and blaze through everything using sheer quantity. Since they weren’t getting in melee range, they had much more leeway with their Estus, and all they had to do was watch the number of spell casts they had remaining. And that’s a pretty boring way to play.
The way I see it, there were two ways that From Software could have approached this problem. They could either give spells a comparable level of depth that melee weapons have, or they could redesign the attunement system for a better resource-juggling experience.
Some of the new spells actually do take the first approach. The Farron Dart and Flashsword spells can be used from a sprint or a roll, much like melee weapons can. But From Software decided to double down on the second approach, and that’s where I believe focus points came from. Now, you have to pick how you want to distribute your Estus flasks: more health regeneration, or more FP regeneration.
Resource tanks can’t just have everything now, because if they want more spellcasts they have to sacrifice their healing potential. Magic was solved. Casting a spell still isn’t very interesting in and of itself, but there are enough external levers in play to turn sorcerors into tacticians rather than resource tanks.
Introducing Weapon Arts
Then they tried to extend their FP system to melee combat and created weapon arts, and I think this was dangerous territory. Sometimes, designers get too clever and outsmart themselves by stuffing way too many things into one mechanic. There’s a thin line between elegance and oversaturation, and From Software crossed that line.
Basically, a weapon art is a special ability that each weapon has. Some weapons will share the same art (usually weapons in the same class, like longswords and broadswords). When you activate the art, it drains a little bit of FP as it executes. That’s about as descriptive as I can get without going into specifics, because the specifics are just a complete mess. Some of them activate immediately. Some of them give you a buff. Some of them let you do a combo attack while the buff is active. Some of them will put you into a stance mode, and while you’re in the stance you get two new attacks. Some of them can be used even after your FP’s run out. And only one of them needs to be charged up. Shields are even worse.
It really makes you wonder: what problem were they trying to solve by adding weapon arts? Melee combat was already fine. No one was asking for the ability to do cool special attacks. Usually when you’re fighting, you just swing once and then get ready to dodge a counterattack. It’s rare to get more than two strikes off on an enemy in the same combo.
Usually when you add a new mechanic like this, you create some very tightly crafted situations where you need to use it. Think about picking up a boomerang in a Zelda dungeon. Now you have buttons placed across pits that you can only hit by throwing a boomerang. Or you have enemies who are more easily defeated from afar rather than with a sword. Then you have a boss who takes all of those new boomerang mechanics and puts you to the test. Standard stuff.
But weapon arts are so convoluted and disjointed that this isn’t possible. In fact, such a philosophy would go against Dark Souls itself. The theory is that you can clear any area with any loadout. Mages can succeed, and swordsmen can succeed, and assassins can succeed as long as they are all skilled enough. Sure, it might be harder or easier for some, but everyone has enough tools at their disposal to deal with the situations in front of them.
The end result is that if you’re melee, you just don’t bother with them. You put all of your Estus allotment into your healing flask and you forget about FP. Maybe sometimes, you’ll use your weapon art, but you don’t need it. It doesn’t do anything that you weren’t already able to do anyway.
Dual-wielding (or power-stancing) in Dark Souls 2 had this exact same problem. They added a melee mechanic that wasn’t adding anything substantially new to the core gameplay, so it became forgettable. Maybe some gimmick builds or Fashion Souls-ers focused on dual-wielding, but it doesn’t seem like a ton of people miss it now that it’s gone. Feels like the same thing is happening with weapon arts in Dark Souls 3.
Finding A New Direction
To be fair, from a purely mechanical standpoint, there’s nothing wrong with having weapon arts. In fact, PvPers will eat up anything new that they can use just for the sake of mindgames. If it turns out that only a few melee players use weapon arts and the rest don’t bother, that should theoretically be perfectly fine.
But I think that weapon arts go against the core theme of a Souls game. It’s not about having cool moves or flashy combos. The Ashen One isn’t a badass god of war or an emo demon slayer with a haircut. They’re just one puny undead, a shrivelled husk of humanity with nothing left except the curse of immortality. Perseverance is your only superpower.
The Dark Souls games are not hack-and-slashes or power fantasies. They are frustrating, difficult games about weakness in the face of overwhelming odds. They are games where you’re up against giant bosses with swords three times your size, and all you can do is poke them a little and try to run away before they murder you. Weapon arts with cool elaborate combos are a little out of place in such a disempowering game.
As it is, weapon arts aren’t terribly useful, but even if they were buffed into viability I would still have a problem with the theming. I truly believe that they shouldn’t have been added to the game. At the very least, I would want to chop off the FP usage, normalize all weapon arts to be a single action on cast (no more stance nonsense), and then rebalance from there, considering them purely as tools in the arsenal rather than special attacks.
That still leaves the problem with sorceries. Remember that under my theory, FP was added to make spellcasting more interesting, and then weapon arts were added to FP. Theoretically, you could just keep the whole FP system and just remove weapon arts, but that would be a little awkward.
If it was me, I would have reworked sorceries to be less reliant on resources, and more reliant on skill. Maybe I would have moved the charge feature off of melee heavy attacks (because who is ever going to charge up a heavy attack?) and put it on spellcasts instead, like you can charge up a Soul Arrow to make it stronger and give it the ability to pierce shields. I believe there’s a world where FP simply doesn’t have to exist and sorceries are made free to cast. They would be much weaker, but have special mechanics that enable them to become much stronger when they are used skillfully.
Still, Dark Souls is a Japanese series, and Japanese gamers love their mana bars. While I might not be a big fan of the design, it won’t stop me from dumping more hours into this game. And if the Dancer of the Boreal Valley kills me enough, who knows, maybe I actually will try a pure sorcery build.