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.
It’s hard to hear anything about Salt and Sanctuary without the inevitable comparison to Dark Souls. That’s both a good thing and a bad thing. People love Soulsian design and want to see more of it, but that makes it hard to appreciate SaS for what it is rather than what it mimics. The first major difference is that SaS is a 2D sidescrolling platformer whereas Dark Souls is in 3D, and it’s truly impressive how SaS managed to retain so much of the Soulsian feel despite the perspective shift. But I think that one major aspect of Soulsian combat is tracking, and it got a little bit lost in translation.
WARNING: Boss spoilers for both Dark Souls 3 and Salt and Sanctuary.
Weapon Tracking and Frustration
Tracking in a Soulsian game refers to the following situation: an enemy is preparing up to attack you at your current position. You move to a different position, thinking that you are now safe because they will attack where you were and not where you are now. But then the enemy turns while still in its windup animation to face your new position and attacks. When this happens, the enemy’s attack has tracked you. Player attacks can have tracking too, and this becomes very relevant in PvP, but for the sake of this essay I will be focusing on enemy tracking.
Each enemy is meant to have different tracking patterns. Some of them won’t track the player at all. Others will be able to turn on a dime. Maybe this boss holds its weapon in its right hand, so you’ll have better luck dodging to its left. Or this one has a piercing lance that can’t track rotational movement very well, but they have a lunging strike that punishes you if you try to back away in a straight line.
In this clip by theDeModcracy, we can see his character rolling to the side, but the boss turns around and keeps charging at him. This is a boss with very good tracking, and he’s meant to be difficult. A high range of trackability allows Soulsian games to give depth to rolling as the primary defense mechanic. All attacks are countered by rolling, but you need to roll in a different way every time. Roll to the right, to the left, straight forward, straight back. Wait a short moment before rolling, or roll multiple times in a row. The rhythm of “wait for enemy attack, dodge, counterattack, repeat” is given variety through tracking patterns.
But the problem with SaS is that it loses a whole axis of possible tracking: rotation. You cannot rotate around an enemy. All you can do is be on their left, or be on their right. A sidescrolling perspective cannot support any other configuration.
Of course, you still have other axes. Maybe you are far away, or maybe you are close. Maybe you are above, or you are below. And there are plenty of enemies who track you along those axes. But all of those axes are in 3D Soulsian games, too, in addition to the rotation that SaS lacks. And realistically, neither SaS nor 3D Soulsian games use verticality for anything other than gimmick attacks, so that’s one less axis for enemies to track players along.
Problems With Limited Axes
The result is that nearly every enemy has instant horizontal tracking. Just look at this clip by Fextralife. Even if this giant sea demon gathers all its momentum for a heavy forward leap, it’ll just spin right around and smack you if you try to get behind it. There is no spectrum, and there is no way for an enemy to turn slightly towards you. They are either facing you, or not facing you.
With only a horizontal axis to work with, melee bosses start to feel the same. They attack, you roll to their other side, they turn around and attack again, you roll to their other side again, and you keep doing it until you see an opening for a counter, and you attack, and then that whole cycle repeats until the boss is dead. You’ll be doing this from the beginning of the game until the end.
It’s entirely logical why this happened from a design standpoint. Walk with me through this train of thought: you are a designer and you want to make a melee boss stronger. How do you do that? Sure, you could make their attacks hit harder, but with a game this long, eventually you will reach a point where enemy attacks could one-shot players, and that’s not fun at all. And you can make the attacks faster, but that will reach a maximum cap as well, because once you go faster than a human could reasonably react then it’s not fun either.
So instead, you give their attacks more combo chains. They will attack not one time, but two, three, maybe four times in a row. Even if a player deals with the first strike, they will be challenged by the following ones. Now the enemy is stronger, but there is still a problem: it’s too easy for players to deal with the first strike. All they have to do is roll through the boss to the other side and they’re safe. Those combo chains won’t matter, and they actually just give the player a bigger window to keep attacking. This is also why it won’t work to give the attack more range, because range only extends in one horizontal direction, and the player won’t be in that direction.
To fix this, you have to give the boss 180-degree tracking so the subsequent combo hits are meaningful and dangerous. And now you have come full circle. This is pretty much the only sustainable, scalable way to handle melee bosses under SaS constraints.
Fodder enemies have a little bit more flexibility because they’re not meant for drawn-out meaningful battles. For them, it’s fine to balance them with surprise range/leap attacks. But when it comes to bosses, you have to assume that the player is going to be fighting for a while. In a situation like that, the only purpose that a boss’s attack range serves is to punish players who back away to heal or buff, but it does nothing for toe-to-toe combat.
The end result is that it boils down to a lot of memorization. You can’t get behind an enemy and attack unless you know that they won’t twirl around and whack you in the face. There are no tells, no animation blending, no indication that an enemy is about to flip sides. And then you get to phase two of a boss and suddenly they can track you in the middle of a combo where they couldn’t before. It ends up being a lot of trial and error, which is not a healthy way to create frustration.
How would I solve this problem? I would take advantage of a 2D sidescroller’s unique new axis: verticality. Add more attacks that can be dodged by jumping. Integrate air dodging as a combat mechanic rather than a movement gimmick. Possibly even add some kind of crouching state. This would almost push it in a Super Smash Bros direction, where aerial combat is just as important as ground combat. And this would also be unique to a Soulsian game.
In fact, I think the most interesting and exciting boss battles in SaS are the ones that already do this. Mage bosses in particular (such as the Witch of the Lake, shown here by FMJInertia) have lots of attacks that interact along the vertical axis, such as homing missiles or fireballs. While most attacks track you on the x-axis, these magical barrages also follow your y-axis. Verticality is a whole new dimension of gameplay, and considering how so many people struggled with the Witch, it probably wasn’t eased in as well as it should have been.
What if there could be more vertical-based attacks that aren’t necessarily magical? Maybe a boss stabs the ground in front of itself and you can jump over the blade? Of course, this is a little difficult because all the bosses are like three times taller than you (as Soulsian design dictates) but I’m sure there’s a way to make it work.
When you play a Soulsian game, it feels like defense is all about timing. You have to roll at just the right time for your invincibility frames to work. You have to parry at just the right time before the enemy attack lands. You have to hold your shield just barely long enough so you keep regenerating stamina. But I would argue that while timing is important, spacing is also just as important. Positioning yourself in blind spots, or chugging an Estus just out of a boss’s reach, or angling an attack around an enemy’s shield.
So when I look at Salt and Sanctuary, I see a perfectly playable and very fun game, but I also see a project that’s a little bit stuck in its old ways. Soulsian design is great for a lot of things, but it doesn’t belong in every context. When Dark Souls and Castlevania have a baby together, don’t be surprised when it grows up to be a rebellious teenager who wants to get out of its parent’s shadows.