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The Dark Souls of Shooters, Part 2

Let's talk gameplay

Let's talk gameplay

„Punishing difficulty”, says The Myth of Soulsbornes. “Prepare to die”.

Not to burst anyone’s bubble, but finishing any Soulsborne can be done by any dedicated gamer. The games are indeed a bit on the hard core side, but they have nothing on the madness that were Spectrum and Commodore 64 games of the 1980s. One misstep in Jest Set Willy and you start from scratch.

The way that Soulsbornes achieve their relative friendliness is because they offer three paths to the final credits:

  • Skill. This one is obvious. Master the combat mechanics and be efficient with them.
  • Smarts. You can learn about the weaknesses of your enemies, you can ask an NPC for a boss fight help, you can kite enemies into easy DPS spots.
  • Power. Just hamster wheel through the grind spots, become overpowered and slice enemies with one swing of your sword.

Combine the last two and voila, you can do it. However, to be fair to Soulsbornes, they still throw Skill Checks at you. Everyone has “that one nemesis boss that’s apparently easy for everyone else but was hard for me”, and for me that was Bloodborne’s Lady Maria. No NPC to help, no shortcuts of any sort. I used Smarts (and got the Cainhurst armor set), I used Power (I was many levels above the recommended one), and I still had to git gud (Skill) before I finally killed her (30-40 tries in total).

But I definitely did not need to become insanely good in order to finish all Soulsbornes with all of their DLCs.

Can this Three Paths to Victory solution be used in a shooter?

Of course. Our current plan for Witchfire is to have a game of similar philosophy of Skill, Smarts and Power, with occasional Skill Checks where you have to prove your worth. We doubt you’d be able to finish the game by just being clever and over-leveling.

However, Three Paths to Victory as such is not a unique solution. For one, 2004’s The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay was a game in which you could freely alternate between Skill and Smarts.

What is unique about Sousbornes – maybe not exclusive, but it’s still a rare solution – is, despite the fact that these games have multiple layers of leveling up, health and damage scaling, etc., that you can still finish them unleveled, with the starting gear and abilities.

On the other side of the spectrum we have games like Destiny, that basically render enemies immune – literally, with big Immune! letters – if you’re a certain number of levels below them.

I’m not a fan of this patronizing solution. As explained in one of my previous posts, it is the Soulsbornes philosophy that is close to our hearts and is the core of our combat system.

But can this “no leveling-up, no damage run” be truly implemented in a shooter?

I think so, yes. While you cannot make the literal “Dark Souls of Shooters”, because you’ll end up with this…

…one can still adapt the “you can do it unleveled and without scratch” philosophy and translate it to a shooter.

Let’s sum up how Soulsbornes do it:

  • All enemy attacks are avoidable
  • Special attacks offer extra damage

On paper, this is fairly easy to implement in a shooter. Against harder or tankier enemies keep the body shot damage as a static value, but have the critical damage being a variable that scales to the enemy or at least offers a significant boost.

Now imagine that late game enemies hit harder or even one shot you, they all use attacks that are avoidable (e.g. all their weapons are projectile-based instead of being hit-scans) and suddenly you have a Soulsborne-blessed shooter: with perfect movement and aim, you can finish the game with no scratches and no leveling up.

I don’t think we will be going this way, though.

First, it’s one thing to mostly fight single enemies in third person and with the relative ease of creating space between you and them (Soulsbornes) and it’s another to fight a dozen or two of highly mobile enemies, attacking you from multiple angles, while you’re in first person and thus have very limited vision even if you set your fov setting high.

Expecting even the best of the best to remain unscathed just seems unfair.

Second, damage escalation is important in Witchfire, and you cannot escalate damage unless you have the gear and abilities.

For example, imagine a group of five enemies approaches, normally each of them requiring two headshots to kill. That is ten shots if you’re perfect with your aim and, since the killing will take time, your movement, having to avoid the enemies you’re currently not spraying with bullets.

But …you discovered or earned the ability to stun enemies, and you also have a gun with a perk that makes enemy heads explode. You use the stun, so now a single headshot kills. You headshot one of the enemies, he dies instantly and thanks to the gun’s perk, explodes. Remaining four enemies die with him.

For this second scenario to happen, though, as I said: you need both the ability and the gun with the perk. Since Witchfire relies on these combos – you will have a lot of freedom in that department, we’re pretty sure someone will find a game breaking combo on release – in order to challenge you, the starting gun just won’t do it in the later levels.

Still, the idea of unleveled runs is so intriguing that we have not fully given up on it yet. We won’t let it compromise the experience we have in mind but maybe a solution will spring to mind one day. For now, this is where we split from Soulsbornes.

I talked about Three Paths to Victory and unleveled no-damage runs, but there’s one more thing that’s, again, maybe not unique to Soulsbornes, but still definitely their signature. And that’s learning through death. From what I am hearing, it’s even more true in the case of Sekiro.

Here’s the problem. This works because Soulsbornes have pre-set encounters, there’s no RNG when it comes to what types of enemies you’re fighting or how many. You can almost do the runs around Yharnam with your TV turned off once you learn where every enemy is.

This is the opposite to e.g. rogue-likes, in which you have no idea what to expect. The difference between the two, then, is that rogue-likes demand that you master the mechanics, while in Soulsbornes you can compensate for your lack of mechanics mastery with the knowledge of the encounter. Translating to a shooter, you could, for example, compensate your shoddy aim with the knowledge of what are the safe spots during the encounter that would allow you to take some extra shots before the enemies reach you.

And it sounds good, but the problem is: this is a perfect solution for a linear game. But most gamers these days expect their games to last for dozens, if not hundreds of hours. Average completion time of Bloodborne is 35 hours with 78 hours if you’re a completionist, and that’s without the DLC.

Can a small indie studio make a game like that?


Which is why indie games are either short, or they rely on a highly replayable, entertaining gameplay loop. An indie studio can’t make another Half Life, but they can make another Left 4 Dead.

So this is yet another crossroad for us, one at which we take a different path to Soulsbornes. There will be Soulsborne-like sections in the game that rely on your mastery of the encounters but a lot of the game will be dynamic and require the master of the mechanics.

To sum it all up: making “The Dark Souls of Shooters” is definitely possible, and I think it would provide for a fantastic experience, but that’s not something we’re after. While heavily inspired by elements of Soulsborne philosophy, ultimately we carve our own path.

Question of the Week

Rest assured that there will not be any quicksaving in Witchfire.

Seriously though, probably not what you wanted to hear, but it’s just not this kind of game.

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