The Complexities of Castlevania: SOTN – Standard Weapon Design Space and Variation

December 6th, 2017

Richter

[When developing Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, director Koji Igarashi wanted to make a game which would “overturn player’s ideas about Castlevania, yet also feel like a Castlevania game”. In pursuing this vision, his team made SOTN’s game system much more complex, incorporating RPG systems and a wide variety of nuanced player actions. This series of articles will examine how these additions shape SOTN’s core gameplay of moving through space to dodge and attack enemies.]

“Since we increased the size of the player character, we had to think about how that balance would work with the traditional whip; the problem is that the whip would reach across the entire screen, so we decided to make an action game based on other weapons instead”.

Koji Igarashi, SOTN designer

These “other weapons” form the foundation of SOTN’s combat system, defining the timing and spatial dynamics of each encounter as well as the player’s viable options. The weapon system provides the combat with a great deal of potential variety, but its sprawling and unregulated nature also clutter and fray the play experience.

The player can find around a hundred weapons scattered throughout Dracula’s castle and equip them as they please. The game organises the large number of arms into several groups: clubs, fists, shields, short swords, one-handed weapons, two-handed weapons, and throwing projectiles. By adjusting the variables below, the developers ensured that each weapon type occupy a unique functional position within the design space.

So short swords, one-handed weapons, and two-handed weapons represent the majority of arms and present the player with a reasonably clear choice between:

  1. Short swords: high speed, low/medium range, and low power
  2. One-handed weapons: medium speed, medium range, and medium power
  3. Two-handed weapons: low speed, high range, and high power, but no defence boost from shield

Shields allow the player to block attacks; and as the only equipable to offer this function, they play a distinct role in the design space. Similarly, throws have a unique range and travel arc which allow the player to attack from a distance. Clubs cover Alucard from the front and rear and do hit damage as opposed to cut damage (an additional attribute). Fists have a limited range, but a high speed. At close range, fists can perform double damage and from above Alucard can attack enemies beneath him.

“Each staff member had a special attachment to a different kind of blade, so we ended up with a good variety…”

Toshiharu Furukawa, SOTN designer

Each weapon within a group conforms to the same general properties, but occupies its own space within the category’s range. Furthermore, many weapons are imbued with additional attributes which facilitate more nuanced playstyles and contribute to a more varied and wrinkly combat system. The three examples below demonstrate the implications that weapon choice has on gameplay.

Estoc Attack

The Estoc is a giant German two-handed sword with a strong attack, huge hit box, and long attack duration. These strengths are balanced out by several significant drawbacks:

Together these weaknesses make it impossible to attack half-height ground enemies, unless the castle architecture allows Alucard to approach from below (for example, on a staircase). This gaping blindspot encourages the player to develop new ways of engaging these foes.

Despite belonging to the same weapon category, Nunchakus (a pair of wooden hand batons) are completely different from the Estoc. They have weak attack, a small hit box, and a short attack duration. A fast start up time and a second follow through attack that occurs soon after the initial strike offset these cons. Although Alucard can attack quite quickly with the Nunchakus, he needs to be closer to his enemies to land the full attack, which puts him at greater risk. Thus, a Nunchakus wielder would need to have a greater consciousness of enemy openings and be able to develop strategies for sweeping in and out of enemy range.

The Icebrand and Mormegil are almost identical except for their elemental attributes. The Icebrand, being an ice elemental weapon, does extra damage against fire enemies, but heals ice enemies. The Mormegil, being a dark elemental weapon, does extra damage against holy enemies, but heals dark enemies. Depending on the given situation, the effectiveness of either weapon differs. So these two weapons encourage an awareness of enemy elementals and stress player knowledge.

“…though this did result in the developers’ favourite weapons being super-powered. Not realising that no one liked shields was a bit of a blind spot…”

Toshiharu Furukawa, SOTN designer

As the second half of Furukawa’s comment denotes, SOTN’s complex weapon design space suffers from a number of blemishes which significantly impeed the gameplay.

Weapons not conforming to type

Although Nunchakus and the Estoc belong to the same weapon class, they facilitate completely different combat dynamics. Wielding Nunchakus involve dealing with enemies at close range (higher reaction and adaption skills), while the Estoc prompts the player to compensate for a gaping blind spot (more strategic, planned attacks). Nunchakus function more like fists than a heavy two-handed weapon. Weapons like Nunchakus (which are in no small number) therefore blur the clear separation between categories, which makes it more difficult for players to rely on the weapon categorisation to make informed decisions over weapon choice.

The Shotel, Combat Knife, and Basilard similarly betray the definition of a short sword. The Shotel has a medium range, the Combat Knife has a shorter range, and the Basilard has an even shorter range still, even though the game classes them all as short swords.

Too nuanced to be applicable for average players

As with the high jump and air kick, some weapon properties are too slight or nuanced to be functionally viable for your average player. For example, certain weapons have elemental attributes (such as Icebrand and Mormegil) or are sharp (swords) or blunt (clubs). Weapons with these particular properties work well against some enemies, but not against others. However, effectively exploiting these details in combat hinges on some unrealistic expectations:

As for how many weapon attributes are too slight or nuanced, I find it hard to draw a clear line. I also haven’t tried out all of the weapons myself, so I’m not exactly sure. You’re welcome to judge for yourself though. This weapon list shows each weapon’s special attributes.

Weapons as progress indicators lead to clutter

Despite the significant array of choice on offer, most weapons conform to its category’s base speed, range, duration of attack, and attack animation properties, with the key differentiator being power. So as Alucard progresses through the castle, he stumbles upon similar weapons with increasingly higher power stats. The idea being that weapon power creates a sense of character development as the damage numbers go up. However, using weapons as a barometer for progress like this adds an excessive number of functionally similar items to the player’s inventory. Regardless of the fact that weapon specialties are perhaps too nuanced for most players, the paralysing effect of having so many choices in one’s inventory only makes it harder for players to realise the versatility on offer.

Conclusion

SOTN’s arsenal of weapons provides a rich design space which focuses the player on various facets of the game’s combat design (for example, close combat, agile but weak attacks, and elemental strikes). The weapon classes provide reasonably clear distinctions and help players organise their preferences. The variation works on a functional level because the properties of weapon size, length, hitboxes, and animation are grounded in the dynamics of time and space.

However, complexities relating to more abstract attributes (such as elemental and sharp/blunt indicators) sit outside of the average player’s reach. Also, some weapons function more closely to weapons outside of their designated type. These anomalies fray the distinctions of choice within the game. The overwhelming number of weapons on offer (for the sake of facilitating player progress) also swamp the design space, which makes it harder for unique options to stand out. One can’t help but think that 30 more functionally distinct weapons would be easier for players to manage than 90 reasonably similar weapons. So much like the traversal mechanics, the weapons suffer from unrefined details in the game’s design.

The Complexities of Castlevania: SOTN – Traversal

December 1st, 2017

 

Alucard

[When developing Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, director Koji Igarashi wanted to make a game which would “overturn player’s ideas about Castlevania, yet also feel like a Castlevania game”. In pursuing this vision, his team made SOTN’s game system much more complex, incorporating RPG systems and a wide variety of nuanced player actions. This series of articles will examine how these additions shape SOTN’s core gameplay of moving through space to dodge and attack enemies.]

When Igarashi’s team were drafting up Alucard’s (the player avatar) ability set, they drew upon the framework established over the course of earlier Castlevania titles. However, the developers also made some alterations and introduced new mechanics which give SOTN its own particular character. I’ve picked out a few details (both new inclusions and series staples) which speak to the way SOTN mechanics and mechanical properties shape the nature of traversal and movement.

High Jump SOTN

Dive Kick SOTN

Overall, we can see that the complexity added to Alucard’s repertoire of traversal mechanics both in terms of the number of mechanics and the complexity of each mechanic lead to more nuanced-driven gameplay. I would argue that very little of the nuance (probably only the extra hop in the double jump) has the ease of use and functional benefit to serve your average play in any meaningful way. (On the contrary, these nuances help buoy the SOTN speedrunning scene). The inclusion of these nuances as well as mechanics with particularly narrow functional purpose clutter SOTNs play experience with unviable options.

Resident Evil 3: Killing Nemesis (Level Design and Movement)

November 3rd, 2017

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Having extensively researched Resident Evil: Code Veronica‘s level design last year, I set myself an extra challenge when recently completing Resident Evil 3. I decided to defeat Nemesis (the Terminator-esque monster who ruthlessly pursues the player) in all 11 encounters with him throughout the game. Although my playthrough was greatly lengthened by the pursuit, the experience helped me better understand classic Resident Evil movement and combat and why they’re perhaps not so fondly remembered.

Level Design

Resident Evil 3‘s interlinked city environments belong to the Resident Evil 2 style of level design. The player traverses each main area about two or three times before moving onto the next. Usually one of the backtracking paths will feature new enemies or situations to surprise players. By contrast, Resident Evil 1 takes place entirely within the a single interconnected environment and can therefore craft more folded and organic level design. Code Veronica draws from both styles and as such I think it probably would have been a better title to close the trilogy, at least in terms of level design variety.

Jill’s path through Racoon City runs through a series of laneways and buildings which wind around numerous roadblocks resulting from the city’s decay. Yet while authentic to the game’s overall theme of aftermath and destruction, the mishmash of loosely associated environments don’t lend themselves well to memorisation. In particular, the linked rings layout of Downtown don’t break down into manageable shapes.

Movement

The player can make Jill run by tilting the analogue stick forward. By then tilting the stick to one of the adjacent diagonal positions, Jill will turn whilst running. However, if the player tilts too far in one direction and the input registers as a tilt to the left or right, Jill will stop running and rotate on the spot. The analogue nature of the dual shock stick makes it difficult to identify the sweet spot between the diagonal and horizontal input selections. So I found that I would sometimes inadvertently stop Jill dead in her tracks, thus leaving her vulnerable to attacks. This problem usually occurred in the Nemesis battles, which require Jill to tightly circle the monster.

Resident Evil 3 features a quick dodge mechanic where the player can avoid attacks by aiming and firing their weapon as an enemy attacks. The unintuitive button configuration speaks for itself in that sometimes the player will attempt to attack, but will instead dodge, and vice versa. In this way, the game’s output betrays your own input. The timing needed to execute the quick dodge is also extremely tight (on hard mode). And even though I defeated Nemesis on every occasion, I could never intentionally perform a dodge. Sometimes the dodge animation will put Jill in a position where she will take damage or cannot avoid the subsequent attack. For all of the reasons, I found the mechanic to be rather unreliable.

The quick turn (another new mechanic) also has its own quirks. In order to have Jill turn 180 degrees and run in the opposite direction (which is usually what you want her to do after turning), the player must press square and tilt down on the analogue stick before then tilting up to initiate the run. For quickly fleeing from enemies, the input process is simply too complicated.

The transitions when moving between prerendered backdrops require the player constantly recalibrate their orientation, which in the midst of a fight can understandably lead to error.

Beating Nemesis

Doing a “kill Nemesis” run fundamentally changes the nature of the game. Nemesis takes a load of firepower to down, so players must set aside a major portion of their munitions for the task. Given your regular neighbourhood zombie also seeks to drain you of resources, saving ammo translates to avoiding zombies, which requires a good understanding of their placement, direction, avoidance strategies, and reset options (leaving and re-entering a room). So by focusing on Nemesis, you stress a different area of the game system.

Resident Evil 3 Open Encounter

In terms of confronting the monster itself, the trick is to run around him, turn, shoot, and repeat. You must always brush past his shorter left-arm, as his right-arm has much greater reach. You must also stay within a set distance away from him, otherwise you’ll prompt him to burst out into a sprint attack, which is much harder to avoid. If you can master this simple technique, then Nemesis isn’t all that difficult…

Resident Evil 3 Closed Encounter

…at least not in open environments. The first confrontation out the front of the police station provides a good amount of room to develop your technique. However, several of the subsequent scenarios take place in corridors, where you have much less wiggle room to navigate and effectively have to run into Nemesis to avoid him. Overall, I found that these confrontations tend to highlight the weaknesses in the movement mechanics, as mentioned earlier.