The Long, Desperate Search To Understand Poise In 'Dark Souls 3'

Months after release, a frustrated <i>Dark Souls</i> community finally has the answers it's been looking for. It shouldn't have taken this long.

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Nov 16 2016, 8:19pm

There are many reasons FromSoftware's Souls series sets itself apart, and while difficulty gets most of the attention, its unconventional style of communicating with players is equally distinct. Souls games include tutorials for how to run around and attack enemies, but whole systems are left unexplained, either meant to be discovered by players or learned about online, as others put together how it all works. But crucially, the puzzle pieces are all there. This was not the case with the poise stat in Dark Souls 3. With poise, FromSoftware betrayed its principles.

In Souls, as with many RPGs, you grow more powerful by upgrading character stats and equipping different weapons and armor. If you're someone who wants to equip heavier armor and enormous weapons, that cuts down on mobility. But Dark Souls lets you compensate for that with a stat called poise. By investing in poise, a character can withstand attacks (and resist being staggered), and prevent their own attacks from being interrupted mid-animation.

Video courtesy of YouTube user Silver Mont

That's how poise worked in Demon's Souls, Dark Souls, and Dark Souls 2. Given Dark Souls 3 was pitched as concluding FromSoftware's "Dark" trilogy, it'd make sense for it to work the same.

Nope! This might seem like a small thing. What's the big deal with a developer changing how a mechanic works in a sequel? Isn't that the point of new games, to mix things up a little bit?

The problem is that Dark Souls 3 never communicated poise worked differently. In Dark Souls 3, players supposedly manipulate poise by equipping armor and rings. The way it describes poise—"the ability to withstand attacks without breaking form"—sounds familiar enough. But in practice, poise doesn't work that way at all. Even with heavy armor discovered at the end of the game, combined with rings meant to increase poise, enemies can plow right through you.

Video courtesy of YouTube user SteamBoy27

In the weeks after Dark Souls 3 shipped, players puzzled over poise, with most assuming it was a glitch FromSoftware needed to address in a patch. But patch after patch was issued for the game with no explanation for why poise wasn't working. This proved especially frustrating for players who preferred to run around with heavy armor and weapons; one of the primary benefits of that character build is supposed to be the ability to withstand hits from enemies. In a game about crafting characters around your playstyle, Dark Souls 3 was misleading people.

This sent players on endless sets of wild goose chases, carefully scrutinizing how weapons, armors, and rolls reacted, trying to determine when, where, and how poise much come into play, allowing players to use it. (Just try searching for "dark souls 3 poise" on YouTube.) Players wasted hundreds, if not thousands, of hours on this.

Ahead of the release of last month's downloadable content for Dark Souls 3, the latest patch notes dropped, and one line immediately caught my eye: "Adjusted poise values across the board. Poise is now more effective for heavier weapons and armor."

When the patch arrived, players immediately got to work on figuring out what was going on. The player who cracked it was Wayne "morninglord22" Norwood, who meticulously documented his findings in a video. Poise existed, but it didn't work how anyone expected.

"The basic gist is there's no One Giant Unifying Rule in Dark Souls 3," said Norwood. "There's a calculation, but all the different parts to the calculation vary based on what situation you are in. It's just like they said it was. Situational. That was their honest attempt to get people to understand. It did help me work it out, but not immediately."

"Honest attempt" might be giving FromSoftware too much credit.

The biggest story I broke in 2016 was the first reporting on an upgraded PlayStation 4, which shipped last week as the PlayStation 4 Pro. But the story that's bugged me the most in 2016, the one I haven't been able to give up on, has been the mystery behind the poise stat in Dark Souls 3. It's a story of a developer whose propensity for vagueness frustrated a community for the better part of a year, prompting untold hours of theorizing, testing, and debating over something very basic, the type of thing other video games explain in their opening tutorial.

As the community got more and more frustrated earlier this year, I pressed the company for comment. The game's publisher, Bandai Namco, told me "the poise stat is working as intended" and was "situational." That wasn't an answer: No one knew what "intended" or "situational" even meant.

A new feature in Dark Souls 3, weapon arts, only made things more complicated. Each weapon has a move that drains from your magic bar, and one of those weapon arts is called "perseverance," where the player can "cross arms in front of the body to temporarily boost poise." When you use that weapon art, your character is able to take some hits, as expected.

Video courtesy of YouTube user SteamBoy27

Then, folks dug into the game's code and found it was possible to revert poise back to the way it worked in previous Dark Souls games, furthering conspiracy theories about what was going on with the stat. Had FromSoftware included the old way of implementing poise, then removed it from the game at the last second? Was "working as intended" a way to mask a glitch they hadn't yet worked out? Or, more cynically, did FromSoftware just not give a shit?

When presented with an opportunity to send the notoriously reclusive Dark Souls designer Hidetaka Miyazaki a few questions over email after Dark Souls 3 came out, I asked about poise.

"This isn't something we are particularly proud of," he told me in an interview for Kotaku. "With how things are handled now, it can be improved and this is an agenda item we'll be working on in the future."

You'll notice one important detail is lacking in that apology: an explanation. That's where Norwood comes in. He wasn't able to start coming up with answers until he stumbled on a cheating tool for the game that accidentally surfaced the poise number changing in real-time.

That isn't an invisible numbers war. That's an invisible numbers conspiracy.

"I could put the game in windowed mode, stick the table next to the game window, and visibly see how the values changed," he said. "I turned the invisible numbers war into a visible numbers war."

Norwood, who spent his college years studying psychology, knew how to set up an experiment and check evidence. With this tool in front of him, Norwood was able to start getting answers.

"A normal player cannot do this," he said. "They have no way to see in real time this variable changing. No way to see if their weapon even has poise. No way to know what the multiplier is. No way to tell what situation they are in. No way to tell if there even are situations in the first place. The only thing they get told is there is a stat, poise, which does something during attacks. And that stat doesn't even work the same way it used to work. That isn't an invisible numbers war. That's an invisible numbers conspiracy."

And here's where we're going to get super technical about how Dark Souls works. Buckle up.

FromSoftware has changed how poise works across all three games, to varying degrees. In Dark Souls 1 and 2, think of poise like an invisible meter. When attacked, your poise meter would go down. If your poise meter expired, your animation was interrupted. Though this wasn't surfaced in the game's interface, you could intuit how it worked. In Dark Souls 2, FromSoftware introduced a wrinkle that fans dubbed "hyper poise." For certain weapon types—usually heavy ones like greataxes—poise would temporarily increase while attacking, but you had to time your attacks to make sure poise kicked on at the right moment. None of this was made visible by the game, of course; it was all silently happening in the background.

"The invisible number war now had an invisible number modifier in an invisible situation," said Norwood.

For Dark Souls 3, FromSoftware quietly removed how poise worked in the original game, while keeping the mechanics of Dark Souls 2. Now, poise exists when you attack with a weapon, but no longer protects you from being staggered while standing around. Additionally, some weapon arts, like one inspired by the dash move from Bloodborne, enable poise while the player is moving. Essentially, Dark Souls 3 only provides poise while players are active.

In retrospect, this makes a ton of sense: Bloodborne forced players to be more active in combat, rewarding aggressive players with regained health after being attacked. In a sense, Dark Souls 3 maintains this design philosophy by rewarding players who attack with poise. (As with Dark Souls 2, however, only some weapons have access to poise. It's not universal.)

Header and artwork courtesy of FromSoftware

As Norwood discovered through extensive testing, though, FromSoftware made poise far more complicated in Dark Souls 3. Now, any attack, even when poise isn't flipped on, can impact your invisible "poise health."

"The whole bloody calculation is invisible," he said. "You can only see the effect if you are in the right situation. This is part of the reason nobody figured out poise for so long. It's a very strange system."

We could go deeper down the rabbit hole. Like, don't get me started on how some weapons have poise multipliers attached to them, and the multiplier changes, based on what attack you use! Gah. The point is that FromSoftware doesn't give players enough useful information.

Poise has technically been in Dark Souls 3 since it shipped in April, but how come no one found it until months later? What changed with last month's patch? The short version: FromSoftware tweaked the numbers, meaning players are more likely to encounter poise now.

"They hit the poise calculation with a giant nerf bat," he said. "Then they arranged it into a more sensible shape."

Of course, this could have been avoided if FromSoftware had just explained themselves.

"That's why they changed it the way they did ," he said. "They removed the randomness. You can find a constant pattern. So I don't feel the need to wag my finger and say 'Bad From.' They know."