Since Dark Souls first stunned the gaming community with its grueling-yet-fair combat centered around swords, axes, and halberds, one question has always lingered: can we make it with guns?
There have been but few attempts at this challenge. Remnant: From the Ashes is the second one I know of (after Immortal: Unchained — but we don’t talk about that). And this lack of treaded ground shows: Remnant, despite looking like Gun Souls and playing like Gun Souls, cannot answer the fundamental design questions that have kept Gun Souls a dream for nearly a decade.
In this article, we’ll go through three of the design questions that characterize Gun Souls, and why Remnant fails at each of them. And, of course, I’ll provide some unsolicited solutions at the end.
What’s in an Enemy?
Almost all enemies in Remnant fall into one of two types: they either do a simple running attack at you, or throw projectiles from afar. Admittedly, it would be not very Gun Souls-y for this game to emphasize melee attack patterns for enemy differentiation like every other Soulslike, which leads to the first design questions at the heart of Gun Souls: how do you design a ranged enemy that feels like fighting a Souls enemy? And, similarly, how do you give ranged enemies meaningfully different attack patterns so that they all feel unique to fight?
While I think this question has been answered by other games (read to the end to find out how!), it’s not answerable within the mindset of shooters. Shooters can treat ranged combat in a few different ways: they may emphasize taking cover and waiting out your opponent’s attack, or they may emphasize running around really fast so enemies can’t hit you, or they may let enemies simply hitscan; but in none of these cases are you ever taking evasive maneuvers against singular enemy gunshots. This lack of imagination arises from the fact that dodging projectiles in a three-dimensional space is either absurdly difficult or mind-numbingly boring (“roll through it” in Souls or “cut through it” in Nier), and nobody has found a middle ground in between.
The challenge for Remnant was to be the first game to design a type of ranged combat where you would engage with enemy gunshots in the precise and meticulous manner of Souls. They failed on two levels. First, all the game’s ranged enemies have the same slow, methodical shooting pattern of Souls enemies, and nothing beyond that. In Souls, ranged enemies can be interesting because you need to move towards them, which can be made difficult by obstacles or melee enemies. But in Remnant, you just point your gun at them and kill them. And second, there actually aren’t that many ranged enemies. Very little of the game’s combat is ranged on ranged, and the rest, which we discuss next, is much less enjoyable.
What’s in an Encounter? (ver. 先手必勝)
While it’s not easy to design a good level for melee combat, it is easy to design a functional level for melee combat: just stick random enemies in a room. The player still has to fight and engage with each of these enemies, so as long as the enemies are decently designed, the level won’t be entirely meaningless.
However, things change if the player can one-shot enemies from fifty meters away: players can then stand fifty meters away and wipe all enemies before there’s any chance for actual back-and-forth combat. To make a functional level for ranged combat, you need map design: obstacles, cover, walls to run along and drop behind enemy snipers — all the things that shooters use to keep their combat interesting.
A key question for Gun Souls is thus: how does the player enter an encounter? Can the first-turn player advantage still be mediated by shooter-style map design, or would a Soulslike spurn the likes of cover mechanics? What alternatives are there?
Remnant’s answer is disappointing. It mediates first-turn player advantage by swarming the player with scores of melee enemies, and largely avoids ranged shootouts for which shooter-style design would be relevant. One of the dungeons in the first world is composed entirely of one enemy type that bumrushes you in groups of ten to twenty. By resorting to enemy swarm, they also make any sort of strategic engagement with individual enemies impossible. Instead, the only thing you can do is blindly unload magazine after magazine in all directions, against enemies who will do nothing but run at you blindly. This makes the gameplay feel less like “tense shootout” and more like “quickly closing the door at night before the moths get in”.
Given that Remnant copied shooters for its enemy design, why did it ignore shooters for its encounter design? This strange lack of overlap probably occurs because Remnant’s levels are procedurally generated, and procedurally generating shooter-style map design in 3D seems to yet be unexplored territory for the medium. It’s no surprise, then, that they opt for swarms upon swarms of melee enemies, which is the easy (but unbalanced and boring) solution.
What’s in a Boss?
In Soulslikes, bosses are often the high points of the game — the most memorable and the most challenging sections. But shooters place much less an emphasis on bosses. This is probably because, as previously mentioned, it’s not clear how to make one-on-one ranged combat particularly engaging. The third and final question for Gun Souls is then: How do you design boss fights? What prevents bosses from turning into bullet sponges?
In Remnant, almost all bosses are bullet sponges with two or three attack patterns, but they spawn upwards of a hundred trash mobs throughout the fight. This takes a middle line worse than either extreme of the boss design spectrum. The main body is neither interesting nor challenging, so you lose any benefit from the Souls end. And because you are once again fighting through swarms and swarms of enemies, bosses don’t even have the perfunctory uniqueness of 1v1s in shooters. They are instead just like the swarms of enemies outside the fog gate, except the main body might one-shot you. In fact, many of Remnant’s bosses are just minibosses that spawn trash mobs, so they don’t even look different from the swarms of enemies outside the fog gate.
Many people have complained that Remnant bosses aren’t fun because they’re little more than swarms of enemies with uninteresting main bodies. A common response has been that bosses without the swarms of trash mobs would just be bullet sponges. This is correct — and it’s a fatal design flaw with Remnant. The game doesn’t know how to design a boss that isn’t a bullet sponge. And because its bosses’ main bodies are so uninteresting, the only way to make the fight challenging is, again, to drop in swarms of trash mobs.
Monster Hunter and Big Monsters
Monster Hunter doesn’t have the level structure of Soulslikes, but has boss battles that are at least a little bit comparable. In addition, it features both ranged and non-ranged weapons. How does it balance bosses for both types of weapons?
The short answer is that it doesn’t, and it doesn’t need to, because the basic combat loop is basically the same whether you’re fighting at range or not. Normally, when we think about ranged combat against melee enemies, we make the assumption that
Player Attack Range > Enemy Attack Range. However, in MH, ranged weapons have low range and monsters can jump quite far, making ranged and melee weapons similarly susceptible to monster attacks.
Note that this occurs specifically because you are fighting large monsters, who naturally have attack ranges more than a few inches in front of their faces. It’s not obvious that it would work for humanoid bosses with reasonably-sized weapons. “Large melee attack ranges on big monsters” is therefore one limited solution to the problem: it alleviates, but does not answer, the core question of designing Soulslike enemies in ranged combat.
There is at least one such boss in Remnant: the Ravager. This boss is a giant Chernobyl wolf who will jump across the stage at you with the same furor as Nergigante seeing you pull out a potion. But while the Ravager has a functional design philosophy, it’s woefully underdeveloped, and reads more like a concept than a full-fledged boss. Like most other Remnant bosses, it has two or three attacks, and not much else.
Soulslike Ranged Combat: 2D2Hu
I’ve qualified my statements about the difficulty of dodging projectiles in three dimensions — what happens if we cut some slack and only try to do so in two?
There does exist a genre of 2D games which goes all-in on making players dodge projectiles: the bullet hell genre, of which Touhou is the most well-known example.
In the Touhou style of bullet hell, the main gameplay loop is to find a path between dazzling arrays of projectiles flying across the screen, with your hitbox barely ten pixels wide (the white dot at the center of the character on the bottom is your hitbox!). Enemies are unique because these projectile patterns are unique, and different patterns require different player strategies.
Touhou is not a Soulslike, but its combat loop bears a similar philosophy, and adapting bullet hell to the trappings of a Souls game would be a simple task. This may be cold advice, though, to Remnant, because translating bullet hell mechanics to 3D is a nightmare, and I have no knowledge of a successful attempt. I don’t think it’s currently possible to design a 3D game where you can engage with enemy projectiles anywhere near the level of mechanical complexity featured in Touhou. Perhaps, then, Gun Souls is an idea better tackled in 2D.
Remnant makes several design decisions which are more confusing than anything. Consider its scaling system, which penalizes you for upgrading equipment by scaling enemies to just short of your highest-level gear. One redditor hacked their starting weapon to max level, and found that it took just as many hits to kill starting enemies. However, you can’t ignore upgrading, because each area has a minimum enemy level. This makes upgrading a bureaucratic process with a lot of downsides and no upsides (ie it’s not fun). Or its miniboss system, where minibosses will spawn behind you if you’re not running fast enough through the level. (This definitely pushes players towards thoughtful and careful combat.) I suppose this was also a result of carelessly structured procedural generation — since they couldn’t figure out how to meaningfully place minibosses in the middle of generated levels, they decided to make them spawn randomly every few minutes instead.
What’s odd about Remnant is that, for all its resounding failures in design, the game looks pretty good and handles pretty well. Removed from terrible enemy and level design, combat actually feels solid. Imagine if all of Dark Souls were Izalith!
In conclusion, Touhou is the real Gun Souls. Don’t @ me.