Dark Souls Combat System 101: The complex mechanics explained

First of all, this is a guide for a game that is timeless. Dark Souls could be 50 years old and it would still be a gaming experience that anyone who understands the depth and complexity of the game would recommend in a heartbeat. If you never played the Dark Souls series, you might want to start by picking up the first one, which holds up quite well when compared to the latest release (Dark Souls 3) and some argue that it’s still the best in the series.

This guide is for Dark Souls 1, but the combat is pretty much the exact same in all Dark Souls games, so this guide is perfect for anyone looking to learn basic and advanced mechanics for this particular game. Dark Souls is available on PS3, XBOX 360 and PC.

Anyone who has visited Fighter101.net is no stranger to the fact that Super Street Fighter 2 Turbo is one of the games that gets the most coverage. The mechanics of that game have always been praised for their incredible depth in what seems like a very simple and straightforward fighting game.

Dark Souls creates a truly outstanding combination of fighting game mechanics such as Parries, Hit Stun, Block Stun, startup frames and recovery frames. Let’s go over those terms briefly to explain what they mean in actual combat.

Combat is not complex due to extensive control options, but due to the realistic style that forces you to be cautious at all times.

Hit Stun

Hit stun is basically the amount of time (frames) that your character is going to be unable to defend or counter against any attack. If you get hit, there will be an animation showing the character taking the hit and stumbling back. When your character is hit stunned, they can’t move at all. This means there is no way to parry, to roll away or to defend and attack.

If your opponent does one attack and fllowes with another attack that hits faster than you can recover from hit stun, this will count as a combo. There is no combo counter in Dark Souls, but you can see this happening with very early enemies at the Undead Burg. The skeleton soldier will often rush in and hit you with several sword slashes from side to side and you will be unable to counter attack.

Block Stun

When you successfully guard against an attack, there will be a recovery animation that will make it impossible for you to move or attack. Block Stun is linked to endurance and stamina in Dark Souls and if your stamina bar is depleted when you get hit by any attack, you will be unable to stand on proper guard. You will deflect the attack, but your character will be left in a very long state of block stun recovery which can be deadly in certain situations.

Startup frames and recovery frames

All moves in the game have what is known as the startup frames of the animation and recovery frames. When your character is on startup frames, there is a number of frames that will be active, meaning that those frames will hit the opponent, but some startup frames are not going to be active and this means they can’t inflict damage at all.

Once the frames become active, your move is going to be able to hit the opponent and this can create the scenario of hit stun or block stun depending on the action that the opponent decides to perform. The recovery frames are the inactive frames of the animation. If you swing your word horizontally, the recovery frames are the ones that show the character retrieving the sword back to neutral or guard stance.

Combat is simple to learn and difficult to master in Dark Souls and this feels similar to the complexity of watching two people play Street Fighter competitively. Anyone who is unfamiliar with the game mechanics is just looking at the surface of what is going on, while experienced players can appreciate the intricacies that are beyond what appears to be happening.

The stamina bar

The good thing is that the stamina on your enemies depletes just like yours does and this means that they won’t be able to attack you with endless combos. The stamina bar in Dark Souls plays a major role in the combat and makes it much more realistic.

Leveling up your stats is essential in Dark Souls

The weapons and armor

This game allows you to switch from one-handed to two-handed combat on the go. This means that you can switch from a sword and shield style to a single sword combat style at any moment during gameplay and both methods have their advantages and their disadvantages. Double-handed sword combat means you will be more vulnerable to attacks, but you will have more strength and speed when you attack your enemies.

There are different reactions based on the weapons and armor used in the game as well as your stats. If you try to wield a very large weapon and you don’t have enough strength and dexterity, you will see the physical struggle your character experiences when trying to swing with that sword.

If you are looking for a good laugh and also a great example of how realistic the combat is, just equip a weapon with stats that go beyond your experience and you will see how powerless your character can be.

Wiedling a large sword without enough experince points is like watching a child trying to pick up a bowling ball.

Enemy AI

You can be standing in front of a common enemy that is going to circle around for a while, or they might decide to strike fast. Then when you come back to the same type of enemy, their behavior will change and they could delay their attack to make you miss your parry if you don’t pay attention to the animations.

Parry and Riposte

Parrying has been a very popular fighting game mechanic that is also found in many Hack n Slash games, but the parry in Dark Souls requires much more practice due to the many different attacks and delays that the enemies can perform when you engage in combat.

The parry is the action that pushes an attack away from you and allows you to have a 1-second opening to perform the riposte. The riposte is the counter attack that you perform after the parry. If you wait more than one second, there will be no riposte and the following attack will not be unlockable like the riposte would be.

The accuracy of the combat

Many gamers criticize Dark Souls for having unfair mechanics that make the game very difficult, but the truth is that most of the combat in the game is quite accurate. The way a sword is held and used to attack is quite realistic and the way that the sword hits surfaces will create a different reaction depending on how hard that surface is.

There are some exaggerations such as being able to wield gigantic swords with enough experience, but aside from that, the combat is quite realistic and it flows perfectly.


Dark Souls proves to be a game that is definitely not meant for casual gamers looking for simplicity. The game never holds your hand to help you find out where to go. It has no map, it has no difficulty settings and the combat system forces you to be very careful with your decisions. Any rushed tactic could easily mean death even when fighting a group of weak enemies.

This game is the only title I have ever played that has kept me from playing any other games (except SSF2T) because I can’t seem to stay away from it even if just to take a break from the obsession that engulfs your soul when you play it. I do get a few fights going on Super Turbo at Fightcade from time to time to recover from the constant adrenaline rush that Dark Souls provides.

There might be some people that argue about other games being more difficult, but Dark Souls rewards you for learning how to play it properly and then the difficulty becomes a challenge you gladly accept. If you go in expecting to get lucky and rush through the game, you will be in for a rude awakening.