Case Study: Design Flaws In Infinity Blade 3

Now, I don’t do straight game reviews. I’m not usually the sort of person to say that something is “better” or “worse” than something else.

But Infinity Blade 3… I have to say it kind of sucks.

And all the reasons why I think it sucks are practically laid out right here on this blog. Every essay I’ve published here was about some kind of problem I saw in game design. It honestly feels like Infinity Blade 3 intentionally tried to hit every single flaw I’ve written about.

So I guess this essay is part game review, part rant, and part recap episode. Now we can see all the game design theory I’ve written about in action.

The Mana System Paradox: Potions

The Potionmaster at his cauldron.

It’s strange for me to say “mana system paradox” because honestly, I’ve always liked Infinity Blade‘s magic system. To cast magic, you have to draw a little shape on the screen: a zig-zag will shock your enemy with lightning, or a wave pattern will invoke water magic. That’s cool, and I have no problems with it. But when I say “mana system paradox,” I mean “mana” as in consumable resources in general.

IB3 introduced a new element to the series: potions. These potions have a variety of effects, usually boosting your combat ability in the next battle. Some of them will give you additional elemental damage, some of them will heal you every time you successfully block, and so on and so forth. However, they’re only temporary, so they’re more like a one-time burst of strength that you’ll want to save for a boss battle or other tough fight.

Previous Infinity Blade games balanced combat around the character’s level and equipment, but IB3‘s combat has to be balanced around potions as well. They could either make combat engaging without potions and ridiculously easy with potions, or they could make combat impossible without potions and doable with potions (or any point along that scale). However the game gets balanced, it needs to accomodate for potions somehow, and balancing around a consumable resource brings the mana system paradox back into question.

When I wrote the original mana system paradox essay, I was focusing on gameplay and engagement, but potions in IB3 aren’t even at that level. Potions in IB3 aren’t fun to use in any way, but they’re necessary to keep up with the game’s balance levels. Chair designed the game around the assumption that players would be using potions, but if that was their core assumption, why even give players the option to not use potions in the first place?

I can’t think of a positive reason why they introduced potions into the game. Maybe they wanted to get in on MMO-style crafting (potions are either found, or crafted with materials you find). But what would MMO-style crafting even do for Infinity Blade? Maybe I’m just being too cynical, but I honestly have no idea why they added potions.

The Nature of Grinding: Skills

The skill points menu.

The Infinity Blade series has always had a strange relationship between player skill and character skill. On one hand, any battle can be beaten regardless of how strong your enemy is, because as long as you dodge and parry everything you will never die, so player skill is an important factor. On the other hand, battles like that would take hours, so character skill is needed to keep each battle in a reasonable time frame.

Infinity Blade always handled its character skill aspect (part of it, anyway) through a level-up system. After fighting a bunch of battles, your character levels up, and you get to increase his health, damage, shield durability, or magic power. Equipping weapons or armor would increase these same four stats: weapons give you more damage, more expensive shields have more durability, armor boosts your maximum health.

However, the term “skills” took on a new meaning in Infinity Blade 3. Each of the four base stats has five perks that are obtained by investing points into that stat. For example, “Fast Magic,” which charges the magic meter faster, is unlocked by putting ten points into Magic. A lot of these skills are just basic utility boosts that do silly things like make your blacksmith forge weapons faster (I’m not even going to talk about the forging system).

But the problem is that some of the most basic abilities, the abilities that were considered givens in the previous two games, are now unlocked through this skill system. A staple of the Infinity Blade series was the Super Attack, which charges each time you deal or receive damage and can be activated at full charge to stun an enemy. Now, before you can use Super Attacks, you need to put four points into your shield stat. Same thing happened with combo attacks: in previous games attacking in a certain pattern executed a stronger combo attack, but now you simply can’t do them unless you’ve unlocked the skill for it.

Now, the player’s skill level is limited by their character’s skill level. You’re disincentivized from distributing points to suit your own play style, because after a certain threshold they won’t give you perks anymore. I almost never used magic in IB2, so I just never put points into magic and focused on the things I used more often. Now, I need to increase magic because I can only unlock certain kinds of treasure chests if I’ve unlocked the Lockpick skill, which requires points in Magic.

Maybe they did this so that skills would be more dynamic, because leveling up was honestly a little bit boring when it was just “add a few points and that’s it.” And I can see that. But there’s probably an even more dynamic way to rework the system than to have blacksmiths upgrade items faster when you have fifty points in health.

Narratology/Ludology: Awakenings

IB3 has “Awakenings” to replace Rebirths in IB2 or Bloodlines in IB1.

Infinity Blade has as much story as you give it. If you skip through every cutscene, you’re just playing a game where you fight a bunch of things. The narrative and the gameplay are set so far apart that the few moments where they seem related require that you read the Infinity Blade books to understand the context.

The beginning of the game presents a refreshing view: you actually play as the God King Raidriar, who was your antagonist in the first two games. In terms of gameplay, being Raidriar really doesn’t change anything at all. You’re sent on a scripted boss fight against the Worker of Secrets (IB3‘s antagonist) where you lose and you pick up some datapod thing and do a magic trick with it or something, I don’t know. That’s the whole problem: you never know why you do anything in the game.

At one point, you have to go rescue a blacksmith, but the closest thing you get to a reason is that you need his skills for your cause. You can go through the whole game without using the blacksmith’s services if you want. There’s one little sequence where he’s told to forge some thingy, but that scene and the scene where that thingy is used are both cinematic cutscenes completely separated from the actual gameplay. And I still don’t even know what that thingy was ever supposed to be.

It’s sad, because the original Infinity Blade was one of the few games that ever had a narrative connection to having multiple lives. Think about it: when games give you the option to retry after dying, how many of them actually explain what’s going on? There was no narrative reason for Mario to have three lives, it’s not like he ever found some magic trinket that lets him live three times. But Infinity Blade tied it in to the narrative: every time you die as a character, you take control of that character’s son decades later on a quest to enact vengeance for his father. The narrative was poignant, it was simple, and it connected to the gameplay. But each successive game just twisted that narrative more and more.

Gender Roles in Mechanics: Isa

Isa firing her crossbow.

One of the interesting new things about Infinity Blade 3 is the ability to play as Isa as well as the previous games’s protagonist Siris. Isa is characterized as being a speedy, swift assasin kind of person who’s always climbing up walls or doing other sneaky things. Her trademark weapon is her crossbow: she initiates every fight with a few shots from it, instantly taking off a bit of health from her enemies before she engages.

That’s not all there is, however. Remember the skills each character could unlock by adding points to their four attributes? Isa and Siris level up separately and have different skills. Surprise, surprise: Isa gets most of the support skills. Some of their specific skills will work for both characters once it’s unlocked: once Siris unlocks the ability to execute Mega Hits, Isa can too. Likewise, once Isa unlocks the ability to remove gems from items, or the ability to open special treasure chests, Siris can too. Now, which one sounds like more fun: performing Mega Hits, or removing gems from items?

Chair was trying too hard to fulfill the image of a female character: fast, sneaky, supportive, lightweight, magical, etc. Normally, that would be a sign of bad game design, but I actually don’t think it’s that much of a problem in IB3. Hooray, something went right?

Well, no: it’s not a problem in IB3 because it’s not even at the level where it can be a problem. Isa and Siris play exactly the same way. There isn’t enough gameplay difference between the two characters for the gender biased mechanics to make a difference. Everything that makes Isa and Siris different takes place outside of combat, but when it comes down to an actual fight the difference is really just cosmetic.

Both Siris and Isa can choose one of three types of weapons: light weapons, heavy weapons, and dual weapons. What if Isa’s three weapon types were completely different from Siris’s? Maybe she could use her crossbow in combat, and instead of looking for openings to unleash long combos she would whittle down opponents slowly but surely with consistent damage. Or maybe Isa can use Tifa Lockhard-style gloves for unarmed combat, and instead of parrying attacks she can execute grab-style counterattacks at the cost of being unable to block or dodge. There could even be a weapon that doesn’t attack, but can channel to fill Isa’s magic quicker. They had a huge design space and they didn’t go anywhere with it. Although if they had, they probably would have run into problems with gender-biased mechanics anyway.

The Relationship Between Weapon and Wielder: Weapon-Specific Bonus Combos

A bunch of swords with their weapon-specific bonus combos listed next to them.

I actually wrote about Infinity Blade and Infinity Blade 2 in that specific essay, but Infinity Blade 3 screwed up so badly that it needs to come back again. Now, they tried, they certainly tried: one of the things they added was weapon-specific bonus combos. Each weapon can execute a special combo that you can only use when you’re wielding that weapon. Siris’s sword Xwiss is left slash, left slash, right slash, and Isa’s Double Mace staff is downward slash, upward slash, downward slash. Stronger weapons may have longer inputs to memorize as well.

The combo doesn’t actually do much except deal more damage than you would by wildly swinging the blade around, but it does help. Instead of just switching weapons every two seconds without any thought, now you can memorize its bonus combo as well to maximize your damage. It’s certainly a neat idea, and it tries to make the player feel like an omnipotent sword god who understands every weapon he’s ever touched. That’s a cool fantasy to fulfill, and I like it.

But there’s got to be a better way to go about doing it, than to have players memorize random three-hit sequences every time they switch weapons (which is quite often). There are so many ways to personalize weapons, and a random sequence really doesn’t create a meaningful connection because of how quickly your short-term memory fades out. What if a weapon could parry against attacks that are normally unparry-able? And another weapon is stronger when attacking from a certain direction? Even better: take all those potion effects mentioned before, distribute one to each weapon, and voila, you’ve both fixed the potion problem and created meaningful weapons! They probably would have had to have fewer weapons if they used that design philosophy, and I don’t know what design philosophy they were going for, but if they wanted to connect the wielder with his weapons then they should have used something more engaging than random sequences.

Why Layers: Worker of Secrets

Siris killing the Worker of Secrets (right, in golden armor).

So the game was about Siris and Isa trying to defeat a dude called the Worker of Secrets.

1. Why were they trying to defeat the Worker of Secrets? Because Siris was trying to atone for some abstractly-described horrible crime he did in the past.

2. Why did Siris commit that horrible crime in the past? Well, don’t ask me, I don’t even know what he did in the first place!

The game fails a why layer analysis very quickly. This happens for every other game event: you have no idea why you’re doing anything in the game. Why is Isa still hanging out with Siris? Why did Siris lose his memory? Why is there a strange alchemist dude in your hideout who crafts potions for you? Why does everyone hate Raidriar’s guts? Why do Deathless exist? None of these questions get answered in the game.

There are two books in the Infinity Blade story, and that’s two book’s worth of content that should have been expressed through gameplay. If all the essential information is in a book, then people who haven’t read the book don’t get to experience the game the way it should have been experienced. The ending of the game made no sense whatsoever because I had no idea why I was doing any of the things I did.

Conclusion

I just want to emphasize that this isn’t a game review at all. That’s why this is a case study, and not a game review. For all purposes, Infinity Blade 3 is a pretty decent game. This essay isn’t here to persuade anyone against buying IB3.

But I’m still kind of sad. I wish Infinity Blade had really taken advantage of all the design space it had. Instead of focusing on the dynamics of combat, the developers instead forced emphasis into the metagame and stat-based growth. Now, even if someone creates a game with Infinity Blade style combat that has innovative design elements, it’ll just be called a ripoff clone, and the game’s original developers locked themselves out of doing their own system justice because IB3 was the last game in the series.

So I guess this is more like a eulogy than anything else.

Farewell, Infinity Blade. Once, I had loved you, but now I must move on.

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13 responses to “Case Study: Design Flaws In Infinity Blade 3

  1. So you don’t like the game because you are to dumb and lazy to pay attention to the story. Infinity Blade has a story you actually have to pay attention to and while the books expand on it greatly, you don’t need them to understand it.

    • The reality is that there are many, many beautiful works of art from all mediums that have this quality. You can say “it gets better when you pay attention” about almost anything. Piet Mondrian paintings. Dwarf Fortress. Call of Duty. But just because there are hidden nuggets of awesomeness doesn’t mean that people are obliged to spend the time and effort to get there. Part of being a good designer is making sure that the best parts of your work are accessible to your target audience.

      I think that Dark Souls is a great comparison to Infinity Blade. Both have pretty similar settings and themes, and both have lore that is obscure and difficult to understand if you’re not paying attention. But Dark Souls succeeds because players expect difficulty. It’s a fully priced game that you need to sit down and dedicate yourself to. On the other hand, Infinity Blade is a mobile game meant to be played in short, quick sessions. Finish a quick fight while you’re waiting for the bus. Those kinds of people aren’t always inclined to spend the effort to appreciate the lore.

      That’s not to say that I condone this behavior. I would love it if more mobile games were developed for serious play sessions. But I accept the reality that the current industry is not at that point yet. It’s very difficult to find non-niche full-price mobile games that aren’t just ports of preexisting ones.

  2. Also in IB3 they removed the journey like aspect of it with all the different maps and travelling (ironically) as before there were several paths that could be taken as well as secret paths and features in the maps, but now they’ve lost the depth of each map and traded quality for quantity. Although they could still always add to the maps in updates, but it’s still not the same

  3. Just came across your “case study.” If you had actually played the game properly most of your “unanswered whys” are in fact, answered.

      • The ending of IB2 explains why Isa is with Siris: she saved him from the Vault. (And she saved him from Raidriar wielding the IB in the beginning) that’s answered without reading Awakening. Siris’ past crimes were supposed to be as specific as, say, voldemort’s. He was in general a horrible person and we get some specifics (he killed his wife and betrayed the WS). The “thingy” they needed the Blacksmith for was so they could reprogram the “thingy” they used on the Worker. It’s called the Redeemer and it’s what turned Ausar into Siris. It’s why there’s that toddler in the end game credits. The Redeemer scrambles your QIP so you’re effectively reborn as a completely different person. Also, there ARE different combat aspects for the genders. Isa’s super moves function differently from Siris’. Like when Siris does a Light super move, it works as a series of stabs and slashes. When Isa does a Light super move, it works as a concentrated flash of slashes. In her Dual super moves, she does concentrated and rapid stabs instead of Siris’s interspersed stabs. As for Heavy, she’s able to do more than just block and slash and she actually has a much higher attack speed than Siris does in this mode. By the way, I’m not by any means an incredibly skilled gamer but I still find it easy to play on Awakenings above 100 without potions. That includes the Deathless quests. Plus, potion crafting actually has some nifty little secrets hidden in it. For example, there’s a potion that can only be crafted with Siris’s Potion Master perk that requires a specific combination of ingredients (similar to the Rare Spectrum Defense gem in IB2) and it floods the map with money. Cool, right? Another point. The campaign can be easily understood by simply playing the games in succession, and paying attention to small details. Like you won’t understand why the hell the guy guarding the Redeemer (Melek) is offering Siris this deal to join the Worker as Ausar unless you did that side story line in IB2, and you won’t know what Isa is referring to when she asks if Siris plans to use the Redeemer on himself “again” unless you learned in the previous game that Siris is Ausar, reborn (which the Worker actually says very clearly in IB3’s opening. Thinking back to some of your other noticed flaws… The Weapon-Specific Combos bit about weapons not being personalized enough. Actually, weapons can be VERY personalized. Weapons in the same category have different attack speeds. Also, weapons have a massive customization depth if you just use Gems. For example, I have one Infinity Weapon and one Vile weapon in each category for Siris, so I only keep 6 weapons for him at any given time. Each one has a different element and different abilities (healing, better shields, better magic, etc.) and then I have the Solar Trans light weapon with the Rare Darkfire Gem. Each one perfectly fits different strategies. For Isa, it’s the same deal but instead of Vile weapons I used other weapons. To the complaint against Awakenings: it’s just that, a complaint. It still functions into the plot when you consider it. Why is it that exiting the Stockpile halfway through doesn’t count as an Awakening, but finishing it does? Simple: the Deathless actually use suicide as transportation in some circumstances. Soulless Raidriar burns himself so he isn’t killed by the iCleaver, which would have been permanent. He reappears later at the Ark. Whenever you finish an interlude, the character seems to vanish. They’re actually burning away their body to be reborn. It might not have the same depth as taking over the son or sacrificing a life to open a Seal, but it does have meaning. You implied it had simply become a little tidbit of the game.

        • Thanks for the big reply, and you’re definitely much more versed in IB3 than I am (I quit after Ausar Rising deleted my save file). I’ll try to address your points in a logical order:

          1) Various plot devices. You’re right that a lot of them start answering why you’re doing things, and I totally agree with you on this particular line you say: “The campaign can be easily understood by simply playing the games in succession, and paying attention to small details.” That’s the problem, because the corollary to that is “Unless you play the games in succession and pay attention to small details, the campaign cannot be easily understood.” I don’t think a game’s story should aim to be exclusive to attentive players. Small details are a great way to reward the slow-and-steady style, but I think the overall arching story should still be made as clear as possible, because if it isn’t then players have no idea why they’re doing anything, and they just go through the motions because the game tells them to. I definitely didn’t catch onto a lot of the things you said, and they add a lot of richness to the story, but if I didn’t catch them that means a fairly significant portion of other players didn’t either (look up game completion rate statistics).

          2) Actually, now that I think about it, that was probably the overarching philosophy I’m pointing at: that a lot of IB3’s depth is only accessible to exclusively dedicated players (such as yourself). The potion crafting secrets, the gem customization, the subtle details about the Awakenings. Now that you put it that way, IB3 sounds a lot better, but that’s because you’re talking from the perspective of someone who has tapped into all of the game’s depth, and I’m talking from the perspective of someone who hasn’t. And my characters were leveled up around 80s-90s before Ausar Rising took out my save file. I think that now, after hearing your side of things, my opinion on IB3 is this: it’s really rewarding if you’re willing to devote a lot of your dedication to it, but otherwise you miss out on all the subtle details that make the game cool. That means in order to appreciate IB3 to its fullest, you should have played the previous games, hopefully you’ve read the books too, and you were really attentive to all the nuances and small tidbits each game gave you. But if you didn’t do any of those things, you’re not enjoying the game to a fraction of its fullest potential.

          So the question is, is that a viable direction for a game to take? I would be inclined to say no, because my base instinct as a designer is to make products that are accessible to as many people as possible. Even if I wanted to make a game specifically for dedicated attentive players, I would at least put it on PC/consoles so people are setting aside a chunk of time to play the game, rather than mobile devices where people want to kill a few minutes before their bus shows up. Or do you disagree with this train of thought and think that IB3 did indeed deliver on a “casual” level (as much as I hate saying “casual” I hope you get what I mean here)?

          • This obviously shows that you think 3 yr olds should be playing this game. The “small details” you mention are very noticeable as long as you focus. I have played for bout 6 hours total and already understand everything.

            • Putting your condescension aside, yeah, you’re right. I think that as a mobile game, Infinity Blade aims for a target audience that is known for low attention spans. If you were to put define games on a scale of “3-year-olds should play this” to “only the most hardcore gamers should play this,” you might have Fruit Ninja on one end of the spectrum and Bloodborne on the other. And I think Infinity Blade 3 leans too far towards the Bloodborne end than it should.

              But as game designers, it’s important to realize that personal experience is only one piece of the puzzle, especially if you know that you’re a niche type of gamer. Like for me, I know that I love really fast paced games (I’m a diehard Cloudbuilt fan), so whenever I play anything my first reaction is almost always “my character walks too slowly.” Maybe you’re just naturally the kind of gamer who pays close attention to details, but that is not a trait shared by the mobile audience. Game designers always learn to separate themselves from the play experience, to observe the things they play from as objective a standpoint as possible rather than getting sucked into the experience.

  4. This is a rather interesting take on Infinity Blade 3. While it wasn’t a review it does offer some insight towards why there are some things wrong with even what may be considered great games. There may not be enough information as to understanding where most of the in book content are in game. This leads to those who didn’t read having trouble trying to understand what it is happening in game. Of course it could also be because there is a severe lack of room to place within the game itself. This is what sort of felt was left out of discussion in this essay. Chair has to work their game on the Apple products. Most of these products are hand held devices and as such lack the storage data within them to hold a modern game like zelda OOT. Too much data in such a small space. The last thing people may actually wNt is a game that sells at the price of Xbox and Playstation games ($60 max) and needing to download a few gigabytes of data. I mean if we looked at all three Infinity Blade games we see that they each require nearly 2 gigs of data. My iPod can only store 8 gigs total. With all the software updates I only get 6 gigs of free space. That means that all three games by themselves take up nearly, if not all, my storage space. So for what ever game they made Chair has done a super job.

    Everything else about your essay on the other parts of the game I will review personally on a later date. I may not be able to respond back to you unfortunately. Thanks for the good read and have good day.

    • You definitely have a point, storage space was very much an issue for all IB games. That’s why I’m very insistent that this essay be taken as a case study, not a review. But even as a case study, I wonder if there was absolutely no way to present story through gameplay. What if there was a mission where you play as Isa going to the Vault of Tears to rescue Siris? A lot of missions in IB3 were basic filler material that totally could’ve been replaced with more relevant tasks. Still, the point remains that IB3 never sought to be a narrative pioneer in the first place, it aimed to have the best graphics on iOS and arguably has achieved that. It’s a good game in its own right, and they probably have high-level reasons for their design decisions that are beyond my amateur understanding. I just wish I could know what those reasons are.

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