Plus On Whiff

The story of the netplay-only safejump

Elsword Online is a 2.5D anime beat-em-up MMO, and so it naturally follows that Elsword is also an affront to God. I have no memory of why I started playing it, but I am always happy to explain in vivid detail why I stopped.

Like most evil microtransaction grinders, Elsword has a PvP mode. It becomes a platform fighter—one with fast, responsive movement, a big emphasis on efficient space control, and a diverse cast with a wide array of divergent tools.

Elsword is also buried beneath layers upon layers of bad design and unchecked greed—incompetent designers hamstrung by a broken game engine and crushed under the weight of concessions to whales. It is a monument to malicious stupidity. It exists to convert US dollars into human suffering. Everything good about it happened on accident, and everything that ruined it was very much on purpose.

In fewer words, Elsword is fucking ass. Never play it.

I spent a few long years with this game—as a tournament host, a commentator, a proprietor of illegal money matches, and an extremely confused player. I came away with a few close friends and a lot of really, really stupid stories.

I want to tell you one such story, but it might take a while to bring you up to speed. I'm going to use fighting game words[1] in ways that might confuse or upset you, because Elsword does not make any goddamn sense and they are the only way I can bridge this incomprehensible hell-game to a reality you may understand.

Ready?

Netcode

Elsword is an online-only game, completely dependent on its netcode. I'd compare it to Rising Thunder in that regard, but because we live in hell, Elsword is alive and Rising Thunder was killed by Riot Games.[2] It's poor form to speak ill of the dead.

For most games, there's not much to talk about on the netcode front; sure, you can talk about delay or rollback, reconciliation or prediction, but the basics are simple. Good netcode masks the distance between players, and bad netcode does not. The conversation can end there.

Elsword does not have netcode.

We had a term in the community: "grazing". It's what happens when one of your attacks connects and your opponent doesn't even seem to notice, like they're on some kind of permanent hyper armor.[3] You'll get mana (meter) for the hit, you'll see a damage number and a hitspark, you'll hear the sound of your attack connecting,[4] and…nothing else. No hitstun, no damage, no real effect. It's a hallucination.

When you see yourself hit someone in Elsword, you're not actually hitting them. You're hitting a ghost of them, the "them" from however many milliseconds ago. They might still be there, if their connection is good or they were slow to move. But they could also be long gone, watching you swing at the air—and so they'll never flinch, and they'll never take damage. What you see and what they see are never the same.

Both views are equally wrong, and so it goes both ways; if you swing at the air on your screen, your opponent could end up getting hit on their screen. You don't see a hitspark or gain mana, but if you react to their character's flinch animation (or predict their movement in advance) you can follow up for a combo. This makes neutral really, really fucking strange.

A player's delayed afterimage still has collision, so their delayed body can block combo followups, or clip into your body and send you flying as the collision system ejects you. You still gain mana and activate on-hit effects even if you graze, so characters that rely on special resources can deliberately attempt to graze and summon those resources from nowhere. For the icing on the cake, if your opponent pulls out their network cable for a second, they'll freeze in place—and on their screen, so will you, allowing them to walk out of your combo and position themselves elsewhere on the stage.

That's what I mean by "Elsword has no netcode." I don't mean that the netcode is inadequate or broken, though it is both of those things. I mean that there are many ways a game can try to synchronize its players, to reconcile the differences in time that distance creates, and Elsword doesn't even make an attempt.

Superflash

Built on this crumbling, rotting foundation, Elsword fucks up game mechanics you might not even know were mechanics. Airwalk glitches and infinites are one thing, but only a game truly broken beyond all repair can make the invisible visible.

We'll start with superflash—the moment where the game pauses and the background fades out, for a dramatic camera angle on your Shin Shoryuken Whatever The Fuck. This should be simple. It should be so, so simple.

Besides the obvious networking problems, superflash in Elsword is fucked up in a lot of ways. In order to avoid spending 10 years on this section alone, we're going to focus on the two most important properties.

  • With very few exceptions, the character activating superflash becomes invincible after a universal 5-frame startup,[5] losing this invincibility when superflash ends.[6] Opponents gain no invincibility.
  • You are not guaranteed to leave superflash at the same time as your opponent. In fact, in many cases, the attacker leaves faster—sometimes a lot faster.[7]

There's an entire side story to be told here about the reign of Diabolic Esper, a character that setplayed you from full life to death by whiffing fireballs on purpose to freeze you in an eternity of superflash, but that's for another time.

Most Special Actives (supers) behaved in a normal way, with no meaningful advantage or disadvantage when you activated them. Regardless, the entire cast could take advantage of this oversight through a universal system mechanic…

Awakening

Think of Awakening like BlazBlue's Overdrive, except absolutely nothing like that because nothing about this game makes any goddamn sense at all. It's a universal powerup state that's activated using a dedicated meter, boosting your damage and activating character-specific gimmicks for a short duration.

It's also got a superflash—one of the most advantageous in the game.[8] And everyone has access to it.[9]

Your opponent's Awakening meter isn't displayed on-screen, so you can only guess whether they have it, based on how much damage they've done and how much punishment they've taken.[10] You also can't see how much Awakening Charge is on their gear, which affects the rate at which your Awakening meter builds. After the first few exchanges, it's a constant threat, an invisible extension of your reach.

Knockdowns

Elsword has no blocking.[11] This makes standing up from a knockdown kinda weird; it's not enough to be invincible until your first actionable frame, like most fighting games, because you'd have no protection from meaties. Instead, you're given invincibility for the first few moments you're standing, so you can slip out of pressure or punish an overzealous opponent. Attackers can still opt for pressure, but it's done via prediction, following an opponent's movement and setting up traps for them.

Since anti-airs are few and far between,[12] this often involves jumping attacks, throwing out hitboxes above an opponent to punish them for jumping out.

Here, Awakening is like Under Night In-Birth's Chain Shift after a lifetime of mountaintop training and a few packets of bath salts. On offense, it lets you skip all that boring "prediction" and "interactivity" stuff and just hit your opponent for free. On defense, combined with your invulnerability, it's a free way to reverse momentum…right?

Putting it all together

My main relied on exploiting knockdowns, so wakeup Awakening plagued me for a long time. After roughly the billionth time I got blown up for attempting pressure, I started letting people reset to neutral off late-game knockdowns, fearful and agitated. A well-timed meaty attack could stop it, since wakeup invulnerability would run out during the superflash, but committing to a meaty was too obvious—the defender had plenty of time to react and press literally any other button, their moments of freedom allowing them to stand in the attack like it wasn't even there.

The answer? Create a situation that only Elsword could allow—hide a meaty attack in the latency.

A normal setup versus wakeup jump uses an early or slow aerial attack, kept hanging in the air to keep your opponent grounded. But from the same position, you can shorten your jump arc with a fastfall. If you have a sixth sense, your spirit attuned with the latency,[13] you can adjust the timing of your setup, speeding up your early fastfall or late jump to coincide with the exact moment they hit Awakening on their screen. As they enter superflash, frozen in the animation and helpless to watch…you keep moving.

What looked like an exploitable anti-jump setup becomes a meaty attack, and the moment they leave superflash, they get hit. It's so godlessly stupid that sometimes you don't even get a hitspark; the game just gives up and leaves you to work things out for yourself. Elsword does not know how to do anything but take your money.

A final warning

If you made it this far, you've probably resolved to stay far away from Elsword, not that you had any plans to play it in the first place. But for a small percentage of you, this sounds like an interesting and exploitable system, full of novel weirdness and unexplored technical territory.

This is a trap. Do not fall for it.

Years after cutting ties with Elsword, I get to tell the fun stories—the moments of confused discovery, the elation at finally figuring out just how the hell all the mutated gears mesh together. You won't hear about the hours spent grinding for levels and gear, or the amount of time I spent seething as Vietnamese 14-year-olds scraped games off me wearing hundreds of dollars in gear and twice that in cosmetics, because those stories aren't fun.

Play literally any other game. Capcom, anime, poverty, MUGEN, tennis, Scrabble, whatever. Get one of those McDonalds LCD handhelds and do labwork for that instead. Sure, it might not be quite as deep, but when you put it down, you'll have wasted 3 minutes instead of 3 years.

Besides, if you want more stories, all you have to do is ask.[14]


Some video footage provided by Safety and Fendo, who have both left Elsword behind to take peoples' money in actual fighting games, god bless them.


  1. If you know nothing about fighting games, it might be actually be easier for you to understand Elsword, but it is also way less likely to be worth your attention—part of the reason it's so fucking bizzare is the way it breaks the rules normal fighting games naturally established. Sorry. You can go here and look at cats instead if you want. ↩︎

  2. Technically, the client and server were released as abandonware—you can still play it if you want to, but it's not in the greatest state right now. ↩︎

  3. Permanent hyper armor also exists, but now is not the time. ↩︎

  4. I'm doing you a service by muting all these videos, the game is famous for destroying ears with hundreds of stacked CRITICAL! sounds. ↩︎

  5. Elsword runs at 80 frames per second,[15] so that's 3.75 frames Celcius. ↩︎

  6. Yes, this means you can get hit out of the startup of your own skills and walk around while opponents are stuck in superflash. This game rewards mashing more than Asuka 120%. ↩︎

  7. If I had to take a guess, I'd say this has to do with the game's Attack Speed stat, which basically allows you to put better frame data on your equipment, allowing you to outpace normal superflash duration. But like I said, guessing. ↩︎

  8. Varies per character, no one knows why. ↩︎

  9. Except a single character added a few years after launch. Don't feel bad for him, he gets a second mana bar instead. ↩︎

  10. Yet another story for another time: the equippable ring that made Awakening available at round start, allowing you to skip neutral entirely. This game is not very good. ↩︎

  11. No manual blocking, at least—but Lord Knight's Auto Guard can activate in the middle of combos because this is a godless realm with no rules ↩︎

  12. True anti-airs are almost nonexistent and typically fairly slow, but many attacks can trade favorably with jump-ins. ↩︎

  13. Or if you timed it with superflash earlier in the match. I'm human. ↩︎

  14. Respectfully. ↩︎

  15. Okay, well, 80 frames per second on Windows 7.[16] On later versions of Windows, due to a difference in system timers, it ran at 75fps. This made the game slower, but not in the way you'd expect from Korean MMO developers that don't understand delta-time: if you cut the framerate in half, to 40, the game would run at roughly 75% speed. ↩︎

  16. The developers fixed the framerate discrepancies between versions much later…by making the game slower than it had ever been on any system configuration, across the board. This is roughly the time I started thinking about quitting.[17] ↩︎

  17. Nested footnotes, motherfucker ↩︎