On The Topic Of Difficulty
This isn’t going to be the most revelatory article on the internet, nor will it offer some fresh new perspective to a conversation that’s been going on for years. However I felt that it was necessary to establish this base of discussion early, ahead of my upcoming review for Dark Souls II — out by next Monday, I promise. This article can then be referenced at that point to understand a little bit more without turning my review into some opinion-filled five-thousand-worder.
A few things out of the way immediately, I’ve discussed my disdain for the Dark Souls hardcore fan who feels that nobody can call themselves a ‘real gamer’ until they’ve finished Dark Souls. Further, when previewing Dark Souls II I explained that I had not completed the first one and gave my reasons why. So with all of that out in the open, and with the knowledge that I am in fact heading up the Dark Souls II review, I would like to discuss why I feel that From Software’s concept of difficulty is nothing new; we just all seem to think it is and then proceed to celebrate it.
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A few years ago I tried playing Mass Effect 2 on Insanity difficulty as a Soldier class in order to unlock the final achievement for the game. It was brutal. Excruciatingly so. The old tactics of blasting enemies with powers and then right-triggering them dead simply did not work and new tactics were required for every enemy type. Mix in a few different enemy types at once and utter chaos ensued as I was forced to adapt to various types of enemies that required various conflicting approaches. At two points in the game, I squarely rage-quit, exclaimed, “Fuck this game!” and didn’t return for months. Eventually, I forced myself through it and finally overcame every hurdle in order to complete the game.
This past Friday I put on Dark Souls II and played it for solidly five hours as a swordsman, dying quite a few times as is expected, never in a stupid fashion — such as falling off a cliff or walking into a trap — but rather to cheap enemy attacks. I had my trusty Estus Flask with me but every sip from it forced me to stop for a moment while sipping that tasty elixir, and all it took was three or four hits from a regular enemy to put me down. This was made a lot worse by the fact that every time I died, my health capacity dropped a bit more until it was only half of the maximum. This, as you can imagine, had the effect of making it even more tricky dealing not just with boss enemies but also regular ones. Two new characters later, I would either walk through entire areas filled with enemies or barely take five steps before dying, so unbalanced was my experience.
Do you know what the main difference is? Besides the obvious different settings, developers and approaches to narrative. In Mass Effect 2, I felt proper difficulty. Proper challenge. In Dark Souls II, it just feels like an unnecessary chore.
Now I won’t say a lot more because I’ll leave the rest for the review, in truth I think that Dark Souls II is a great RPG that has a lot going for it, but I want to play more before I can really talk about it as a game. However as this celebrated object of difficulty — to the point that even the game itself makes fun of the fact — I think that it is not only, to quote everyone who knows me to use this phrase, “overrated”, but also unfair.
The idea with the Dark Souls games is that they don’t hold your hand. They don’t give you tips or tell you how to dispatch enemies. Each enemy has a weakness, sure enough, but it is up to you as the player to find and exploit those weaknesses. And while doing so, you must take care not to get yourself killed in the process. It’s called rewarding by a lot of fans, who truly believe that no other game is as difficult or unforgiving. They’ve obviously not played a lot of games, but I digress.
The thing is, I felt more of a challenge playing Mass Effect 2 on Insanity because at least there, I knew I had a fighting chance. Every enemy had the potential to kill me but I too had the potential to survive. Every single fight didn’t depend on my ability to manage my stamina. That’s all Dark Souls is, really; it’s a fight to manage your stamina and not die. Use your stamina well and you likely won’t.
To really break it down, this is the difference in points:
- Walk up to enemy and hit it.
- Enemy takes damage.
- Dodge out of the way of the enemy’s attacks or try to parry.
- Option 1: Hit by another enemy.
- Option 2: Successfully evade enemy attacks.
- Wait for stamina to recover while running around frantically.
- Bonus: Look for point where enemy takes more damage than usual.
- Repeat until dead.
Mass Effect 2
- Identify enemy types to be faced.
- Coordinate squad, powers and weaponry to accommodate.
- Take cover and try not to get killed while doing damage.
- If forced out of cover, try to find other cover.
- Ensure other teammates are regularly using powers and not downed.
- If out of ammunition, try to locate a nearby ammo cache or spam powers.
- Repeat until game saves.
You tell me which you’d prefer.
I actually scoff at people who call it a game for ‘real gamers’ because what you get with Dark Souls is basically what you get with any other game in the genre, only the difficulty is turned all the way up and the option to turn it down is removed. I want you Dark Souls hardcore to do me a favour and try Skyrim on Legendary difficulty, or Dragon Age: Origins on Nightmare. Go ahead. For me the real difficulty in Dark Souls is figuring out what the fuck to do, and where in the damn game you’re supposed to go next. And again, that’s not difficulty, not really. That’s just dumping the player in the deep end and forcing them to swim.
And sure, some do swim. And those who manage to swim will relentlessly abuse those poor souls (no pun intended) who drown in the process of trying to swim. The game itself, not willing to throw them any sort of lifeline besides a little Flask. But that’s not difficulty. That is just being unfair to your players. Giving them a fighting chance is one thing. Leaving them ill-equipped for the task at hand and then asking them to do it anyway is a whole other story.
We’ve all heard tell of games that simply increase enemy damage while decreasing yours, and then call that difficulty. In ways, yes, Dark Souls does do better than this by granting each enemy a weakness and allowing you to exploit that weakness should you find it. But I won’t for a second believe that it’s the only series that is capable of doing this, and I for one will not be patronised by players of the games who feel that because they swam, they are immediately better than everyone else.
I’ll leave this here as reference for when I get around to the Dark Souls II review. Please don’t make the mistake of assuming I hate the game. I don’t. I actually like a lot of other aspects of the game. I just wanted to address this topic of difficulty from a personal perspective because honestly, I think that From Software is playing at what they think difficulty is, and we’re just eating it up because, “Oh look! Game that doesn’t hold players’ hands!” Never mind the fact that it grasps at your jugular instead.