Post Script

Why the Souls games’ sup­posed dif­fi­culty is a dam­ag­ing myth


Adeath tally in ex­cess of 300 might sug­gest other­wise, but Dark Souls II is not a dif­fi­cult game. Nor was its pre­de­ces­sor, nor the PS3ex­clu­sive De­mon’s Souls. Yes, this is a game in which you die an aw­ful lot, where tu­to­ri­als are scant, and mis­takes are both in­evitable and se­verely pun­ished. But the Souls games’ dif­fi­culty level has been over­stated.

It’s odd, given that we tend to over­look dif­fi­culty in many other kinds of game. Spin out on the fi­nal cor­ner in a racer and you’ll lose the lead, forc­ing you to re­peat the pre­vi­ous five or ten min­utes of play. You re­alise your mis­take im­me­di­ately – that you took the wrong line, or were go­ing too fast – and restart, bet­ter pre­pared for the chal­lenge ahead than you were last time around. The par­al­lels are ob­vi­ous.

In fact, mas­ter­ing Dark Souls is a lot like learn­ing to drive a car. Both have core me­chan­ics – ac­cel­er­ate, brake and shift gear, or at­tack, block and eva­sive roll – that are eas­ily learned and quickly be­come mus­cle mem­ory. The hard part comes in ap­ply­ing those skills in a world full of other people, re­quir­ing a mix­ture of aware­ness and an­tic­i­pa­tion, and an abil­ity to pre­dict what they’re go­ing to do next, whether it’s the ax­ewield­ing Hol­low around the cor­ner or the SUV in the ad­ja­cent lane. The same ap­plies to fight­ing games: you can know all the 20-hit combos and have the frame data com­mit­ted to mem­ory, but you’re all but cer­tain to lose un­less you pay heed to what your op­po­nent is do­ing.

That’s an ap­pro­pri­ate com­par­i­son, be­cause Dark Souls II is, in many ways, the purest fight­ing game. With no elab­o­rate combo strings, there’s none of the bar­rier that pre­vents new Street Fighter play­ers, for ex­am­ple, from tak­ing on the world’s best. Whether fac­ing off against Dark Souls II’s low­est-ranked grunt or the fi­nal boss, all the tools you need are a but­ton press away.

Fur­ther­more, the Souls se­ries gives play­ers a spread of op­tions like few other games. Ryu will al­ways be Ryu, but if you’re strug­gling against a boss in Dran­gleic, Lor­dran or Bo­le­taria, a dif­fer­ent ap­proach can be adopted with just a few menu screens. You can switch to a spear and at­tack with your shield up, get out a hal­berd and give yourself greater range, or whip out a greatsword to max­imise your dam­age out­put. If you’re strug­gling at close quar­ters, you can fight from range with sor­cery or pyromancy, or put on heavy ar­mour to mit­i­gate the im­pact of mis­takes. On your trav­els, you’ll amass all kinds of items, and chances are the an­swer to your strug­gle is wait­ing in the in­ven­tory screen.

Dark Souls II gives you even more op­tions, in fact, with the new abil­ity to re­spec your char­ac­ter us­ing the Soul Ves­sel item. It’s a rare find – we had just three of them by the end – but it’s a key change, es­pe­cially bear­ing in mind how many play­ers aban­doned their first

On your trav­els, you’ll amass all kinds of items, and chances are the an­swer to your strug­gle is wait­ing in the in­ven­tory screen

Dark Souls save af­ter re­al­is­ing they’d raised the wrong stats at the wrong times and lev­elled them­selves into a cor­ner. You’re never forced to re­spec, but you’ll be tempted to, es­pe­cially dur­ing one mid-game run of ar­eas that is seem­ingly de­signed to mock those who said the first game’s Re­sis­tance stat was point­less. We re­sisted, but did restyle our­selves as a hy­brid Strength and In­tel­li­gence char­ac­ter be­fore em­bark­ing on New Game Plus, which is where Dark Souls II re­ally gets hard.

And this free­dom af­fords such flex­i­bil­ity that you can make the game harder, if you so choose. If Dark Souls re­ally was the hard­est game on the mar­ket, why would so many play­ers com­plete the Soul Level 1 run, which in­volves start­ing out as a Py­ro­mancer and never lev­el­ling up? Why is YouTube full of playthroughs of char­ac­ters wear­ing only a loin­cloth, or com­plet­ing the game with­out rest­ing at a sin­gle bon­fire? How is it pos­si­ble that the 100 per cent boss speedrun world record stands at an hour and 21 min­utes? It’s be­cause, in its vanilla form, Dark Souls isn’t hard.

What it is, how­ever, is im­pen­e­tra­ble. Tu­to­ri­als ex­plain the bat­tle me­chan­ics, but not how to bat­tle, which is a bit like giv­ing you a driv­ing li­cence af­ter your third les­son. You’re told noth­ing about how to man­age your Stamina me­ter, which gov­erns how much you can at­tack, block, dodge and run, mak­ing it the game’s most pre­cious re­source. There are no au­di­ologs, ei­ther, so piec­ing to­gether Dark Souls’ opaque lore means por­ing over item de­scrip­tions, read­ing Red­dit posts, and watch­ing YouTube videos, and even then you sus­pect you’re some way from the real story. FromSoft­ware seem­ingly takes no greater plea­sure than drop­ping the player in a sprawl­ing world and let­ting them feel their way through it with the bare min­i­mum of help. Early on in Dark Souls II, one NPC gives you the key to a Ma­jula house, which he says con­tains a map of Dran­gleic. Your heart only leaves your mouth when you go there and find noth­ing of the sort: it’s just one of many ways in which this game play­fully pokes the sea­soned Souls player. Of course there’s no map. This is Dark Souls.

It’s be­come some­thing of a badge of hon­our, this de­light in the opaque. The Souls games are po­si­tioned as an an­ti­dote to the mod­ern game de­sign con­sen­sus, to big-budget games whose mak­ers’ ob­ses­sion with keep­ing the disc in the tray means games have never been so fatu­ous, so facile. And there’s merit to that. But there’s a big dif­fer­ence be­tween hard­core and just plain hard. Candy Crush Saga is ev­ery bit as pun­ish­ing as this, yet it is played by tens of mil­lions ev­ery day. Un­til the con­ver­sa­tion around Dark Souls shifts fo­cus to its true strengths, it will for­ever re­main in its niche, starved of the wider recog­ni­tion it so de­serves.

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