On Dark Souls, Difficulty, and YOU

I’m playing Dark Souls 3. I have just reached the Undead Village, the game’s second area. I depart from the bonfire, an area where one can rest and refill their health, magic and consumables (respawning all enemies, meaning one must use the bonfires wisely). I set off towards a nearby hut, where two farmers dressed in tattered garb and bearing farm tools as weapons come shambling towards me. They pack a mean punch, but I’ve been through this area six or seven times now, so I deftly dodge their attacks and strike with my own, killing them quickly and efficiently. I enter the building, taking a shortcut I discovered on my last run through this area to sneak up behind one of the small, vicious gremlin-like creatures that inhabit this house, dropping down on him and killing him in a single blow. There are three more downstairs; I deal with them, then head outside, where a large and very dangerous mob awaits. I see a note another player has left: “try stealth.” I heed it’s warning and, rather than dealing with the mob and it’s leader (a large, nasty enemy who shoots dark magic at me and laughs maniacally) I sneak around the right side, dispensing of four villagers who patrol the area, losing half of my health in the process. I use my first Estus Flask (I only have four until I reach another bonfire), refilling a chunk of my health. I enter the next area, where another of the dark magic spewing maniacs sits atop a ledge laughing at me, and four or five villagers wait for me on the path. I deal with them one at a time, leading them away from the maniac’s murderous artillery. I make a run for it, trying to make my way to another safe haven where the maniac’s attacks can’t reach me. I’m almost there. I round a corner… and a villager attacks me with a series of four consecutive blows, killing me outright before I can think to heal and sending me all the way to the bonfire I began at, making me lose all of the souls (the game’s currency used to buy nearly everything) I picked up. A message in bold red font appears, stating “YOU DIED.”

Fuck.

This is an average session of Dark Souls. If it sounds difficult, frustrating, and daunting, that’s because it is. As I’m sure you’ve heard, that’s part of the series’ undeniable charm. But it’s actually not as difficult as you might think.

You can hear people spouting on and on about the game’s difficulty, and I’m sure that a large part of it’s success was the developer, From Software, marketing it as the most difficult thing you can play. This drew in a certain hardcore gamer crowd, but it actually deterred me from playing the first two. It sounded like a frustrating chore, something that would just make me angry to play. I don’t like it when a game feels cheap, when it feels like I’m losing not because I messed up, but because there was no way I could have seen what killed me coming, or I got knocked off a ledge by an enemy I couldn’t see. This happens in Dark Souls a LOT. So why do I even like this game? Well, it has everything to do with the way the game is structured, both in terms of gameplay and world-building.

First, and arguably most important, the combat is some of the tightest and most satisfying I have experienced in gaming. It takes some time to get used to but once it clicks it makes you feel like a badass, taking down huge enemies while dodging their attacks. Enemies have attack patterns that are vicious and brutal; if an enemy lands an attack it usually takes away huge swaths of health, a resource that is very scarce. However, you can learn their patterns, and each time you face a specific enemy you get better at facing them, leading to an incredibly satisfying combat system that has you taking down enemies that whooped your ass before and cheering out loud when you do.

Another successful aspect is the respawn system and enemy placement. I mentioned earlier repeating an area over and over. This sounds frustrating and can be, at first. What makes it work is enemy spawn points that never change, allowing you to memorize their placement and patterns. With each run through an area you can probe deeper and deeper, pushing past areas that seemed impossible before. You learn each area like the back of your hand, eventually knowing each and every enemy spawn location and taking them all down with ease. This, coupled with the leveling system, makes you feel more and more powerful and proficient with each run through an area.

Each time you reach a bonfire you have the option of traveling back to your safe hub, where you can spend your souls on items, crafting, or leveling up. Each time you level you gain more power. The system is robust and complex, giving players an incredible amount of options for character builds to run the game with. You can then return to the area you were at previously, but stronger, better able to deal with the difficult enemies you encounter. There’s nothing more satisfying than going back to a starting area after leveling up your character a bunch and mowing through enemies that once seemed incredibly difficult.

All of these aspects mean that if you’re willing to put in the time, the game isn’t actually that difficult. It just requires a bit of patience. It’s very dense, at first, and doesn’t explain any of its systems very well. But with a little digging, some experimentation, and a couple of trips to some online forums, it becomes a satisfying and deep RPG that gives you challenges that are difficult, but in no way insurmountable. I think that the difficulty of these games dissuades a lot of people from playing them, which is a shame, because they sport some of the best world building and sound design I have ever seen in a game.

My entry to this style of games was actually Bloodborne. I saw the reviews and people said it was not as punishing as the Souls games, so I decided to give it a go. It took a long time for it to click with me, but I’m glad that I finally gave it a chance, as it is one of the most detailed and interesting worlds I have ever seen in a videogame. This is the most important aspect of these games to me. To be immersed in foreign lands, to become someone else in another place, is a rare experience, but something that games are uniquely good at. The story told in Bloodborne and the Dark Souls games is something that can only be told through videogames, and that has an incredible value. In order to fully understand what is going on, one needs to explore the dangerous world, find contextual clues and piece it all together. There IS a story in these games, despite what some will tell you; you just have to dig a little deeper, a method of storytelling that is unique to videogames. This, coupled with incredible enemy design and world-class sound design, makes for a spooky, beautiful world that feels alive (even though, in the context of the games, these worlds are dying). I love to sit down, put my headphones in, and enjoy getting lost in the worlds that the talented teams at From Software have created.

Long story short, it has been a while since I felt the need to make time in my day to sit down and play a game. I find it difficult these days to find the motivation to play a game, love them as I do. The pressures of adulthood make it hard. So it’s remarkable how pulled in to these games I have become, given how reluctant I was at first to play them. I recommend giving it a shot. It’s absolutely not for everybody; the games are challenging, and some people would rather sit down for a few minutes and play a couple rounds of rocket league. That’s totally fine. But if you enjoy action RPGs and are on the fence about Dark Souls/Bloodborne, just go ahead and give it a shot. I recommend starting with Bloodborne, if you have a PS4. It is by far the least punishing in the series, while still providing its own challenge, and I think the setting is incredible. Just go out and rent it. It can’t hurt.

Ok. Maybe it can hurt a little.

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