Dark Souls’ legacy of legendary difficulty


Video games are difficult. From the very beginning, challenge has been an integral part of their DNA. After all, before there were home entertainment consoles, people would shove quarters into arcade machines to play their favourite games. How do you get kids to pay more for Pac-Man? You make Pac-Man hard to beat.

Levels of difficulty change from game to game, of course. Games companies don’t get a quarter every time you die anymore, so what makes a game hard (and how hard a game is) can vary for different audiences. But for a long time, there was something missing. Many felt that they were lacking a truly challenging experience. Games like Halo and the many Elder Scrolls games offer a more challenging option in the form of higher difficulty settings, but for most games all this means is that you deal less damage and enemies deal more. It doesn’t provide anything new for a player, other than a higher threat. It might be more difficult, but it’s not necessarily more challenging. Other games go the other away and make themselves outright unfair, which isn’t fun for anyone.

Japanese company From Software filled that void in 2009 with the release of Demon’s Souls for the PlayStation 3. Demon’s Souls doesn’t have difficulty settings; it teaches you how to play, gives you a weapon and shield, then leaves you to it. For many, it became immediately clear what makes Demon’s Souls so special: it’s one of the most challenging games of the 21st century. Even the most basic enemies can decimate you if you make a mistake and any one fight can require the same amount of thought as an entire level in another game. Success is about much more than just managing your health and dealing high damage. You need to keep an eye on your stamina so that you have enough energy to dodge away. You need to manage your healing items, which are few and far between (unlike many modern games, your health doesn’t automatically regenerate here: once it’s gone, it’s gone). Most importantly, Demon’s Souls forced you to actually learn the game. Your success depends upon your knowledge of what’s coming next and what you can use to your advantage; vantage points, particular weakness you can exploit in your enemies, anything to give you an edge. You’re rewarded for being observant.

Demon’s Souls was a fascinating design, but it wasn’t until 2011’s Dark Souls that From Software cause a monumental shift in video games. The series (which boasts two more sequels, all of which were remastered and bundled together last year) has experienced a level of popularity akin to Super Mario or The Legend of Zelda: they offer players an experience no one else has been able to. A real challenge for a generation of people who can call themselves ‘gamers,’ who feel like they’ve seen it all and need something more.

From Software didn’t stop there. They took their winning formula of an intense challenge in a world that is thrilling to explore, tweaked certain mechanics, and took it away form the medieval world of knights and dragons into gothic and Lovecraftian horror. 2015’s Bloodborne is one of the most revered PlayStation 4 titles of all time. It’s not just a new world for you to play Dark Souls in. While the former encourages patience in combat, Bloodborne is designed to be more aggressive. For instance, instead of giving you a sword and shield, you’re given a giant cleaver to kill the beasts and a blunderbuss to force them into keeping their distance. It’s a ferocious and intense game, but learning to master it means being able to sink your teeth into one of the most fun games of all time.

On March 22, From Software will release Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. Set in feudal Japan, this game follows the efforts of a Shinobi warrior to recover his kidnapped master. Early gameplay videos display the usual From Software style of challenging combat and visually stunning world, but with a twist. Dark Souls and Bloodborne allow one to indulge in Dungeons & Dragons-style character sheets that let your hero level up build towards the use of specific weapons and abilities to make your character unique to you. Maybe you want a giant sword and solid gold armour? Or you want to dart around the battlefield hurling spells at unsuspecting foes? Both are possible and so is anything in between.

Sekiro does not seem to offer that level of customization. Your character is a Shinobi, a very specific warrior from Japanese history and the playstyle will reflect that. Character customization, then, will be streamlined, but is not gone: you possess a magical prosthetic arm that can be equipped with a number of abilities for a variety of situations. Combat also becomes very focused in this sense too: instead of being able to pick from a variety of combat styles, Sekiro will be handing you a specific combat style and you will have to play by those rules. It seems swordplay will be something of a back and forth, in which the goal is not to chip away at a health bar so much as to take your chance for a kill move. In a first for From Software it seems Sekiro will also have stealth elements to allow for sneak kills.

For me though, the most exciting element will be getting to explore the world of Sekiro. The combat of From Software games is fantastic, but it would be nothing without an interesting environment that feels dynamic and interesting. Bloodborne might begin with simple werewolves and ogres, but as you delve deeper into the nightmare that ensnares the world around you, these take on the tone of an eldritch horror. This includes giant spiders, piles of corpses that have somehow come to life and 100-foot tall horse monsters with eyes where their teeth should be. What’s more, your actions seem to directly have an impact upon the world of the game: the further in you go, the more you realize that you’re part of something much bigger. We know very little so far about Sekiro, but it’s clear that both the inspiration from mythology and dynamism of the world will be present. In terms of the former: there’s a giant flying snake at the very least. In terms of the latter, it seems that the player’s existence itself is causing some ill effects on the world.

In short, I highly recommend checking out Sekiro, or at least seeing if the trailers pique your interest. If you haven’t played the Dark Souls games before, don’t worry: by the sounds of it, Sekiro is different enough that even die hard fans will be learning the game almost from scratch. If the difficulty puts you off, it’s good to remember that no one became good at these games overnight. Patience and perseverance will see you through. It’s worth it, too. I promise you people haven’t overhyped these games. They are worth all the time you’re willing to invest and Sekiro seems to be another worthy entry into this collection.

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