Recently, Charlie shared his opinion about an easy mode for From Software’s Dark Souls III. In this he made some very good points, and some that were hard to argue with in terms of their overall reason and validity. However, this isn’t an opinion I personally agree on, and I feel that any form of easy, or easier mode for Dark Souls would be a bad thing.
Now, I’m not going to simply spout Soulsian memes such as “git gud” or “filthy casul,” as I don’t subscribe to that method of defence, and feel it does the game and the community no good, instead simply promoting the usual ignorant, elitist fanboy mentality we’ve come to hate in the gaming world. What I will do, though, is explain why I feel making Dark Souls easier could have a bad effect on one of the best game series ever made.
First and foremost, Dark Souls is known for its difficulty, and on the most basic level, this is the main feature of the series that makes it stand out from a very large crowd. Although I believe a lot of the public awareness of the difficulty is due to a lot of hyperbole, as the game simply isn’t as hard as many would lead you to believe (which, admittedly, I myself am guilty of in my own reviews and coverage of the game), there’s no denying the game’s greater difficulty level when compared to most other contemporary releases. From the breakout arrival of Demon’s Souls, right through to Bloodborne and Dark Souls III, From has always emphasised a high difficulty, to the point that the game deliberately leaves details unexplained, challenging the player to uncover mechanics and secrets themselves.
Some argue that this is simply poor, or lazy game development, but given the high quality of the Souls series and its consistently successful reception, this really isn’t a good argument. Each game in the series has always featured a lot of vague descriptions and obscure content, and this is by design, not shoddy workmanship. The gameplay is certainly far from shoddy, and the difficulty is harsh, but almost always fair. From wants its games to challenge you, it wants you to go through hell, all in order to improve your skills, get better, and feel that sublime sense of achievement when you win, and in this regard, it has succeeded. It’s like beating Contra or Castlevania all over again (although not quite on par with 80s and early 90s difficulties).
How often do other mainstream games do that? How many current big name publishers and developers have released a game where you truly feel like you’ve accomplished a great feat and overcome a challenge? Not many I’d wager, and it’s here where I feel the rotten core of an easy mode sits, waiting to spread.
You see, the Souls series isn’t a major franchise in the usual sense, and even to this day it surprises me that it’s remained in development and so high profile. For any game to succeed these days, interested publishers will often tick the mainstream appeal boxes. These include all of the usual tropes we see in many AAA releases, as well as deliberate difficulty, or lack thereof. It’s just the same as Hollywood’s current churning out of as many superhero movies as possible, most of which are bland, trite, and just plain rubbish (I’m looking at you Batman Vs Superman!)
Releasing a game that’s too hard scares the bean counters in most publishers’ accounting departments, as games that are difficult often put off the more casual gamer, leading to lower sales. Like it or not, the casual market makes up the majority of the potential market, and this includes younger children and people who play more casually. The hardcore player base, whilst large, simply doesn’t match this in terms of potential profit, so there’s just no business sense in focusing on it, at least not according to many. At least, before Dark Souls came along.
Again, this is similar to superhero movies that actually aim for the casual, non-comic book fan more so than the real, knowledgeable fan base that’ll surely pick a movie apart. There are simply far more casual movie goers, and a lot more money to be made, so movies are tailored to entertain the majority, not the few.
With Dark Souls, we have a game that dares to fly in the face of convention, a game that isn’t afraid to risk a smaller fan base in favour of offering a true challenge. This approach may instantly scare off many players, and may even make less money, but those that want the challenge revel in it, and this is why there’s such heated ‘discussion’ about any potential easy mode. It’s just so rare these days, at least outside of indie gaming.
To put it into context, lets take another game that was once excellent – EA’s Dead Space. The original release was a breakout hit. It was a totally new IP from EA and not a yearly sports update, and it was also a true survival horror. It focused strongly on the horror aspect with some genuine scares, it forced players to conserve ammo and supplies, and brought the kind of survival horror play we’ve not really seen since the early days of Resident Evil and Silent Hill. It was great.
Then, the sequel came. Dead Space 2 wasn’t bad, but it ditched the majority of the horror content and made it much more action-focused. There was far less survival horror, and more gruesome blasting. Dead Space was a money maker, EA saw that, and so tailored the second game to appeal to the mass market. This is a dreaded phrase that’s killed so many games – mass market appeal. Dead Space 3 is a prime example, and with the third game, EA successfully killed off an otherwise promising franchise entirely, by forcing it into the everyman, action co-op shooter mould, a place Dead Space didn’t want to, and never should have been. The horror was non-existent, the atmosphere lost, and micro transactions ruined any remaining appeal. Well done EA. Well done (accompanied by a nice, slow clap).
What does this have to do with Dark Souls? It’s simply a possible example of a worst case scenario for From’s title, and one that really isn’t that far fetched, with an easy mode being the first step on a slippery slope.
The call for an easy, or easier mode is from players who find the game too difficult, and can’t/don’t want to put in the time and effort to overcome this difficulty. I feel for those who want to play it and find it too hard, but at the same time, I also find arguments to make the game easier just plain wrong, as making Dark Souls easier just misses the point entirely, and without the high difficulty, Dark Souls, whilst still a decent game, would lose too much, and would lack one of its defining features, in turn losing a lot of its appeal.
“You don’t have to play it on easy if you don’t want to!” Is the common argument against this, and it’s a fair point, except for the reason I brought in Dead Space. Making the game easy would simply pander to the mainstream and casual player, and this effectively means there’s a focus on making the game easier during the design phase. This would unavoidably have a damaging effect of the game as a whole, and would likely lead to enemies simply being damage sponges on higher difficulties instead of being genuinely challenging. It’d be artificial difficulty, essentially, like that seen in The Division, and it would likely split the player base, as easy players wouldn’t want to be put up against those playing on harder modes. Expert players could cause havoc anyway, playing on easy just to troll lesser-skilled gamers.
Enemies in Souls games can be tough, but the difficulty more often than not comes from their attack patterns and skills, and this isn’t something you can easily scale for difficulty without causing problems in development. Sure, less damage helps, but some players would struggle with certain enemies regardless of their damage output or resistance. Trust me, some foes later on in DSIII have some truly tricky attack patterns.
Having worked in development, I appreciate the difficulty that comes with this kind of design issue, and whilst it’s possible to scale a game, it takes longer and a lot more money, something a lot of publishers are loathed to do, and in terms of Dark Soul‘s central mechanic, which is also based around the difficulty, it’s even more of a problem.
A difficulty change would possibly lead to other alterations, seeing the Souls series become more and more mainstream, eventually blending in with any other third person action RPG title, and it would affect the game on all difficulties, easy or hard.
There’s also the argument that the Souls series is good enough, and has enough good content to stand tall on more than just the difficulty alone. The world, lore, characters, and core gameplay is solid, making a great game, with the difficulty simply augmenting the experience. This is both right and wrong.
The game does, indeed, have plenty of excellent content aside from the difficulty, but it’s also tied heavily to this challenge in many respects. Take the core feature that’s always been in every Souls game, including Bloodborne – the gathering of souls/echoes. This is the currency you use for everything, including leveling up, buying items, and improving weapons. You can’t store these anywhere, and have to carry all of them on you. If you die, you lose them, and have one chance to get them back. Die again, and they’re gone. It’s tough, unforgiving, and it’s a fantastic mechanic for keeping players on edge and engaged. There are few games that can instill as much fear as Souls when you’re on the edge of your seat, trying desperately to get back to your death point to recover masses of souls/echoes. Make this journey easier, with enemies that offer less challenge and you take this aspect away. The worry of losing souls would be lessened, and the game as a whole would suffer.
The genuine trepidation you feel when exploring the world is another essential element of the game. In most games released these days, even huge bosses rarely fail to cause much concern, and the general difficulty and challenge of mainstream titles isn’t all that high. In Dark Souls, however, even normal rank and file foes can kill you quickly, and this leads to very real concern when you encounter new foes you’ve never seen before, let alone bosses. Will you be able to survive? Maybe not, but you’ve got to brace yourself and find out.
This difficulty also encourages another of the series’ major mechanics, and that’s multiplayer, which is handled very differently to most. The ability to summon allies into battle is a godsend for some challenges, and the game’s unforgiving nature means even players who would usually avoid online play will likely give it a try. In fact, the PvP invasion system means you’ll experience online play whether you like it or not if you play online and meet in-game requirements (such as being in ember state in DSIII).
Truth be told, this feature is arguably an actual easy mode that’s already built into the game. If you’re struggling to get past a tricky area or boss, simply call in help from other players, of even AI NPCs. It’s possible to call up several helpers, and beating a boss doesn’t even require you to do any damage yourself; just stay alive and let your allies do the deed. It’s cheap, and more than a little cheesy, but the option is there, all whilst maintaining the game’s difficulty. What’s more, this benefits other players, who can earn items and rewards for helping out others. Win win.
At the end of the day, Dark Souls is a difficult game. Everyone knows this, and it’s a big reason it has the fandom it has, and is also why it’s become so infamous. Are you a better person because you can beat Dark Souls, with the right to proclaim everyone else is a “filthy casul?” No, of course not, it’s just a bloody game for Gwyn’s sake. Grow up! It doesn’t even make you a better gamer, it just means you’re good at Dark Souls. I’ve beaten every Souls game thus far multiple times, but I’m still crap at Street Fighter and none too great at Call of Duty. I don’t consider myself special, I just enjoy the challenge, as well as talking about that tough battle that took me ages to beat with friends. This feeling of accomplishment is perhaps the most important part of the game, which is why making the game easier would be a problem for fans, especially if it resulted in the game becoming that mundane, AAA yearly release which blends in with the rest. Let’s not let that happen, and hold on to the current bastion of challenge.
One final note. If you’re a Dark Souls fan who does relish the challenge, may I highly recommend you give the Alpha demo of Team Ninja’s Nioh a go. It almost makes Dark Souls look like a training mission. The very first enemy in the game can kill you with a single hit. Yep, it’s pretty tough, and great.