Over the last few years the Dark Souls franchise has emerged as one of the most important in gaming. Boasting a quartet of titles — five if you include Bloodborne — the popularity of these games was truly capstoned by this year's release of Hidetaka Miyazaki's final outing, Dark Souls III. They are a remarkable set of games that have helped redefine the possibilities for intense gameplay and thought-provoking environments.
One of the most significant marks of a Dark Souls title is, of course, the difficulty. The reputation has been well established, from Demon's Souls and then the first Dark Souls, the latter of which bore the subtitle "Prepare to Die." One is warned from the outset that this is going to be a doggedly difficult experience. And any examination of reviews and reactions across the internet confirms the games are fair, but also rather unforgiving; rewarding, but brutal without exception.
'It's Just Too Hard For Me!'
A suggestion often put forth by gamers in response to all of this is a request for a lowering of difficulty — that is, a means of playing these games where the challenge is pared down so as to make for a more accessible experience. Many a gamer has no doubt been turned off this series due to its arduous gameplay.
And to a certain degree, that kind of request is understandable. There are plenty of advantages to this way of thinking. Not only does it make a given game more accessible to more potential players, but being able to change those levels can be a great way of mastering a new system. Start on easier modes, learn your way through it, and then up that difficulty in order to increase the challenge.
Another advantage in the growing marketplace is that game developers can offer a wider breadth of accessibility in a game, foremost among them being the option of variable degrees in difficulty. Gone are the NES days, when inability to pass a certain boss or a certain level prevented the player from proceeding in the game.
But Would This Work For Dark Souls?
Still, I would argue that this would be a poor choice if ever applied to a Dark Souls title. And while I think it's highly unlikely to ever occur — FromSoftware seems wisely aware of the link between Soulsborne gaming and toughness — it's still worth pondering the reason why this is a franchise better off sticking with as opposed to playing just that one level, not to mention how important it is to gaming identity.
One of the biggest reasons for this that the idea of a weighty challenge in the gaming experience is built into the very fabric of these games. And that doesn't manifest in the most traditional ways. This wouldn't be a matter of merely changing the stats of the player character when going up against enemies — offering healthy advantages for that PC over bosses and foes. Nor would it mean a mere altering of gameplay logistics by any traditional measure.
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Making these games less difficult would require making some pretty radical changes across the board. Beyond even just the gameplay. This would likely mean abandoning many of the elements the series is famous for: losing all your souls when you die; souls serving as the only form of currency; single stat at a time leveling up; respawning of enemies at each bonfire, etc.
Level, weapon and equipment progression would probably become a more straightforward, traditional RPG affair. Souls would no longer be the only form of currency — and all those forms of currency would come reliably, in abundance, and with little chance of loss. NPCs would appear frequently and plentifully to offer tips and guidance. Here's how you find this next important story item. Here's the next area in the game you should explore. Here's what you need to do in order to survive it.
It Would Negatively Effect Environments
If you took a Dark Souls game and asked it to be easy, you would have to start stripping away multiple elements of the game — pulling away more and more details to the point that, not very far into the process, the game would slowly transform into something else; something that would no longer be what it was. It might be a decent game, it might still be a game worth playing (though probably not to the same degree of reward and satisfaction) but it would no longer be a Dark Souls game.
Enemies and boss fights are structured in such a meticulous manner, I don't wonder if they would have to be radically reshaped. What's more, multiple of the environments would have to be rethought — possibly excised altogether. What exactly would an easy mode of Blighttown even look like? Or Nightmare of Mensis? Or Tower of Latria? What would it be like to fight and defeat Lord Gwyn after he's had half his move sets ripped away and his overall stats decreased?
Take, for example, trying to restructure Tomb of the Giants so as to make it less difficult. Instead of having the player in near darkness, light would be everywhere. This takes away that strategic risk the player is forced to make when choosing whether to carry a shield or the skull lantern. And with enemies visible from afar, troublesome skeleton archers would become an easily dodged joke. Navigating corridors down toward Gravelord Nito would be far less treacherous; there would be less risk, less anticipation, less satisfaction in discovery. (Shall we next consider what Sen's Fortress might turn into?)
At what point would you be asking Dark Souls to essentially become something else altogether?
With its difficulty, Soulsborne stands apart from almost anything else that currently exists in gaming. Plenty a title has borne advantage from offering different levels of difficulty, and the gameplay easily translates across those levels, with little to no detriment to the characters, story and environment. But the fact that Dark Souls games are difficult is woven into the very fabric, down to the very core of these experiences, so inextricably linked that you couldn't remove the notion without unraveling the entire world altogether.
And that's not even getting into some of the more obvious reasoning for keeping these games challenging, and how that challenge, unrelenting yet so fairly executed, means every degree of progress — no matter how minute — becomes a reward. How the sparseness of lore makes every piece of history a rich, new understanding of the environment. How each rarely acquired weapon becomes a potentially exciting new way of playing. How the successful traversal of those painstakingly crafted environments, or the defeat of those brutal boss fights, is cause for "praise the sun!" celebration.
The difficulty is what offers the rich sense of reward. It is perfectly disseminated through the gameplay. It is wonderfully reflected in the rich and atmospheric worlds these games inhabit. And it epitomizes much of the Soulsborne ethos: To learn things for yourself, learn things the hard way, with little handholding from the people who crafted them.
It's probably also why the games, while influential, are rather tricky to replicate. They'll always be a bit of a FromSoftware one-of-a-kind. And that's OK. Not everything needs to be like a Dark Souls. At the same time, I know I would never want Dark Souls to be like anything else.
Dark Souls III: Ashes of Ariandel expansion is available now. Check out the trailer below, and tell me what you think of the Dark Souls level of difficulty in the comments below.