I remember hearing about the old school challenge of the PS3-exclusive action-RPG Demon’s Souls way back in 2009 and being a little envious since I only had an Xbox 360 at the time. I also remember a couple years later when its spiritual successor, Dark Souls, took the gaming community by storm. The art alone assured that some day, we would cross paths.
The ‘net was filled with people claiming the game’s difficulty made it like banging your head into a wall and brag posts from hardcore gamers mocking their ineptitude. “Git gud, scrub” was a common phrase. This put me in a weird place. As an old school gamer, I’ve been tempered in the fires of titles like Mega Man 2, Battletoads, Ghosts and Goblins, and all sorts of games featuring what I’ve come to refer to as “fuck you difficulty”, but like most gamers I’ve become a bit pampered in recent years.
Fuck you difficulty is properly attained when a game is not only designed to be challenging, but actively tries to make you rage quit by being unnecessarily frustrating and often downright unfair. As a young child with my entire future ahead of me, I had nothing but time to give these games my all and learned valuable life lessons about perseverance through my countless defeats and glorious victories. But as an adult, I have precious little time to spend stalled against nearly impossible odds. My priorities have shifted from the thrill of overcoming a challenge towards simply enjoying a great story in an interactive medium.
So the problem at hand was how much money do I want to spend on a game that is promised to kick my ass and I will likely never beat? My disposable income is the one thing smaller than my free time. As I wrestled with this question, a Dark Souls sequel came out, then a new generation of consoles, and then finally yet another spiritual successor, Bloodborne, released to critical acclaim, massive sales, and more discussions about what an awesome challenge it was. Clearly it was time for this cowardly lion to hop on this bandwagon.
So I finally downloaded Demon’s Souls and began to play. The tutorial eased me in nice and easy, one combat technique at a time. Time and again, I achieved easy victory. Hell, this game is GREAT! What a fantastic combat system! This isn’t so hard! Holy crap, what am I supposed to do with that giant ogre thing I’m stuck in this hallway and he’s the only way out maybe I can roll around him and nope I’m dead. So this is the kind of game that gives you an impossible fight right at the end of the tutorial just to say “fuck you” (hence “fuck you difficulty”). ‘Kay.
Not only that, but this game that is designed to kill you effortlessly takes half of your max health bar away as punishment for dying. Even when you’re meant to die. So they take an inexperienced player and kill him as part of the story just to make the game twice as hard as they’re trying to learn it. You have to beat the level to get your health bar back to full and the you lose it again as soon as you die on the next level. This is what happens when you let sadists design a video game.
Still, the game seldom gets all that difficult. Like many gaming classics, it’s all about trial and lots of error. If you die, it’s usually because you suck so the simple answer is to….well, get good. Learn ffrom your mistakes. The diversity of weapon configurations, the fluidity of the controls, the constant healing item drops, and the wonder about what could be around the next corner is more than enough to keep a true blue gamer going. Every time you die, you learn and are better prepared for next time. It’s a pretty elegant design, really, and the curve ain’t bad.
But here’s the thing. We modern gaming folk are not only used to checkpoints after every enemy we kill, but we HATE losing our experience. Actually, it’s always been my least favorite thing that can happen in a game since nothing is more rewarding than building up your character. Having that character reduced to his state of a few hours ago with all that work gone is painful to put it mildly. Demon’s Souls punishes you every time you die by stripping you of all of your souls. Souls function as both currency and experience points, meaning if you die, you restart at the beginning with NOTHING. You can reclaim your souls by making it to the place you died and touching the bloodstain you left behind, but when that doesn’t work out the rage can be extreme.
After many hours spent killing and being killed, it dawned on me that my class was all wrong for this game. I chose a thief because I’m a player who enjoys using stealth and finesse, but that shit was not working, largely due to the weakness of ranged combat and the fact that enemies seem to instinctively know you’re there once you get close. I re-rolled a well-rounded royal to give magic a try and found it to be extremely overpowered. But hey, it sure helped me get past that ridiculous fire breathing spider boss thing that pelts you with fireballs as you run down a long hallway and alternately webs you so you can barely move and then fills the whole room with fire when you reach it. HATE that thing.
While cruising the boards, I found that relying on magic is looked down upon. But screw them, man. I’m keeping my souls! And now I could take on those horrific cthulhu things in the prison level that zap you with lightning then pick you up and eat you while you can’t move instead of skulking around hiding from them. That shit gets old. I do wonder why the devs left such an obvious crutch in the game, though. Pity, I suppose.
I read a post that compared Demon’s Souls to a supermodel that kisses you and the punches you right in the mouth. Totally worth it. It definitely earns its reputation as an old school-style challenge, but with awesome new modern gameplay and graphics. And as much as the game kicks my ass, the ability to view my fellow gamers’ deaths in each dungeon by touching their bloodstains has convinced me that my status as a better gamer than they are is not in jeopardy. Man, people suck. Like, suuuuuuuuck.
Probably due to the age of the game, I haven’t yet encountered the joy of other players invading my game to kill me. I’m not sure if this makes me happy or sad. Part of me sees all of those red phantoms of other players’ demises being owned by the weakest enemies and laughs at the thought of them coming at me, but another part of me is visualizing insane gamers with crazy OP builds who have stuck around playing this game for six years farming the stones that allow them to invade the games of noobs just so they can ambush me at the most critical points and leave my hard-earned souls as a stain at their feet before messaging me to mock my weakness.
I definitely see why people love this series. Am I going to beat Demon’s Souls? Hell no. I ain’t got time to git that gud. But having cut my teeth, I can move on to the other games in the series with some confidence now. As cool as the first game was, the exceptional art of Dark Souls should make it an even cooler experience for me, even as it brutalizes me time and again. And I’m sure I’ll give Bloodborne a go too, should I ever manage to come home with a new console. I’ve got plenty of catching up to do on this series, and I plan on catching up.