I want Elden Ring to be every bit as challenging and frustrating and inaccessible to the masses as Dark Souls, Demon’s Souls, Bloodborne and, well, perhaps just a touch less challenging than Sekiro.
There’s a tendency in our culture to create art that is easy, that’s just background noise, formulaic and safe. Basically the entire MCU (minus a couple of outliers) takes this approach. Safe and easy, the kind of movie you could just have on in the other room. Plenty of pop music fits the bill. And video games just keep getting easier. In Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart you can skip each and every puzzle with the click of a button, for instance.
There are very few games that demand your attention. FromSoftware’s Souls games are that rare exception to the rule. They not only provide players with a real challenge, they insist that we invest ourselves into the experience. You can’t breeze your way through Boletaria or Yharnam or Anor Londo, which is perhaps the reason we remember the names of these places. They sit in our minds solid and very nearly real because we fought so hard to cleave our way through each of them.
In Elden Ring players will traverse The Lands Between and its various “legacy dungeons” and I hope that it’s as brutal and memorable slog as FromSoftware’s past games. This is not because I don’t want more people to play. Quite the contrary.
After all, the point of the challenge in SoulsBourne games is not the challenge itself, but the satisfaction of victory. “Overcoming challenges by learning something in a game is a very rewarding feeling, and that’s what I wanted to prioritise in ‘Dark Souls’ and ‘Demon’s Souls,’” Elden Ring/Dark Souls mastermind Hidetaka Miyazaki told IGN years ago.
So these games won’t be for everyone, but they certainly can be—people often bail too quickly, thinking they can’t possibly beat a boss that, in fact, they could with a little patience. I’ve played and beaten every Dark Souls game, Demon’s Souls and Bloodborne but I freely admit that I hit a point in Sekiro where I simply burned out. I’m okay with that. Sekiro was enormously difficult and my time and patience ran out.
But I wouldn’t want it any other way. I wouldn’t want to make the game easier just so I could finish it, thereby robbing those players who did overcome these enormous challenges of their own satisfaction.
Yes, I did at times wish I could have summoned another player to take down some of those ridiculous bosses (to hell with the Headless Ape forever and ever)). But I’m happy Sekiro didn’t pull any punches. There are countless easy games or games with an Easy Mode out there and so very, very few that stick to their guns and give everyone the same, universal experience, the same gauntlet to run no matter who you are. It’s special and it’s unique and it’s rare.
So when I read an article like this one I feel a slight wrinkle of despair. Writes Alyssa Mercante of Games Radar:
“I have played one FromSoftware game: the Dark Souls remaster, and for me, it was akin to psychological torture. I’m a run-and-gun kind of player with about as much patience as a toddler, so the limited traversal options mean I constantly run into an enemy type that repeatedly and unrelentingly kicks my ass, sending me back to a bonfire I lit 30 minutes ago. Boss battles with limited, to no, Estus Flasks had me trapped in what feels like an infinite cycle of death, like Tom Cruise in the Edge of Tomorrow except I never get any better at facing enemies. I absolutely hate losing, and Dark Souls wants you to lose, a lot.”
“The latest Elden Ring updates show how FromSoftware is looking to ameliorate some of their games’ more punishing features. The Lands Between is an absolutely massive open-world space that will give players more choices when it comes to traversal. Elden Ring won’t force you to choose between one of two equally brutal paths like other FromSoftware games, where one path features a Lovecraftian demon waiting behind a shimmery veil and the other is just a swamp full of septic skeletons.”
First of all, the idea that all paths in Dark Souls are equally brutal is simply not true. When you first arrive at the Firelink Shrine in Dark Souls you do indeed have more than one path to choose from. Essentially, you have three. Two of these paths will lead you into areas that are almost certainly far, far too deadly for a new player (unleveled, untested) to traverse with any hope of survival.
The only proper choice, then, is to go into the Undead Burg where you stand a chance and, hopefully, may learn a thing or two about how the game works. You’ll hone your skill here, test your mettle and improve enough to push forward. One lesson you might learn is when to run. You don’t have to fight the Black Knight yet, and you probably shouldn’t fight the Red Wyvern (unless you think to shoot its tail from beneath the bridge). If you paid attention in the tutorial level you’ll be able to handle the first real boss fairly quickly by simply jump-stabbing it from the guard tower a couple times.
These are not “equally brutal paths” by any means. They are all brutal for a newcomer but not equally so. But yes, the game does want you to lose—to die—and to do so a great deal. It’s part of the Zen of Dark Souls. You have to learn to let go, to lose your Souls, to fight again and again until you learn how to do it well. When you do, it’s much more gratifying than any other type of game, akin to finally mastering Mario Kart at 150cc or topping the leaderboards in Call Of Duty, but somehow even more of a rush because you’re fighting against such terrible odds in such desperate and horrific locales.
I do think the ways that FromSoftware has traditionally made some of its games more accessible are fine. Giving players the ability to summon allies is “easy mode” basically and there will be plenty of multiplayer in Elden Ring as well as summonable spirits. There will also be stealth a la Sekiro (though when I think of that game I’m reminded mostly of all the ways the developers actually limited choice).
Mercante writes: “FromSoftware games have always felt like they exist on an island surrounded by murky water that represents gaming capabilities I do not have: parrying, patience, and perseverance. They’re notoriously brutal and task the player with losing a lot to gain a little, which acts as gigantic barriers to entry for a large swath of the gaming community.”
But Elden Ring, she concludes, will be different.
“As someone who has struggled through Dark Souls, avoided Bloodborne, and scoffed at Sekiro,” Mercante writes, “Elden Ring is offering up an approachable FromSoftware title that’s ripe for the playing. With built-in difficulty options, a team of NPCs, a consultable map, and a wealth of choices, Elden Ring will welcome an entirely new set of players. I can’t wait to get my ass kicked.”
I’m still not at all convinced that this will be the case, that this will be a game that people who found Dark Souls torturous will enjoy.
It may make some aspects of the experience less punishing (even Dark Souls did that after Demon’s Souls) but it will still be “very difficult” according to game director Hidetaka Miyazaki, who adds that “it can be handled.”
Fast travel is back in Elden Ring and that’s what really worries me, though I’m glad to learn that you cannot fast travel out of a dungeon. One of my biggest complaints about the second and third Dark Souls games was the fast travel, the ease at which you can hop around from bonfire to bonfire, something you had to unlock at great pain in the original Dark Souls.
But the lack of fast travel in that game created something special, forcing the developers to build such a fascinating, brilliantly interwoven world. In Dark Souls 3 there were times I laughed out loud when I arrived at a new bonfire, very nearly within shouting distance from the last one. Too many checkpoints and fast travel really do cheapen the level design and the experience of traversing these strange worlds.
In Dark Souls you had to rely on shortcuts. But unlocking shortcuts—after fighting your way tooth and nail to reach them—is much more satisfying than simply fast-traveling everywhere. The ladder you kick down back to the bonfire beneath the Red Wyvern, or the elevator you unlock that takes you up and down between the Firelink Shrine and the Undead Parish are far more gratifying and clever than any fast travel. Maybe fast travel will be important in Elden Ring because the world is so big and so open, but maybe “big open world” is not as cool or as wonderful as the way FromSoftware built the Undead Burg.
I still remember the first time I looked up from Darkroot Garden and saw the Red Wyvern’s bridge far up above—not a separate level at all, but just part of this sprawling, labyrinthine ruin.
Fast travel, or too many bonfires, or too much of a focus on making these games approachable rather than tough and gritty and tangible threatens to dilute this sense of awe and wonder.
It’s not really about the difficulty, after all. It’s about those moments of triumph and astonishment that only a game like Dark Souls can conjure.
Elden Ring comes out on January 20th, 2022.