Death of the Critic

Dark Souls Without Difficulty

Written by: Tom Blaich


I love the
Souls series. Over the years I’ve put a lot of hours into them and died a countless number of times, mostly by rolling off of cliffs. There is a lot to be praised about the game and the design, but somehow the conversation always centers on how difficult it is and how much you’ll die. It speaks to a certain attitude within the gaming community that praises “hardcore” games and decries “casual gamers.” Difficulty is king to many people and for that reason, the Souls series is frequently praised. If you can’t handle it, you just need to “get good” and deal with it. But what if you had to convince someone to play Dark Souls without ever mentioning its difficulty? How would that change our conversation about the game?

At its core, Dark Souls is a game about freedom and experimentation. About poking and prodding at its many different systems to try to see how they tick. There isn’t a wrong way to play the game, and it is refreshing to be allowed to make mistakes without the game stopping you. If you wanted to, you could create a naked boxer that runs around and punches everything to death. It might not be as strong as a warrior with a sword and shield, but it is still possible. The game operates within a defined set of rules that you can learn, and everything has a specific set of actions that they follow. As you play you gain experience on how to approach different situations and handle the unknown. The enemies start out simply and gradually build up in complexity of mechanics as you progress through the game. Every encounter is important, and you never feel bored by fighting the same enemies.

The game helps reflect it in its aesthetics. Different enemy types are visually distinct and you can predict their attacks based on how they look and the weapons that they carry. A snake-man with a cleaver will attack differently than a zombie with a broken sword. The game feels familiar in that it treads well-worn fantasy ground in its general design, but the world has been perverted into something strange. There are dragons and demons and zombies but they each have their own unique style that makes them stand out.

The world is intensely varied with different environments for you to discover. Crumbling ruins, a deserted castle, a magical forest. They hit the standard fantasy tropes but they feel Special. The forest is serene until you see enemies appear on the horizon, the castle is regal and grand, and the crumbling ruins feel mysterious and dangerous. You are given a huge amount of freedom at the outset to do whatever you want. You are trusted to find your own way through the world, and while there is a critical path for you to follow, you in no way have to. You are given different areas to explore and while the game might prod you in a certain direction, it is entirely possible to do something completely different and have a much different experience than another player.

The level design is fantastic, and the world is honeycombed full of secrets and hidden passages for you to find. It feels like every area is linked, and if you know what you are doing, you can quickly run all around the map and pop up in different places. Even now, after years of playing, I’m finding new things to play with. There is just so much to do, and the layered areas give you so many options so that even if you make a mistake, you can benefit from it.

Much like the rest of the game, the story isn’t shoved in your face. It is there for you to experience if you so chose. You can just run through the game and ignore it, or you can dig your way into the different areas, find all of the NPCs to talk to, and read the item descriptions to slowly fill out the world. Tiny nuggets of information abound, and it is up to you to put them together.

Dark Souls is a game about personal freedom, about learning a living, breathing world and how to survive within it. While I may be hard, making the conversation all about the difficulty is doing it a disservice. It encourages you to follow a path and learn a world instead of just running ahead and slapping monsters with your sword. You have to think about it. By emphasizing how hard it is, we shut out an entire group of people who are wary of playing the game, and that is no good. It speaks to a time where we had to prove something to people and defend our hobby and it ignores so much about so many games. Dark Souls is difficult, but it shouldn’t be defined by that difficulty.



Tom has been writing about media since he was a senior in high school. He likes long walks on the beach, dark liquor, and when characters reload guns in action movies.

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