I recently started playing a PS3 game called Demon’s Souls. I hadn’t heard of it until a few weeks ago when its sequel was announced, but apparently it’s fairly well-known as one of the most difficult games ever made. I don’t know if I would say that, but after about 10 hours of playing, I can see how a lot of other people might. It’s not that it’s so over-the-top, make-you-want-to-gouge-your-own-eyes-out-rather-than-keep-playing hard, it just doesn’t treat you like a child. After the tutorial teaches you the basics, you’re thrown into this deep, open-ended world and left to proceed however you wish. Combat is realistic enough to be unforgiving, and when you die, you drop all of your souls (currency) and come back as a “soul form” with less health. You have the chance to reclaim your souls by returning to where you met your end, but you have to fight your way back there from the beginning of the level, through all of the monsters that have just respawned. You can’t really manipulate the save system, either, since it autosaves constantly, sort of like an MMO.
If you do happen to resurrect your body by defeating a boss or consuming an uncommon item, you regain your health, but that actually opens you up to a whole new set of dangers. Firstly, your game world can be “invaded” by another player, allowing him the chance to kill you in order to get his own body back. This can happen at almost any time, meaning you might be distracted by other monsters when they appear. In a worst-case scenario, you could be nearing the end of the level, in the midst of battle with a particularly tough enemy, when a black phantom comes right up and murders you, sending you back to the beginning of the level. Also, dying when in “body form” will ‘cause a shift in the world’s tendency, which is sort of a karmic balance. Shifting world tendency towards black (which is what dying in your body does) will cause enemies to be stronger, having higher HP, attack, and defense stats. In other words, die a lot and the game gets harder, symbolizing the demon world gaining power by slaying a foolish mortal. This sort of kicking-you-while-you’re-down happens a lot in Demon’s Souls, but that just makes it all the more satisfying when you manage to succeed.
Aside from being an awesome game in general, I really like Demon’s Souls because it doesn’t pull any punches. It’s a breath of fresh air in a stuffy environment full of games that are afraid of alienating players by actually challenging them. There is no difficulty setting, and you can’t opt out of PvP interactions without going to the trouble of disconnecting from PlayStation Network. There are traps everywhere, each capable of killing or severely wounding you if you’re not careful to avoid them. You don’t magically regenerate health (or mana), and stamina can easily be drained by fighting inefficiently, which leaves you vulnerable to attack. Places to teleport to or respawn from are few and far between and must be unlocked before use, generally by defeating a boss. You can’t become rich selling what loot you collect to the blacksmith because all he wants are the souls you pay him. None of these things are inherently “hard,” but they make you think twice about doing things that other games would allow you to get away with scot-free.
This type of challenging gameplay design is a stark contrast to what many other games provide on their higher levels of difficulty. Instead of actually designing better AI or other mechanics, developers make their games harder by increasing the number of enemies, giving them superhuman abilities, reducing the damage you do to them, etc. It just seems a lazy way to make a game harder, essentially letting the computer cheat, instead of improving their tactics and strategy. It’s particularly annoying in something like an RTS, where the computer-controlled players have the same role you do, except they are given unfair advantages (on top of being able to process a thousand things simultaneously). Of course, that is done to make up for the fact that artificial intelligence has not yet been developed to a level that provides a real challenge for skilled/experienced human players… Until that happens, I will still play and [probably] enjoy such games, but that doesn’t mean I won’t be anxiously awaiting the day when faux-difficulty becomes extinct.
Firing Points is a weekly editorial that explores popular, pressing, or otherwise provocative topics in the world of gaming. The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the rest of the FiringSquad team, or anyone else for that matter.
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