Bit of history on this one: I intentionally avoided the Souls series for a long time. A short relationship was had with Dark Souls 2 SotFS on PS4 before succumbing to the excruciating difficulty. I wandered into a zone and found myself facing off against giant knights 1v1. I could kill the first one, avoid combat with the second, and then die to the the third. This went on for about two hours before quitting. This didn’t seem far off from the general discussion around the series. Everyone is always going on about how good the series was was because of this difficulty. “The game wasn’t cheap, it just punished you for making bad decisions” or something to that effect… or “git gud” when someone wanted to be a dick to novices trying to get into the series. None of that is a desirable environment for me when I’m gaming. Having my skull crushed in for two hours while not advancing my character or the campaign just isn’t my thing. In the past with other games like Fallout 3 and Oblivion I played with the difficulty slider all the way down. I grind JRPGs for hours to get ahead so I can sidestep the challenge of combat encounters. Most recently I played through Uncharted 4 on the easy setting so I could enjoy the story without frustration. So all this praise about difficulty had me avoiding the Souls series like the plague. Yet this year it finally caved when I picked up From Software’s debut title that kicked off the series, Demon’s Souls, on PS3 as part of #4iF (Four in February, a social media driven initiative to finish 4 games from your backlog). I’m so happy I made that choice as I went on to love every damn minute of it. So what spawned the change of heart? Well, I played it wrong without regret.

Start of a new journey.

Start of a new journey, I stand before Lothric Castle.

“Wait a second, what do you mean played it wrong?” you’re probably asking out loud, dear reader. Actually you probably didn’t ask that or say anything out loud. My leading statement meant to intrigue you and assumed you were curious to continue is just a literary technique. Carrying on though let me elaborate for you what I mean by playing it wrong. As mentioned above, the idea of a challenge in a progression based game isn’t my type of soirée. What I love about these types of games are being able to explore the world, experience the rich history and lore by being in that time and place. The reason I enjoyed Oblivion was finding random ruins in it’s massive setting and piecing together the story of what the ruins possibly used to be. Doesn’t your mind explode with ideas when you read a title like “The Seat of Sundered Kings”? It’s roaming randomly through Cyrodiil to come out a cave structure on the other side to discover an expansive vista of a once thriving but now forgotten culture. When I finally dug past both the marketing and fanbase push of “the right way” to play Souls, it was everything I wanted from the game. Deeply atmospheric moods for each locale, dubious NPC frenemies like Patches the Hyena, powerful sorrow from boss encounters, and a variety of places that had me eager to discover what was just beyond that next swath of tainted soldiers. The only hindrance of the game was the combat. So with continuing with my usual tradition of neutering the difficulty of the game, I read up online what the easiest and most overpowered character build was and ran with that. For Demon’s Souls this was a mage class built like a glass cannon. My avatar into the world was extremely volatile to all she encountered, but two good hits from nearly any monster would cripple me. Three strikes against me and I’d my screen would be flooded with the infamous “You Died” fail screen. It changed the game from an action/reflex oriented experience into a stealth creeper as I slinked around corners, sniping off any unsuspecting enemies or abusing AI pathing patterns. Approaching the game as a puzzle, dismantling each group of foes until it was safe to proceed or let me explore my surroundings at my own pace. I still got that tension that is core to the Souls experience, but it was on my own terms. Eighty hours later I left the game completely hooked and feeling good enough to go back to Dark Souls 2. I was a bit more versed in the design of the game and ready to overcome the challenge I left behind. Dark Souls 3 was on the verge of release and I thought maybe I could cut through this before jumping into a fresh new release that everyone would be buzzing about.

Upon booting up my save from Dark Souls 2, my character felt wrong compared to the mage I just spent eighty hours with. I wasn’t sure what stats I had raised at that point if any, and just felt an overall lack of direction. I recognized a need for a fresh start into the journey and began anew. I opted to still leave my wizarding roots behind and went with a sword+shield character for balance… So you remember at the head of all of this I mentioned getting obliterated by brutish knights at the start of the game? Turns out that’s because I went to the wrong area. Somehow I found my way into the third leg of the world instead of the first without character advancement to prepare me for it. Now when I was heading towards the first world I actually managed to advance all the way through the first boss to questionable success. Things were feeling good again, I could trek through the world and enjoy it just as I did Demon’s Souls at this rate. Sure I tucked tail and booked it to the next bonfire a few times. Those who run away live to fight another day… with all their souls intact, right?

Dark Souls 3 is stunning when you take it in.

Dark Souls 3’s locales are stunning when you give them a moment.

Well my time with DS2 was short lived as Dark Souls 3 released and I was lucky enough to come into a free copy. I was playing it on release week in NA, and even beyond that it had only released in Japan three weeks prior. Guidance on how to get through the world was limited, but my excitement to dive in and see it all was at a high. I watched a stream and it was gorgeous, this would be the first time I saw a Souls game on a modern platform. Demon’s Souls was nine years old when I played it, and Dark Souls 2 was a port of a PS3 game to PS4. I had skipped Bloodborne despite hearing nothing but jaw-dropping appreciation for the beauty of it’s aesthetics. Feet first I jumped in, creating a heavy spear user in a nod to Zhao Yun of the Dynasty Warriors series. It all opened up nicely with a tutorial zone, a central hub zone very familiar to the Maiden in Black’s shrine from Demon’s Souls including a legally distinct take on the Maiden herself, and then I was loosed upon the High Walls of Lothric. The world was my playground as I ran around poking skeletons to death in a similar glass cannon built character fashion. Leveling up I just dumped all my growth into offensive stats. This actually worked out pretty well until I hit my first boss… and it only got worse from there. Several deaths and frustrating moments of play later I finally advanced. I antagonized myself with that stupid expression “git gud, noob!” Rinse and repeat this for two more bosses before I quit the game. Angrily I walked away from the game. It was a visual treat with melancholic music sprinkled among the somber story and tales of sorrow. Everyone in this world was a victim of a cruel reality. There were no inherit villains, just fallen heroes who went wayward or were corrupted by the power they sought to destroy at the head of their journey. I was genuinely upset that I wasn’t good enough to see any more of the campaign because I wasn’t skilled enough as a player.

Some defeats stung more than others

Some defeats stung more than others

I moved on to start and spend seventy some hours in Kingdom Hearts 2 Final Remix. That lasted over a month before I found the desire to return to Souls 3. Since then I read up online how the multiplayer aspect worked and learned that I could summon other players into my game for boss fights. For the most part I could manage between checkpoints without issue against normal enemies. The first time I played roaming with my spear I didn’t realize that I could use bow and arrows. The helped a lot and let me approach this as a stealth game as I did with my mage. So I’d try to find a good spot to snipe from and chip away at even the most hulking beasts with relative safety. It was just the boss encounters that I lacked the skill to break them fully. Now that I knew about the co-op aspect from this point on nearly every boss I defeated alongside a summoned player. Often I kept at a range and assisted with my bow while the player joining me aggressively besieged the challenging captain at close range. This worked our really well for the most part. We’d dance, hurrah, or praise the sun together before and after the fight. Those interactions occurred without headsets or any negative feedback. It was great and diminished a lot of the stigma or shame generated by the community from not managing to conquer the game by myself. What I mean is plenty of friends online played and would chastise the idea of getting help, spinning it as shameful that players weren’t experiencing the game “as it’s meant to be played”. Conquering Souls became a badge of pride, a checkmark for gamer cred online. Half joking, half not, they’d explain how all the Souls bandwagoners needed to “git gud”, to stop cheapening the prestige of finishing the game. All of that fell flat for me since without the ability to summon in allies through the game it would have made it completely inaccessible for me. Instead I had a blast. Now I feel endeared to the developer at this point and can’t wait to get my hands on Bloodborne to anxiously creep through the steampunk horror setting to engage all the names I’ve heard over the past two years like Father Gascoigne, Vicar Amelia, or Rom the Vacuous Spider.

"GG, FAG!" - Toxic Soulsborne fanatic.

The result of “GG, FAG!” toxic Soulsborne fanatic.

There was only one player in the ninety some hours of Dark Souls 3 that really soured me to the experience. After failing on my own several times against Pontiff Sulyvahn, a brutal fight against an eventual two foes, I began trying to summon players to aide me. Ya know, utilizing the multiplayer system they implemented to assist lesser skilled players in advancing in the game? Well we were doing great in the encounter until the boss was in his final fifth of health. The other player turned on his mic and begin berating me to get in there and attack, “stop being a pussy” he insisted as I kept my usual range with a bow. His frustration peaked with him screaming about pieces of shit like me not deserving to play and should sell my disc back to GameStop, abruptly end his tirade with “GG, FAG!” before throwing himself to the boss and suiciding. If I had a groove perhaps I could have finished the fight at that point on my own, but I was confused and bothered with what the hell just happened. For me “GG” always meant “good game” from years of playing on PC in a pre-voice chat era. Then I realized it’s also the first two letters in “git gud”. I don’t really understand the gain in being so toxic for a game community. He cast aside in game rewards via currency and faction gains, the reason he made himself available to summon, just to be as insufferable as possible and punish me for not being good enough to complete the encounter on my own. The idea bugged me for a few days before I finally realized I shouldn’t let that ruin the otherwise great experience I had been having with the game.

Through the help of others lifting the burden of difficulty I managed to complete Dark Souls 3. After wrapping the campaign I wanted more and proceeded to embrace all the optional content of the game. These were bosses intended for those that craved the pain,  for the ones left saying “yes sir, Mr Miyazaki sir, may I please have another!” as the masochistic designer wound up another go for your sick pleasure. All of them were in their own zones with more lore and unique monsters to see. I figured I came this far, I wanted to see it all, that it was now or never. If I quit playing without venturing into these places I’d likely never come back to them to round out the game. By the time I had seen all the game had to offer and struggling through most of those boss encounters I got to what has been decided to be arguably the hardest in the series, The Nameless King. There was no other content after him and even summoning an ally lead to a constant string of deaths. The summoning system for co-op play isn’t the most reliable and there were point were I was waiting a quarter to half an hour trying to gather multiple allies, a unique circumstance designed just for this fight due to it’s difficulty. During that waiting I couldn’t help but wonder what was I doing, what was the point? I wasn’t having fun anymore. All I was doing was running in circles, waiting for help, dying over and over, and there was literally no content after this fight for me. Just the smug satisfaction of being able to say I defeated the hardest boss in the series. This wasn’t put in here for me. This was built for the guys like the one berating me earlier about needing to “git gud”. Only true Soulsborne fans were meant to conquer this final test. Purely to spite that mentality I decided I’ll play the way I want to play, and I’m going to cheapen this fight as much as I can so I can breeze through it. I’d make a mockery of it, take on the encounter with four players to make it about as challenging as squashing a goomba. This was my game as much as it was his game. I’ll enjoy it the way I want to – At the easiest difficulty I could set the bar to. You know why? Because the difficulty isn’t what makes this game or this series great for me. Being in the world, absorbing the lore, and experiencing a tonally unique role-playing game series first hand is why it’s worthwhile to me.

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