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Friday, September 5, 2014

First Impressions: Dark Souls and Difficulty in Games

Like I said back in my last update, I finally worked up the courage to pick up a copy of Dark Souls. I know I'm a few years late to the party on this one, but I've just never been able to get past simply researching and watching videos of the game on YouTube. Dark Souls isn't exactly my kind of game, so to speak- that is to say, it wasn't a story-focused JRPG- but the combination of fantastic art direction and atmospheric world-building that I could see from a distance eventually drew me to this curious land of demons and death. What I found... well, as is to be expected, after restarting the game in order to be able to slay the Taurus Demon, I found that Dark Souls more than lives up to its reputation. On top of that, my curiosity has been momentarily satisfied.
Whoever designed this thing has serious issues.

This is normally where I'd go into a basic description of the game's genre, mechanics, and basic plotline, but the topic that weighs most heavily on my mind is difficulty itself. Dark Souls' trial-by-fire mentality is certainly one way to go about establishing what the experience is all about, as a demon's hammer crushes your skull and the words 'YOU DIED' flash across the screen for the umpteenth time. Other games ease a player in so slowly, that the nuances of the gameplay mechanics are lost on them until a sudden difficulty spike forces them to reevaluate their tactics. I've rallied against games for punishing difficulty spikes, but let it be known that I am not opposed to a healthy challenge- I have just as much distaste for games that hold the player's hand to an insulting degree. In fact, one of my favorite video game franchises, Shin Megami Tensei, also has a reputation as being rather difficult.

I'm sure Dark Souls appeals strongly to it's particular demographic as a game like Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne does to mine. Dark Souls emphasizes memorization, reaction speed, and cautious exploration in it's difficulty, while the challenge in a MegaTen game stems from preparedness, planning, and tactics. Building the perfect party and exploiting enemy weaknesses in combat is one of the joys of Shin Megami Tensei because it allows the smart player to overcome any of the game's numerous challenges. I've heard any number of Dark Souls fans discuss the various stratagems required for survival in the realm of Lordran, as well. On top of that, while some criticize the MegaTen series for being lighter in plot compared to other RPG series (the mainline games, at least. Personas 3 and 4 are firmly focused on character development), I personally find their post-apocalyptic, demon-infested worlds  and mature thematic material to be incredibly engaging. Just as, I would imagine, the minimalist storytelling and deep lore of the Souls games draws its particular audience (and, indeed, piqued my curiosity).

What I'm getting at is, while the Souls games may not really be for me, I can certainly see their positive qualities. This, I think, represents an improvement in the way I view different game genres and their audiences, as I used to be very, very mired in a negative 'opposing camps' mentality when it came to gaming. The reason I admit to having once had this childish and unproductive viewpoint is because, in my attempts to branch out of my comfort zone, I've been able to see the enjoyable aspects of games I ordinarily wouldn't have tried, and appreciate what it is I do enjoy about gaming all the more. I may not ever touch Dark Souls again, or indeed any number of games I tried out of boredom or idle curiosity, but I'm really glad that I did give them a chance because they helped me to appreciate the value of an alternate perspective.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to pick out a new JRPG to play.

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