The recent release of FromSoftware’s Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice has refocused the discussion about difficulty and accessibility in games once again. Though this debate is not new (it tends to show up every time From releases a game), it grows louder each time. The questions seem simple enough. Should notoriously hard games include an easy mode? Are accessibility options necessary? Would they impact the gameplay experience? My stance boils down to this: I don’t know if adding an easy mode or other accessibility options to Sekiro, Dark Souls, or any other game will make them better, but there’s definitely no harm in doing it anyway. Whether From decides to do this or not is up to them – but if they want to include options to ensure a wider variety of people can play their games, then they should do that.

However, I’m not the best person ask about From’s games, because their difficulty is something I’ve struggled with myself. Though I own most of the Souls games and Bloodborne in one form or another, the only one I’ve been able to really sink my teeth into is Demon’s Souls – the progenitor to Dark Souls that From made with Sony on the Playstation 3, which arguably set off this whole modern craze. I have plans to get to the other titles eventually, but the thought of mastering all those games on the level I’ve taken to Demon’s is daunting. It’s a lot of time and hard work that I’m not sure is worth it, especially with all the other games out there. That said, Demon’s has been calling my name so loudly, I finally had to boot it up again. Playing it today feels so good, kind of like fitting into an old glove, that I wanted to share some of my experiences. I’m having a hell of a good time so far.

Sekiro is just the latest in a journey of game design that began in 2009 with Demon’s Souls.

Over the past few days, I’ve put about twenty hours into my New Game Plus save, with a Level 121 Knight and just about as many hours logged as my overall playtime. So far, everything’s familiar, filled with the occasional fits of anger, and some disbelief over just how much I die. One of the best things about the game is the way it scales the difficulty when a player starts another playthrough, guaranteeing that even though they’re a high level, the game remains just as hard, if not more so. It keeps me on my toes, but also makes for some rough early hours as I struggle to reacquaint myself with the controls.

After banging my head against a wall for a while, I find an area where I can make some progress – the Tower of Latria. I spend a lot of my time perfecting my runs through the area. The layout of the prison where the level begins is etched into my mind. My encounters with the prison guards, the Mind Flayers, are so down pat, that moving through the level feels like stringing together trick combos in early Tony Hawk games. I can still fall on my butt at any moment, but everything is choreographed to a T, and I don’t have much time to let off the gas. My goal is to get to the boss, Fool’s Idol, in the church outside of the prison, but I have a long way to go before I can take her head on.

Mind Flayers have terrifying octopus heads.

Thanks to the Ring of Avarice, I’m able to get almost 4,000 souls (the game’s currency) for each Flayer killed, and double that amount for the high powered ones that come out when the World Tendency of the level is black. World Tendency is a feature of Demon’s that previously relied on the actions of everyone playing the game to determine how easy the level was, and what events might be triggered. Since the online servers that collected this data shut down, World Tendency is now determined by each individual player’s actions, making it easier for a player like me to fall into a black World Tendency where everything is harder, and to struggle get out.

All in all, I can get about 50,000 souls per run, and since I’m pushing a requirement of 90,000 souls to level up, I need to do this twice. Sometimes I’m able to pull this off, but usually not because of how brutal these enemies are. One wrong move, and the Flayers can one-shot me with ease. Occasionally this can be a benefit, since it can actually cuts down the time I spend getting all of these souls, but it mostly means I need to find the best way to kill them while staying true to my playstyle and minimizing the damage I face.

In these situations, I’m not a fan of using ranged weapons or keeping my distance, so I need a good sword I can two-hand, attack for all my stamina bar is worth, and hopefully get out of the way before I’m targeted. With some experimentation, I find that my Scimitar+8 can kill these demons in four hits, but that’s not good enough. Even when I’m on my game, I still wind up dead way too often. I need to use the Soulbrandt, which I obtained at the end of my first playthrough, if I’m going to consistently stand a chance. Since it has a Magic stat requirement for its full use, I spend some time gathering souls to level that up, and when I reach the threshold, I can easily see a difference. I can kill these Flayers in two hits, one if I stab them in the back, and can get to the church to take on the Fool’s Idol in record time. The challenge now, is fighting the Idol herself.

The Fool’s Idol is considered one of the easier bosses in the game, but that doesn’t make her a slouch by any means. With my Soulbrandt powered up, I only need three or four windows of opportunity to whittle down her HP, but getting past the beginning of the fight is tough. Her attack strategy is dependent on three things – the low level enemies worshiping her that can get in my way, the seals she’s placed on the floor that stun me if I step on them, and the clones she makes of herself that pop up when she teleports around the cathedral.

The white emblem in the upper right denotes a white World Tendency.

Deducing the real Idol is easy. She not only has a bigger projectile attack, but she tends to pop back in before her clones spawn. Still, the trouble is not in figuring out which Idol is real, but in physically reaching her. Her attacks can one-shot me, while her clones only need to land two hits to bring me down. I spend what feels like a hundred attempts (though it’s more realistically like thirty) trying to understand her patterns and how to keep moving without being killed, and after some time, I finally, finally move in to deliver the final blow. When I do, she goes down, but something’s wrong. The text stating that I killed the demon doesn’t pop up and the next cutscene doesn’t trigger. After all of this, there was something I missed that put my moment of victory on pause – even though I literally killed the boss.

I had forgotten, apparently, that there’s one clever little demon in the upstairs of the church that chants a resurrection spell to keep the Fool’s Idol alive. He must be killed first before you can take her down. Armed with this knowledge, I die again, and take the next few deaths to kill this demon and improve my strategy against the Idol. There’s always more to learn, even if you’ve already claimed victory once.

The Fool’s Idol in all of her glory.

Striking down a religious figure in a church in front of her worshipers is a surprising scene, I will admit, but From’s games are often full of moments like this. It’s just that, because of the way the story is told, not much is explicitly revealed to the player, leaving them to interpret the story and react as they please. Still, whatever momentary surprise I feel is replaced by elation, because beating the Fool’s Idol once may have been luck, but doing it again is proof enough for me that my skills have improved over the past twenty hours. I’m hopeful I can ride this gush of excitement through the rest of the game, even if it takes me another 100 hours, but I can’t say for sure yet if that’ll happen.

For some people, though, that kind of difficulty is exactly the problem. It took me twenty hours to master part of a level and beat a boss, while in another RPG I might already be at the halfway mark. I don’t consider myself especially good at Demon’s, but I can see someone locking this section down in a handful of hours, just as easily as I can see someone with less luck than me taking twice the amount of time. Everyone has a breaking point – and the longer it takes to get even the small achievement I received (on a second playthrough, no less), the more likely someone is going to give up in frustration. Even though they like the game and want to play it.

This is a logical sentiment, but I wish there was something that could be done about it. I appreciate that these games are hard, but screaming “git gud” at someone and lording your conquest over them isn’t worth the nirvana you can feel. I’d rather see more people get to experience that feeling than get shoved aside because they’re deemed not worthy by superfans for wanting a few tools to help them out. I also don’t want these games to suddenly give up their legendary difficulty – but with good accessibility options, From wouldn’t be doing that at all. They would just be providing more ways for people to have fun within the parameters of their games.

As I continue my renewed journey through Demon’s Souls, I’ll be chewing on these ideas some more and might wind up posting another entry like this if I think it’s necessary. I just wanted to say something, since all of this discussion about Sekiro made me want to play this game again more than I’ve wanted to play anything in a long time. I don’t know if I’ll make it through to the end, I might hit another wall, who knows, but I’m giving it my all right now, and that’s ultimately what’s important. That the players give their all to play what they play, even if that means adjusting a few sliders to make their experience just a bit better along the way.

One day, Dark Souls… one day.

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