Demon’s Souls critique 1: Is it REALLY all that difficult?
Demon’s Souls has already received a ton of positive press and word-of-mouth, so any ramblings I make are almost superfluous at this point. I could care less to do a review, as there are already so many glowing ones out there. Instead, I’d like to ruminate on what makes the game so distinctly different.
I’m a gaming wimp. If a game is too hard, and consistently kicks my ass to last week, I’ll put it down fairly quickly, and not pick it back up again. Demon’s Souls is one of the first “hard” games since the Atari/NES days where the difficulty only spurns me on. As for all the reviews out there calling it one of the most brutally difficult games of the last five years (or decade?), they seem to all be following Atlus’ marketing strategy and every previous review. Is the game REALLY all that brutally difficult? Yes and no. I had more trouble with Ninja Gaiden on the beginner (not Ninja Dog) difficulty than I’m having with this game. I had difficulty with that game because a lot of times, the numbers overwhelmed me. Every once in a while, there was one enemy that was significantly more difficult than the rest. And then there were bosses. As I’m a gaming wimp, I did not get past the third area.
But Demon’s Souls is different. I stated above that it is and is not as brutally difficult as it’s made out to be. It IS that difficult, not necessarily due to the inherent challenge (which, don’t get me wrong, IS significant), but due instead to the difficulty inherent in changing your preconceived ideas on how to play games. As has been stated many times in relation to Demon’s Souls, most games today tend to coddle the player. They hold your hand through the tutorial, and once you learn the fundamentals, give you infinite continues or closely-spaced checkpoints, or the ability to revert to a previous save file. So there really is no sense of anything being at stake. You die, you just try again with almost literally zero consequences. Demon’s Souls takes this ingrained mindset and obliterates it. Hell, at the end of the tutorial, as far as I can see, there is no possible way NOT to die.
Not only does the game force you to deal with consequences (making the “good” or the “evil” choice as in most games with consequences is not what I’m referring to here, although there IS an element of that here), but it also takes the “this is how I usually play an action game” mindset and punishes you brutally for adhering to it. Demon’s Souls forces you to slow down, play cautiously and defensively, and pay very close attention to your immediate environment. This type of playstyle is anathema to most action-based games. And I think in this lie a good portion of the game’s difficulty. It’s not that the game itself is really all that much more difficult than most of the self-proclaimed “hardcore” action games. It’s that habit and routine are the most difficult part of human nature to try to change.
Unfortunately, I’m still falling back on my old habits and routines. As an example, there are areas in the game that I’ve replayed countless times, and I feel confident that I can breeze right through them. Most of the time, I do. However, there are times where an enemy that normally does not pose much of a threat will either take me to within one more swing of a blade of succumbing to my injuries, or will kill me outright. And every single time this happens, it is because I became too cocky and over-confident. Demon’s Souls again punishes you harshly for letting down your guard and turning on cruise control. The game forces you to play in the same methodical way be it your first time through an area or the fifteenth (or usually more). And here’s again where Demon’s Souls punishes human nature.
It’s been my experience with the game (and my human nature) that I begin each new area touching each message left on the ground and each bloodstain, and take my time to soak in the surroundings. But I begin to become impatient, in the typical American desire for instant gratification. I just want to get through the area as quickly as possible. I begin to ignore half or more of the messages. I begin to gloss over the bloodstains. I stop moving cautiously, peering around corners to see what lie ahead. And it’s at this point where I’m in trouble. Inevitably, I die.
So now I’m frustrated because I need to start over and do everything again. Frustration, at least in me, brings impatience. And impatience brings sloppiness. And the cycle continues.
So as for the question posed at the beginning of this rambling, is Demon’s Souls really THAT difficult? And again, the answer is yes and no. The game itself is challenging, without a doubt. But what’s garnering the game its seemingly reveled-in status as “the most difficult game this generation,” is not so much the challenge of overcoming the deviously-placed obstacles that it places in your path, but instead overcoming probably the most difficult obstacle to surmount, the obstacle of habit, routine, and human nature.