The Soulsborne games (Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls I & II, and Bloodborne) have a pretty fearsome reputation for being difficult. It is a rather well earned reputation at that: ‘Prepare to die’ reads the tagline for Dark Souls, a game that was very much sold off the back of it’s difficulty but burrowed into our hearts proving that it was much more than a few tricky boss fights. Soulsborne games are popular for more than just their difficulty. They take place in beautiful, twisted worlds that play havoc on your mind. A Soulsborne game isn’t just hard like Ninja Gaiden 2; it’s a marvelous feat of game design that never fails to impress. It offers satisfaction and frustration in well balanced portions and every mechanic is finely tuned almost to perfection.
From the very outset of development, From Software have in mind that you will die again, and again, and again. You will fall into the inky blackness of Blighttown and shatter your bones against the scaffolding on your way down; your defences will crumple under the fierce blows of Old King Allant; you will definitely get ripped to pieces by Vicar Amelia. It sounds cruel and brutal, and in many ways it is, but it is far more forgiving of deaths than most games, and certainly more forgiving than it would appear on the surface.
Taking Demon’s Souls as our first example: following the tutorial you have your maximum health reduced by 50%. Initially, this seems like an utterly insurmountable barrier to be presented with but you quickly realise that this is all about learning. The death mechanic is central to the game and so the developers waste no time making sure you understand it and, as ever with Soulsborne, the only way you’ll learn anything is to die first.
As Josh Bycer wrote in his article about difficulty curves, Soulsborne games use a Darwinian curve. From the very beginning players are introduced to more or less every mechanic and tool the game has on offer. In games like this ‘The player is not going to find an item or power-up that completely changes how the game is played halfway through,’ writes Bycer. Instead, a Darwinian curve ‘forces the player to learn all the tools in their arsenal’ from the offset.
As a result, the difficulty curve of Soulsborne games are more likely to resemble a very gradual decline in challenge for most players. It feels somewhat odd that this series of games, renowned for their extreme difficulty, can be considered to get progressively easier rather than harder. But it’s built into the very mechanics of the game. It rewards players for failure more than it does for success but that’s not a bad thing.
In Soulsborne, players will fail. They will fail dramatically and often but each failure presents an opportunity for great gain in a way which more traditional games don’t. Let’s take a traditional modern shooter as an example. Let’s say your objective is to clear the area, disarm several explosives, and then proceed to extraction. If you eat a grenade at any point throughout that operation and splatter the nearby walls with chunky pieces of marine meat, you are sent back to the last checkpoint and have to repeat the process from scratch. You’ve lost time and gained nothing except for some basic knowledge of the map and its hazards.
However, in a Soulsborne game, you could kill the first two enemies and then fall off a cliff but still have more to show for it than any dead marine that nearly made it to the helicopter. Soulsborne‘s infamous reputation is part in thanks to the souls mechanic whereby players get souls for killing enemies but lose them if they die. If a player can make it back to the spot where they died, they can recover the souls and spend them on weapon upgrades, spells, and levels. Of course, if they die on the way to recovering their souls, the loot becomes lost forever and they can now only retrieve what they were carrying when they died the second time.
On the surface, such a system sounds almost barbaric. Souls are an absolutely necessary resource for the average player and losing a large amount can feel like a catastrophe. In reality though, it’s a golden opportunity that can level the playing field for players who may be struggling.
When a player dies halfway between checkpoints, they have reached one of the many walls which will appear in a Darwinian curve. Once the player finally overcomes the challenge, they are very likely to have far more souls to spend than a player which breezed through the area with nary a backwards glance, the steel of their sword glinting in the sunshine; a brilliance matched only by the magnificent teeth which still remain in their head from not having died six times.
The player which has been repeatedly eviscerated by the savage blows of some lowly undead solider will be a higher level, have better items, more spells, a limo, a pile of cocaine and probably even a thoroughbred racehorse. The more successful player, however, will press on, impoverished but adept until they too hit the next natural wall and soon find themselves raking in stacks of souls as they hoover up souls, each death providing a new source of wealth in the form of respawning enemies. Even if a player only has to repeat a section once, they could have twice as many souls as if they had done it first time. Most importantly though, this boon wasn’t the result of needless farming, but instead the result of progression.
This process ensures that players don’t advance too far before becoming entirely under-leveled and under-equipped. It’s a simple but elegant system that isn’t nearly as harsh as it would initially seem. From Software want players to be challenged but ultimately to overcome. The developers aren’t looking to unfairly block players from progression or mercilessly punish them. The ethos of the Soulsborne design is to help the player finish the game, but it’s very much a stick before the carrot method.
A player will either naturally progress through improved skill, hammer their way through with a wealth of souls related upgrades, or a mixture of both. Soulsborne games give the players everything they need to progress and more but it’s done in such a delightful way that leaves players constantly challenged, or at least under the illusion. It’s unrelenting and but feels more punishing and cruel than it really is.
Once a player has mastered the mechanics, and has overcome the need to evolve or die as part of the Darwinian curve, they will not need to farm or grind out levels to succeed. A player that has been less able to master the fundamentals is held back until they do or until they become powerful enough to proceed despite their lacking grace with a weapon. ‘Adapt or die’ is less of an ultimatum, and more of a choice. In essence, both are valid ways of finishing a Soulsborne game.