Dark Souls hits shelves today, and it's no cake walk. But is it hard, or have we grown soft? Brenna Hillier plumps for the latter.
If you haven't heard, Dark Souls is hard. Oh boy, is it hard. Controller-smashing hard. Fist-through-monitor hard. Disc-in-the-microwave hard. And, most tellingly, break-out-a-play-guide hard.
A games critic once told me that if you need to consult a guide while playing a game, then the designer did something wrong. That's a common attitude among marketers and focus groups which gets passed back to developers and designers, because the assumption is that if a player needs help, a game is inaccessible or broken. If a game frustrates a player, they'll stop, and refuse to hand over their precious cash money. Since gamers are so capricious, unskilled, and stupid, making a game difficult is like setting your money on fire.
Despite that notion, Dark Souls is so hard that its publisher Namco Bandai doesn't even pretend you won't need help. Like the European release of its precursor Demon's Souls, Dark Souls comes bundled with a small play guide, right there in the packaging. This won't be the case once launch stocks run out, but by then it won't matter. The Internet will have all the information you need.
Having played the game for a week now without that guide, I have to say I wish the Internet already had all the information I need. When I first had the game in my hands, I swore not to post any spoilers. Two hours later I was on Twitter begging for advice from other early access elite, spoilers bedamned.
But that doesn't mean the game is too hard. That just means I'm playing it right.
One of my friends whose taste I would otherwise trust implicitly didn't like Demon's Souls. "I played it for an hour and every time I died I had to start from the beginning again," he complained. "And everything could kill me in like, one hit!"
Tellingly, he joked about it, saying that he went back to game that liked him the way he is. That's exactly what Demon's and Dark Souls don't do. They refuse to let you bring in the habits you've built over the course of dozens of other games. They refuse to ease you in. They just plonk you down and expect you to figure things out, and if you're expecting an action game rather than a survival horror with an emphasis on precise controls, you're in for an unpleasant experience while you adjust.
The tutorials are laughable - messages on the ground which explain the controls one by one, completely overlooking any advice on what to do with these button prompts and failing to explain more complicated manoeuvres, or even basic rules like "never let go of the block button". If you want to know how to play the game, you need to look in the manual, or ask someone more experienced.
That's the Dark Souls experience in a nutshell. The developer doesn't teach you how to play; players have to learn how to play, and share the knowledge between them. It's a culture rooted in the earliest days of Western RPGs like Wizardry, when poor translations had Japanese players turning to magazines and primitive bulletin boards in desperation, searching for the answers to puzzles and explanations for the mystifying walls of text and numbers in the menus.
Now Japan's handballed that experience back to us; by design, From Software have created an old-school collaborative experience. No voice chat. No AI assistance. If you want to know the answer, you have to turn to good old fashioned text - although in a delightful sop to modern sensibilities, you can leave your frantic calls for assistance or suggestions for other players right there in the game.
Take your time, respect gating, approach each encounter as if it could be your last - it can! - and see the difficult encounters as puzzles to be solved, and you'll find that with a little practice, a little patience, a lot of luck and an eye to good advice, Dark Souls isn't that hard. But you are. You're a badass. Badasses don't need checkpoints.
The world has changed since Sony passed over a Western release for Demon's Souls - by its own admission, shortsightedly.
Here's a nice illustration of what that world was like. Around the same time From Software would have been in lock down for the Japanese launch of its PlayStation 3 exclusive, Fable II was rocking the charts - an action RPG designed so it can be played by a blind child's feet - and we were a few months on from the announcement of Kinect.
"Accessibility," the industry seemed to be screaming. "Get rid of those nasty, complicated controls! They scare people off."
Most mainstream, bestselling games - most games in general - are, to be frank, not that difficult. If they were, none of us would have time to learn to play them. A sequence of images plays across the screen and you press buttons at the correct time. Very few require creative or strategic thought, or genuine problem solving. They point you down a straight corridor at a problem and ask you to press X to win. Master the movement of a reticule, and you're already a winner.
Is it any wonder Sony took one look at Demon's Souls - a game which merrily dishes out a one-hit kill to the player in the "tutorial", providing they even get that far - and decided it had limited appeal?
But in the interim, the success of Demon's Souls has planted a seed of doubt. We can thank the import crowd, early adopters who try out most new Japanese releases, for spreading the word that the English-language Asian release was worth a look. Atlus USA hesitantly issued a small localised print run, thereby igniting the slow-burn cult hit which saw its investment well repaid.
The community that grew up around Demon's Souls has been baying for Dark Souls since From first dropped a hint or two that such a thing might conceivably exist, maybe. Their delighted embrace is assured, and the devoted reception of critics and games writers is little surprise; when you spend all day every day working with games, you eventually reach a saturation point on the common genres. You start to crave something which ignores the tropes.
What does come as something of a shock is the buzz Dark Souls is pulling from Joe Internet. We've all seen quality games with massively expensive marketing go under the radar regardless; Dark Souls has clearly avoided that fate. Everyone wants a crack at a game guaranteed to challenge, frustrate, and ultimately, reward.
With Dark Souls, Namco Bandai made a bet. It's gambled that there is a significant enough number of gamers who aren't stupid, who have played a game before in their lives, who can handle having to turn to the manual, or an FAQ, or even just to the in-game tool tips, without needing an AI yelling advice in their ears. It's touching to discover that a publisher has that faith in us, and even more pleasant to see that they may have been right.
Dark Souls launches today for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. Hit me up on Twitter if you need a hand. I assure you, you're Doing It Right.