Sekiro and Difficulty – Where do we go FROM here?
Like clockwork, a new FROM Software title has been out just over a week and the difficulty discussions are ramping up – is it too hard? Do players just need to ‘git gud’? Why can’t FROM Software just include an ‘easy’ mode? Wanting to jump into the Hot Take Tub while the water is still lukewarm, I decided to look at the issue from a few angles and put forward my thoughts.
There are a number of positions being put forward for and against Sekiro and other ‘Soulslikes’ offering additional difficulty levels below what is currently found in the first run, generally referred to as ‘New Game’. First is the idea that the omission of easier options is foremost an accessibility issue; it’s not fair to exclude gamers who might have conditions physical or otherwise which prevent them from being able to execute or develop the skills necessary to play this particular genre or title. I think part of the pushback against this position is that a lot of gamers see overcoming the challenge of a ‘Soulslike’ as the primary value of the game itself and the source of enjoyment. I can respect that to a degree, but the error here is players forgetting that difficulty is inherently subjective. More importantly, it perpetuates the false narrative that developers are always in control of difficulty and that FROM are infallible. In fact, there are a number of variables players actually have control over in Dark Souls and Bloodborne – to summon or not to summon where possible, whether to use a guide or ‘cheese’ a tough encounter, favouring certain skills/weapons/etc. which give advantages over enemies, completing the game without being hit…ever. What we see with these examples are players slightly adjusting the level of skill required towards something that hits their desired level of ‘flow’. Outside of FROM Software expressing zero interest in it thus far, I don’t see any issues with offering adjustment options that will mean players suffering with accessibility issues can achieve that same sense of accomplishment at a level that feels difficult but not impossible to them.
But won’t this cheapen the achievement for those players who have completed the game ‘the proper way’? Not really – offering these options doesn’t remove the standard difficulty any more than rebooting a film erases the original. I wonder what some of those towing this line would think if FROM were to announce that only those who had completed a Soul Level 1 run of New Game Plus multiple times in Dark Souls had finished it ‘the proper way’? A quick comparison with the Halo series shows that Bungie generally consider Heroic difficulty, which is one notch above Normal, to be the ‘true Halo experience’. Here we have a developer who could have simply made this the default setting but instead opted to cater to a wider audience, which I can’t see as a bad thing.
Another group that have weighed in on this debate are those who can engage with the game without being impacted by accessibility issues but are not interested in investing the time and effort Sekiro demands of players to develop the skill necessary to finish it. One of the reasons I think this resonates so strongly with Sekiro rather than previous FROM titles is that Sekiro strips away or reduces in some capacity many of the smaller difficulty adjustments players could make across both Dark Souls and Bloodborne in terms of summoning and gear/build tweaking, meaning that many who persevered though previous games are hitting the dreaded ‘Wall’ much earlier and with fewer options. I can sense this on the horizon with Sekiro myself – I’ve gotten through a few recent encounters by the skin of my teeth and have already butted up against one boss that I plan to revisit once I’ve explored all other pathways open to me – all of which will lead to another boss in need of defeat. Chances are I won’t be steamrolling any of them and will have to commit to improving, unlike the Ornstein & Smough fight in Dark Souls which I’ve never completed without summoning. I went on to ‘roll credits’ in Dark Souls without summoning for a boss again, but there are plenty out there who will be happy to put parameters on what ‘really beating’ a Souls game requires, which is generally whatever they consider very hard but not impossible. No summoning in Sekiro realistically means that a section of the previous audience for these titles is now locked out to some degree lest they ‘git gud’.
Ultimately, this argument serves no real purpose unless FROM express some sort of desire to cater to these underserved markets, which they haven’t since the release of King’s Field in 1994. What it might do though is convince developers of other ‘Soulslike’ titles such as Toadman Interactive (Immortal: Unchained), Deck13 (Lords of the Fallen) or even Team Ninja (Nioh) that they could widen the appeal and audience of their games by including a variety of difficulty or accessibility options.
It was whilst toiling away in the bowels of the now mythical Australian Gamer forums that Stephen del Prados attempts at writing were recognised by then up-and-coming Matt ‘Hewso’ Hewson as “not terrible”. Since then Stephen has contributed to such sites as The Age’s now defunct Screen Play, the recently retired Black Panel and currently serves under Editor-in-Chief Hewso for Player2.net.au, at least until the pattern of decline obvious in his previous engagements is picked up by Hewso and he is exiled from games journalism forever