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Gaming

How Elden Ring rewrote the rules on game difficulty

- June 23, 2024 5 MIN READ
Elden' Ring’s stunning visuals belies how brutal it can be. Source: Namco Bandi
I was close to throwing my Nintendo Switch at the wall. With over two decades under my belt playing video games, I had met my match.

No, I’m not playing Elden Ring or another tough FromSoftware game.

On the recommendation of a friend, I was finishing off Tactics Ogre: Reborn, a remake of a 1995 grid-based combat role-playing game — think complicated chess. With some challenge, I had made my way to the end of the game. Every other stage had been relatively quick to clear, but that was about to change.

The final dungeon of Tactics Ogre, the Hanging Gardens, is best described as a maze of battle stages, each increasing in difficulty. It took me two and a half hours to get to the final area of this maze, then another hour to get to the final fight of that section, only to be met with one of the most infuriating encounters in the game.

 

The final boss appears, creates replicas of your party members, and then you not only have to fight the boss itself but your own team. It’s an aikido-esque set-up, turning the power level of your handcrafted team back on you.

Then, when you finally outwit your doppelgängers, the final boss morphs into an overpowered demon who can kill your remaining members with incredible efficiency.

And for your final test, you must fight… yourself. Source: The Gamer.

It felt unfair. I had no access to further items or party improvements. To leave the dungeon would mean starting over. It took me days of attempts to overcome it. When I did, I didn’t feel satisfaction, but rather relief.

The concept of difficulty has come a long way in video games since Tactics Ogre’s initial launch in 1995. Today, games aim to strike a delicate balance between being difficult enough to be rewarding, but not challenging enough to frustrate the player. And arguably, no game strikes that better than Elden Ring.

Elden Ring is considered the pinnacle of ‘soulslike’ games — as the genre is known. They pair tight real-time combat mechanics with gruelling difficult fights. To succeed at these games you need to study your foes, figure out when to retreat and when to press the attack. Often, only a few strikes from a boss, or even a regular enemy, is enough to kill you and reset your run. In turn, potentially costing you the resources you need to improve your character and proceed with the game.

Back in 2022, Elden Ring was both the most completed and abandoned game of the year — an achievement for a game of its difficulty. To put this in perspective, most players don’t actually finish the majority of video games.

Developers operate on the principle that only a third of players will see the credits roll. Imagine if all writers or filmmakers operated on this principle. It would drive them nuts.

Elden Ring’s developers, however, knew they were onto something when they released the game. In an interview with The PlayStation Blog ahead of its release, Hidetaka Miyazaki, director of Elden Ring, said the open-world structure of the game — allowing players to complete bosses in an order they determine — allowed the game to be both difficult and accessible. In a pinch, players could also summon their friends to help with bosses to help dilute the difficulty.

On the complete other end of the spectrum, there’s an argument that the vast majority of games are getting too easy — again likely in response to the point that most players don’t finish games.

Nintendo titles are often the key culprit here. Nintendo’s latest 2D platformer Super Mario Wonder, was one of the easiest of its kind in recent memory, for genre that can be brutally difficult. The recent remake of Paper Mario, The Thousand-Year Door, introduced a hint system that arguably wasn’t needed but in certain sections of the game may have saved the player a quick Google to point them in the right direction.

Then there’s customisable difficulty, where the player picks the level of challenge they are after at the start of the game. But even then, this can be hit and miss. Most settings struggle to hit a sweet spot of friction if set on easy mode, and ultimately encourage the player to lower the difficulty if they are struggling rather than improve at the game.

That said, there are some games that are way too simple — such as the Pokemon Series — that many would love to see introduce a hard mode for veteran players.

Perhaps the key foil of all attempts to make a game reasonably difficult is, in fact, the internet. For instance, there are plenty of videos on how to stifle certain Elden Ring bosses or build your character to purposefully target their weaknesses. And it’s difficult to account for this in development.

That said, there were no useful video guides for Tactics Ogre’s final fight. The frustration I felt with that 90s remake, but did not feel with Elden Ring is proof: the way in which games are tweaking difficulty is improving. We’re moving well clear from an era where difficulty encroached on fairness to the player.

Elden Ring set the tone here. It was a best-seller in 2022, and its downloadable content — released tomorrow — will likely fly off the virtual shelves. Its success thankfully ensured that all games aren’t reduced to being braindead just to get players to both buy and finish them.


What I’m Playing: Final Fantasy XIV Online

Titania: Extreme. Made for eight players, now beatable with four!

I was going to wait.

The new expansion, Dawntrail, is out next week — famously delayed due to Elden Ringc’s new content. But the free login campaign, and a summons from mates, lured me back into the fray after a long hiatus away from Eorzea.

Final Fantasy XIV is a massively multiplayer online (MMO) game, similar to World of Warcraft. You play online with other players, mainly competing together against the game. Perhaps its closest cousin outside of other MMOs is the Diablo series in terms of how it mechanically plays. It’s a real-time combat system that rewards skill and timing. Simplistic at first, but incredibly complex if you decide to venture into high-end content.

The game tells a convoluted but enjoyable plot that spans over one main game and four expansions, which is almost a decade of plot writing. A credit to its writers it does actually build to something. The game’s graphics are dated, but are getting an overhaul in a week’s time in line with the new expansion.

By itself, Final Fantasy XIV is an decent time sink. But the true joy of the game is playing with others — preferably those you know — mucking around in boss fights and dungeons. I logged in on Tuesday night with three friends and immediately remembered why I had spent over 1,000 hours in this game — mainly during the pandemic. My friends and I try to break the game by beating bosses on a higher character level, but with fewer players than is typically required for the fight.

This week’s session has me excited for Dawntrail. But, also raising questions around how vibrant the title’s new-ish Oceania servers will be when it lands. Expansions usually draw a lot of new players to MMOs, and this is the first time one has launched on our local server.

Worth playing if you like: The Final Fantasy series, Diablo, World of Warcraft

Available on: PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X, Xbox Series S, Windows, Mac, and Steam.

 

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