Difficulty of a Different Kind

Frostilyte has written a plea for games to consider using a difficulty system more akin to Slay the Spire’s. By which he means a fairly granular and layered difficulty system. When you complete the game you unlock the Ascension Level system. Within which relatively small difficulty modifiers unlock with each level. Each individual modifier perhaps not making a huge difference, but when you layer 20 of these things all upon another?

Well… Now you’re getting into some pretty insane territory vs. the original experience.

Frosti’s thinking being that this sort of layered experience not only gives more of a fine grain control over the difficulty of the experience — but also provides an avenue for games to become better teachers of their own complexities.

So far? So good. I agree with the sentiment here; and I’d welcome more granular difficulty options being included in more games. Frosti’s post goes into other good examples of where these have been used to good effect, and in the comments I talk a little to Path of Exile’s merging of the bigger, chunkier difficulty jumps (what was formerly Normal, Cruel and Merciless difficulties still exist as breakpoints along the 10(!) act journey, sure.

But over the top of this, the mapping system that forms much of the endgame has both quite granular difficulty tiers, and ALSO the ability to roll map modifiers (a bit more RNG than StS’ Ascension Levels — but certainly fitting for the genre). These tiers and modifiers provide quite a range of difficulty steps.

I should’ve won this battle — but I made one too many mistakes along the way and didn’t properly account for the damage ramp. D’oh.

But look; this is the internet and we’re expected to argue. I’m way behind on my internet-arguing quota. I think it might even have been increased with everyone at home so much.

So the point I’m going to pick at is probably going to be a wee bit pedantic but I’m committed now, so here we go!

If Dark Souls had more clearly defined difficulty modulation in the same way that Slay the Spire does it might be easier for more people to get into and understand it.

Frostilyte (2020), More Games Should Handle Difficulty Like Slay the Spire (Frostilyte Writes)

Now, despite being behind on my quota — I want to hasten to add I am not seeking to make the argument for or against Dark Souls having difficulty levels. I’m not touching that one with a 10-foot pole. Not so much because I wouldn’t ever, but mostly because if I were to — it would derail this post entirely, as it is a subject warranting of an entire post to itself.

Rather, within the context of this conversation I would like to correct a potential assumption I see in that statement. And that is that the base difficulty of Slay the Spire isn’t just as difficult as the base (New Game 0) difficulty of Dark Souls.

You can choose to make her mad early and trigger an out-of-sequence boss fight. But I’m most certainly not brave enough to attempt it.

Now without question they rely on incredibly different skill-sets and exist in totally different genres. Drawing a direct comparison in this way is always going to be at least a little problematic, but I would still submit that Slay the Spire is every bit as difficult as Dark Souls; in it’s own way.

Slay the Spire isn’t going to test your manual dexterity. There is no need to pull off the perfectly timed parry or dodge-roll to survive. You won’t be asked to understand how long your invulnerability frames (i-frames) last with a given encumbrance level.

But… You will be asked to learn boss patterns and how best to deal with them. Knowledge of the possible is nigh mandatory to successfully completing a run. Refining your decision making and value assessment skills of your possible options? Again, mandatory.

So no — you don’t have to wield a controller as if it were a precision tool, but you will be expected to die, die and die some more learning the game and earning in a trial by fire the necessary knowledge to succeed. Your personal preferences in game genre may lead you to prefer or be naturally better at one of these styles over the other — but make no mistake; they stand neck-and-neck in their demands of you as a player, if you want to succeed, even at their base difficulties.

I might even go so far as to say that the New Game+ modes in Dark Souls already sort of offer the type of granular difficulty jumps being requested. Some people have gone to crazy high NG+ modes, and to FromSoftware’s credit — there is new content on offer (be it in new encounters or whole new enemy types) on offer through a good number of these.

Could they do more? Almost certainly; but like I mentioned — that’s a topic for another day.

This was a post for Blapril 2020, the annual blogging event (albeit usually as Blaugust), brought forward to help bring a sense of community during the challenging time of COVID-19. Blaugust is an event aiming to welcome new blogger blood into the fold and revitalise those who’ve been at it a little longer.

The Blaugust Discord is still available to join in, year round!


Gamer, reader, writer, husband and father of two boys. Former WoW and Gaming blogger, making a return to the fold to share my love of all things looty.

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