I played Returnal, recently, which is maybe not technically a soulslike video game, and Bloodborne a year ago. I put down both after a while. But not because they were difficult.
Soulslike vs Roguelike vs Roguelite
If you’re not into video games, you might be scratching your head right about now. What is a ‘Soulslike’? And a ‘Roguelike’?
Okay, some video game history. All the way back in 1980, a video game called “Rogue’ came out. It was a game made of ASCII art, meaning letters and characters, not pixels or sprites. The game had randomly generated RPG-like levels, and was turn-based. One important feature was that if you died, you had to restart the game. No save points, no progression, just start-play-die-repeat.
Other similar games followed, and the trend grew into the rogue-like genre. That genre has games like rogue, only — these days — with better graphics. Over time, the rogue-lite genre emerged as an offshoot. In a Roguelite game, death is not completely final. Some things carry over from game to game, even if the randomly generated world and most of your gear reset on death.
In 2009, From Software, released a game that did not really fit in either genre: Demon’s Souls. Demon’s Souls, and its successors like Dark Souls, Bloodborne, and Elden Ring, have a world that does not change. But, upon death you do lose your progress and the experience you gathered, unless you managed to reach a campfire (or lantern). And in these games, you die a lot. This genre of games has become known as the ‘soulslike’ genre.
The definitions can vary, but I’ll use the following. Soulslike games have a fixed world, and your progress vanishes on death. Roguelike games have a random world, and everything vanishes on death. Roguelite games have a random world, and most — but not all — of your progress vanishes on death.
Returnal and Bloodborne
So, to get into a little bit more detail, I played Returnal last week, and Bloodborne last year.
Returnal is a Roguelite game. It has a dark scifi random world. The main character is stuck in a time-loop. Every time she dies, she wakes up at her crashed starship, and the game begins again. Certain gear carries over from playthrough to playthrough: your pistol, your sword, etcetera. But the world resets and is changed to a new random setup.
Bloodborne is from the company that created Demon’s Souls, and a definite Soulslike. You enter a Victorian-era fantasy world, where you travel through the city of Yharnam. The city is a persistent world, but when you die, you return to the last lantern you were at, and the world resets.
Both games require you to work your way through different areas, collect gear, and fight boss monsters, to slowly grind yourself to the finish line. If you die, you start over. One world is randomized, and one is not. And Returnal has a single starting point, where Bloodborne has save points in the form of lanterns. But the core is the same: you have to replay sections of the game, start-to-finish, again and again and again, to ‘git gud’.
Okay, that slang needs some explanation. ‘Git gud’ is slang for ‘get good’. The idea of both Roguelikes and Soulslikes is that you need to ‘get good’ at the core game mechanics to finish them. You need to practice, and do them again and again, until you master the required skills. Good Roguelikes and Soulslikes are designed to rely on those skills that you need to master.
As a counter-example, the harder fights God of War are so hard in part because the character animations block your controls, meaning you are unable to dodge certain attacks because the animations get in your way, even when you see them coming. That has nothing to do with skill, and everything to do with the game engine. Roguelikes and Soulslikes have enemies designed to clearly telegraph attacks. If you know what to look for, you can dodge or block all attacks. ‘Gitting gud’ means you have to get good at that tactical element. Once you have that covered, the game is easy, well… doable.
Unless, of course, you have a handicap. For example, If a red indicator on a brown enemy telegraphs a certain attack, that becomes a problem if you’re color blind — specifically, red-green color blind. If you have physical motor issues, that could cause problems in hour-long playthroughs., and getting back into it after a pause… And then there are the growing number of older gamers. Age atrophies reflexes. And honestly, I never had the greatest reflexes, even when I was a teenager.
Easy mode or not?
From Software refuses to address the issues above in Soulslike games, and neither do the developers of Returnal. The difficulty has turned into a staple of the Soulslike and Roguelite games, it seems. Brutal difficulty is part of the experience and that’s that. It’s just how they are. And some fans become very vocal at even the suggestion of an easy mode, or even a colorblind mode.
The developer of Returnal claims it isn’t a problem. Players should just be more cautious and patient. I don’t really see that strategy working in a boss fight, or in some of the more difficult encounters, though. It sounds more like an excuse than a good reason. Admittedly, Returnal does have a colorblind mode.
Hidetaka Miyazaki, the director of Demon’s Souls and is successors, claimed in an interview about Elden Ring ‘I just want as many players as possible to experience the joy that comes from overcoming hardship.’ That I can understand. If everybody could climb the Mount Everest, it wouldn’t be an achievement. Completing something hard can be fulfilling, and finishing Elden Ring is such an achievement.
But if you could make it easy to climb Mount Everest for the handicapped, so they could see the beautiful vista, would you deny them because it might lessen the bragging rights for those who already did it? Should you deny Elden Ring and Returnal an easy mode so people who did finish it can gloat?
I don’t honestly know.
But upon reflection, that there is no easy mode is not my reason for disliking Soulslike and Roguelite games.
I’ve played many difficult games over the years. I finished both Ori games, and 100%-ed games like Red Dead Redemption and Mass Effect. I can be stubborn, and replay things a gazillion times to get past a difficult section, and I rarely set a game to easy mode. But I put aside Bloodborne and Returnal. Why did I do that?
There is a section in Ori and the Blind Forest, where you escape a tree that fills up with water. It is hard. It took me thirty or so tries to get through — yeah, I’m not that good at video games. But I did it. My wife said ‘how can you keep doing that over and over and not give up?’ Stubbornness, I guess, and the thrill you get when you finally make it. So why did I do that, but put down Returnal after only trying the first boss fight six times?
I thought about it, and thought about it, and finally I think I have an answer. I don’t hate the boss fights. It’s not the difficulty. If I sank enough hours into it, I could probably finish Bloodborne, or Returnal. What I truly hate, though, is having to replay the part before the boss fight. I don’t want to do things over that I already finished to my satisfaction. I love saving my game. After finishing Pillars of Eternity, I had hundreds of save files.
Replaying stuff really annoys me, and the base mechanic of Soulslike, Roguelite, and Roguelike games of resetting the game world forces me to do just that. Having to spend an hour replaying a section of the game, gathering resources, only to be slaughtered in a boss fights in minutes… it isn’t fun for me.
Easy mode would not solve my problems with Soulslike, Roguelite, or Roguelike games. I desire more save points, or just save points before boss fights. That’s not to say I would mind an easy mode, but I don’t really need one. I need the game not to force me into an hour-long replay, only to die in a minute-long boss fight at the end.
And maybe I shouldn’t care. Not all games are for everyone. But I love the idea of the world of these games. I was really enjoying the horror scifi setting of Returnal, and I liked the dark-victorian vibe of Bloodborne. Heck, Elden Ring looks soo appealing.
Ah well. I learned something about what I like. I suppose that’s a win.
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