The difficulty of the video game is extremely adjustable in most cases. However, developer FromSoftware has created a niche genre with strict difficulty as its main principle. The genre, commonly referred to as “souls-like” (in reference to the game that sparked the genre, “Dark Souls”), centers around the idea that gamers want a challenge. Instead of giving players an adjustable meter that increases or decreases enemy health and damage, souls-type games have a rigid metric for difficulty: their bosses, all of which are hard to beat.
While games rely on their passionate fanbase to drive sales, souls-like games also need to be accessible to casual fans. Recruiting new players is essential to increasing a game’s demand, but boss difficulty can be a difficult barrier to entry for new players.
Most players can stumble through the first level, but beating bosses in a Souls-like game requires some skill. Thus, FromSoftware must make an effort to start its games by striking a balance between ultra-hard for committed gamers and easier for casual gamers.
FromSoftware does it perfectly in “Dark Souls III”. As the fourth game in the Souls series, it’s both the most accessible for new players and the most challenging for more experienced players. After a basic tutorial, players are immediately thrust into the first boss fight. The combat is routine, even for new players, but it introduces the basic mechanics of future bosses. For example, the tutorial boss has two phases (different forms), a defining element of nearly all subsequent bosses in the game.
After defeating the initial boss, players are quickly sent to the game’s first “real” level. After stumbling across various enemies, players arrive at Vordt, the first main boss. Vordt is a giant dog-like creature who wields a large hammer. Its gentle yet intimidating appearance, paired with an epic music track, immediately signals its danger to gamers. At first glance, Vordt’s attacks are hard-hitting and unstoppable. When the player gives it half health, it enters phase two, where its movement speeds up and its attacks deal frostbite in addition to their normal damage. All of this creates an intimidating experience for new players, but if they calm down and learn, Vordt becomes a piece of cake.
Since Vordt’s attacks are so slow, dodging, instead of blocking, is a very effective strategy. His hammer sweeps towards the player, so often the best direction to roll is towards him, which positions the player close enough to him for an attack. His size makes him unable to defend his back, where the player can get a series of hits before repositioning himself.
FromSoftware creates a perfect pattern template with Vordt. Every boss fight comes down to learning the playstyle and strategizing how to defeat it, and Vordt presents a simple but intimidating example. After defeating Vordt, the next bosses don’t pose much of a threat to a now-confident player, but they also introduce boss tendencies (e.g. a certain boss is only vulnerable in a specific area). FromSoftware is saving its tougher bosses for later in the game when the player has better items, but has also greatly improved their skills and strategy.
By instituting a boss that is at first glance difficult, FromSoftware is able to maintain the feel of the genre while keeping its games accessible to new players.