Every time FromSoftware releases a new title, the entire gaming community seems to be thrown into the same tired debates about game difficulty. Some complain that games like dark souls and transmitted by blood are just too harsh for their own good and that only masochists like games that punish players for every little mistake. On the other side, hardcore FromSoftware fans will vehemently say that the games are not really so difficult if you play them correctly.
The release and resounding success of Ring of Elden has, predictably, reignited these debates, leading to familiar and circular arguments. To help end the bickering, we’ve tried to break down the vast and loaded concept of “difficulty” in video games into an Ars(™) Difficulty Matrix made up of five non-exhaustive sub-categories.
We have presented the elements of this matrix below, and for each element we have tried to explain how Ring of Elden is part of the history of game design. In doing so, we hope to show that Ring of Elden can be both brutally difficult and incredibly easy. It all depends on what exactly you mean by “difficulty”.
Mechanical difficulty simply refers to how games require players to press a certain set of buttons within a certain timing window to complete the next objective. This form of difficulty is also sometimes referred to as a “reflex test”.
Mechanical difficulty has a very long history in gaming. Classic arcade games relied heavily on increasingly difficult tests of reflexes to weed out players and force them into another quarter. Early console games often did something similar, using demanding mechanical challenges to increase playtime on cartridges with limited storage space. When people talk about “Nintendo Hard” games, they’re usually talking about mechanical difficulties.
Although pure mechanical difficulty isn’t as popular in games anymore as it once was, it still figures prominently in platformers like Super meat boy, Celestialor the so-called “Kaizo Mario” ROM hacks, to name a few.
Compared to games like this, Ring of Elden just isn’t very difficult mechanically. Most enemies telegraph their attacks with massive, seconds-long animations that give players plenty of time to react with a well-timed dodge, block, or parry. Some of the platforming sections in the game require precision double jumps on a horse, but most of them are optional. Although you can’t just mash the buttons to achieve victory in Ring of Eldenyou also don’t need supernatural hand-eye coordination to progress.
But while each individual block and attack isn’t mechanically difficult, Ring of Elden can take a lot of focus and stamina to string together moves in a successful battle (or series of battles). This is especially true when multiple enemies are ganging up to attack you from all sides. So move in Ring of Elden are a bit like push-ups; Running one is child’s play, but running 100 in a single chain can be torture.
Which brings us to…
This side of Ars’ difficulty matrix measures the amount of penalty you pay if you fail to complete an objective. How many mistakes can you make before you face the words “game over”? And when you get a “game over”, how much progress do you lose?
In a title like Potholing, a single mistake can force you to start your entire race over from the beginning. On the other hand, Quantic Dream games like Heavy rain Where Detroit: Become Human don’t have a “failed” state in the first place. They just adapt the ongoing story to whatever you decide to do.
When people say Ring of Elden and other FromSoftware games are tough, the word these gamers usually search for is “ruthless”. FromSoftware makes games where one wrong move against even minor enemies can cost you a significant chunk of your health bar or even result in instant death.
While Ring of Elden is a bit more generous than its predecessors with flasks that can refill your health bar away from a checkpoint, using these flasks requires a long pause for a long animation that can open you up to a counterattack without thank you if you are not careful. And it doesn’t even get into situations where you just roll off a ledge and hilariously fall to your death.