Like many others right now, I have been having an absolute blast getting stuck deep in Elden Ring and the many challenges it presents. If you thought Margit was tough, hooo boy, you won’t believe what FromSoftware has cooked up elsewhere in the game.
I know it’s very easy to bring up the difficulty of Souls games (and the discourse that inevitably follows) rather than other equally more interesting things like the lore, or the game’s fascinatingly enigmatic cast of characters. But those punishing moments that feel so hopeless, and the near-divine elation when you do conquer them, are integral to what makes playing titles like these so special.
That’s Hidetaka Miyazaki’s intent as well, of course. As he recently explained in The New Yorker; “I just want as many players as possible to experience the joy that comes from overcoming hardship.”
So why then am I planning to move onto the next Soulslike in the gaming calendar, Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin, with a more chilled approach? Partly because I can.
In a first for the genre, the Final Fantasy spin-off will be getting difficulty options. In fact, these were made available during the game’s second public demo last year, though in the final release the settings are being called Story (for those less interested in tough gameplay), Action (for the standard intended challenge), and Hard (which does what it says on the tin).
But difficulty settings in a Soulslike? What sacrilege is this? Yes, it’s something that critics have cried out for. It’s something that hardcore fans have resisted – even if I need to keep reminding people that FromSoft’s games do have difficulty options baked in organically; being able to summon other players or choosing not to lets you curate the difficulty a touch, at least. Elden Ring even expanded these options by granting you the potential to summon a variety of AI-controlled spirits, giving you a horse to escape tough battles, and giving you greater control over the encounters you instigated.
However, I warmed to the idea of having proper difficulty settings in Stranger of Paradise when I opted for ‘easy mode’ during the previous demo. Part of this was expediency to avoid repetition. After all, I’d already played the first demo that went live shortly after that meme-filled announcement trailer at E3, so I wasn’t really that arsed about going through the castle all over again to fight Chaos in order to see what else was on offer.
Also, having seen a clip on Twitter of the totally batshit moment when Jack says “Bullshit” before pulling out his phone to play Limp Bizkit (or whatever either the music or the device are supposed to be), I was impatient. I had to see this with my own two eyes, and maybe see if there’s more of a context for this.
The answer was, well, not much more in terms of the narrative. On the other hand, playing it in ‘easy mode’ felt transformative in that I was no longer really playing a Soulslike, but something closer to what still holds up as a pretty fun hack-and-slash action game in the vein of Devil May Cry (frankly, Jack’s angry Noughties buzzcut and the rest of that first level’s dark moody vibe really help to sell that idea).
And if that makes this Soulslike not really a Soulslike, then it gets away with it because if you look at what else we’ve seen so far of Stranger of Paradise, irreverence is one of the big takeaways. The game is a hot mess, which I honestly mean in the best possible way. It’s not just an unhinged reinterpretation of the original Final Fantasy dreamt up by Tetsuya Nomura but, if RPG Site’s theories are correct, it’s going to be a theme park ride through other classic worlds of Final Fantasy. I simply can’t wait to see how this game has a blast ripping and shredding through the franchise’s history while faithful fans look on with jaws on the floor, having only just picked them back up after Final Fantasy 7 Remake’s ending.
I can see, then, why Square Enix wouldn’t want fans’ wild ride grinding to a halt just because of a tough boss fight they have to ‘git gud’ at first. It’s also important to draw a distinction because this is – I think – largely a decision from Square Enix (the publisher) rather than Team Ninja (the developer). The latter is as well-known as FromSoft for its hardcore games – see: Nioh, the only Soulslike to truly rival Miyazaki and co.’s efforts. From demo impressions, the team has clearly done a great job translating some of Nioh’s mechanics to Stranger of Paradise – such as the Soul Shield or the Break Gauge – and I don’t want to diminish any of its work.
But ultimately, Team Ninja is the work-for-hire in this relationship. There’s no Hidetaka Miyazaki, who’s known for exerting total creative control over his vision. Instead, those executive decisions rest on Square Enix, and we know the publisher wants its games to be played by as wide an audience as possible (especially given recent events). And Square Enix is keen to keep appealing to Final Fantasy fans – an intense genus of player that cares more about the characters, art, and off-the-wall lore over anything else – especially. And while, yes, I too spent my youth forced to grind for hours on fiendish JRPG bosses, there’s a reason why re-releases of classic Final Fantasy games have options to turn off random battles or inflict 9999 damage from Level 1.
Sure, we can easily make the same argument that there are folk who just want to drink up the rich world-building of Miyazaki’s games without the suffering that goes with it, but here is a creator whose methods do live up to Frank Sinatra’s song (or Limp Bizkit’s, at least). It’s also a case of setting expectations, because those who play a FromSoft game have kind of mentally instilled themselves for a tough ride – a different mindset from when you sit down for a Final Fantasy game, I suspect. Ultimately, in Stranger of Paradise, you’re being given the choice of whether you want to play a Soulslike or a Final Fantasy game. And that’s a good thing.
I suspect this is more of an anomaly, rather than a trend that other Soulslikes will adopt. But offering out various settings in its game is a choice that suits the Final Fantasy franchise very well. And to be frank, I’ll gladly take up the offer of Story Mode in Stranger of Paradise – because as much as I love Elden Ring’s colossal challenges, you can have too much of a good thing. Especially so soon after trudging your way through the endless realms of the Lands Between.