Did Elden Ring Finally End The ‘Easy Mode’ Debate For Good?

Did Elden Ring Finally End The ‘Easy Mode’ Debate For Good?

Hard games. Should they have an Easy Mode? Should every game have an easy mode? These are questions that have resurfaced in recent years, with staunch opinions on either side about what, if anything, is lost by giving some players an easier time.

This post first appeared on Kotaku Australia on November 12, 2021. It has been retimed as a weekend read.

For those previously unaware of these arguments, I apologise for exposing you to them. This debate largely focuses on approachability as opposed to accessibility, which is a wholly different conversation. Both are important, but usually, when someone brings this particular debate up, they’re talking about allowing newer players to get through the full game without becoming experts by the end, as opposed to things like text size, colour contrast, and button inputs.

Dark Souls has been a favourite target of this debate because its difficulty is inherent to the sense of achievement it conveys. Folks on one side of the debate say beating Dark Souls should mean something, and you’re denying people a proper reward (and even inner growth) if you hand out participation medals.

Folks on the other side contend that we basically lose nothing by including an Easy Mode, and that beating the game on Normal still means the same thing it always did, so what’s the harm?

A player knight stands before a golden gate of fog
Image: Elden Ring/From Software | Fight or flight?

And now, Miyazaki has torched all sides of the debate with a massive “por qué no los dos?” and dropped the mic on his way out.

Elden Ring solves this argument in the best way possible — by simply offering the player more choice. No need to select anything from a menu, lock yourself into a Mode, or have a conversation like “But did you beat it on Normal?”

None of that. Because all of this is baked organically into the game. You can beat Elden Ring‘s challenges, some of which are sure to be brutal, in so many different ways the Easy Mode debate isn’t even a conversation anymore.

Some of these methods involve dexterous skill, some of them leverage raw game knowledge, and some of them use strategy. Or, you can combine the three in any way you like. If you learn and try new things, the parts of this game that feel impossible will slowly start to melt away, without any of its integrity being compromised.

Just Walk Away

A mounted knight approaches a gatehouse with palisade walls and enemies around
Image: Elden Ring/From Software | Totally within your rights to say “nope”

Elden Ring is an open world. Different enemies will populate different zones, similar to what you’d see in an MMO, and more important enemies and NPCs carry out their unique schedules through the day/night cycle.

Pull an enemy too far out of their territory and they’ll retreat to it, which means you can skedaddle as soon as things get rough. Get low on health, or pull too much aggro, and there’s usually a full 360 degrees of potential escape vectors. You can just leave. Do something else.

I think Elden Ring is deliberately structured like this, and it doesn’t even have to be a “difficulty” thing. The first real boss is quite tough, and many people skipped it to come back later when mounted. I beat it on foot. But when I came across a dragon later, I said “nope” and high-tailed it, whereas others beat it.

That doesn’t make anyone more badass than anyone else, it’s just … doing what we felt like doing. Player choice is a hell of a drug.

This is all made easier with the mount, which you can call during combat, and even engage in mounted combat if you wish. But outrunning enemies is a cinch on horseback.

It’s harder to leave boss fights of course, though you can always do the ol’, start a boss fight, grab the souls from your last death, and use an item to portal back to the bonfire with the souls intact. I’ve certainly done it once or twice. Or hundreds of times. Who’s counting?

Stealth Is Your Friend

A player knight sneaks up to a caravan with a valuable treasure chest at the rear, while large enemies loom in the background
Image: Elden Ring/From Software | Can you open the chest without them noticing?

You can play a good deal of Elden Ring as a stealth game, akin to Sekiro.

This is something you can do all game, or you can just dip in and out of the playstyle. You can spec your character for stealth, with the appropriate attributes and daggers and spells, or you can be a hulking Havel who just decided to stealth through one enemy camp.

It’s up to you, Tarnished.

Personally, I love a good full-frontal sword-and-board, but I also couldn’t resist sneaking up behind a world boss with a two-hander, charging up a strong attack with R2, and taking 10-15% of their health with one swing.

A player knight touches a point of grace
Image: Elden Ring/From Software | It was early in the game, but we found points of grace to be plentiful

I imagine with some theorycrafting you could raise that number quite a bit, and create a whole build and playstyle around it. There’ll probably even be YouTube videos about one-shotting bosses like there was in Dark Souls.

The stealth is as easy as pressing L3, and you can sit in the tall grass while enemies walk straight past. There’s also bound to be abilities and spells that decrease your noise, or decrease aggro and the like.

This playstyle is easy, fun, and built right into the game for you to dip in and out of. Approach the challenge however you want. No “mode” to select from the menu. Just organically play how you like.

Sorcery Breaks Souls Games

Sorcery was always the unofficial easy mode in Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls. That’s a fact that’s been largely missing from the whole Easy Mode debate.

I haven’t given enough time to Elden Ring to fully confirm this is true here too, but from what I’ve seen… Yeah, it’s true. Though now, sorceries and Ashes of War (which are the new Weapon Arts) kind of fill the same space.

Just check out how easy it is for VaatiVidya to take down a boss with the homing spell at 24:15 in this video:

That’s pretty brutal. It makes mincemeat of a boss that some may find tough in the early game. It puts me in mind of the Artorias fight, which wreaked havoc on the stamina bar of anyone trying to win with just a sword and shield.

The fact that you can get this benefit from both sorcery and Ashes of War makes it easier to dip into, as well. You don’t even really need to be doing a sorcery playthrough. You can change your Ashes of War at any time at a point of grace.

Another playstyle that you can dip in and out of. You still have to learn the game, it’s just a different path. Beat it however you like, the point is that you beat it.

Multiplayer and Semi-Multiplayer

Multiplayer has always been fun, but a little bit clunky in Souls games. I think Elden Ring has helped out new players here simply by fixing up the networking part of the game. The one time I tried to get a friend in, it worked without a hitch.

Obviously, the true test is when the game launches and we see how it handles everyone connecting at the same time. We’ll also get a better picture of how it handled this upcoming weekend.

But purely based on the fact that multiplayer works better now, you can make your game a little more manageable by having someone portal in and show you the ropes.

NPC co-op and invasions are again present, and these can both help and hinder you. But the items needed to facilitate all of this seem less finite now. Gone are the days of grinding for Cracked Red Eye Orbs.

A big new feature is the NPC ashes you can carry around with you, using them to summon the NPCs at the cost of FP. This requires no internet connection, or even faking an internet connection. You can just walk to a boss fight and throw the ashes on the ground.

It does make the boss fight considerably easier, judging from the one time I used them. The large samurai I summoned was able to do lots of damage, but even more valuable was his ability to hold aggro. That’s a Godsend in a Souls game.

Game Knowledge Is King

A knight holds a torch out to his side after striking a beast man in front of him, lighting it on fire
Image: Elden Ring/From Software | Some enemies don’t like fire…

Overall, I’d say Elden Ring is also a little easier than the Soulsborne games. I’m sure there will be some non-essential bosses that are brutal, but mostly the mechanical windows seem more forgiving, and there’s more room to theorycraft around hard encounters. With game knowledge, you can make most fights easy.

My friend Joab Gilroy had a fun time beating the Beastman fight like a normal boss fight. Now here’s me, feeling clever because I worked out the Beastman was vulnerable to fire, so I could stunlock it with the torch. Now here’s VaatiVidya (9:40), who worked out how to put fire on a twinblade so the Beastman didn’t stand a chance.

Game knowledge. All of these things that seemed hard suddenly becoming trivial.

I love this because it maintains a core tenet of Souls philosophy — grinding should never be the answer. Levelling up your avatar is just a means to an end, a vehicle for theorycrafting. Dark Souls isn’t really about levelling up a character, it’s about levelling up yourself.

Like a true action-RPG should be, this can be about skill in combat, or skill in theorycrafting. In Elden Ring, if you choose, you can level up your knowledge of the game so much that challenges seem easy — and killing 200 boars for XP is still not the path to victory. As it should be.

The Guard Counter

A player knight holds a shield up while stabbing a boss enemy, as the boss enemy takes enough damage to die
Image: Elden Ring/From Software | It’s still possible to stab with a spear while blocking

Another new facet of the combat system is the Guard Counter, which seems designed to buff a shield-heavy style.

Pressing R2 after a successful block will counterattack the enemy. The window is forgiving, and the attack is both fast and strong.

Shield builds are typically the domain of those new to Souls games anyway, as pressing L1 to hold the shield up lets newer players get the hang of enemy attack patterns. You can block most basic enemies without penalty, memorise their moves, and start attacking when you’re comfortable. More experienced players will start parrying and rolling, and eventually discover they can shed some gear weight for a light roll, theorycrafting for more damage output because they get hit less.

The extreme version of this is a build with the Red Tearstone ring, in which you lower yourself to under 10% health for a damage bonus. You’re a glass cannon but you can down a major boss in only a few hits.

A player knight sticks a sword into a downed boss with a metal casing around its head
Image: Elden Ring/From Software | It’s easier now to base a strategy around poise damage, and get the resulting critical attacks

But what if you don’t want to move into that high risk, high reward playstyle? What if you want to keep blocking?

With the Guard Counter, you’re not just better shielded against enemies, you’re better shielded against riskier playstyles. Shield builds were always viable, but now they’re more interesting.

There’s still absolutely a game to be played here, complete with mid-fight fake-outs and mind games, but this is more a style of “picking your moment”.

Bosses might go for the full six-hit combo, or they might stop at some point prior. Learn the tells, and you’ll be able to spot it. It’s up to this shield-happy warrior to pick the last hit in the combo and then unleash the counter.

Or, as I found with Margit the Fell, there are moments mid-combo when you can counter and avoid being punished. Perhaps his next swing has an arc your counter will go under, or perhaps there’s just enough time. Or perhaps you’ve cleverly counted 10 hits and you know you need 11 to stagger and interrupt him.

As I said. Still very much a game to be played here.

With all of the above, it’s definitely a more approachable game, without sacrificing any of what makes it great. It simply offers more choice, not forcing anyone into a risky playstyle.

Beating the game still means something. You just get more choice over how you do it.

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