Video games have proved to be an escape from the real world over the past year, whether you’re cruising the virtual country lanes of Britain in Forza Horizon 4 or fighting off a Mongol invasion in Ghost of Tsushima. For myself, I decided to try and conquer a challenge that has been gnawing at me for years now: beating a Soulsborne game. I was lucky enough to secure a PS5 back in September and with it, a copy of the Demon’s Souls remake.
I’ve had some experience with Dark Souls prior to the PS4 launch, but the non-linear story and occasionally clunky mechanics turned me off. However, the lust for difficult enemies and complex bosses never left me. Being the first entry in the series, Demon’s Souls provided me with the perfect entry point. I grasped the basics quickly and was soon cautiously creeping my way around the Boletarian Palace.
Anyone familiar with the game will know about the Tower Knight, an enormous boss situated in one of the courtyards in the palace. Before release, I kept seeing this boss appear in trailers and promo clips and I prayed that it would come later in the game, as I knew I would struggle with it. I faced it fourth and what came next can only be described as incredibly painful. Attempt after attempt, slowly chipping away at the giant, I started to lose hope. The outside world, that I had done so well to keep out, had started to creep back in. Anxiety had been a big part of my lockdown experience and this fight was quickly replicating it. Before playing a Soulsborne game, I always thought that I wasn’t built to remember the patterns needed or that I would become stuck and resourceless early on in the game. This thought always put me off of attempting them and this boss fight made me realise that this anxiety was real.
However, I was making small changes, improvements, pushing that health bar down little by little every time. With each failure, I noticed small intricacies and details about the world around me, be that how the embers burnt after each time the dragon decimated the bridge, or simply the placement of enemies and what could have happened between them if I didn’t arrive. On my daily government-sanctioned walk outside, I started to notice the little things in life too—little things that made the world both so much bigger yet much more intimate at the same time.
My previous boss fights hadn’t been too hard, providing me with little downtime in-between encounters. The stunning visuals and sound design made these attempts surprisingly pleasant. It was in these moments that I grew to love the game. After a break away from the torture, and with full moon grass in my inventory, I puffed up my chest, adjusted my grip on the controller and passed through the fog door for what would be the final time. An immense feeling of pride swept over me, which I rode all the way until the end of the game. Overcoming such a huge obstacle, both the size of the enemy and its difficulty, had been the positivity that I required throughout the entire lockdown, and now I needed more. I had always thought that I would never complete a Soulsborne game. I needed to challenge myself further and I knew exactly which game would sate that need.
With Demon’s Souls completed, I moved onto Bloodborne. I had attempted the game before, but the frame rate crushed my launch PS4, so I was keen to come back to it on next-gen tech. I had immediately fallen in love with its world, along with the fast and frenetic combat. Bloodborne’s difficulty preceded itself, topping many of the Soulsborne difficulty lists. However, instead of getting lost in tough boss fights, I found the horrifying narrative and Lovecraftian design was what hooked me during the more challenging encounters.
Lockdown has been nightmarish for many people and, for myself, the lack of chances to see my long-term partner hit hardest of them all. Bloodborne recreated this loneliness in a strange and frightening world. This may not seem like a good form of escapism from lockdown to many, but to me, the control it gave me over the nightmares was where the game benefited me most.
Whereas some were escaping lockdown by catching sea bass on an idyllic island getaway, I was adventuring and exploring the world of Yarnham and meeting some of its strange inhabitants, something that quickly became an everyday thing for me. It was like a twisted, bloody Animal Crossing.
Bloodborne quickly became one of my favourite games ever and, after some grinding, also provided me with my first ever Platinum Trophy. I eagerly decked out my arsenal of transforming weaponry, delved deep into the Chalice Dungeons, and explored everything that the game had to offer. The joy and odd sense of peace that the 100% completion gave me may never be topped by any other game.
A day before the latest UK lockdown, I picked up Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice from a local store in my town. I’d seen some Let’s Plays of the game prior to playing it, so I knew what I was getting myself in for (I’m looking at you, Guardian Ape). Compared to the two titles I’d previously played, Sekiro had a vastly different approach to multiple elements I’d become accustomed to. Combat revolves around blocking and deflecting attacks. Gone are the slow sword and shield fights from Demon’s Souls, as well as the frantic “don’t stop hitting until it dies” techniques from Bloodborne. Sekiro requires patience and control. It asks you to exercise restraint in the face of insurmountable odds, particularly in the late game. This was very difficult at first, and so different from what I’d played before. I wasn’t enjoying my experience with the game early on because of this, but I soon learned that was my fault.
The narrative is also much more linear and structured compared to other Soulsborne games, which offer a lot more freedom in how deep you want to delve into their mysteries. The main difference is how it approaches death. As suggested in its name, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice has a resurrection function that gives you one more try before sending you back to your last idol. The feature doesn’t come without consequences; however, it can prove incredibly useful when the boss nails a combo with only 1% health remaining. Knockout punches are given out like candy in Sekiro; when something seems to be getting back on the right track, the game changes and reminds you of your position. I had a similar feeling a lot during the lockdown in regards to going to work in my retail job. You start to feel comfortable and safe within your bubble, when suddenly you are faced with the possibility of infection out of nowhere.
A particular fight around midway through the game made me question if I wanted to carry on fighting. Everything I did wasn’t good enough, and frustration was setting in. The game started to feel unfair, which fits thematically with the boss I was fighting. This is where I reconsidered my use of the resurrection feature. Before, I was using it freely and acting like I had a health bar double the size. In subsequent fights, I acted as if I didn’t have the extra life and made every deflection count. Instead of using it as a crutch, I used it as an escape rope. By making it more difficult for myself, I put more faith in my abilities and furthered my skills in the game.
Having faith that you can overcome the seemingly impossible runs through all of the Soulsborne games, as well as the global pandemic. The belief that I could get through Demon’s Souls, Bloodborne, and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice translated into my real-world situation surprisingly well. Not knowing what was around each corner, approaching every problem rationally and, most importantly, knowing when to take a break and turn off. These games aren’t designed to be completed in one sitting. Soulsborne games push your reflexes and determination to the boundaries, leaving you a stronger person on the other side.