difficulty

Almost…

dancer

‘Almost’ is an interesting word. When I was at school, dressed in paper-thin sports kit and forced to run the circumference of the playing field at the behest of sadistic P.E. teachers, the mental reassurance of ‘almost there’ was just powerful enough to keep an unfit nerd from keeling over. On the other hand, all the guys who ‘almost’ reached the summit of Everest before dying a frigid death – well, that just sucks.

Getting close to success before failing miserably is one of the worst things a human being can experience, along with anything Minions-related and dragging your scrotum across broken glass. It’s a feeling that crops up all too often in video games, as players accidentally and idiotically leap into a hole right before the end of a level, or get wasted by a troublesome boss with only a sliver of its health bar left.

The latter example is perhaps the most frustrating, scream-inducing, controller-throwing occurrence that can happen in a game, and no series knows that better than Dark Souls. Yesterday, I spent around two and a half hours dragging my balls over the broken glass that is Dark Souls III’s Dancer boss, and I’m glad no one else was in the house because I must have sounded like James Bond in Casino Royale’s torture scene.

As the twirly-swording bastard repeatedly and metaphorically hit me in the groinal area with a knotted rope, I managed to ‘almost’ defeat it numerous times. With only a few stabs needed to bring it down, I could smell victory like a dog can smell anuses, but the proximity of success only made the prospect of failure more worrying. Trembling, with beating heart in overdrive, I desperately rolled and rolled and rolled to avoid the boss’ flailing arms, praying to the deified Hidetaka Miyazaki that I might survive just long enough to land that final blow… But Miyazaki is a cruel spirit, and with the fear of imminent death lingering in my broken mind, I got sliced apart like a melon and had to start all over again.

Though I grunted like a tennis player and swore under my breath, the controller creaking in my vice-like grasp, I didn’t give up. Part of me wanted to rage quit, turn off the console and ride away into the sunset, but I didn’t. I sat there on my sofa a resolute warrior, like Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai, and powered through the hours as the Dancer taunted me with its deadly ballet.

Like everything else in this marvellous series, I had to appreciate its exquisite design, but in those moments I hated the Dancer with a burning passion. Death was too good a fate for that prick. I didn’t, however, hate the game. The Souls series, including Lovecraftian spin-off Bloodborne, are infamous for their high level of difficulty, but (and I apologise, because literally every Souls fan yammers on about this) it is never unfair.

While they seem like it at times, no boss is impossible, with each one presenting you with a series of attack patterns that can be learned and reacted to accordingly. When you first encounter your adversary, you’ll get wiped within seconds like a pooper in a hurry, but as your mincing becomes as prolonged and repetitious as a John Cage composition, you’ll start to pick up on clues that will help you read the boss’ behaviour.

With time, these get wired into your brain, and you’ll start surviving longer. The boss will still deal out an obscene amount of damage, and have more HP than the HP Sauce factory, but you as a player will improve. There’s a lot riding on your skills of course, as a single cock-up or break in concentration will turn you into dungeon pizza, but knowing that gives a sense of personal, meaningful progression that few other games can boast.

Every time you almost win, and it feels like that little chip of boss HP is judging you as you fade into a loading screen, the crushing disappointment is always accompanied by a powerful determination. You may have just been kicked down for the umpteenth time, but that ‘almost’ victory reassures you that you are ‘almost there’. Just roll a little earlier; be a bit more defensive. Use the environment to your advantage. Play better.

Even when it feels like you’re freezing and suffocating to death atop a mountain, remember to listen to the sweaty, shorts-wearing kid inside your head.

You got this.

And thus endeth the Word of Tom.

Here’s my triumphant fight with the Dancer in full. Get rekt.

A Colossal Pain in the Neck

15th colossus

When I sold my PlayStation 2, I sold a piece of my heart with it. Being neck deep in the Xbox 360 phenomenon at the time, and playing such great games as Lost Odyssey and Bioshock (the latter of which I never actually finished after a friend ‘kindly’ spoiled the twist for me), I didn’t think I would miss it. How wrong I was, for with the console also disappeared some of the first games I ever genuinely loved.

I can remember well the first time I was properly excited for a game. It must have been around 2002, when ten-year-old Tom was discovering the magic of gaming through his swanky new PS2. It was my first console, having only previously owned a trusty GameBoy Colour, and the effect it had on me could be likened to the Spanish discovering America. No, not the brutal pillaging of the native population, but the window into a whole new world of opportunities. That, and a demo disc featuring some game called Airblade, which I definitely gave more time than it probably deserved.

Anyway, demo discs were, as Super Hans says of crack cocaine, really moreish, and I soon started building up my collection of official PS2 mags. I would put hours upon hours into these little game snippets every month, playing demos for games like War of the Monsters religiously until I could fork out the pocket money to buy the actual game. Aside from the demos though, it was all about screenshots. In the ages before YouTube and video reviews, these little squares were portals into the games of tomorrow, teasing us to the point where we just had to see them in motion.

One day, I opened an issue and saw the coolest thing my little eyes had ever seen – Devil May Cry 2. I’d never played the first installment, but I became totally consumed with these images and counted down the days until the game’s release. When I finally played it, it was everything I ever hoped it could be and more, and it completely changed the way I felt about video games. After I rinsed it, I bought the original Devil May Cry and my first proper gaming obsession was born. Along with Yu-Gi-Oh! cards, it’s probably one of the main reasons I’m such a disgustingly massive nerd.

Post-DMC, images of another, more unusual game began to captivate me, and its eventual demo sold me on my next fixation. This was a title that changed my views on gaming in another, very different way, and is still one of my favourite games of all time. It was, of course, Team Ico’s majestic Shadow of the Colossus. (more…)