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Too hard? Elden Ring: Shadow of the Erdtree’s difficulty debate needs some nuance

The golden Erdtree in Shadow of the Erdtree.

It wouldn’t be a complete FromSoftware game launch without a debate over difficulty, would it?

Elden Ring: Shadow of the Erdtree is out now, and dedicated players have spent the past few days bashing their skulls against its fierce bosses. Those foes are no joke; they offer some of the most punishing fights the action RPG has to offer. Even streamers like Asmongold gave up almost immediately, saying that it’s “too hard to be fun.” Naturally, that’s opened up an inescapable discourse about difficulty in FromSoftware games. You’ve heard it all before, and it’s not worth dredging up the same talking points forever.

The more often the debate arises, though, the more nuance is stripped away from it. Complaints about games like Elden Ring being too difficult have been reduced to a shallow meme. If a critic, streamer, or Steam review so much as uses the word hard, the take is bound to be pulled out of context and reactively mocked. That internet ritual has flattened out insightful criticisms that deserve to be heard and discussed. When someone calls a game “too hard” or even “too easy,” there’s much more to the story than some like to admit.

Cherry-picking criticism

The more popular FromSoftware’s games have gotten, the more heated arguments around it have become. On one side, you have long-time fans who are fully bought in on FromSoftware’s formula and unwilling to see it budge. The other side of the coin is more nebulous. It isn’t just total newcomers who lob occasional complaints against the studio for its difficult design choices. The critique is echoed across the spectrum, from your average Steam user leaving an enraged review to a seasoned veteran writing a more detailed criticism. It can’t be written off as an outsider take, yet that doesn’t stop fans from trying to paint that disingenuous picture.

One primary target of this year’s tired debate is Eurogamer critic Alexis Ong, who awarded Shadow of the Erdree three stars in a dissenting review. It didn’t take long for a bad faith hive to descend upon it. “Eurogamer gave Elden Ring DLC a 3/5 because it was too hard,” reads one viral tweet from a popular Elden Ring content creator, accompanied by a snippet of the review discussing difficulty. That’s followed by a wave of mocking replies. “A game journalist calling it “too hard” is the highest praise they could possibly give,” reads one reply.

A creature looms in Elden Ring: Shadow of the Erdtree.
Bandai Namco Entertainment

That all makes for a fun dunk tank for reactive content creators that thrive on engagement, but it’s woefully reductive. Ong’s review is a painstakingly detailed criticism that comes from the perspective of a seasoned Souls player. The bulk of the review doesn’t even focus on difficulty, instead taking issue with how much the DLC signposts what to do in a way that runs counter to Elden Ring’s strengths. When challenging bosses come up, Ong addresses the backlash before readers could even make it by explaining why FromSoftware’s difficulty is appealing. That transitions to a more detailed dissection of the way bosses are built in Shadow of the Erdtree by comparison, which can go one step further to a fault

But of course, there are no outrage likes to be farmed in politely engaging with a nuanced take. It’s much more profitable to cherry-pick a quote and complain about it before playing the game.

As it turned out, Ong wasn’t alone. With the DLC out now, a wave of players have echoed those same critiques, though in less detailed a manner. The expansion is currently receiving Mixed reviews on Steam. That’s largely due to performance issues, but a handful of write-ups amid the review bombing cite difficulty as a negative. With each passing FromSoftware release, it becomes harder and harder to write the perspective off. Maybe, just maybe, there’s something to it.

Below the surface

When we casually talk about games, we tend to talk about them in shorthand. If a player is writing a short Steam review or even just chatting on a Discord server, they aren’t likely to spend hours compiling an exhaustive mechanical deep dive that they’ve stewed on for days. They’re more likely to jot down some surface thoughts. That’s where a cultural problem arises. Internet commentators aren’t always the most charitable readers and have a tendency to treat snap judgments as a final opinion. In reality, those takes are a starting point, not an ending.

“Too hard/easy” is a fast way to scratch at a problem with much deeper roots. For instance, I’ve always struggled to get into Bloodborne, one of FromSoftware’s most beloved games. If I were talking to a friend offhand, I might say that I found it too hard. The alternative would bore them to death with a lecture on game design. It’s not that the opening few bosses of Bloodborne are insurmountable challenges. Rather, it’s that points of friction surrounding them makes otherwise fine fights frustrating.

Take Bloodborne’s first major boss fight, the Cleric Beast. It’s a fairly straightforward fight in theory once you learn its attack patterns. The challenge largely comes from actually being able to see what the hell is going on. For one, the camera struggles to keep the giant in frame, making it hard to actually see its attacks (a common FromSoftware quirk that hasn’t really changed since Bloodborne). To make matters worse, the entire encounter takes place on a narrow bridge that doesn’t leave much room to gain distance and get a big picture of the fight. The result is a clumsy battle with poor camera controls.

A horrifying monster stands tall in Bloodborne.

Elden Ring has similar problems. I struggled with the reasonable Godskin Noble primarily because its weapon kept clipping straight through pillars to hit me while standing in what looked like a safe spot. Later, I hit a wall with Maliketh when my targeting kept breaking, and pressing down the stick to lock on again would spin my camera 360 degrees instead. Ong describes some similar woes in Shadow of the Erdtree, pointing out that bosses cancel out of animations to punish players for healing. Moments like that can make FromSoftware fights feel unfair; as I wrote in my Elden Ring review, these are imperfections in games that demand perfection from players.

As a critic, it’s my job to dig up what I see as root issues and communicate them as clearly as I can. I’m never going to write “the shooting feels bad” when talking about a game like Resident Evil Village; I’m going to spend a lot of time asking why I feel that way and interrogating the game design for answers. It’s a time-consuming discipline, and I get paid to do it for a reason. But a player casually sharing their loose take online does not need to do that. Shorthands like “it’s too hard” are perfectly valid, whether or not they can articulate the deeper problems that feed into that opinion. Sometimes we can respond to subconscious annoyances. How often do you come out of a movie feeling underwhelmed, but you can’t put your finger on why? Your gut feeling isn’t wrong just because you can’t fully express it (I believe that good criticism helps tease those feelings out of readers).

This goes the other way too when discussing if a game is “too easy.” Plenty of beloved games — especially Nintendo games — are fairly breezy. When a game gets that particular criticism thrown at it, it’s not necessarily because they’re being too harsh about a children’s game. They could be responding to repetitive design, a lack of meaningful risks, or gameplay ideas that aren’t engaging enough to just enjoy the simple joys of interactivity. “Too hard” and “too easy” are two sides of the same coin, and there’s often more to both.

The hand-to-hand combat style in Shadow of the Erdtree.

That’s where I take issue with the tiresome, pearl-clutching reactions to FromSoftware critics. When someone says that they think Shadow of the Erdtree is too hard, that’s an opportunity for a valuable discussion. What’s tripping them up? Is the expansion not teaching them how to use its new systems in clear enough terms? Do the new bosses break out repetitive attack strings that make it hard to read patterns consistently? When we actually talk to one another, I believe we find that even the most surface level thought can lead to an insightful conversation about a game’s strengths and weaknesses.

The more we flatten that out, the further we get from being able to understand games.

Giovanni Colantonio
Giovanni is a writer and video producer focusing on happenings in the video game industry. He has contributed stories to…
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