I’ve been playing video games for over 20 years. Though the years, I’ve conquered games on 9 different consoles and a half dozen PC operating systems.
When I start a new game, I wrestle with my conscience at the level of difficulty screen. Normal or hard? Will normal be too easy? Will hard be too hard? Do I want to enjoy the game or do I want to push myself? I want things to be challenging, but I don’t want them to be ridiculous.
If it’s a first-person shooter, I usually go with the hard setting if it’s available from the initial start-up screen, because I have played them for 14 of the 20 years I’ve been playing games. I pushed through both Call of Duty: World at War and Killzone 2 on the harder difficulty setting, though my blood pressure sky-rocketed from the time I pressed start until when the credits rolled.
Even if I don’t play a game on hard, I feel like I should, and the cranky codger stirs anytime I see or play a game that is a cakewalk.
I was playing Prince of Persia, which while beautiful is a ten hour stroll in the park, so I’m giddy at the release in recent weeks of two titles on the PS3 that cater specifically to the hardcore gamer – Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 and Demon’s Souls.
Ninja Gaiden was the only game on the original NES I played and didn’t finish. I didn’t finish it until I was in college and played it on Nesticle. The XBOX’s Ninja Gaiden Black is one of the best games for that console, though it can be prohibitively hard for the casual gamer. One of my gaming buddies stopped playing it where many other gamers did, at a boss midway through the game.
The camera has been improved, though not perfected. An annoying underground section and its boss have been chopped completely, and two of the most frustrating bosses in my recent memory have been have been eliminated and replaced with one very cool one. Three additional levels with female protagonists serve more as breathers between the blistering levels with the main character, Ryu, and fill out some of the holes in the plot, as ridiculous as it is.
The missions, which can be played with a buddy online or a computer-controlled companion offline, are available after completing the first mission. This is a great place to hone your ninja skills for the single-player assault, though the missions are usually brutally amped-up scenarios from the single player campaign.
Even with the difficulty dialed down from the XBOX version, NGDS2 is still a tough game, but definitely worth checking out if you want to push your gaming skills.
The other game that gets my hardcore game fingers twitching is From Software’s Demon’s Souls. The quickest way to describe it is as the offspring of Oblivion and Shadow of the Colossus.
The first thing you need to know it is not as hard as everyone makes it out to be, but it is very thoughtful and forces you to be strategic and smart about your actions. This typically means a slow, methodical pace and tons of trial and error. Couple this with the very old-school mechanic of forcing you to start over at the beginning of a level when you die and the game earns the adjective “unforgiving.” Oh, and you can’t pause the game. Ever. Pressing start sends you to a menu screen, but the creatures continue to creep towards you as you try to change weapons or equip that cool new armor you just found.
You play as a hero in a blighted world overrun with monsters and controlled by epic end-level demon bosses. Souls serve as both currency and experience, and dying strips all of your souls from you unless you can successfully wade through the enemies you just dispatched and reclaim your body from the fiend or trap that just killed you.
There is practically no music, you move through the haunting levels with only the sounds of the level and the creatures stirring in the fog permeating the landscape.
Ambushes and traps abound. Thirty minutes in you learn to distrust corners, stairs and open doorways, because something will inevitably come from those places to kill you when you least expect it. Like a respected but demanding teacher, it’s tough but fair as it teaches you how to tackle its levels.
As I said earlier, the boss battles are epic. Most of them fill the screen or spill outside of the viewable area. The second boss is a tower knight whose weak spot, his head, is 30 feet above you. Another boss is a mechanical, fire spewing spider trapped in a narrow hallway which forces you to block, strike and flee. The game forces you to use every trick you have learned traversing the massive levels to take down the boss, but when you do the feeling of relief and accomplishment is worth the time spent figuring out how to do it.
No review of Demon’s Souls would be complete without a note about the online component. You can play online or offline, but online play is another place where this game sets itself apart from others. While online you will see the ghostly images of other players playing the same levels you play. You can read messages left by other players, some of which are useful while others are hurtful, and of course you can leave your own messages to guide other players. You can even rate the notes based on how helpful they are while in the game. You can watch another person’s death animation by standing on their blood stain, which can help you in your approach to an enemy or trap.
You can also play in others’ games or summon a player into your own game. Up to two companions can join you in your quest, though there is no headset communication or a way to invite friends. The tough world of Demon’s Souls builds the sense of camaraderie and community. Conversely, after progressing far enough through the game, a player can invade other games and kill the players in them. As unforgiving as this game is it is never cheap and will only allow a player close to your own level to invade your world.
Anyone tired of beautiful but easy games should find a challenge in Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 or Demon’s Souls. The former is a blisteringly paced romp with ninja’s, evil cyborgs, and arch-demons with one of the best in-game fighting mechanics and a weapons list that gives you almost innumerable ways to hack up your foes. The latter is a deliberately-paced, uncompromising, fantasy hack-and-slack through a dark and atmospheric world that punishes rash and thoughtless actions and rewards those inventive and enough to carve the path to victory.