Elden Ring’s easy mode builds aren’t features.
Look, I like Elden Ring. It’s the new hotness courtesy of From Software, it had better review scores than Breath of the Wild at one point, and it’s so beloved that even criticizing Elden Ring’s UI is considered blasphemy.
Of course, being a Souls game, Elden Ring has awakened the familiar debates that every From Software game inevitably will. “Does the game need an easy mode?” “Is the game too cryptic?” “Is it okay if the Souls series isn’t for you?” The list goes on. But one rare point of common ground that is unique to Elden Ring is its accessibility. Because Elden Ring has overpowered builds that can even trivialize certain encounters, fans and critics alike have celebrated Elden Ring for its “difficulty through gameplay options.” And you know what? I’m 100% for that in theory. I honestly think difficulty options in video games as we know them are kind of archaic, and the more innovative and organic ways we discover to control a game’s difficulty, the better.
The thing is, while Elden Ring does contain some legitimately great features to improve accessibility, the argument that Elden Ring’s broken build potential is somehow acceptable as an “easy mode” just falls indescribably flat for me. In fact, it makes me wonder if features like these in Elden Ring would be celebrated nearly as much were we talking about any game that didn’t have the backing of From Software’s fanbase. I know I’m coming out the gate swinging here, but even if you disagree with me here, I hope you’ll at least hear me out.
Easy mode for who?
My first major problem with this “easy mode is through gameplay options” argument is simple: how is a Souls newcomer going to know about any of this?
Elden Ring doesn’t communicate to you which builds or stat allocations will make the game easy or hard. Heck, fans would say minimalism in a Souls game is kind of the point. So how in Caelid is any aspiring Elden Ring newbie going to learn about this supposed variety of easy mode options? As it is, Elden Ring confronts Souls newbies with an overwhelming amount of numbers and letters that presents enough of a challenge to understand as is. Expecting a new player to somehow intuit that they should spec into 2 specific stats AND run to specific locations to grab the gear they need to unlock easy mode isn’t just unreasonable, it’s absolute lunacy.
I can already hear the counter argument: “Souls games are community based, so even a new player should be expected to learn these things via the community.” The thing is, if you’re enough of a gamer to be following Elden Ring news, resources, and reddit posts to even be aware of easy mode builds, you’re probably not what most would call a casual or even midcore gamer. You’re functionally assuming a Souls newbie would already have as much interest in the series as a Souls regular does, which is only reasonable assuming that the Souls newbie in question already knows Souls fans that are willing to walk them through their first several hours of gameplay. So for people who fall under that category, sure, Elden Ring has them covered, but there are still some glaring issues with this approach.
Perfectly unbalanced, as no things should be.
Once you’re aware of “easy mode builds,” then every other Elden Ring build by default is a “hard mode build.” And in any other game, we’d call this a lack of gameplay balance.
If select builds just objectively make you vastly stronger than others, then why wouldn’t everyone use them? Elden Ring is an RPG: it’s all about stats, numbers, and growing stronger. I don’t deny that many Souls players will stubbornly use less optimal builds for fun or out of sheer pride, but most gamers don’t want to willingly give themselves a self-imposed challenge. I mean, imagine if people called a fully upgraded X in Mega Man X an “easy mode build,” or missile upgrades in Metroid to be the “easy mode build.” You’d look at them like they had three heads, because only absolute hardcore fans of those games would willingly forgo options that strengthen their characters in games about strengthening their characters.
In other words, we’re not seeing “easy mode builds.” We’re seeing specific meta builds dramatically outpace what a regular gamer naturally exploring will come up with, which is just not good design. Even if it was, is it okay to lock newer players into a select few builds with no freedom to explore other options in fear of making the game too difficult? Is it fair to seasoned players that the gameplay styles that interest them minimize the challenge they were looking for? Under this paradigm, both sides of the coin lose.
Yes, a fan of Pokémon could make the game harder with self-imposed rules like Nuzlocke, but you’d be hard pressed to find many people who think Pokémon’s difficulty is acceptable as-is because players can just Nuzlocke if they want. If Elden Ring’s builds were perhaps better optimized to allow “easy” builds to relax enemy mechanics while “hard” builds packed greater damage at the cost of riskier gameplay, we could really see Elden Ring flourish with variety. Instead, we have memes of “easy mode builds” while even dedicated From Software fans are just wondering what the heck to do after speccing into a strength build.
The logic is sound
Despite all that I’ve said, I do love the idea of games that utilize clever systems or mechanics to make them accessible to more casual audiences. For example, Final Fantasy XIV has classes like Dancer and Warrior that are relatively easy to play, but more demanding classes like Samurai and Gunbreaker reward players who can handle their (somewhat) more complicated playstyles. And outside the balance issues, I really do appreciate the bold steps Elden Ring takes for accessibility.
Mechanics like the summonable companions and easy counterattacks after blocking are fantastic, since they open more gameplay options that both casual and veteran players can enjoy. This is of course in addition to the open world structure that lets players pick and choose challenges as they see fit. Elden Ring does so much right that every crack in the design becomes glaring, especially following its wild commercial success. As much as I’d like to sit here and praise Elden Ring as one of those once in a decade “perfect games,” I just can’t look at its lack of balance and spin it as a feature.
Elden Ring is a great game. Pointing out these grievances with the game does not take away from that reality. I understand that From Software makes unique games that serve a niche that few developers are willing to cater to, but their rise to proper AAA status means we shouldn’t be afraid to criticize their games where it’s warranted. If you are a fan of Elden Ring, I genuinely hope you continue to love the game – even if you do think its gameplay balance is perfectly fine the way it is. But for the sake of all Elden Ring players – both casuals and veterans alike – I just want it to be better.
Anyway, that’s it for my opinions for now. Join me in another two years when From Software releases another video game that causes us all to have arguments about difficulty.