This one surprised me a little. As early testers actually played the game, one thing about The Pale City has come up quite frequently: the difficulty. The game isn’t Dark Souls hard, but it’s designed to be challenging. The fights are impossible to win by just pressing “attack” and occasionally using a healing potion. But however important the combat is, but I’ve always seen it as secondary to the writing and atmosphere. And if the game is really so hard, won’t it keep a lot of people from experiencing the story?
I really started thinking about this because of a helpful email correspondence with one of the early reviewers of the game, who found the game punishingly difficult. The game has been tested a lot, but always by what I would describe as “hardcore” players, who described it as “tough but fair”. (Particularly my brother, a longtime soulsbourne gamer who occasionally feels the current version isn’t difficult enough.) But players unfamiliar with RPGs or who just don’t want to die much—including, the more I thought about it, many of my friends in the literary community—might find the game so tough they just couldn’t play it.
That’s why the last, most surprising addition to The Pale City before release is a “story mode”. I’ve always been fond of this in games like Pillars of Eternity, but strangely never considered adding it to mine. Over the last few weeks I’ve added, implemented, and tested the story mode, and it will definitely be included in the published version of the game on March 20th, though unfortunately it wasn’t included in the version that went out to reviewers.
Anyway, without further ado, here’s some info on the game’s two difficulties:
Normal difficulty: This mode is very carefully balanced to give the player relatively little advantage over the enemies. Enemies in this mode are just as strong as Vasek: they often have similar stats and hp, but come in large numbers, and can take you down in a few turns. Monsters have drastically more hp and higher stats. Each of them require very different strategies, and you’re likely to die at least a few times, as the game is constantly forcing you to adapt new tactics for new situations.
Items are in short supply, and all healing is slow. Gear is your main way of strengthening the character, but it’s expensive and there are only a few pieces of new armor in the game—particularly an extremely strong sword that, if you want to purchase it, requires you to limit your spending throughout almost the whole game.
In general, I would recommend normal difficulty for players with previous experience with role playing games, particularly JRPGs. It’s the most thematically relevant way to the play the game. But the developers of Pathologic thought the same thing—and most people think that game is unplayable! So it’s good to have an alternative.
Story mode starts with (but isn’t limited to) small balance tweaks, especially in the early game. This time you can actually buy most of what you see in stores. You’ll also have healing potions in reserve for every battle. But Vasek also has access to different equipment—including a new set of “plate mail” that makes it possible for him to tank. Vasek can never get quite as strong in this mode as he could in normal difficulty. But players will be much better prepared to get through the more difficult sections of the game, and some enemies (particularly the hidden boss) aren’t nearly as tough as the original versions.
Some of the new options are slightly out of character—I strongly feel Vasek would never wear plate mail. But it changes the feeling in an interesting way, almost to the point it becomes… a traditional rpg. Story mode may be a good recommendation if you want something closer to a Final Fantasy difficulty curve. It’s not as easy as some easy modes—you may even die once or twice—but now Vasek feels more like an RPG protagonist and less like a Game of Thrones character. It was actually really satisfying to try out some of the game’s more complex strategies, which are just barely enough on normal difficulty… and mow down enemies like it was 1997.
I’ll most likely be tweaking the balance of this mode for a while after release, but I’m quite happy with how it plays for now. I’ll be very excited to hear what players think of it… especially players who might have been scared away by the original difficulty!
Anyway, only 8 days until the game comes out. Thanks to anyone who has been following along! And I appreciate all the support from everyone who has checked out the game so far.