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The other day, I noticed that one of newest releases for the Nintendo Switch was Salt and Sanctuary, a 2D Metroidvania/Dark Souls-style game that I reviewed and played a few years ago on my PlayStation 4. Despite its tough difficulty level and a lack of a map that made exploring not all that fun when you run into a boss you weren’t prepared for, I remember enjoying it. However, while I definitely recommend supporting that game and the developer, something was just holding me back from picking it back up to enjoy. It took me a bit to realize what it might have been, but I realized it was the fact that the one level difficulty was what was keeping me away from it. For almost a decade now, ever since the likes of Demon’s Souls and Super Meatboy, a lot of games have wanted to make a massive bullet point in their marketing that they have a game that’s tough! It wants to break you! It wants you to “get good!” and all that jazz. Frankly, it’s as tired as an indie game using pixel art, or a big budget game saying it has an open-world. It’s not special anymore.
To me, I don’t really care if the game is hard, or if it’s easy, I just want to feel like I’m making progress as I play through the game, and that I’m feeling satisfied with said progression. Of course, I want some challenge, but the big problem that I see when games advertise as being brutal and hard, it’s never the right balance. You ever notice when a game comes out, and it’s been engraved into the marketing and preview editorials that it’s hard? Nine times out of 10, it is rarely a challenge that feels fair. You always see developers having to back-pedal a little, like Wulver Blade, Darkest Dungeon, Slain: Back from Hell, and you get the idea. The Last Remnant is a fairly enjoyable tactical RPG, with a unique look, and challenging gameplay, though for some reason, the director thought the game should be harder. The developer made the halfway point of the game one of the most miserable experiences I have ever had. No matter how much grinding you had to take on, the list of boss encounters at that point was insane. It made me not want to pick up the game again, when I found out how much of a slog the big major boss was. If I failed, I would have had to go back to an earlier point, and fight a different boss that could almost One Punch Man me into a game-over screen, before getting back to the boss I needed to fight.
The conflict of interest for me, when it comes to difficulty, is that if you are going to be tough, how are you going to balance it out so the difficulty doesn’t become too overbearing? Roguelites/roguelikes seem to fall into this problem all too often. They want to be tough, because the older games in that genre were tough, but don’t reward or reinforce the player to keep trying. I played a couple of roguelikes/roguelites last year, and after dying so many times, and not being able to upgrade myself, or find some way to make the playing field more even, I gave up. I get that is what comes with the territory of certain genres and franchises, but it doesn’t mean you can’t be like Dead Cells or Rogue Legacy, and give yourself a helping hand the next time you take on the challenge. It’s like some developers stop at “let’s make this game hard” and not go full circle. There is a reason why people love the Dark Souls franchise more than Battletoads. Heck, while I do think the Darks Souls series isn’t as perfectly balanced from what I played, it was still mostly my fault for dying. Battletoads was simply an unplayable wreck of levels with insane difficulty spikes and tricks that made it a nightmare and a half to get through. Personally, I had to tone down the difficulty after multiple hours of playing 2018’s God of War, after I felt like Kratos wasn’t designed to be able to handle faster enemies on higher difficulty levels. Cinematic platformers are designed to be tough, and to go full-tilt on trial-and-error gameplay that punishes you for not being precise. Okay, that’s fine, but when the environmental storytelling isn’t interesting, or the puzzles and platforming isn’t all that interesting, then the difficulty is more of a sour point than a marketing point.
Again, if you have to patch in a mode or more balanced gameplay, then who the heck were you listening to when you were balancing it all out in the first place? It’s why I found Galak-Z to be way more playable after they patched in the ability to simply restart the mission you were on, instead of sending you five missions back every time you died. Because, you know, losing 45 or so minutes of progress because the game decided that you played the levels the wrong way is so much fun. When it stops being my fault for dying or not completing the challenge, that is when difficulty goes too far.
At this point in time, being hard, brutal, nail-biting, or whatever word you want to spice your game advertisements up with, that isn’t just “it’s super hard”, is not appealing to me anymore. It might actually turn me off to your game more than me wanting to put down the cash or rental to play it. Developers are simply having trouble finding ways to make challenging gameplay entertaining. I can play games like Super Meatboy or Dark Souls, but when they don’t properly offer you the means to be able to coexist alongside the difficulty, then that’s a problem. It doesn’t make it fun, it makes it a slog. No one likes a slog.
Sure, what can be considered difficult can mean a lot of things. Is the game based around challenging combat, twitch reflexes, trial-and-error gameplay, or are there gameplay elements that make the game feel artificially hard, like stamina bars, weapon breakage, clunky combat, or super tough enemies? If you want to add those to your game, then you had better be fully prepared at how to handle it so you don’t have to waste resources to fix it, because someone on your dev team didn’t think the challenge all the way through. It’s why I find the scoffing of difficulty levels to be odd. I know it’s going to sound weird, but to make games like Monster Hunter or Dark Souls easier to approach, I wouldn’t mind an easy mode, or a simpler combat layout so I don’t have to fiddle with a button dedicated to putting away your weapon, and an entirely different button to take your weapon out for combat. So many games have become better, because they made some form of compromise to make the experience better for everyone involved. Listening to only the hardcore of the hardcore is not always the best idea.
In the end, the game shouldn’t be hard for the sake of being hard, nor should it be one of the pristine selling points to your game. It will more likely turn me off than actually wanting to play it/purchase it day one. I know it’s all subjective in what will be found to be too difficult to some people, but if it’s a universal complaint, then that’s a big problem. There is nothing wrong with making a game hard, and marketing your game toward a certain gaming crowd, but you just have to be prepared to not be as widely approachable, and when the challenge becomes too much, then that’s when you messed up. Just take a little time and think it over before you start and stop at “I’m going to make my game hard”.