Crash Bandicoot recently made waves with modern gamers thanks to its surprising difficulty. Despite not changing anything, many gamers found themselves at the mercy of a game that really wasn’t afraid to hand them their backside. But here’s the thing, that difficulty isn’t a selling point for Crash Bandicoot (At least it wasn’t before). It seems that modern gamers fancy being challenged every now and then – which is good because there are a series of games that aren’t afraid to make life difficult for players. There are several franchises which have gone out of their way to make the experience as difficult as possible. So I decided to run down the games where that difficulty isn’t a negative – but actually a key part of the experience.
Let us know which modern games you found hairpulling-ly difficult over on our Gaming Twitter.
Bloodborne came out in 2015 and caused quite a storm with its gameplay and difficulty, endearing itself to fans and newcomers almost immediately. On first play through, I loved the game, myself. On second and third, well the problems and cracks leapt out at me and I couldn’t enjoy it quite so much. Difficult only partially because of design, Bloodborne has some sins going against it that artificially up the difficulty – such as random stutters or skips and a 30 FPS running speed for a game that demands pinpoint dodge-timing precision. It’s fair to say the inherent difficulty of the game is quite high, for which it makes this list. But the additional problems and baffling design choices elevate it into frustrating on many fronts.
One such problem is the now limited healing capacity. Okay, so if the game is tough and you will die a lot – until you just heal a lot, before you just run through an area, right? Imagine if your healing item randomly dropped from enemies at the beginning in fair amounts to get you started, then as the toughest bosses roll around that trickle mysteriously stops. Already, you are facing enemies that can 1-2 hit you to death with very fast or sometimes badly telegraphed attacks, but now the game is asking you to go back and kill the earliest creatures in the game to…farm up healing so you can *attempt* a boss once again. Madness! Padding! To be punished for not reacting fast enough to learn the attack that kills me immediately, by having to go and waste 15 or more minutes out of my life to get blood vials again is just insulting.
This is why I’m hoping that, should Bloodborne 2 become a thing, Mr Miyazaki opts not to keep this awful change. A change that, need I remind you, Dark Souls invalidated in 2011 when it brought in replenishing but finite healing items. There was no farming – there could be none. Not for healing. You got to your next checkpoint, your reward was temporary safety and a free restock of your limited healing. The straight up challenging moments in the game hold their own, however – even if there are certain places or moments that do feel downright unfair. The brain-sucklers, for instance, can opt to just paralyse you, dealing huge damage to you and paralyse you as soon as you get up to do it again. I’m sure everyone remembers the jolly bit where for some reason there are 2 next to each other in the upper Cathedral Ward. Should it be as difficult?
Digital Devil Saga Duology
Developed by Atlus for the PlayStation 2, the Digital Devil Saga games offered a relatively unique story that starts off nice and grim and only gets more and more tragic as it goes on. No spoilers here, so I will be discussing things carefully. In the first game, you play as a bunch of humans who have been infected by the mysterious ability to transform into demons who have to devour each other to survive. Calmed only by a tune from a girl found next to the infection source, your clan\gang use your newfound powers to go and kill the other gangs in order to ascend to “Nirvana”.
The battle features turns, using the Press Turn system – an action costs an action, but can refund the action if you land a critical hit or exploit an enemy’s elemental weakness. Similarly, the enemy exploiting your weakness or critting you results in an action lost, each turn! The game is very tough, as later enemies tend to be sneaky in their tactics, while almost all the boss fights are powerful and require planning – if not a death to study and counter their tactics! The optional boss, King Frost, is a terrific example. You have to go out of your way to fight him, in exchange for which you gain a specific skill set that is very useful for the main character, and anyone trained in Ice spells.
The problem is his high health pool, the fact that he, of course, absorbs ice, and attacks with a lovely unique skill called Cocytus. Cocytus hits everyone in the party multiple times for mediocre damage – but each individual hit has a very high chance of inflicting the Freeze status on your team. Freeze renders you unable to act, and puts you in a position where any melee attack is now a guaranteed critical – giving the enemy more turns! You can resist, block, absorb, or repel elements in this game – try any of that though and he will just shift to using a no-element spell that still hits everyone. Better than the alternative, though.
The challenge presented by this game is very real with little padding or fakery – though some bosses will require re-adjusting your tactics as you go along. Always have a healer, and be sure to have some healing items, too. Some fights saddle one or all of your party members with disastrous special ailments that only certain characters can inflict – these range from dramatically weakening you to wind and the absolute annihilation of your atk\def abilities in general. The great music to go along with such tough enemies guarantees a satisfying feeling upon victory. The hardest storyline boss for me was in the second game when you revisit a certain facility… if you are ill-prepared, you will be absolutely destroyed. Very difficult.
Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest
Phew. This thing is difficult. One side of a three-sided full story, FE : Conquest features Fire Emblem gameplay with increased difficulty and the loss of ability from Awakening to use the map to get funds, weapons, or simply to train troops up. Though new difficulty options mean you can avoid losing units if they die, should you choose, it still handicaps you severely if you do so. Enemies that take out a unit get that unit gone for that particular fight – so they can gain no experience there. Did I mention that you’re grinding options are non-existent?
Add onto that a generally tough campaign that has quite a few stage\terrain gimmicks and traps and I found myself doing a slow steady smash of all the maps where I could. The final boss subverts this wonderfully, as the longer time you spend turtled up, the more the INFINITELY SPAWNING enemies will rush you. I found myself a wild bolt, shot into the blind wilds and piercing my target just in time to complete that one. Maps that are formed of bridges where gusts of wind blow allies AND enemies up and down every other turn, severely altering all strategies you might have once pretended to have – yikes.
The difficulty was high and punishing, but besides the aforementioned map gimmick, I never thought it was too rough. That said, I ended up with 2-3 good units through stat growth that did a lot of the work. To be fair though, Conquest is a challenging, if not punishing game. New additions brought in Fates see such lovely moves as “Attack unit and swap places with them after the attack”. What this means is if a single unit does this to your, say, fleeing unit, they will be 1 space closer to *other* attackers, perhaps even walled in by them, an easy target to vanquish. Really dangerous and shows up fairly often, especially on units that can fly. Naturally! Very difficult game.
Super Meat Boy
Some might say that putting a twitch platformer on a list like this is silly, as the very nature of these games is designed to annoy and frustrate gamers. But Super Meat Meat Boy elevates itself beyond this with some of the most balanced gameplay.
The controls are tight, while the games learning curve is perfectly balanced. In the games 300 levels, you’re challenged on every aspect of the game that you’ve learned thus far – pushing you to constantly get better. Better still, it never feels truly unfair. While some of the levels are controller shatteringly difficult, it never gets to the point where you feel like the game is outright unfair.
It’s why Super Meat Boy is so adored, and why Edmund McMillian’s game has spawned a following from fans who appreciate the craft he put in.
Nioh is, of course, a Souls-like. Quick dodges with precise timing are needed to survive. Managing a fragile stamina bar, attack timings, distance from the enemy and situational/ trap awareness are also absolutely necessary to make it through this game. It puts you and your skills to the test directly. And while there is a certain item you can use to cheese bosses slightly, many will not know of it or attain it. Even with the help of this item, you are merely given semi-free damage. Unless you are over levelled, that won’t help you much! The enemies come in quite the variety, all angry and dangerous. Magical blasts, wide sweeps, lightning fast thrusts. All there for you to die too, and then learn how to dodge.
Some of the bosses go into this territory and set up camp there forever. A late-game boss uses wind elemental spirit wings to zip around, pick you up for huge damage, and just annoyingly shoots you a lot otherwise. This is in a burning room with fire damage being cripplingly high even for just 1 second of contact! The fight is difficult and will take many, many tries until you beat this one. Additionally, an early storyline boss is someone impersonating someone else. That someone else is rescued and offers a proper duel soon after – seems innocent, right?
Well, the impostor fight is ridiculously easy. The actual one is ridiculously *hard*. The enemy likes to randomly not flinch, with highly damaging attacks, of which 2 are combos that will kill you if they hit you. They call a lightning spirit to assist in stunning you in place and can perform now only a basic Iai draw to cut a huge chunk off your health, but they also know the late-game running variant, the Tiger Sprint! The window to dodge this head-on is amazingly small – and the boss is fairly spongy at that point, too! I have died to this one approximately 9 times before besting him, the fairness of the challenge marred slightly by the inconsistency of when the enemy decides to flinch – you can move in for a ‘sure strike’ only to be lol-noped in the face by an attack that was interrupted before!
I adore the games for what they did, as well as the visual design, bits of the silly story, and of course, the gameplay. While I don’t remember the individual games too well, I can assure you, all three of them are stupidly hard. You control a little army by rhythmically pressing certain buttons to make them move, attack, defend, retreat, or jump – and later on other actions become available. However, due to having to stick to a beat, there is a delay on everything you do, and your creatures are fairly fragile. You can outfit them with spears and bows and other such – but the enemies faced are often quite tough, with big bosses who will repel you numerous times. Grinding in these games has always been at least a small thing, as is trying to farm better equipment – a mild RNG nightmare.
The real problem comes with stages that are massive difficulty spikes to their gimmickry. In one of the games, your “sort of but not really” advisor gets abducted and you go off to rescue her. Right. So here is the thing… fire weapons hurt more and do damage over time to enemies not resistant to it. So they are GOOD. Except you are in a desert. You are on a strict timer to chase and destroy a cart housing your adviser…but if you hit it with fire weapons, she dies anyway. Oops. Oh, and you have to move between attacks to keep up! And finally, part-way through the stage is a searing hot zone where your units will rapidly die if you don’t also stop to perform a rainmaking dance/miracle. Words can not do justice to the true difficult nature of this mission.
There are more and better examples out there, some of the newer games in the series have their own difficult/unfair moments. All in all though a very fun, unique game.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
When Breath of the Wild came out earlier this year, one of the big things people noted about the game was just how difficult the game actually was. Compared to previous Legend of Zelda games, which followed a fairly rigid pathway – Breath of the Wild was pretty remorseless in the way it delivered the smackdown to gamers.
Because of the nature of Hyrule, these creatures have been allowed to roam free, largely unchallenged, for the longest time. The end result of this is a world filled with enemies that, unless you’re particularly careful, can end you quickly. This goes double for the Boss battles in the game, which range from somewhat passable to “Oh god why am I still playing?”.
Add in the fact that pretty much everything in the world wants to kill you – and you’ve got a recipe for an incredibly challenging but fun outing. Sure the weapon degrading system can feel slightly unfair at times (Why is my level 50 weapon degrading after 6-7 swings?!?) but overall I feel the game balances this against the difficulty. There’s enough challenge in the game to keep gamers coming back for more – adapting their playstyle and generally changing the way they approach a Legend of Zelda game.
For added difficulty – try rushing Hyrule Castle without an asortment of high end gear. It doesn’t end very well…
A game where the impending invasion of Earth can only be slowed down until you take down some massive facility or ship that issues orders to disrupt the attack for a brief time? WHY YES. Take your freshly recruited, completely inept soldiers and have them survive strategically challenging fights with extraterrestrial enemies bent on subjugating or eradicating the human race and suddenly, every decision you give to your squad has high stakes. Those that live to see more combat will generally do it better – getting promoted in the ranks, gaining extra abilities and greater chances to heal or survive. That is why when one of them goes down, you *will* feel it.
Sound tactics and decision-making it necessary to survive the invasion. Your job isn’t just to survive it though, your job is to get all up in its face, to crash UFOs, eradicate the surviving crews and take their technology. To study it and reverse-engineer it and better combat the increasing threat posed by the aliens. And make no mistake, as time goes on, they will bring out the big guns in an effort to wipe you out completely – which might include directly invading your secret base! Small, up to six man squads in the newer games, can be commanded to move, wait in ambush, or attack enemies – two actions per turn. Additionally, the terrain provides low or high cover depending on its height and sturdiness, decreasing the chance of being hit.
Where you position your squadmates is crucial to their survival – a sniper left far up in the back for a spotter team to make use of can be useful. But if alone, a stray patrol might find and wipe him out without much problem. Do you want to blow a wall off to ambush those inside? You might hit something valuable or explosive. Xcom manages to put the thrill of tough decision-making in your hands – it’s a truly superb game that remains consistent throughout. Even the occasional RNG rage at hit percentages you think should hit or miss that don’t can be overlooked.
Dark Souls 1
Perhaps *the* most difficult game in some aspects, for me. There might be straight up harder ones elsewhere, but Dark Souls 1 was my first introduction to the Souls series, and Souls-likes, in general. Even as my first ever character happened to easy mode through without my knowledge in full Stone armour, laughing off a lot of damage and still moving daintily with Havel’s Ring – the game is hard. The game is REALLY hard. By today’s standards, it’s also a bit clunky, compared to its later-arriving cousins. But it had tremendous world building, gripping lore, and very tough encounters – including boss fights that truly tested your skills.
Of course, the highlight of the game is the Ornstein & Smough pairing faced in Anor Londo. Two individually tough enemies who back each other up to make you back into a corner – and whom you kill first will be ‘absorbed’ by the now fully healed survivor, who will bring out new, tough moves against you! Because it was the first of these games I played, I sort of hated Anor Londo. Long runs between bonfires, tough enemies, THOSE BLOODY SNIPERS, and then O&S shortly after. The snipers are more of an environmental hazard, really – much like Blighttown’s lovely toxic dart snipers.
While I enjoy the gameplay itself more in later games, I found myself at the tremendous difficulty in Dark Souls 1 a lot of times – a huge part of which was my head not being in it properly, due to inexperience. The Four Kings damage rush, battling Artorias – heck, everything was a lot harder than it had to be because of my ineptitude! But I loved every tears-sweat-and-blood second of it and would often come back to Souls 1 for a repeater. Truly one of the most difficult games out there.