Difficulty in video games is an oft debated topic. In 2021 I think it’s maybe the most relevant it’s ever been, as two of the games people are talking about most for the top spot in the GOTY race this year are Returnal and Death’s Door. Both of these games are very different, Returnal is a third person AAA roguelike and Death’s Door is an isometric action RPG, but they have one thing in common – they’re designed to be difficult.
I’m sure there are a lot of people reading this who are saying something to the tune of “well I didn’t find them hard at all because I’m a pro gamer” but I know that I certainly did find them both hard. I would even go so far as to say that I found them difficult to a degree that I didn’t enjoy them by the time I decided to put down the controller and stop playing. Because I didn’t finish either game I didn’t think it was appropriate to write a review for either, but they both ignited a frustration in me that I wanted to write about.
The big problem is that I really like Returnal and Death’s Door. In both cases I liked the combat, the art design, the music and the story they were out to tell. What annoyed me was that because of either lack of skill, talent or just plain reaction speed I wasn’t able to see more of them. And each time I died I didn’t feel I made enough progress to have made the time I played worthwhile.
Now for some background, my time is pretty limited when it comes to games. I work full time and freelance as well and I have a toddler at home, so my day is pretty much spoken for from 6am to 8pm. This doesn’t leave me with much time to game, and I do have to keep up with current releases for freelance work and the occasional podcast appearance. Because of this the 2-3 hours I have most nights is pretty sacred, and I feel really annoyed when I put time into something and don’t feel like I’ve gotten anywhere.
One night playing Returnal I achieved nothing in the entire evening, played a couple of hours and died a bunch of times no matter how I switched up my play style. That was when I uninstalled the game and moved on.
Death’s Door is a little different, as you do accumulate souls to trade in and improve your stats which does make the game easier. The issue there is that these upgrades are costly, and the average enemy might only give you 1-2 souls. When the next ability upgrade is 800 souls, it feels like you’ll never get there. I got pretty far into Death’s Door, reaching the third world and the Frog King boss, but I got to the point where I was running around the same small section of map for an entire evening and not really getting anything for my efforts.
I don’t think that either Death’s Door or Returnal are poorly balanced, or that they’re too hard in general. But they’re definitely too hard for me. I’ve learned over the last few years since the release of Demon’s Souls on the PS3 that there are going to be games out there that no matter how much I love the ideas involved in the game I’ll never be able to beat. This is a combination of several factors, though a major one is an unwillingness to put the time in to get better at a game. Doing that means pretty much forgoing all other games until I get good enough at one of them to beat it and I don’t find that very entertaining personally.
I can already imagine the readers furiously typing “git gud” so I want to talk about a couple of games that I think handle difficulty really well – Hades, The Last Of Us Part 2 and Destiny 2.
The God Mode in Hades is honestly what I think should be the template for difficulty in games. When you turn God Mode on you’re damage resistance is increased by 2% every time you die, so if you succeed on a run and escape then the difficulty stays the same. It gives you a leg up when you’re having a tough time and helps you learn what is and isn’t working while not just giving a blanket lower difficulty. It allows you to smartly push forward and feel the progress that you’d get if you didn’t have God Mode on too, which is really smart. The God Mode in Hades made me feel like I was having the same experience as everyone else, even though it was being made ever so slightly easier for me every run.
The Last of Us Part 2
The original Last of Us was a game that I suffered through playing because I loved the story that Naughty Dog was telling. I remember vividly throwing my controller and quitting the game for a day when I was killed at the end of a large combat encounter by the last enemy, forcing me to reload from the start of it for what I think was probably the third time. I’d probably go so far as to say I hated the stealth and combat in The Last of Us.
But I’m talking about it’s sequel here, which follows the recent PlayStation trend of adding a lot of accessibility options to help people who struggle to enjoy the game at it’s default setting. You’re able to tune the difficulty of certain aspects, so if like me you struggle with stealth you are able to reduce the awareness of the enemies to the point where you’re completely invisible when prone. I only used this a couple of times to give myself a break in intensive encounters that I was struggling with, but it helped me to really enjoy that game. I’d probably say that the ability to adapt the difficulty to suit my personal skill level was what pushed this game into my all time top ten.
Destiny 2? Difficult? Well no the single player content of Destiny is pretty easy. I think I beat the entire Destiny 2 Red War campaign without dying more than a handful of times, but Destiny does offer some very difficult content if you’re looking for that through Raids and Nightfalls. But the difficulty here is mitigated by it being a group activity – you feel like you’re together with your pals against the insurmountable force. I remember getting stuck on a stage of the Leviathan raid with a group of my close friends for hours, and despite moments of frustration I never felt like the game was hard for the sake of it or got to the point where I didn’t want to carry on playing with my friends.
Sure, this comes to the often repeated question from the PS I Love You XOXO podcast – is the game good or are pizza, beer and friends good? Is the difficulty good and balanced for a group of friends or am I just enjoying a frustrating experience because I’m playing together with my friends? I think it’s a mix of both.