This is Skeezix’s Brain on Gaming
An Ode to Difficult Games
I recently picked up Nintendo’s Christmas offering, Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity. As usual, it featured a difficulty setting on launching the game, which I promptly turned up to Very Hard. It ended up being a great choice.
See, the Hyrule Warriors games (and the Dynasty Warriors games they spun off from) have always felt a little mindless. Much like in Assassin’s Creed, you can skate by on lower difficulties simply by mashing the basic attack button, slicing and dicing your way through crowds of enemies without worrying much about taking damage or even missing. Walking forward and pressing Y would probably be a quick ticket to victory on Very Easy, and might even get you most of the way through the game on Medium.
That’s a shame, because the game’s systems are more complex than they seem. In addition to a basic attack, each character has combos they can do (with only two buttons, but it still takes at least a little bit of thought to execute them), a special attack, and a special action that can help chain into further attacks or deal damage to foes in new ways. Also, depleting enemy Weak Point gauges provides a way to deal big chunks of damage to them, which can speed up boss fights dramatically. It’s just that you don’t need to do any of this when you can cut through enemies like a hot knife through butter.
On Very Hard, though…oh boy. The game is far, far more challenging, and I found myself really having to pull out all the stops to win. Basic attacks do almost no damage to bosses, so the only thing that matters is focusing on Weak Point gauges, although it still takes at least five to ten Weak Point Smashes to win a boss battle. And I usually ended up dying in two hits. It’s so intense that I even found myself using consumable items, the magic rods, to take out enemies; every foe has an elemental weakness, and exploiting them makes the Weak Point gauge easier to deplete. As you can see, Age of Calamity is a completely different beast on this difficulty.
And it’s better for it! Having to use all the resources at your disposal, having to go into a boss fight with three hearts left and figure out how to do a perfect run — it’s actually very addictive. Since you spend so much trying the same fights over and over, you have to learn the ins and outs of your chosen characters like in no other game (and to learn that selecting Impa is always the right choice). I wouldn’t enjoy the game nearly as much if I wasn’t pushed to make use of everything available to me.
Age of Calamity on Very Hard isn’t the only game that’s better because it’s difficult. Dark Souls (the first one in particular) is a classic example of a crazily difficult game, but if it were easier, the cracks might start to show. For example, movement outside of combat can be a little janky, and the arcane RPG systems that determine how many hits it takes you to kill a boss are less than self-explanatory. Because the game is so hard, though, you don’t have time to focus on that. Instead, every fight (except for the Capra Demon, and Pinwheel, and Bed of Chaos; there are a few duds) is a nail-biting challenge because you can’t pay attention to anything except dodge, dodge, hit, back off, heal, and so on, building up that feeling of “flow” that only the best video games can deliver.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, too, is famously difficult in the early game. Basic enemies can kill Link in one hit, forcing the player to approach them craftily and use the game’s systems to their advantage. If you could just kill everything by wailing away at it with a tree branch, that need to adapt would vanish, and no one would discover that, for example, giving an enemy a metal weapon during a lightning storm might cause them to be struck by lightning, or that enemies can be tricked into charging up Stasis power on objects that can then be fired back at them. In fact, we know this to be true because later on, when Link has more health and less of a need to improvise, combat starts to drag a little bit. After all, if high-tier enemies have over a thousand HP, clever early-game traps involving, say, bombs that deal 24 damage each are not going to be very effective; instead, you just need to attack with whatever is the strongest weapon in your inventory.
As a final example, the higher difficulties in Civilization give players a completely different experience of the game, and one that really hones their skills. No longer can you accept a horrible start position just because you don’t feel like loading into a new game. No longer can you waste dozens of turns on Wonders you don’t need just because they might look nice next to that mountain. No, the early game instead becomes a bruising experience that forces you to optimize your build order, focus on defense first, and finagle your neighbors into not declaring war on you. If you survive, you’re rewarded with the usual Civ late game, which for me typically involves carpet-bombing my medieval neighbors with thermonuclear missiles, but you had to work so much harder to get there that it’s much more rewarding to finally do so.
In short, high difficulty makes games better. I find that, if a game isn’t testing me and pushing me to develop my skills, I tend to lose interest in it. Easy games sometimes make me feel like they don’t really care if I master their systems, and, after all, if the game itself doesn’t care whether you’re good enough to beat it, why should you? If I could get through Age of Calamity on Very Hard simply by mashing Y, I wouldn’t even have figured out what the Weak Point gauge was — and therefore would have missed out on the satisfaction of emptying it.
All this is not to say that simply making a game hard is enough to make it good. I love Total War: Warhammer — and I’ve written thousands of words about that on this blog — but its Hard, Very Hard and Legendary difficulties are poorly-designed. Yes, the game’s difficulty does increase on these higher settings, but the way in which it increases, which is by making the player’s melee infantry incredibly awful, makes the game less fun. Armies of nothing but archers become viable when you know that you’ll lose any melee engagement and that you need to do as much damage as you can before then.
Similarly, high difficulties on Fire Emblem: Three Houses, my favorite TRPG of all time, tend to add challenge in the wrong way. This is because you level up your characters over the course of several in-game months, so a decision made in, say, March can have repercussions in October. If you make the wrong decision, though, there’s no way to go back, leading to situations where the game is almost softlocked, since you leveled up your characters poorly and are now too weak to face a tough battle. This is based on my experience on Hard — I haven’t played Maddening — but I assume the problem is worse on that difficulty, since, as I described previously, the higher the difficulty, the more important every little choice becomes.
Still, these problems don’t exist because the games I mentioned are difficult; rather, they exist because that difficulty is implemented poorly. Despite the problems with Very Hard, my favorite difficulty, I would be bored by Total War: Warhammer on Easy, and the same could be said for Three Houses. A perfectly-designed game (whatever that means) would, in almost every case, be more fun on a higher difficulty, at least for me.
I know this isn’t true for everyone. I know that some people don’t want a huge challenge; they just want to turn the console on and their brain off, relaxing after a long day at work with some Kirby or something. And I’m not saying that that’s a bad way to enjoy video games; there is no bad way to enjoy video games. I’m just saying that games in the genres I prefer, strategy games and action RPGs, are almost always intense experiences anyway. You couldn’t stop for a cup of tea in the middle of a Dark Souls boss fight even if the game was half as difficult, and strategy games require you to make the same choices regardless of difficulty; the consequences just vary in severity. Given this fact, I think that that subset of video games — a subset that might be described as “skill test” games rather than “relaxation” games — should strive to make players sweat, not give them an easy ride. After all, why would you ride the merry-go-round when you could go on the roller coaster?
Originally published at http://skeezixblogs.wordpress.com on January 7, 2021.