Difficulty: Indie Garbage Edition

Difficulty: Indie Garbage Edition

Have games been getting easier? The general consensus seems to be yes. After comparing the unforgiving nature of classic NES and SNES games to current-gen games with their autosaves and checkpoints, it seems like a no-brainer. It certainly doesn’t help that now housewives and old people want to get in on all the bleep bloops. The “hardcore gamers” are clamoring for a return to form, and many developers have attempted to do so, with varying levels of success. In no particular order, here are 3 modern games that manage to be difficult that don’t have the word “Souls” in the title.

Cortex Command

Avatar 2

Avatar 2

Cortex Command is the brainchild of Data Realms, an independent game studio. After 11 years of gestation, the game was forcibly ejected from the womb onto Steam in 2012. Cortex Command has something of an identity crisis: its developers, for lack of a better genre, refer to it as a “tactical physics sidescroller,” but even that word salad isn’t enough. Cortex Command also features simulation elements, construction and mining elements a la Minecraft or Terraria, and some tower defense as well. The game features a robust physics engine (an oddity for a sidescroller) and a wide variety of weapons and robots to fight with. What makes this game so difficult is getting the hang of its varied mechanics and using them to survive waves of enemies, all while maintaining the business aspect of your entire operation in addition to competing with massive space conglomerates for control of the universe’s resources. It’s a clusterfuck, but in the best possible way. Every aspect of its confusing mechanics serve a purpose; the initially awkward physics based movements are to create realistic limping if characters’ limbs are blown off, and the metagame puts emphasis on conquering sections of the planet to obtain gold under threat of getting lives repossessed. Factors change every playthrough, meaning the only effective playstyle is being reactive and spontaneous. Did I mention it also has local multiplayer?

I am heavy weapons guy

I am heavy weapons guy

Frozen Synapse

I think Skrillex did some music for this game. That do anything for you?

I think Skrillex did some music for this game. That do anything for you?

Frozen Synapse, by Mode 7 Games, has such a simple idea that it’s a wonder it hadn’t been done before (It probably has and I don’t know about it, please just bear with me). It’s a turn-based strategy game where 2 players control 3-6 soldiers in a randomly generated battlefield and try to complete various objectives. Players plan the movements of each soldier from a top-down perspective and commit to their turn. Then, both player’s movements play out simultaneously. It’s a thinking man’s game: players can predict where enemies are going to move, utilize different soldiers’ strengths, and run tests to verify success in combat scenarios. It’s important to balance mobility and accuracy, and to always keep enemies in line of sight. Sticking to one strategy is never a good idea, because the amount of soldiers, the placement of them, and the level design are random every time. Fast thinking and versatility are necessary in order to win, and losing a single soldier can be a death sentence. Did I mention it has local and online multiplayer?

Please buy this game and play it with me

Please buy this game and play it with me


This is a screenshot of alpha 198 of Overgrowth, which you can try if you've preordered.

This is a screenshot of alpha 198 of Overgrowth, which you can try if you’ve preordered.

Overgrowth, created by Wolfire Games, is a spiritual sequel to their previous game Lugaru. While still in development, there is a playable alpha with a substantial amount of content. Overgrowth is a 3D platformer/fighting game, and an insane amount of detail has been put into its engine to make it one of the most realistic anthropomorphic bunny fighting games I’ve ever played. There’s an inherent pleasure in leaping across cliffs in a vast desert to kick a wolf in the face. One of the things that makes Overgrowth so hard is that death comes easily. Get hit 3 times and you’re dead. Get hit once by a sword or by a wolf and you’re dead. If you mess up, you’ll get hit and then you’ll go sprawling, leaving yourself open for more hits which will kill you. This makes things very tricky when fighting multiple enemies, which Gladiator mode frequently makes you do. On top of having to fight all these enemies, Gladiator mode also has a bloodthirsty audience which needs to be satisfied, meaning you have to keep the energy high. It turns this already difficult fighting game into a rhythm game as well, requiring you to keep throwing punches while prolonging the fight. Did I mention that Wolfire plans on incorporating multiplayer?

This could be you!

This could be you!

I find myself coming back to these games over and over, despite their often frustrating difficulty and their lack of an engaging story. All 3 games manage to feel substantial based on their solid underlying mechanics, with just enough randomization that each time playing them feels fresh. Cortex Command puts the player in charge of a corporation. Frozen Synapse puts the player in charge of a platoon. Overgrowth puts the player in charge of a bunny. They all require full attention and are cripplingly punishing when making a single mistake. Not only that, but they all have (or plan to have) multiplayer elements, adding a fiercely competitive element for people who are into that. They are terrific examples of why not every game needs an emphasis on story to be engaging, and that the simple experience of playing a game can be its own reward. They are all available DRM-free on Windows, Mac and Linux, meaning you have literally no excuse to not get these games right now and play them.

  1. Omgaar says:

    Frozen Synapse is a great game.

    Overgrowth is pretty good too, but really lacking in content (though it is in alpha). Way too expensive though. They are wanting $30 for the game.

    • I love Frozen Synapse too much. I got the Android version in the latest Humble Bundle and it runs flawlessly on my tablet. Definitely a must-have mobile game. And yeah, Overgrowth is a bit pricey, but at least you get Reciever with it.

      • Marcus Puckett says:

        Ah, Receiver is such a fucking good game for the time it took to make. I suppose I’m going to have to boot it up again.

  2. Gig says:

    I’m not sure Overgrowth is really a game yet. Last I checked there were no objectives or missions, story, anything other than running around randomly until you find some enemies and kill them in seconds. That and map building, which you can try if you’ve preordered.

    And Apparently Frozen Synapse is still on the humble bundle right now for 5$.

  3. -- says:

    Frozen Synapse is pretty much flawless in what it tries to do. Last campaign levels were so damn intense.

    The hardest game I ever finished would probably be N (all 500 levels in v1.4). Or not, but it’s my favorite.
    Completely remade version 2.0 has been out for little over a month now: http://www.thewayoftheninja.org/n.html Oh, and it’s free.

  4. As much as I love Wolfire, Overgrowth has been in alpha since 2007. I have lost hope it will ever become a real boy.

  5. Lee says:

    Even indie games are getting awfully easy. When people hold up Super Meat Boy and VVVVVV as examples of difficult games I want to tear my hair out.

  6. Rastafarian Navy says:

    Overgrowth has been very disappointing. A friend suckered me into getting the damn thing at $40 about two years ago and it’s still in alpha with no realistic end point in sight. A very big regret. And any complaint anyone has about it is always met with something like, “Dude, it’s in alpha.”

    • I don’t know if you’ve heard, but the newest update lets you CATCH KNIVES THAT ARE THROWN AT YOU. That alone is worth the price of admission.

      • Rastafarian Navy says:

        Have they improved optimization issues at all? Every time I played I never quit out, it always eventually crashed on me. Not saying I COULDN’T play at all, but the fact that I never manually quit out of the game should say something, I think. Lagged like hell on a high-end system…

        So, has that gotten any better?

    • Adam Gulledge says:

      To an extent, that’s a legitimate excuse. In Overgrowth’s case, given this long a dev cycle and what you said you paid for access, not so much.

      Something tells me this game is suffering from feature creep.

      • Dibb says:

        Yeah. I fully support a game with bunnies beating the shit out of each other, and if they finally got their act together and put up a kickstarter to get a full game fleshed out, I’d throw money at them. But as it is right now, the whole thing just seems like an ongoing experiment with no endgame in sight.

        What they need is an actual dev team.

  7. Hardcore Bro says:

    When I search Google for “frozen synapse skrillex” I find… this article.
    Are you sure about him making music for the game?

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