10 Modern Games That Are Challenging Yet Rewarding
The release of Dark Souls III is only a few weeks away, and with it comes an uptick in the discussion about challenge and difficulty in games. When most people talk about these factors in modern video games, they seem to equate everything to the Souls series. This can marginalize the Souls games in a way (especially when they aren’t really that punishing), but more importantly, it neglects the many other titles that still provide a good challenge in an industry that often favors mass-appeal experiences.
With that in mind, we've created a list of modern games that rival Dark Souls in terms of challenge, but also maintain a similar sense of reward and accomplishment. It's important to note that these titles are in no particular order.
The Banner Saga
Developer: Stoic Studio
Platform(s): PS4, Xbox One, PC, iOS, Android
There's a whole lot to deal with in The Banner Saga at any given time. You need to maneuver your units in a calculated, deliberate way or face the unchangeable consequences, but that's only the first layer of this tactical RPG. The game is split between dangerous, methodical turn-based grid battles and travelling the countryside with your caravan of soldiers while making significant choices to keep them healthy and hopeful. Proper management is the key to everything, from character stats and resources to gear availability and morale. Add to that the fact that your actions and decisions affect the story in drastic ways, and you may even end up losing an important character due to a poor dialogue choice. The high-risk, high-reward mind games of The Banner Saga are always gratifying for those that take the journey.
Platform(s): PS4, PC
There are no second chances in Galak-Z. When you die, you die. All of your upgrades, currency and bonuses are lost and you’re sent back to the beginning of whichever five-part chapter you’re on. At first, this might sound too daunting to be any fun – but the spacefaring combat of this 2.5D shooter is what will keep you coming back. Galak-Z’s controls allow you to boost, strafe, shoot and dodge all at the same time, assuming you’re quick enough to do so. The tense dogfights between your highly maneuverable transforming ship and the smart, powerful AI make each victory a thrill. As your piloting skills improve, you’ll be able to accumulate more and more enhancements in order to carry yourself to the game’s growing challenges.
Developer: Red Hook Studios
Just as it preys on the minds of its characters, Darkest Dungeon tests the willpower of the player more than anything else. With its oppressive atmosphere, daunting narration, bleak visuals and threat of permadeath, it almost seems as if this roguelike RPG wants you to give up. You’ll be doing a lot of dungeon crawling as you handle mechanics like selecting your individual party members, coping with their stress levels, and accumulating loot to enhance them and the hub town they live in. But those who persevere through the decrepit, procedurally generated depths of each dungeon will find dangers and prizes in equal measure. Managing the dwindling sanity of your party members, outwitting the increasingly deadly opponents, and bringing your wealth back to fuel your town’s growing economy soon becomes a deeply fulfilling loop.
Developer: Cellar Door Games
Platform(s): PS4, Xbox One, PS3, Vita, PC
While it looks and feels somewhat similar to the older Castlevania games, Rogue Legacy is a great example of the roguelike genre moving forward. It doesn't relent on the genre's naturally punishing design, but it does provide a very good reason to continue playing after you die (dozens of times). The cash you've accumulated during your last run through a randomly-generated castle is kept to buy upgrades for your next hero. It's not as easy as hoarding money over time, though, since all of it needs to be spent on that new hero before they can enter the castle. Each successor is different, and each one contributes to the game's variety as you fight through unknowable castles full of enemies and traps.
Developer: Platinum Games
Platform(s): Wii U
As the sublime sequel to one of the best action games ever made, Bayonetta 2 carries on the original's dedication to difficulty. Playing as the sultry witch is even more fun this time thanks to the game’s rock-solid controls and performance. Understanding how and when your angelic enemies will telegraph their attacks is crucial to avoiding defeat, but having the reaction time to dodge and punish with a beautifully flashy combo is what sets good players apart. The game rewards skillful execution with its tantalizing medal rankings and halo bonuses after each encounter, driving you to not only progress but to actively get better.
Five more games await on the next page, ready to test your reflexes, your wits, and your micromanagement skills.
Developer: Acid Nerve
Platform(s): PS4, Vita, PC, Android
Don't let the name fool you – Titan Souls is much more akin to Shadow of the Colossus than it is to any Souls game. This top-down 2D action game’s tranquil atmosphere and straightforward controls seem almost disarming at first... until you go up against the first boss, who forcefully reminds you that you’re playing as a little boy with a single arrow. For some reason, this kid wants to fight ancient beings that can kill him in one hit, and you have to guide him through that ill-informed adventure. The entire game is an interesting sequence of bosses, each requiring impeccable timing and surgical precision in order to shoot that arrow into their weak spot and get their juicy souls.
Developer: Firaxis Games
The successor to XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a more intricate and polished strategy game than ever before, but XCOM 2’s biggest strength is how fragile it makes you feel. That sense of being the last fighting force left on an Earth under alien control is terrifyingly tangible. Shipping out to face the better-equipped alien oppressors with your band of slapdash soldiers is always tense, and every battle commands more brains than brawn. But that’s only the first half of this game; you’ve got to build up your home base to research, develop, and upgrade your units to fit your tactics. The excellent blend of strategic combat and base development makes you want to continue the rebellion – every bit of micromanagement gets you closer to ousting the aliens and uncovering their secret plot.
Developer: Arrowhead Game Studios
Platform(s): PS4, PS3, Vita, PC
If you’re going to play Helldivers, don’t expect the near-infinite ammo and waves of disposable enemies that make up so many other top-down stick shooters. This game wants you to think about what and where you’re shooting, and it demands to be played with friends at your side. With limited ammo, the constant threat of friendly fire, and roaming enemy groups that vastly outnumber your squad, intelligent planning is a must before you act on an objective. Helldivers’ progression system and empowering ordnance are both compelling enough to make sure you and your partners keep going out for just one more mission.
Developer: Thekla Inc.
Platform(s): PS4, PC
The Witness is a puzzle game that challenges your mind instead of your reflexes, and it does so in a simple but unique way. The game is structured around a single mechanic – drawing a line from point to point. On an island that's absolutely packed with puzzles, it's amazing how engaging each one can be with such a basic concept to build off of. The Witness can last anywhere between a dozen hours to a hundred hours, depending on how you go about solving the mysterious island's conundrums. But one thing remains consistent for all players, and that's the sense of self-satisfaction that comes with conquering those puzzles after putting a good amount of thought in.
Think back to any of the Souls games, and you’ve already got a decent idea of the mechanics and processes of Bloodborne. However, it would be a serious mistake to call it “just another Souls game.” Without the reliance on shields and armor that characterizes Dark Souls, the game requires you to be fast on your feet and bold in your attacks. It leans closer to the “action” side of “action RPG,” so enemies are much more aggressive and healing items are limited. Nonetheless, Bloodborne still retains the captivating locales, awe-inspiring bosses and character building that made the Souls series so fantastic.
These certainly aren’t the only games preserving difficulty these days. We recently spoke with a number of modern-day difficulty masters about how they serve up hard experiences while still keeping fun at the forefront. Check our Difficulty of Difficulty article to learn how the different developers of titles like Super Meat Boy and Diablo III crafted their brutal but enjoyable games. You can also read our reasoning on why gamers like difficult games and why more games should have good difficulty options.