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Should punishing games have a difficulty option?

The hotly debated topic with XCOM Chimera squad as a focal point.

With the recent showing of Elden Ring gameplay (and with any new release by FROM Software), there are two statements that form in mind as I watch the footage: “I will never play this, but I’m glad people are excited about this” and “get ready for some dumb, gamer discourse when this releases”. As you can understand, I am not a fan of FROM Software’s highly demanding and challenging gameplay; I feel like I would adore their worlds and I always love looking at their designs and ideas, but I just don’t want to experience the “game” side of their offering. I find considering the concept of losing half an hour of progress because I explored when I shouldn’t or got eaten by a mimic chest, to be anxiety-inducing and simply avoid most games with such tight restrictions; this goes beyond challenging games as well, such as never playing any of the Dead Rising series (besides 4 which seems to be an entirely different game reskinned to fit the Dead Rising iconography), because I can’t stand the idea that I am under a time restriction and would have to replay the game several times to see the conclusion of different side quests or shave off precious minutes by pursuing the right goals. So, the question of “should games be made accessible to everyone” is a fascinating one to me; first off, controls/visuals/audio accessibility should always have the most options in the settings screen. Having a disability or speaking a different language should not be a barrier towards any entertainment medium; the kind of accessibility “gamers” are discussing here is all about the difficulty and punishing mechanics. Should games like Dark Souls have difficulty options? Should Dead Rising have an “endless” mode where timers are gone and you’re free to explore to your heart’s content?

My answer has largely been always the same: “Let the developers decide that for their game”. Unlike others, I don’t think this decision is one made to exclude potential buyers or because the devs don’t want “noobs” to play their game; it’s a question of what their game’s experience aims for. If Dark Souls had a difficulty mode where the extremely punishing and oppressing nature of the game can be watered down, how can they create an experience where the player will fight against impossible odds and bang their heads against a brick wall until they succeed through knowledge, understanding, and perfect implementation? It just would not be that and there are many cases where devs did try to allow for this and failed spectacularly; Dead Rising 4 was an obvious failure that stripped the franchise of its uniqueness, but even in games like Cuphead (notoriously difficult and still one of my favorite games of that ilk) have difficulty options but are never satisfying or tuned well enough where they feel like an option.

Recently, I started playing XCOM Chimera squad, a spin-off of Firaxis’ XCOM series that aimed for a less challenging experience that is more action-oriented and more welcoming to newcomers; XCOM is one of those games that won me over and made me give it a shot only to realize I just don’t like these types of games all that much. I restarted my run 3 times and still found myself irrevocably screwed over; I still was one mission away from beginning the downfall of a good campaign. That is what people like about those games and that is what XCOM is all about; fighting an alien invader that is more advanced, more capable, and better equipped than you while dealing with all the hardships that come with defeats and still (somehow) pulling through. With games like Gear Tactics, there is no shortage of tactical shooters that are excellent and approachable by anyone, but the idea of finally beating an XCOM game was too good to resist.

If the game was called Chimera Squad and had no affiliation with XCOM, I would be a lot more positive about it, but there is a reason why people loved Gears Tactics and largely forgot about Chimera Squad; there is an XCOM in front of the title that demands something more. XCOM Chimera Squad feels hollow like there’s something missing and I feel like it is the perfect example to show why games like XCOM should not be watered down; as I make my way through the campaign and find myself in the middle of the 2nd investigation (of 3), I realize that I’ve never lost an agent, never had to think long and hard about which mission I should choose, never had a suicide mission that I needed to go on as a hail mary, and never yelled in frustration for missed shots. XCOM should be about a team of protectors trying to fight back against overwhelming opposition, yet Chimera Squad is a one-liner-driven, action-oriented game about being SWAT with aliens and taking down an equally equipped opposition; that’s not a bad thing, it just that it should not be XCOM.

In Chimera’s defense, I don’t feel this was a quick cash-grab by Firaxis; the systems removed to streamline the game towards an action-oriented approach have been replaced and the remaining mechanics have been tuned and updated with the new experience in mind while new mechanics help the game reach the new goals. There is no base-building or placement of structures, however, the game does still maintain that constant need for resources; there are no rookie troops that will be sent on “supply runs” (also known as suicide missions) or will need to fill in for that experienced soldier who died fluffing a 95% shot last mission, instead you get a choice of a named and specialized agent every once in a while; the slow, methodical pace where tacticity and strategy are the most important traits of combat, is replaced with high-octane, breaching action that has you make immediate and aggressive decisions exclusively. It’s fun and, at times, quite engaging, but it doesn’t feel like you are experiencing something worthwhile; some of the same features can be seen in Gears Tactics, but the novelty of a tactical Gears game, the features of that series translated in the tactical shooter genre, and the high production values have worked wonders for that title.

The most telling criticism of Chimera Squad, though, is this: I remember my time with XCOM: Enemy Unknown – a game I didn’t particularly enjoy, that I played several years ago, and never finished – more vividly rather than a game that I am currently playing. XCOM has an identity and an experience it wants to deliver and everything in it works towards that vision and that goal; Chimera Squad feels like a talented team wanting to try something different and being forced to work that into their signature franchise that aims for the complete opposite. Do I wish I could experience the world of Dark Souls through the games and see what others have been falling in love with for years? Sure, but I also love lots of games that others don’t and that’s fine; just as developers should be able to create a game solely driven by the narrative and create “walking sim” games that aim for a different experience than other games, so should games that go for the exact opposite. Trying to translate that punishingly difficult yet immensely rewarding experience into something more mainstream would always lead to diminishing results and Chimera Squad is a prime example of that.  

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