On Unlockable Difficulty Levels (Day 26)

Most games have various levels of difficulty, usually ranging from “Easy” to “Hard”. Some games go a step further and have one or more above hard, usually something like “Nightmare” or, for the less imaginative developers, “Very Hard”. These modes are typically a bit unbalanced (in favor of the game) and are occasionally ludicrously difficult, introducing mechanics like “No Saving” or “One Hit Kills”.

That’s all good and fine – my problem is when developers lock these difficulty levels behind some arbitrary gate. When I picked up Resident Evil 4 HD on the PS4, I realised I had to go back through it on Normal difficulty to unlock the hard mode (in this case, “Professional” difficult).

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This sucks, and I see no good reason for it. Why make the player jump through arbitrary hoops to unlock a suitable difficulty? I’ve played Resident Evil 4 to completion about nine times now, as well as sinking several hours into the bonus modes – normal mode is boring.

Even in games I haven’t played before, the standard difficulty is often catered to a casual crowd, because of course it is – the standard mode is built for the standard audience. As someone who plays an ungodly amount of games, I’m perfectly happy to dive into a higher difficulty off the bat, but that’s rarely an option.

It’s just something I don’t fully understand. Why make players jump through arbitrary hoops just to unlock a difficulty that suits their skill level? Should a setting that properly balances the game be a hidden unlockable? What if you wanted to enable subtitles – should that option be a rare drop from a boss?

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To me, locked difficulties feel like an antiquated holdover from when almost nobody was good at games, by virtue of the fact that they weren’t nearly as common. I guarantee that most people were terrible at Devil May Cry when it released, because it was a new kind of game. On the other hand, a whole bunch of people could have jumped comfortably into DmC: Devil May Cry, because the genre was old hat by the time it released.

I understand that some developers may have reservations about allowing players to dive right into the hardest mode without experiencing the game first, but it’s their decision; some people prefer to do that. If the option exists to lower the difficulty level later, all the better.

How do you feel about locked difficulty levels? Do you have an argument as to why they should exist at all? Let me know in the comments!

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