It’s a question that has been asked throughout the years. “Should Video Games have an Easy mode?”. The answer has always been complicated in the eyes of many players and journalists. Some people argue that difficulty is what makes video games engaging. Some others argue that every player needs to be able to experience the game for themselves on their own terms.
In a world where there are all kinds of people with different needs or abilities. Should video game players be constricted by them when it comes to their enjoyment of the game? Well, in my opinion, the answer is a clear-cut “No”. Why is that? Well, it’s the same answer I give people who say that video games are a luxury. Which is basically “Everyone has a right to enjoy their games”.
See, a lot of people tend to try to recommend their favorite games to others. For example, I love Dissidia Final Fantasy Opera Omnia and I want more people to play it because it’s a deep RPG. However, there are always certain complications and nuances that will keep small or large audiences from enjoying them.
In the aforementioned example, the game is a gacha. In other words, people’s enjoyment will always stem from how lucky they are in their pulls. As generous of a game as OO is compared to other mobile games, I cannot deny that this is a downside. This downside can pretty much be the thing that prevents players from even approaching it in the first place.
It’s funny that we’re speaking about OO and it’s accessibility because this is what this article is all about. Do RPGs need to have Easy Modes?
RPGs and their Influence
See, RPGs and JRPGs are amazing. In them, you get to experience a massive story in which you get to meet a lot of characters. Not only that, but you also get to grow up alongside them in whatever quest you’re going through. The stories of so many RPGs are memorable because of how engaging the characters and the plot itself are. I mean, look at games like Tales of Vesperia or Fallout.
However, they are also a very niche kind of genre for a reason. Namely the fact that you have to memorize a lot of stats. Not only that, but you also have to take into consideration the different boss fights and their requirements to be defeated. While this might be engaging for someone well-versed in the genre, AKA. Someone who already knows and regularly plays RPGs. It can be daunting for a new player considering the number of options they have and need to learn.
With this in mind, what if the aforementioned well-versed player wants to recommend their favorite game to someone new? Well, the obvious first person to recommend it to would be someone who already likes RPGs. However, someone else who is new to the genre might or might not have a skewed first impression based on how rough the start of the journey is.
So, the solution is to just have an easier mode for the newer players, right? Well…
Ease of Difficulty or Ease of Substance?
The thing with an easier difficulty is that it will always cripple part of the experience. No, we’re not going to talk about how “Games are designed to be played a certain way”. Why? Because if the game was “Intended to be played” a certain way, it wouldn’t have difficulty modes. Instead, what I’m arguing is that players will have a hard time learning the game’s mechanics when the content is easier.
This is a problem because once the player transitions into higher difficulties, they may face some troubles adjusting from one to the other. In the case of Valkyrie Profile, there are some players who will get punished for playing in Easy Mode. That’s also a problem because sometimes Easy Mode can be a terrible teacher or an overall worse experience than the harder difficulties.
Learn How To Get Bodied
Let’s go back to Valkyrie Profile. When you play on Easy Mode, you automatically set yourself for a crippled adventure. In the first dungeon alone, many of the rooms and treasures will not be accessible. Not only that, but you will also have way less control over your characters on top of being unable to craft useful items that are available in higher difficulties.
On top of that, the game has severe balance issues in Easy Mode. Ironically, this makes Easy mode the most difficult mode in the entire game. If you aren’t snoozing from the boredom of a straightforward hallway simulator adventure with no substance… Then, you’ll end up facing enemies that are much more difficult than they would be in the higher difficulties. Not because they are actually challenging but because your party is ill-equipped to deal with them.
This just exemplifies how an easier difficulty can be a terrible tutor for new players. However, one can argue that this problem comes down to design rather than an inherent problem with making easier games. Not to mention, there are also cases where the opposite is true. One such example comes from another RPG in the acclaimed Final Fantasy series.
The F-ing Crystal Tower
What else did you think I was about to mention? Final Fantasy III is a rather smooth experience throughout the entire game. That is until you reach the Crystal Tower. Hated by almost every Final Fantasy fan, the Crystal Tower is a difficulty mountain (let alone spike) that requires hours of grinding and the assistance of the Ninja/Sage jobs to beat it.
Mind you, since Final Fantasy III doesn’t have a difficulty selection, I could argue that this was the intended design from its “Normal Mode”. Which, again, is a pretty terrible teacher at the mechanics of the game. Instead of promoting the variety of classes offered by the job system, it instead only rewards players that ground through the game enough to get their stats as high as possible.
That, of course, will also mess with future RPG playthroughs because players can just assume that they need to have higher stats and that’s it. Considering that other RPGs have a tendency to punish players who don’t use a wide variety of attacks or buffs/spells, it will end up turning the entire experience against them in the long run.
By the way, I’m not suggesting that this is some sort of permanent PTSD thing or something (It’s not that big of a deal, people). Like every other type of conditioning, this pattern can be broken once a new game teaches players that spamming Attack (or Auto-Battle) will not let them proceed every time.
What’s the Solution?
Here comes the part where we suggest whether or not we should include any ways to mitigate difficulty in RPGs for beginners. For example, we can do what Pokemon does and allow the player to save the game at any point during their journey. However, the argument may be made about how that would pretty much remove any risk involved.
Another solution would be building a game that allows for variety with lenient boss battles. However, that also is an issue because a lot of games that provide freedom tend to be boring for players who grind. For example, games like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (yes, it counts) can be exploited fairly easily. Using SoTN as an example, you can gather extremely powerful gear fairly early into the game.
Not only that, but you also have full access to many command abilities (spells) from the start. The only thing is that you have to remember the notations for them either by unlocking and save scumming or consulting a guide. I mean, that’s without mentioning the Alucard Shield + Shield Rod combo but… You know, I shouldn’t really spend 300 paragraphs explaining my background.
Breaking a Leg?
At those points, it’s often suggested to cripple yourself in some way. For example, in Final Fantasy VIII, the Junction system is so easily exploitable that players have opted for runs where they either don’t use GFs or mod the game to make it marginally harder in the PC version. In Pokemon, players have created the Nuzlocke challenge in which Pokemon that fainted in battle must be released permanently.
While this might be a solution. It only is a testament to how poor the design can be in some games. Yes, it’s great that there’s a way to cripple yourself. But, don’t you think that the adventure needs to be challenging for you without the need of going above and beyond? Of course, these things become more or less applicable depending on the game.
The World Ends With You offers a great compromise, for example. In it, you can use gear that can put you in danger but get you higher stats as a result. The game also encourages players to lower their Level and increase the difficulty to get rarer pins. In turn, the rewards for learning the game are greater. As such, the player can become a force to be reckoned with while also being a glass cannon.
So, once again, we’re at a standstill in terms of whether or not games should have an Easy mode. However, we’re about to reach the end of the article. Does this mean that there’s a solution that we haven’t accounted for?
Learning and Growing
RPGs are a complex beast. A good RPG in my opinion should have a challenge that adapts to the player’s needs. Unfortunately, the more freedom a player is given in terms of the mechanics, the easier it is to exploit it. Additionally, Easy modes can be terrible teachers for new players. While they are good for players who want to focus on the story, they will be bad learning experiences for those who adored the game and wish to play further.
The solution to the problem depends on the developer. You could do something like Trails of Cold Steel does and have enemies that hit and coordinate optimally and punish your mistakes. Alternatively, you can make difficulty modes that slowly teach the player the ropes as they grow. However, that really depends on how well-designed the game itself is.
This article was written in response to the news that Final Fantasy XVI is getting an Easy Mode. While I’m not opposed to that by any means… I am anxious about whether or not this Mode will help new players get interested in Action RPGs. I mean, if the game does a bad job at teaching the mechanics to new players, they will not want to come back and learn further once the game is done.
What do you think about difficulty modes in RPGs? Do you think that Easy Modes should be implemented in them? Which RPGs are your favorites? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section. I have to shill for Opera Omnia again to spite on a friend so… You can read our article on Balthier’s LD!