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I’ve written before on the topic of difficulty: what makes a game difficult, and how can a game adjust its difficulty level in a way that is a) satisfying, b) legitimately more challenging and requiring a higher skill level, and c) not ‘cheap’.
I think I may have found a great example of a game that achieves the best kind of difficulty, and I apologise to the crowd who will doubtless be groaning at the fact that it’s this darned franchise agaaaain, but it just so happens that Kingdom Hearts II really does exemplify exactly the sort of ‘difficulty done right’ that I’ve theorised on in the past.
It has four difficulty settings (in the updated rerelease ‘Final Mix’ version only, I should note):
The player chooses one of these at the start and cannot change it for the duration of the game; quitting and starting anew is the only way to increase or decrease the difficulty (this is partly due to the fact that the requirements to achieve the secret ending differ across the levels, so switching to a higher difficulty right at the end to see the bonus end would be cheating).
Okay, so what does the difficulty level actually affect?
The differences between each of these modes are mostly statistical. In essence, you’ll take more damage and deal less on higher difficulties; this means that a lower-difficulty player can afford to get hit more often while whiffing more attacks, which ultimately just means that they don’t need to be quite as good. More caution needs to be taken to avoid or deflect enemy attacks and ensure that Sora’s offensive moves hit at the right moments.
The progression is something like this:
- Beginner – 0.5x damage taken, 2x damage dealt
- Standard – 1x damage taken, 1x damage dealt
- Proud – 1.5x damage taken, 1x damage dealt
So you can see that it really does just boil down to needing to be better at avoiding taking hits and scoring your own. As a result, Beginner mode is fairly easy to breeze through without thinking too hard about what you’re doing: just rush opponents and smash them with standard attacks, which will do a fair amount of damage, and if you do happen to get hit in the foray, it’s okay because you can take a few hits. By the time you get up to Proud, you have to really be cautious about getting attacks in at the right time and avoiding taking any damage at all, since it’ll put your health in the red quickety-split, and battles can really drag on because of this.
Sounds pretty standard. So what about that fourth mode..?
Critical Mode upends the progression by doing the following:
- You take double damage (same as Proud Mode).
- You deal 1.25x damage compared to Standard Mode.
- You start with a great deal more Ability Points and a set of useful abilities to equip, much earlier than usual. These include quicker MP regeneration, increased item drop rates from enemies, and higher damage output on special attacks.
- Your health and magic gains on levelling up are reduced, also meaning you will have a lower max HP and MP at level 99.
- You gain EXP slightly more slowly – in other words, you won’t level up as quickly.
Playing on Critical Mode is, to my mind, perhaps the definitive difficulty experience: it turns Sora into an exceptional badass capable of delivering powerful hits, but also makes him able to withstand relatively little punishment. It forces the player to learn about every option that they have in combat – and there are many, by the way. There’s a misconception that KH games are all about just mashing X to attack until you win, and while this might be a viable strategy on Beginner or even Standard, you cannot possibly survive on Critical using this method.
You’ll need to learn to manage all your resources to enable you to use offensive and defensive magic as well as Summons (mostly used to support Sora’s natural abilities and provide some crowd-controlling damage mitigation), Limits (powerful team-up moves which also grant temporary invincibility) and Drive Forms (which turn Sora into an offensive, speedy, or magic-master machine – or sometimes all of the above). If you don’t do this, you have absolutely no chance of progressing much further than the first couple of worlds, and it means that gameplay becomes an incredibly fluid experience by necessity. If you can’t chain combos into magic into Drive Forms back into magic, you’ll get slaughtered pretty handily, but if you can keep it up, you’ll power even tough bosses into the ground speedily and with the most satisfying crunch.
The great thing about all this is that it’s a complete departure from the way that the difficulty scales to that point. Being entirely based on statistical movement from Beginner through Proud encourages a similar sort of play, just more cautious and more refined; Critical’s great innovation in giving Sora greater offensive capacity is to turn the highest difficulty not into a war of attrition, dealing tiny amounts of damage then dodging like hell, but into an epic battle between powerhouses.
What if I want to make the game even harder?!?!
Well, I neglected to mention earlier that one of the abilities Critical Mode grants is ‘EXP Zero’, which is exactly what it sounds: it causes you to never gain any experience, staying at level 1 for the entire game. This is almost a hidden fifth difficulty level, and it comes with its own idiosyncrasies: naturally, you’ll never gain any more abilities or stats (except the ones that you get as rewards for defeating bosses), so you’ll have super-low strength and defence the entire time. You might think that this would make for an unbelievably frustrating experience, and… well, you’re not wrong, but there are actually some hidden mechanics that come into play to ensure that, while a Level 1 Critical playthrough of KH2 is certainly the single hardest way to experience the game, it is not impossible.
In fact, almost all the strategies that will work on a ‘regular’ (i.e. levelling up) Critical game will also work fairly well for a Level 1 game, you’ll just need to be even tighter on the execution so as to deliver enough damage without running out of MP or Drive. Or health. That’s called dying.
This is partially thanks to a clever damage scaling system that is entirely unexplained in-game and which it took players years to work out (KH2 has more than one opaque system that was only worked out decades after release!). I can’t claim to understand the whole thing, and certainly can’t explain it, but the important point is a sort of minimum damage output which means Sora won’t just be doing miniscule amounts of damage even with his Strength of 1 and his opponents’ defence of Stupidly High. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still incredibly punishing, but the entire game is very carefully designed to be very much possible even at the lowest level and with no upgrades or fancy equipment. It’s an exercise in smart optimisation.
Is changing the difficulty mode at startup the only thing that will affect the difficulty?
Nope! As in KH1, you get a selection of three weapons at the beginning of the game. In fact, KH2 takes its predecessor’s approach and splits it out: you get two choices of three weapons.
Your first choice is a training bat with either a guard, a powerful end for smacking, or a rod-like appearance. This will add one point to your Defence, Strength, or Magic respectively. Your second choice is between a sword, shield, or staff, and these actually don’t add anything to your stats but rather determine the order in which you gain particular abilities. The shield is widely accepted to be the ‘best’ choice in Critical Mode, as it grants life-saving abilities Second Chance and Once More at the lowest possible level, but broadly speaking you can pick whichever you like and it’ll arrange your ability acquisition so that you pick up skills relevant to your preference (attack, defend, or cast spells) at the earliest point.
In KH1, this was a single choice of sword, shield, or staff, and this determined your initial stats as well as ability growth and how your attributes scaled with levelling. However, KH1 did include one thing that 2 doesn’t at the outset: a series of opaque questions which will actually determine how fast you level up. Again, the game won’t tell you this, but you can set it so that you require a standard linear progression of EXP across all levels, less EXP to get to around level 40 then more thereafter, or vice versa. I’m not a massive fan of that particular mechanic, to be honest, so I don’t miss it all that much. It’s useful for optimising either your early- or end-game performance, though, if you struggle with particular areas.
Anyway, the point is that KH2 allows the player to set their own playstyle and, to some extent, the difficulty level that they’ll experience. More accurately, perhaps, it allows the player to make things easier on their preferred tactics (bash hard, guard hard, or magic hard), meaning that any method of combat is not only viable but encouraged.
Do the other games in the series do this as well as KH2?
Sadly, no. KH1‘s pretty good about it, but it lacks the range of abilities that KH2 boasts to make playing at a higher difficulty satisfying and fluid in the same way; it turns into more of a strategic attempt to block attacks and respond quickly when an opening appears.
The other games in the franchise have tried various methods of making things easier or harder, and it’s generally agreed that none manage it quite as well as KH2.
You know what, though – I bet there are a ton of games out there that are really smart about how they manage adjusting difficulty levels. Maybe they make the enemy AI more or less competent, or secretly give the player a bit of a better chance at a favourable outcome.
What games have you played that were just the right kind of difficult? Let me know!