There are few things more satisfying than reaching the win state in a game that seems determined to stop you getting there. Whether that’s through difficult bosses, hard-to-navigate maps without regular checkpoints, miserably bleak atmosphere, or otherwise, there are plenty of games that ensure you have to work for what you get.
There’s been a resurgence in recent years of games that are purposefully hard to play or complete – many best described by the term ‘roguelike’, after the 1980 PC game Rogue, which tasked players with traversing through a dungeon with the spectre of losing all their progress if they were killed even once.
These aren’t games with awkward difficulty spikes or badly-balanced weapons: these are the games that are designed to require all of your will, brainpower and patience, and are all the more rewarding as a result.
So if you like a challenge, we have the games for you. Specifically, we have 12 cruel, unforgiving games that will have you swearing at your screen, throwing your controller against the wall, or accepting psychological torment with grace.
If that’s not your speed, there are plenty of more easy-going titles, like the recent Animal Crossing: New Horizons, to return to – but if you want something truly taxing, read on below.
1. Hollow Knight
Hollow Knight is one of the best games of recent years in the metroidvania style. You know the score – you're placed in the center of a sprawling map that slowly reveals its scale as you unlock new abilities to traverse increasingly difficult traps, and take on ever-more monstrous foes. Secrets sit around every corner, and the sense of satisfaction you get when you backtrack to a previously-inaccessible location once armed with the right skills is unsurpassed in all of gaming.
Hollow Knight separates itself from other Metroidvania titles with its distinct art style (mysterious underground bug city? Count us in), and its nods to the Dark Souls series, with tough boss fights and the strangely aloof citizens of its subterranean setting.
It’s not easy, and checkpoints – usually benches for your character to rest on – are just sparse enough to make every encounter feel tense. You’ll be able to revisit the place of your passing to pick up the currency you dropped at your death, but you may have to crawl through a lot of dangerous tunnels to get there.
Hollow Knight is available on PC, PS4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch
2. Dark Souls
You can’t talk about unforgiving games without mentioning Dark Souls. The original Dark Souls game released in 2011, and kicked off a new craze for difficult combat and unrelenting enemies, requiring players to die, again, again, and again in order to progress through its bleak – if lovingly realised – medieval fantasy world.
It also featured quite unforgiving mechanics like dropping all of your currency at the point of death, and having to journey back to same area to pick it up – naturally coming face to face with the monster that felled you in the first place. (Thanks a lot.) More than anything else, Dark Souls proved there was an audience for truly challenging titles, and that many gamers didn’t want to be hand-held throughout the process.
With three Dark Souls games in the past decade, a samurai successor in the form of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, and the thrillingly gothic Bloodborne, developer FromSoftware has given us plenty of gruelling games – but we can’t stop grinding our way through them.
Dark Souls Remastered is available on PC, Xbox One, PS4, and Nintendo Switch
3. XCOM 2
XCOM 2 is a go-to example for games that feature permadeath. What’s that? Permadeath means that, when you die, you’re dead, and there’s no carrying on after that point.
XCOM 2 sees you taking charge of an anti-alien task force, fighting the extraterrestrial invaders with a growing group of military personnel, while attempting to regain territory, learn more about your opponents, and co-opt their (much more advanced) technology for you own uses. The game is a heady mix of turn-based strategy, military tactics, and base management, all with a pleasingly sci-fi twist. (Some of those aliens get pretty scary, though.)
The real problem is that, once one of your soldiers dies, they’re gone for good. It’s easy to enter a frustrating feedback loop early on in the game, where you don’t have the resources to recruit more soldiers because your shrunken army doesn’t have the manpower to succeed in missions. This isn’t a game that feels a need to help you succeed, then, but it’s worthwhile playing even when you know you’re utterly doomed.
XCOM 2 is available on PC, PS4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch
4. Darkest Dungeon
This H.P. Lovecraft-inspired hellscape doesn’t want you to win.
The product of a highly successful Kickstarter campaign, Darkest Dungeon isn’t like many other games out there. It has the feel of a medieval Call of Cthulhu tabletop campaign, complete with disposable heroes, Innsmouth-fishfolk, inevitable insanity… and an unmistakable need to press forward to the very end, however dark it may be.
The goal sounds simple enough: to rid the haunted hamlet of the unspeakable evil unleashed by the weary narrator that sought your help in the first place. The game does not make this easy – anything but. As you churn through your stable of heroes of various classes – from the almost tragically-naive Crusader to the hideously-disfigured Leper – you slowly improve the facilities of the cursed hamlet and gather baubles that improve your chances of surviving repeated dungeon runs, but they offer little comfort.
That extra upgrade of the Highwayman’s weapons only gets you a couple of levels deeper into the pig-people infested sewers. That extra torch only lasts for an extra few rooms in the haunted manse. And the darker it gets, the harder the cultists become, the greater the rewards, and the quicker your entire party goes insane.
The game is merciless, but enticing. Much like the endless eldritch horrors it throws at your doomed army of adventurers, you cannot help but stare into the Darkest Dungeon’s abyss.
Darkest Dungeon is available on PC, PS4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch
Frostpunk is an utterly brilliant, and equally bleak city management game. Set in Victorian times, shortly after a global weather event covered the entire planet in ice and snow, the game tasks you with keeping the last remnants of humanity alive around a massive power generator: the only thing keeping you and your inhabitants from an icy death.
There are some lighter difficulty levels here, and it can be worth choosing them on a first play-through, just to get a hang of the mechanics. But the real satisfaction comes on the precipice between survival and failure, and how the game demands you tread that line. Do you ramp up the heat to increase productivity and quality of life, or save your supplies for later in the game? Do you put children to work in the mines, or construct automatons to do it for you? Do seek spiritual strength, or pursue technological enhancements instead?
There are plenty of brutally stark ethical questions, especially when it comes to welcoming or turning away other survivors you find in the wastes. The Laws mechanic also allows you to set rules and regulations for your city – and watching their impact play out is truly fascinating.
While we’d like more variability or randomness built into the game, there are three meaty missions to test your mettle on in different ways.
Frostpunk is available on PC, PS4, and Xbox One / Xbox Games Pass
Set across the landscape of post-apocalyptic America, Overland charts you with travelling from East to West coast in whatever beaten-up car and hastily-found companions you can muster. With an oppressive atmosphere, unforgiving gameplay, and a sense that all the good things are fleeting, it’s a perfect addition to any masochist’s game library.
Overland plays as a turn-based strategy game, pitting you against scarce supplies and ominous insect creatures that seem bent on tearing you to pieces, across procedurally generated levels that feel the right mix of eerie and familiar the more you move through them.
There’s a loose, semi-permadeath system, where the game starts from scratch if all your characters die – though a new companion from the side of the road can end up being your sole survivor even if your initial character dies. The brief snatches of dialogue around the campfire between levels, and sparse character bios (‘still sleeps with a teddy bear’, perhaps, or ‘once killed a man and got away with it’) are just enough to feel connected to your avatars, making losing them all the harder.
The endgame doesn’t justify any of this cruelty, but there’s a kind of peace in getting there too.
Overland is available on PC, PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch and iOS.
7. Fallout 4 (Survival Mode)
The Fallout series are famously bleak affairs: set in mostly-barren post-apocalyptic wastelands with scarce supplies, mutated monsters, and bloodthirsty raiders on all sides – often with sudden jumps in enemy levels between areas you might ignorantly wander into.
However, some persistent looting will usually get you the guns and bottle caps (the in-game currency) you need to float past most obstacles, and it’s only really in the game’s Survival Mode that the real challenge starts. Fast travel and quick saving is disabled, enemies regularly scale in difficulty, and you now have to contend with your energy levels, hunger, and thirst to keep yourself alive. It’s like sending a domestic Sims character into the wilderness, and is about as brutal as that sounds.
Survival Mode removes auto-save or manual saving from the game, meaning you have to literally make it to a bed at the end of the day in order to record your progress. You can save upon exiting the game, but the temporary file will erase the moment you load up again – so, you know, make sure you aren’t relaxed about it.
It’s worth giving a side-nod to Fallout 76, too – which, with its various game-ruining glitches and bugs since launch, is worthy of a difficulty badge all of its own.
Fallout 4 is available on PC, PS4 and Xbox One
Don’t let its sumptuous 1930s cartoon art style fool you: Cuphead is a punishing game that will humble even the most adept gamers. You’ll be tempted to hurl your controller at the wall on many occasions – but we wouldn’t recommend that. (Controllers are expensive.)
Players step into the oversized shoes of either Cuphead or Mugman, who wind up making a dreadful deal with the devil. To save their ceramic heads, the two embark on a perilous quest collecting souls on behalf of their satanic patron, which involves battling a bonkers selection of wonderfully animated enemies that really, really want to make your life difficult. You’ll fight a sobbing onion, a deranged clown and a three-headed dragon, to name but a few.
As you fire projectiles, dodge attacks and learn the ever-changing patterns of each boss, what results is some of the best shoot ‘em gameplay in decades. Cuphead’s developers were inspired by the likes of Contra and Gunstar Heroes, and it shows.
If you prefer sharing the pain with a partner, you can team up with a friend in co-op or go it alone. Whichever option you choose, though, be prepared to be beaten down by the game’s hard-as-nails difficulty and challenging run-and-gun levels.
Cuphead is available on PC, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch
9. Shadow of the Beast
Shadow of the Beast first released on the Amiga back in 1989, and our Senior Computing Editor is still trying to complete it. Hailing from an era when games really were difficult, sometimes simply in a bid to artificially extend the time it took to complete them, Shadow of the Beast still really stood out.
Featuring cutting-edge (for the time) graphical effects, and a stunning and atmospheric score by David Whittaker, Shadow of the Beast was a technological showcase that showed what the Amiga was capable of. (It was ported to other, lesser, consoles like the Atari ST and Sega Genesis, which lacked some of the effects of the Amiga original). However, it’s fair to say it looked better than it played.
You have a limited amount of life – which can occasionally be replenished – and almost everything in the world will cause you damage, including grotesque monsters and unforgiving traps. As soon as you start, you’re left without directions – and quite unusually for a 2D platforming game, you can go either left or right in the game world. Whichever way you go, you’re assailed almost immediately by big boulders bouncing around the place, as well as enemies that drop unbidden from the sky or emerge sneakily from the ground.
There are even invisible traps that dock you health without any visible animation playing, and a giant skeleton that kills you immediately unless you've found a (secret) power-up in an also-deadly maze elsewhere in the game. There are no checkpoints, either, meaning that death results in a game-over screen, some atmospheric panpipe music, and getting sent back to the start (with some hefty load times too).
Pretty brutal, then, but there’s something about the game that keeps us coming back to be punished over three decades later, getting slightly further every five years or so.
The game was remade recently for the PS4, but it just wasn’t the same: too easy. The remake did, at least, include the original game as a bonus, allowing younger gamers to experience more punishment than the upgraded title would inflict on them.
Shadow of the Beast is available on PS4 (or the Amiga, Atari ST, and Sega Genesis, if you have one)
If you don’t find typical action or RPG games too challenging, try Banished on for size: it’s a survival-themed city building game, in which you control a growing town living in an uncivilized land.
Instead of trying to provide your settlers with jobs, electricity and entertainment like in other city sims, you’re trying to keep them warm, fed and housed. Frequent winters disrupt your food supply chains, unchecked illness can really easily spread, and a particularly long winter can burn through your supply of firewood; all of these have an adverse effect on your settlers, causing production to slow and the situation to escalate.
Banished is hard because you can’t take each negative situation as it comes - you have to pre-empt problems and accurately gauge how to prepare, and the slow increase in settlers and town size makes all these issues work. At its best Banished is like a game of Anno where you’re juggling hundreds of balls at once, except unlike that game, you can have a game over if you drop any of those balls.
Banished is available on PC only
11. Salt and Sanctuary
Dark Souls meets Metroid… in Hell.
There have been a lot of Dark Souls-inspired platformers of late, but Salt and Sanctuary comes closest to capturing both the masochism of its muse as well as its tone. In it, you play a sailor shipwrecked on an island full of dark and forgotten secrets – most of which would have probably been better left alone.
Released initially on PS4, this 2D action RPG is a brutal and impactful game that sees you navigating dark and imposing dungeons, forests full of reanimated dead, and hellish creatures in beautifully hand-drawn environments – and is the closest thing we’ve seen to a side-scrolling Dark Souls. It’s now on most platforms and is well worth a look.
Salt and Sanctuary is available on PC, PS4, PS Vita, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch
12. God Hand
This PS2 game is well worth a look, both for its difficulty and how much it divided critics upon release.
A mashup of tense hand-to-hand combat and tension-relieving humor, God Hands received a huge amount of praise of its intricate combat system, with over 100 distinct attacks to be deployed throughout the game.
While difficulty is also scaled to the player’s performance, it’s still by default a punishingly hard game – making the impact of those fists far weightier than the at-a-distance sniper shots or gunplay of so many other action games of the era.
For something complex, bizarre, and more inspired by classic manga and anime series than the action games you’ve probably played – and from the developer behind Okami, no less – we fully recommend giving this game a try.
God Hand is available on PS2 and PS3 (but not PS4)