Absurd difficulty is one of the foundations that gaming is built on. Old school games in particular were renowned for offering ludicrous levels of challenge that tested every faculty you had, be it your focus, reflexes, memory or of course…your patience. Something being described as NES-hard for instance will instantly trigger those who probably still wake up in cold sweat after reliving the horror of Battletoads and the original Ninja Gaiden in their nightmares. At the heart of gaming has always laid a thirst for challenge, even if modern design leans more towards accessibility and choice over excessive ‘why are you doing this to me and why am I doing this to myself?’ difficulty. But as evidenced by the enduring popularity of FromSoftware’s soul-destroying catalogue (not to mention the entire hardcore hack and slash genre they inspired), and the universal acclaim for the frantic and beautiful action of tough games like Cuphead and Outlander, we still love to be tested…as long as the test isn’t rigged. This is the line that challenging games tread; they can be as hard as they like, but they’ve got to be fair. A good hard game will make you feel like it’s not the developer’s fault you died for the umpteenth time, it’s yours. A good hard game inspires you to either better yourself and rise to the challenge, or go hide in the shower where it’s technically not crying because there’s already water everywhere. And somehow, fun is had. So where does Driven Out find itself on this hard versus fair versus fun continuum?
You won’t get anything done hoeing like that
Driven Out is a retro 2D side-scroller from Swedish outfit No Pest Productions, and it is here to hurt you. It starts innocuously enough, with our nameless female farmer protagonist tilling her fields when a menacing knight happens by and accidently drops his sword at your feet. You pick up the sword, he picks up a big stick and you are treated to the game’s tutorial. Actually no, there’s no tutorial, he just starts beating you with the stick. It turns out this knight is only one of many denizens who seemed to have taken residence in the surrounding lands, and it’s up to you to use his sword to cut a swathe through them all. The barely there story of Driven Out leaves much to the imagination, but as you battle through dank (meme) castles, forests and mountains, you can piece together a little bit of what’s happening, or more appropriately, what happened.
Being a farmer you are not particularly adept with a sword, but years of life on the land have at least given you the ability to attack low, mid or high, as well as block in those same directions. Read the enemy’s attack and block just as the attack lands and you’ll not only nullify the damage but sometimes put them off guard for a sneaky counter attack. What I have just described is more or less the entirety of the game’s combat mechanics, and they are the only tools you have when fighting much stronger creatures than you. To top it off you can only take three hits before it’s lights out, whereas most enemies you face will take at least double the amount of hits before they do down. For anyone doing the maths, the imperative is simple: hit the enemy, don’t let them hit you.
Driven Out’s gameplay is unforgivingly brutal; enemy types and attacks are varied, there can often be a lot of them between you and your goal, and mistakes are punished swiftly and without a modicum of mercy. To even up the fight a bit you do have a mysterious device called a witchcraft contraption, which acts as a mobile respawn point. Lay this baby down and you’ll respawn there once you meet your inevitable death. Thankfully all enemies you have killed stay dead, and the damage dealt to enemies that are still alive remains. The witchcraft contraption has only two charges, and the only means of recharging it is by defeating one of the tough bosses. The game becomes a strategic gamble where you see how far you can get with your measly three health spheres before having to drop the contraption. It leads to several Mom’s spaghetti moments where you don’t know whether to press on without using up a charge in order to better set yourself up for a boss fight, or play it safe and drop it like it’s hot.
Who wants it?
To think this blighted hellscape was only a few clicks from the farm the whole time
On the balance of things I felt like more often than not I was clumsily banging my head against a wall until the wall eventually broke, only to find there was a much gnarlier wall directly behind it
Enemy design varies wildly between being demanding in an interesting and thoughtful way, to being demanding in a frustrating way. One particular sword-wielding spider boss required me to block its attacks before striking, starting with one easy block and riposte before ramping up to a flurry of three or four attacks which were telegraphed in a specific order. What followed was a tense back and forth akin to playing Bust A Groove without the on-screen button prompts. When I bested that arachnid bastard I felt a sense of accomplishment wash over me, having become so attuned to our little sword dance that I barely took a hit (which given our farmer warrior’s tiny health pool is essential). Other enemies have extremely subtle telegraphs that require the reflexes of a cat that has the reflexes of two cats, and gameplay can descend into an overly tedious slog. It never feels overtly unfair despite the odds being stacked heavily against you, but given your limited combat repertoire it can definitely feel…unfun. On the balance of things I felt like more often than not I was clumsily banging my head against a wall until the wall eventually broke, only to find there was a much gnarlier wall directly behind it. Testament to the strength of the human spirit I pushed through, but when the credits rolled I didn’t feel the sort of elation I felt when I finally bested Sekiro’s Isshin Sword Saint or Cuphead’s King Dice – I felt tired.
Hot birdman on sword monkey action
It bears mentioning that Driven Out is visually quite a nice beast to look out. Although pixel art indies seem to be a dime a dozen these days, I was reminded pleasantly of titles of yore such as Shadow of the Beast and Golden Axe in some of the visual design. Detailed background animations give the 2D world a surprising amount of depth, and the environments in general have a beguiling beauty that mirrors the sense of isolation and hostility in the gameplay. The impressive roster of enemies are lovingly crafted, but given the pixelated art style some of the hitboxes on their weapons do feel like they deserved their own postcode.
Driven Out is a game that will find its niche among masochistic players, but unlike a game like The Surge or Dead Cells, I doubt it’s something I’ll submit myself to again. Its simple design is well executed, but its quest of being hard for hard’s sake without much reward brings it undone somewhat. Driven Out is a hard game that is mostly fair, but not always fun.