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Early Game Hell

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The early part of a video game is usually the hardest part. This can be due to a number of factors, including (but not limited to):

  • Lack of resources (skills, money, equipment, etc.).
  • Lack of opportunities to Level Grind.
  • Lack of a Second-Hour Superpower.
  • Lack of experience with the game mechanics.

This particular valley of difficulty usually occurs between the opening chapter of the game (where there are so few options that it is hard to make a wrong choice) and the point where a player becomes able to understand and accumulate the resources at their disposal, significantly increasing their available options. It is essentially a symptom of Unstable Equilibrium.

Remember, Tropes Are Not Bad. Use of Early Game Hell can make progression infinitely more rewarding. Early Game Hell can also be the only time the game ever presents a challenge.

Super-Trope of Early Bird Boss, and often overlaps with Schizophrenic Difficulty. If there are difficulty options and the "Easy" mode is harder for whatever reason, that's Non Indicative Difficulty.

Examples of Early Game Hell include:


  • Etrian Odyssey, an already hellish game, makes the early game hard even by its own sick standards. Patching up party members and replacing your Warp Wires takes up all the money you earned getting the injuries, giving you no cash for even basic equipment. Running into FOEs means an instant game over. Skill-heavy characters like mages and healers run out of TP after only a few battles, reducing them to plinking with daggers for Scratch Damage. It's not until you can level up a few times and get some decent skills that you can start saving for better gear.
  • In STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl you are stuck with a leather jacket that barely qualifies as armor and a pistol (maybe an SMG, if you get lucky) for the early game. The first fight in Shadow of Chernobyl is one of the hardest, because you're up against several bandits with armor and sawed-off shotguns that can blast through you like tissue paper, while you're stuck with a terribly inaccurate pistol that fires spit wads. After finding some halfway decent ranged weapons and armor, the game gets much easier.
  • Like STALKER, Jagged Alliance 2 forces realistic weapon ranges while sticking the player with pistols and the rare SMG. Unlike STALKER, the environments and combat system make closing the distance impossible, and sticks the player at the mercy of Randomly Drops, allowing the computer to have long arms while you don't.
  • Gothic is purposefully built on this to give a feel to character progression, making The Nameless Hero taking a level in badass all the more noticeable.
  • Morrowind has an extremely lop-sided progression. At first you are too inaccurate to even try to Stat Grind (as it's based on successes only) for the most part. Once you get a decent pile of gold (not hard, even without exploits) and a trainer though, you quickly become a god slayer.
  • Deus Ex starts the player off with few skill points, ammo, and medkits, all to hammer in that the player has many more options than just shooting their way through.
    • Deus Ex Human Revolution's first level has Jensen fight against Spec Ops soldiers without any augmentations, including HUD, health meter and radar. It's not impossible but very easy to die if you botch a shot or get detected.
  • Fallout 2 has the publisher required Temple of Trials tutorial era. In a game that otherwise encourages multiple paths and non-violent solutions, this area has one and only the "boss" of the area can be reasoned with (the ants can't), if your character is anything other than an melee/unarmed fighter (you have no firearms here), 2/3 of your attacks will miss, and may fail to kill the enemy even when they do hit. Further, there is a very limited number of healing items (and the ones that are present have side effects that make you even less accurate) with no resting ability.
    • Fallout 1 falls under this as well, to a lesser extent. Since encounters don't scale to your level, you can run right into a pack of radscorpions right out of the Vault and get slaughtered.
  • Fire Emblem as a whole falls into this, as early chapters are the only ones where accuracy is a frequent issue and one miss will cause a unit to die due to not enough buffer HP/defense. This issue is compounded in hard modes due to the enemies being tougher, but because a healthy number of your units are defectors, these bonuses eventually work in your favor. The 10th game is one of the bigger offenders, as unlike most games where the best units come at the start and latter units are mostly to replace ones that die, the first quarter is populated either by units that are terrible (Meg, Fiona, Leonardo), leave, taking their XP with them, and leave the team even further gimped once they leave (Ilyana, Nailah, Tormod and co, the Black Knight.) and even the decent units (Zihark, Jill, Nolan, Micaiah, Laura, Aran, possibly Edward) are frail and/or have hideous accuracy, while the next two chapters have Lightning Bruiser badasses on your team from stage 1.
  • Every level in Populous is hardest at the beginning. Since your mana is dictated by the population of your tribe, and you almost always start with only one or two, you barely have enough mana to raise or lower land at the beginning.
  • In both Knights of the Old Republic games, you start without the Force or a lightsaber, resulting in very slow fights. Once you become a Jedi (KOTOR I) or build a lightsaber from collected components (KOTOR II), the game becomes much faster.
    • Jedi Knight II similarly starts you out with a few levels as a Badass Normal, made challenging by the fact that in this game blasters really are clumsy and random, and the Stormtroopers have apparently learned to shoot straight. Getting hold of your lightsaber, even with the weak starting skills, is a palpable relief.
  • In Nethack and other Roguelike games, experienced players can pretty much guarantee a win, but still run the risk of running into a Demonic Spider and dying before they can insure themselves against such threats.
    • The top four killers in online Dungeon Crawl are early game monsters (hobgoblin, kobold, gnoll, snake) for a very good reason, with even the much-maligned Sigmund achieving a mere 7th place. No matter what your selected background is, a streak of missed or undamaging attacks can result in one of those low-HP monsters getting up in your face, bashing you with an enchanted weapon. In the case of snakes, minor poison can be deadly, as you have no HP buffer to work with and might not have a healing potion to counter it. Potions and scrolls are scarce and unidentified at that point; reaching for one in an emergency can give you something completely useless or even harmful.
  • Ninja Gaiden Black/Sigma qualifies in Master Ninja mode (the Harder Than Harder Than Hard mode): you do the first chapter with no weapons, upgrades or techniques but instead of weaklings you fight the strongest and cheapest Ninja enemies. Reaching the first save point literally becomes the hardest part of the game.
  • Most Devil May Cry games count for this trope. At the beginning of the game, Dante (or Nero) start out with their basic sword, guns, weakest maneuvers, very little health and MP (sometimes NO MP at all), and the enemies can still kill quite easily. Even though you face harder enemies later in the game, the ability to repeat stages and grind through means that it's possible to level up faster than the difficulty curve can keep up with.
  • In Chicken Invaders, your firepower grow much faster than the hitpoints of the monsters. Thus, the second level is normally easier than the first.
  • In Dungeons and Dragons a first level character starts off with enough hit points to be killed by a single critical and in some versions, squishier types are weak enough to be slain by a house cat.
  • Mass Effect 2 hits this in a New Game+ Insanity run, since the enemies are scaled to your level, but your weapons are stripped of all upgrades. The hardest levels are either Freedom's Progress, where you're restricted to the crappy default weapon loadout, or Horizon, where you come up against the full might of the Collectors, including a goddamn Praetorian. And if you're starting from scratch, hoo boy...
    • 3's multiplayer suffers from this as well. When you're first starting, all you have are the Boring but Practical human characters and the default weapon loadout. However, as you go, you'll be buying better and better weapon packs, and soon you'll be playing with all the exotic alien classes.
  • Try Infinite Undiscovery on Infinity. The first fight with the Player Character alone against two Mooks is easily the hardest fight in the game, because you'll die in 3 hits and barely do Scratch Damage. Most players find the only way to survive that is to get one of them stuck on a piece of furniture so you can deal with them one at a time. Even then, it will require near-perfect use of the parry move, because you'll die from a few hits and there's no way to heal. The game really only becomes comfortable at the second dungeon when you can finally start to Level Grind.
  • Mega Man games get easier as you go on because you're getting new weapons from each stage, allowing you to bypass challenges easier.
  • While it stays Nintendo Hard throughout, La-Mulana is hardest at the beginning, when it has the learning curve of a brick wall. The game opens with your pathetically weak character, armed with a single clumsy weapon, running around a confusing jungle. How do you get into the ruins? What's the best item to buy with the few coins you can find? How do you save? It doesn't let up after you get into the Guidance Gate, which, at first glance, is filled with nasty traps and unclear puzzles. Veterans will know to make a beeline for the Grail, Shurikens, and Knife, but new players will suffer until they figure out the game's general train of logic.
    • Reading the manual confirms this was intentional. The developers wanted to make a game that recalled early sidescrolling adventure games, and purposely made it this hard to weed out anyone who wasn't really interested.
  • Both Baten Kaitos games suffer from this to various extents. The battle systems are quite complex and not beginner friendly. Just to add to that, the first game makes you spend a long time with only Kalas in your party, which slows battles to an absolute crawl and gives you little margin for error.
    • Origins, being the difficult game it is, really tries to mix this up. You've got a short section with no party members other than Sagi, a nasty Early Bird Boss, and several scenes where nothing particularly interesting happens. Just to add to that, new players are going to have a hell of a time with the battle system and the rather steep difficulty curve, while veteran players learn there's no EX Combo options until a couple hours in. The game gets infinitely better once you meet Quaestor Verus, though.
  • Persona 4 hits you with this as well. While there exist certain Personas and abilities that make the early bosses cake (Good luck with that), the low power and small party options will turn against you very quickly. After about the second dungeon, it gets easier, aside from the occasional That One Boss.
  • Startopia can be this, depending on the level or sandbox options. Regardless of specifics: you'll not have a lot of energy, and what little you have goes to Arona Daal to buy raw materials and basic facilities. Low energy means power shortages, and guests that were only minorly upset that your station isn't a four-star locale will become really irritated when things shut down. It's inevitable, though, that you'll be able to become nearly completely self-sufficient by making your own goods. It'll get to the point where you'll need to buy another Energy-storing building because you've overloaded the first. Sooner or later, you'll need a third. You'll need a fourth one before you realize it, and the fifth one is practically instant. Before you know it, you'll experience an economic version of The Singularity.
  • The early game in Earthbound is more difficult than many later parts. Before you get a proper party, you have to fight several early game bosses [1] and go through Peaceful Rest Valley. Once you get Paula and can level her up enough for her strengths to shine, the game gets much easier.
  • In Mother 3, the first three chapters are told from the viewpoint of three different characters. While it's undoubtedly an excellent storytelling choice, getting yanked away from the characters you've leveled up and gotten familiar with is a bit jarring. This comes to a head in Chapter 3, where you have to play as Salsa for the entire chapter, including fighting a freaking tank at the end.
  • Hello Kitty Roller Rescue's New Game+ has this when you play as Badtz-Maru. He has lower health than Kitty has--though by the end of the game he has more health than she does.
  • As soon as the game gives control to the player, Resident Evil 2 throws zombies at you in nearly every direction from the very start. If playing on normal, you won't have enough ammunition to fight them all, forcing you to run. The controls have a definite learning curve to them; expect to die a lot in the early stages (if not the very first screen) if you're not well accustomed to "tank-like" movement.
  • The hardest boss in the first Diablo is the Butcher, encountered at level 2 and quite capable of surviving all your mana potions and staff charges and killing you in two hits.
  • Minecraft. Entire guides have been written on how to survive the first full day, and what you should set about doing immediately. For the uninitiated, this is because the game starts you with nothing. No weapons, no tools, no food, and no real idea or explanation of how to get them. Just you, dumped into a random landscape, with ten minutes before nightfall, when the monsters appear. In that time you need to prepare some form of defense, even if it's just a basic shelter. The game gets much easier once you have a shelter, some cobble weapons (at least), and have learnt a few ways to craft all the stuff you'll need to survive against the enemies.
  • Skyward Sword has Hero Mode, which doubles damage done to you and eliminates recovery hearts. Once you get the Heart Medal (several hours of play in) and start amassing more Heart Containers, the game becomes far easier, but early on it is quite easy to die to even the simplest enemies.
  • Many players never got past the first chapter of Dark Cloud because the very beginning of the game can be sheer torture: before you have access to a shop, you get a VERY limited cache of supplies from the mayor of Norune; your weak weapon needs to be repaired frequently (and God help you if you run out of Repair Powder at a critical time), you may or may not luck into a Healing Spring in the random dungeon layouts, and heaven help you if you manage to get poisoned. Even after you finally get access to the game's first shop, it doesn't get MUCH easier, because the enemies in the first dungeon don't drop much money and the item prices are ridiculous. Add to that the absurd difficulty of the final boss of the first dungeon, and a lot of players gave up on this otherwise excellent game before they could really open it up.
  • X3 Reunion and previous X-Universe games are infamous for dropping the player into the universe in a crappy ship with next to no money, no upgrades, bad weapons, and no tutorial. Trading is painfully slow and combat usually results in a Pirate fighter curb-stomping your little ship. Later games alleviate the issue by having different game starts give the player a better ship or more money.
  • The NES Dragon Quest games are all Nintendo Hard, but special mention goes to Dragon Quest I at the beginning. You start out with 120 G, which gives you a choice of either buying a club and losing out on armor, or buying armor and having to fight with a glorified stick. Times might be tough, but seeing as how the king's relying on you to save his daughter and his whole kingdom, you'd think he could at least give you a loaner or something.
  • Dark Souls! Early game, pretty much everything can one-hit-kill you somehow, you've got no clue where anything is, no weapon upgrades, no way to repair damaged gear, not enough souls to buy things like anti-poison moss and arrows and not enough stats to use any of the more powerful weapons. Not to mention not knowing what to expect, not knowing how hard the game can really be, and not knowing that you need to be on guard at all times. Late game, you've got the gear, you've got enough health to take at least one hit from pretty much everything (though not much more than that), you know to keep your guard up, and you either know or can guess the attack patterns of everything you come across.
  • Though not quite the hardest, general opinion of Final Fantasy Tactics is that the battle in Dorter is one of the hardest battles in the game. It's the fifth plot battle and the fourth that's any challenge at all (the first battle has two overpowered AI-controlled allies and is nearly impossible to lose if you try). Also, it's very easy to lose characters to Final Death in the game's second battle (though you'll more-than-likely win anyway if the dead character isn't Ramza), simply because there's no guarantee that anyone in your party will know how how to use Phoenix Down.
  • The first levels of the first Kid Icarus game are probably the hardest (which makes sense; you actually are in Hell, after all). Pit starts out with a tiny health bar and a weak bow with poor range. The first levels also scroll upward, and due to Ratchet Scrolling you die if you fall past the bottom of the screen. Once you've completed those levels though, most likely gaining some health and weapon upgrades along the way, it gets much easier.
  • Most Pokémon games start out slower than molasses. This is because you have few Mons available to you to build a proper party, and because the game prevents you from leaving the early area until you beat the first Gym Leader. This means that you have precious few trainers to draw experience from, forcing you to Level Grind off of wilds, and no way of Money Grinding at all. Once you beat the first Gym Leader the game generally gets a lot more free and easy, with the exception of an occasional That One Boss.

Notes

  1. Frank, the Gigantic Ant, and the Onett police force

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