Have you ever thought it was weird how difficulty in video games almost always pertains to how challenging the combat is? I mean sure, when there is no combat the difficulty is tailored to a game’s unique challenges, but what about in big-budget open world romps? It’s always struck me as a bit strange how these games only ever seemed to tune-up the enemy encounters and nothing else. It’s for this reason that Shadow of the Tomb Raider’s difficulty options stood out to me. And, frankly, I’m quite surprised no other studio has stolen their implementation. Let’s take a look.

The Tomb Raider reboot trilogy’s gameplay is typically constructed with three components: exploration, puzzles, and combat. Exploration entails navigating the play space, light platforming, and figuring out how to get from point A to B. Puzzles are mostly relegated to the optional challenge tombs where you solve…well…puzzles. Combat is a combination of stealth assassinations and gunfights. In previous entries raising the difficulty only made combat harsher while leaving the other two pillars unaltered. However, in Shadow each pillar has its own difficulty setting. This comes with two benefits that help Shadow stand above the rest of the trilogy.

Firstly, players are able to tweak the difficulty of the Shadow’s exploratory and puzzle elements. For those that struggled with either aspect in the previous games, there is now a verbose hint system aimed at offering assistance. If you find you’re unsure where to go next Lara will provide audio hints and the survival vision feature will highlight objects along the critical path to guide you. Similarly for puzzles, Lara will offer audio hints about how to move forward and survival vision can now be tweaked to show you exactly which part of the puzzle you need to do next.

Alternatively, for players who found that Lara’s vague audio hints spoiled the puzzles there is now an option to disable them along with the whole hint system. In addition, the white paint that is used as a subtle guide within the game environments can be removed giving players a less intrusive experience. These additional options provide a significant boon for players across all skill levels as they’re able to tweak all gameplay elements within Shadow to a level they find most enjoyable.

Secondly, and more importantly, this difficulty system allows players to mix and match for their ideal experience. This removes a lot of unneeded friction from the game as players are able to control how challenging each gameplay aspect is. For example, if you like raiding tombs, but aren’t too hot on combat you have the ability to make enemies more dull-witted and easier to dispatch. This is a huge win as it puts a lot of power in the player’s hands when it comes to crafting their ideal Tomb Raider experience.

As someone who always found Lara’s audio hints frustrating I appreciated these difficulty settings. I was able to play through the entirety of Shadow without having Lara spoil each of the game’s puzzles. Given the tomb raiding is primarily why I enjoy playing Tomb Raider, it was a nice change of pace to be able to play through the game in the way I found most satisfying.

But as I was playing through the whole of Shadow I couldn’t help but wonder if other games would have benefited from a similar system. Breath of the Wild was praised to the high heavens, but there were two common threads of criticism I saw online. Some found the combat too punishing and others found the puzzles too easy. In an alternate universe, wouldn’t it have been interesting were Breath of the Wild to feature similar difficulty options to Shadow of the Tomb Raider? One wherein you could reduce the difficulty of combat if you found it too challenging, or raise the difficulty of the puzzles if you found them too easy. Obviously it’s a pie in the sky idea, but such a feature may have improved the experience for players who fell into one, or both of the above camps.

What about in RPGs. What if puzzles, or persuasion checks were made more involved on higher difficulty settings? For example: perhaps there could be a setting wherein you had to collect additional information before trying to persuade an NPC, or you needed a better read on the situation to get the best outcome? That’s an incredibly complex piece of software to engineer, but it’d still be an interesting change versus the ho-hum of only being able to adjust the challenge associated with combat.

So that’d be my ask from big budget game devs going forward. Look at what Shadow did and steal the system wholesale. Having more diverse and involved difficulty options could help a wider array of players find their perfect experience within your game resulting in more satisfied customers. I think there is a lot of benefit to players, of all skill ranges, if we saw more systems like this appear in other games.

What’s your opinion on this? I already have a theory about why this doesn’t get done more (m-o-n-e-y), but despite that would you like to see more difficulty options in the games you play? More specifically, for games with multiple pillars of gameplay would you like to see difficulty for each pillar, or are you okay with the existing system? Let me know so we can argue in the comments.

Also I swear this is probably the last time I talk about video game difficulty in a post…maybe. At least for this year.