Top 7 Games Where Death is Permanent
Nothing but skill can save you when permadeath is involved.
In modern video games, dying is often but a trivial inconvenience – maybe a five second loading screen before returning to the last save point, the deterioration of a piece of equipment, or the hassle of conjuring a resurrection spell. Rarely is the punishment so severe that the player is forced to start all over again.
Recently, however, there has been a reprise of challenging games. The upsurge of the “roguelike” genre could be responsible. In reverence to the 1980 classic Rogue, roguelike games are characterized by tiled graphics, random or procedural level generation, and, yes, permadeath.
The extent of a game’s permanent death system varies from unforgiving to somewhat devastating to absolutely devastating. Each time they’re played, there is great risk; the player will most likely lose everything at the end of their run, unless they survive long enough to beat the game.
Danger is the thrill in roguelikes. Not being able to memorize a randomly generated map makes the game fresh and exhilarating every time. Most of all, the player has to develop keen skills in order to conquer whatever new obstacle they are faced with, or all their progress will be in jeopardy.
A high-stakes permanent death system encourages cautious and tactical play. Every run is part of training your way to victory. Here are seven of the best permadeath games that will leave you on the edge of your seat.
7. Rogue Legacy
The 2013 launch trailer for Rogue Legacy
There’s an old saying that goes something like, “You can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family.”
In Rogue Legacy, that is the main mechanic; once your character dies clearing out a monster-infested castle, their next-in-line kin will follow in their footsteps. All of these elements are randomized – the castle, your lineage, and every knight’s special (sometimes less-than-desirable) trait.
The quirky trait system is reward enough for the permanent loss of your last ancestor. Each introduced character has their own oddity, like ADHD, which causes them to run faster, or the chronic use of swearwords known as Coprolalia. Certain traits affect the game in a huge way; if the heir is colorblind, for example, the entire world goes black-and-white, only existing in shades of grey.
Rogue Legacy’s take on permanent death is good for gamers who are not yet accustomed to the concept. There is still pain in losing a character, but at least their legacy will never die.
6. Risk of Rain
The trailer for Risk of Rain’s official launch on Steam
Upon landing on an alien planet, players of Risk of Rain are left to fend for themselves with no equipment and little-to-no knowledge of what to do. Their objective is to activate a teleporter on each procedurally generated level, then survive for an additional 90 seconds while an overwhelming amount of monsters run towards them. Only after every enemy is cleared can the teleporter be used to leave the level.
Risk of Rain operates on a smooth learning curve. Every five minutes in a run, the difficulty level is raised. Monsters become stronger and live longer.
After enemies die, the character earns money and experience points so that they may level up. Initially, players can only choose one character with a certain skillset, but when they progress through the run, other characters become available to them too.
Permadeath functions in Risk of Rain because players have invested time and emotions in each run. To lose all their progress is heart-breaking!
5. XCOM: Enemy Unknown
The XCOM: Enemy Unknown trailer from E3 2012
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a turn-based, tactical, and emotional 3D video game – somewhat unlike the rest of this list. The player directs a team tasked with the burden of defending Earth from an alien attack.
Any team member can die at any time, and it happens a lot. In fact, there is an entire memorial wall to honor those who passed in the line of duty.
Their deaths are permanent. They are poignant, too, because Enemy Unknown makes sure you are attached to everyone before they die. You know all their names, you know about them, and you know that you, their commander, lead them to their fate.
4. FTL: Faster Than Light
The trailer for an extensive (and free) update to FTL
Outwardly, FTL: Faster Than Light resembles a tabletop game – with certain characteristics of strategy games and roguelikes. It also shares something with XCOM in that you are commanding a spaceship’s crew.
Instead of only losing individuals from the team, the entire ship and her crew can be destroyed in FTL, resulting in permanent death. To avoid that, the spacecraft must be managed closely in the fields of piloting, weapons, engines, and more. Resources have to be used wisely and paths must be chosen carefully.
3. Crypt of the NecroDancer
The rocking trailer for Crypt of the NecroDancer’s full release, after being in Steam Early Access for nearly a year
The rhythm of a heartbeat is what drives Crypt of the NecroDancer’s gameplay. When not moving or attacking alongside the soundtrack’s beat, players are essentially disabled; they have to get with the music. Dancing monsters also only move on the beat.
NecroDancer can be played using a mouse and keyboard, a game controller, or, faithful to the theme, a dance pad. It is a rhythm game first, and just so happens to function as a roguelike at times.
For instance, the game takes place in a procedurally generated dungeon. And when you die, you die forever – well, until you start the next run, of course! It is just pretty tragic, using your dance pad to play Crypt of the NecroDancer for half an hour and ending up too exhausted to win.
2. 1001 Spikes
The trailer for 1001 Spikes
Unlike many games featuring a permanent death system, all the levels in 1001 Spikes were designed individually by hand. Nothing about it is random or procedurally generated; it was intentionally crafted to test the player’s patience – or, rather, to foster their skills.
The lack of a save game is what makes 1001 Spikes so arduous. If one could simply reload in an earlier part of the level instead of beginning over and over again, the game would be less fun. The stakes would be lower, the suffocating tension would be lost.
1001 Spikes’s permanent death system is a little unconventional, as players do not lose all of their progress after dying – just a portion of it. However, the level of frustration it brings is just as high, if not higher, than any game with wholly permanent death. Dying repetitively and not having anyone to blame for the failure besides your own inadequacy is basically what makes 1001 Spikes so appealing and so, so intense.
The special PC release trailer for Spelunky
On the surface, Spelunky appears to be another cute little platformer. The soundtrack is bouncy, precious jewels are scattered everywhere, and certain enemies, like bats, seem non-threatening.
But then there is actual Spelunky – the intimidating easter-egg-filled deathtrap. Because it is procedurally generated, some levels are nicer to players than others, while others are impossible to get through alive.
Each run, your character begins on their lonesome at the opening of a level-set called the Mines. That is where they will restart every time after dying no matter how far they actually got into the game. Spelunky is an unforgiving, harsh mistress.
The coolest thing about Spelunky is that your spelunker dies in the silliest of ways. For example, an orange frog could blow up next to a shopkeeper, who blames you for the attack and chases you with a shotgun, then ends up being trapped in a giant spider’s web right next to you as its babies ravage your bodies. It is exasperating, hilarious, and overall very rewarding.