Permadeath gaming has seen a huge resurgence over recent years. Giving players a single life or character with which to complete the game, games with permanent death as a mechanic are notoriously difficult, tasking players with keeping upmost concentration throughout their playthrough. More often than not, attempts may end in tears – but that won’t stop players from trying their hand once more.
Now that permanent death has re-established itself as a go-to mechanic in gaming, particularly in the independent development scene with examples such as Crypt of the NecroDancer, we decided to take a look at some of the best permadeath games from the history of gaming. Here’s our pick of top ten permadeath games.
FTL: Faster Than Light
Perhaps one of the most famous indie games in recent years, FTL: Faster Than Light became a cult hit upon its release in 2012. The player takes control of the crew of a spaceship, tasked with delivering news of an incoming attack from a group of violent rebels. Along the way, the crew fights or evades space pirates, alien mantises, and dangerous environmental effects, all the while upgrading both crew and vessel to survive the void of space.
Would-be cosmonauts need to be careful, however, as FTL: Faster Than Light combines a number of intimidating roguelike elements to make the game as threatening as possible. Not only are all crew members expendable, but if the ship itself is destroyed, then the player will have to start the game over from scratch. Given the title’s random encounters and overall structure, gamers need to prepare both their crew and their ship for any possible scenario.
The X-COM series of games were classics of the 1990s, focusing on an anti-extraterrestrial team dedicated to stopping alien invasions. Known for its turn-based tactical combat, the franchise was notorious for its difficulty, with squad members dying permanently if lost during a mission. As the squad itself grows over the course of the game, this means a vital member of the unit would have to be replaced by a fresh-faced rookie.
After six games released over the course of seven years, the series then went on hiatus until 2012’s X-COM: Enemy Unknown. The reboot of the franchise proved to be successful, with Firaxis and publisher 2K Games choosing to commit to further games in the X-COM franchise. Fans do not have long to wait for X-COM 2 – although the title has recently been pushed back to a February 2016 release.
The Binding of Isaac
The Binding of Isaac combines elements of retro top-down shooters such as Smash TV, as well as RPG character building and roguelike random item and level generation. The game tells the story of Isaac, a young boy in an abusive relationship with his monstrous mother. Thrown down into the basement, Isaac awakes to a terrifying world of creatures, and must overcome huge beasts – and his own mother – to escape.
The game proved massively popular, due to its eye-catching design from Super Meat Boy’s Edmund McMillen and fast gameplay, as well as its addictive blend of difficulty and replayability; if Isaac is defeated, then the player must start the game from scratch. The game has seen several releases, with the most recent The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth dropping in 2014. Rebirth ups the ante, giving players additional enemies to fights and a wealth of new content, as well as different graphical options.
Starting as a mod of Arma 2, DayZ has gone on to become a huge multiplayer gaming phenomenon. The player is dropped into a rural location overrun by deadly zombies, and must survive at all costs. A wrong move, or an unlucky encounter, and the player will have to start from scratch, once more cast out into a deadly wilderness.
It’s not just the zombies that will prove to be a danger to the player, however. As well as fighting off the undead horde, gamers must also take care of their own hunger and thirst, and above all else look out for other players. Indeed, other survivors looking for vital equipment may be the biggest killer in DayZ, and veteran players are slow to trust any other uninfected humans they come across.
DayZ is not the only zombie-based permadeath game on the market, and Ubisoft’s ZombiU is another great example of how permadeath can create real tension in a horror-based game. Initially released as a Wii U exclusive, ZombiU has one very interesting gameplay element: if the player dies over the course of the game, the title must be started over with a new character, who can then retrieve equipment from the player character that has gone before them.
ZombiU has finally escaped the quarantine of Wii U exclusivity, and the title is now available on PS4, Xbox One, and PC under the moniker Zombi. However, it seems as though the port to other devices has not quite worked as intended, with the PC version in particular seemingly infected with bugs more irritating than a simple zombie infection.
The word roguelike has become synonymous with permadeath, and it would be remiss to not mention the title that coined the term in the first place. That game in question is Rogue, and it is one of the cult classics of 1980s gaming. The RPG had permanent death and randomly-generated dungeon levels, and helped create a number of gameplay elements that are still used in gaming today.
In fact, Rogue has had a huge legacy on gaming, partly responsible for everything from the aforementioned FTL: Faster Than Light to Blizzard’s Diablo series. Although Rogue was not a commercial success, its lasting legacy on the video game world is undeniable. The title may prove tricky for those used to the improved interfaces of modern gaming, but Rogue still includes plenty of familiar mechanics for those after a challenge.