Hardest Indie Games of All Time

Have you ever sat down after a long day, and decided to boot up that new indie title, only to find out the game was intent on making your day feel even longer than it already has? Quite a few indies have thrown me into the mix of an unforgiving new world or gradually ramped up to become a super challenging experience.

While challenge is subjective, quite a few indie games have become notorious for their difficulty, and a few others surprise you with just how difficult they sometimes manage to be. This Hardest Indie Games of All Time list is based mainly on personal opinion but also considers that some games have gained popularity exclusively because of their difficulty.

Selection Criteria

All of the games I’ve picked on this list are difficult in some way, whether that means dying too much, getting stuck with the game expecting you to figure it out constantly, or being a challenging game regarding its controls.

While there’s an argument to be made that “unfair” and “difficult” are different, it doesn’t matter much for this list.

  • This list will be sorted from least to most challenging. In terms of what I decided was the bottom line for one of the most brutal indie games, Cave Story is a game that has some iconic and challenging sections. Still, most of that game is manageable or pretty straightforward, with little to no option to up the ante, meaning it barely doesn’t make the list.
  • This list will not account for player-made or self-imposed challenges that the game never directly encourages. If an achievement tells you to do something difficult, it counts, but if it’s a self-imposed challenge like getting perfection in 2 years of Stardew Valley, it doesn’t count.
  • Accessibility options will not impact a game’s placement on this list. While Celeste’s Assist mode can make the game trivially easy, it’s there for people who can’t play the game otherwise, and the intended experience is still a challenging game at its core, so this doesn’t count.
  • Optional bonus challenges and difficulty settings do count for this list. For example, Terraria’s journey difficulty is easy, but playing in Master mode makes it a challenging experience, and the optional seeds that can make the game even more challenging past that will also be considered. Anything dev-intended to raise the difficulty counts.

That said, I’ll be going from least to most difficult, in my opinion, and giving each of these 21 games on this list a rating for their difficulty.

The average game would get a 5/10, but the highest games on this list get a 9/10 or a 10/10. This difficulty is based mainly on how much of a struggle each game is to finish and how difficult I think they are.

Terraria

terraria
Image by Monica Phillips
  • Difficulty Rating: 7/10
  • Genre: Sandbox RPG

This game can be either the hardest on this list or the most easy-going experience, which is why it’s so low on this list.

The issue with rating Terraria in terms of difficulty is that there are four difficulty settings, and the world is also randomly generated, meaning every playthrough is just a bit different from the last. The game expects you to play it over and over again.

I decided to average it out to around a 7/10, mostly just because Master and Expert mode are both some of the most challenging but fun experiences I’ve ever played in a game, especially when taking into account required fights like Wall of Flesh, Plantera, and Moon Lord, as well as optional ones like the Empress of Light, especially in the daytime.

Terraria is also known for having an extremely steep learning curve, to the point where the game getting brought up on Twitter usually leads to people complaining about starting it.

If you were to play through this on Master without internet access for the first time, it’d be an insane and cruel challenge, but knowledge is power. And you can take as much time as you need in between challenges.

Inscryption

inscryption

  • Difficulty Rating: 7/10
  • Genre: Roguelike Deckbuilder

Inscryption is, like many other games on this list (kind of), a roguelike.

Being a Roguelike inherently makes the game challenging, making them take a few entries here. Inscryption’s base game is pretty standard in difficulty, and for the sake of not spoiling it, I’ll say that Act 1 and Act 3 are the most challenging parts.

The game’s real challenge comes in the decently new Kaycee’s mod update, adding a proper roguelike mode to the game that considerably ups the challenge of Act 1.

The goal is still to make exploits and loops with your deck of cards to fight against enemies, but if you want to progress, you’ll have to keep stacking on challenges.

By the end of the game, you’ll be dealing with intense enemies, little to no leeway for mistakes, and have to play almost perfectly to survive.

Kaycee’s mod also balances out some of the more egregious exploits in the standard game, making the game extremely difficult if you’re not already adept at it.

Axiom Verge

axiom verge
Image from Axiom Verge Steam Store Page
  • Difficulty Rating: 7/10
  • Genre: Metroidvania

While Metroid games haven’t necessarily gained a reputation for being particularly difficult (aside from maybe Metroid Dread), Axiom Verge is heavily inspired by the Nintendo series with quite a bit of extra challenge.

It’s set in an even more unforgiving and hostile alien world, and unlike Samus, you don’t have a giant suit of armor.

There’s also an added Hard mode, giving you an even more formidable challenge if you seek it out. The original game is only as challenging as Super Metroid, but with some added confusion.

Still, this hard mode ramps it up even further, making you get less health, take more damage, and give you a thoroughly harrowing experience from start to finish.

I am Bread

i am bread
Image from I am Bread Steam Page
  • Difficulty Rating: 7/10
  • Genre: Simulation Platformer(?)

I Am Bread is more of a silly game that fits nicely with titles like Getting Over It or QWOP, more designed to be frustrating than a real, fun game you can play.

It tasks you with controlling a piece of bread in the most unintuitive way possible, trying to get both sides toasted with whatever heating element you can reach before becoming inedible.

This one is the most iconic of these types of games, so you can feel free to slot in any other “annoying on purpose” games alongside this one because I don’t think I need to say almost the same thing for several titles.

It’s hard because the developers thought it would be funny to make you press six buttons at once; that’s about it. Once you get the controls down, you win.

This game, in particular (along with Getting Over It, which I feel deserves at least a bit of a mention for being a bit different than the rest), has some actual progression.

It goes from a simple trek across a kitchen floor to a toaster to trying to grill yourself on a car engine in a garage. Overall, decent game to watch YouTubers play, but it is frustrating on its own.

Bloodstained Ritual of the Night

bloodstained ritual of the night
Image from Bloodstained Steam Page
  • Difficulty Rating: 8/10
  • Genre: Metroidvania

Upping the difficulty quite a bit, we get into the vania part of Metroidvanias, with Castlevania always renowned for its difficulty.

Castlevania games have a similar “unlocking doors with upgrade-shaped keys” format to Metroid but with far more brutal combat and usually a far more significant focus on enemies and bosses throughout the world.

One of the best parts about Bloodstained Ritual of the Night is that not only does it revive this gameplay format in the modern day, it does it with quite a few key players in the making of some classic Castlevania games, meaning most of the charm and challenge that was seen in those games is present in this indie love letter to Symphony of the Night.

You can even name your character NIGHTMARE to unlock hard mode from the start, making the challenging combat and demanding boss encounters even more difficult.

Overall, you’re getting a lot of content, and like Axiom Verge, you can miss quite a few upgrades or go out of your way to make the game even harder by going faster.

Downwell

downwell
Image by Monica Phillips
  • Difficulty Rating: 8/10
  • Genre: Arcade Platformer

Going from modern classics to a straight-up arcade game, Downwell is a straightforward platforming shooter with an incredibly engaging gameplay feel that functions like most games of the arcade era.

This is to say; it’s purposefully designed to try and kill you as much as it can while keeping you engaged and having fun; it’s just that this one doesn’t take quarters. (Well, it’s usually priced at just a few, but that’s not the point.)

You die in just about a few hits and must descend a well with gun boots, refreshing your ammo by either landing on enemies or flat ground.

The game encourages you to keep landing on enemies (which is almost always dangerous) through a challenging combo meter that definitely shouldn’t give me as much serotonin as it does.

The game only has around 12 levels, all of which are only a minute or longer, which might make you think it’s too short to be this high up on the list, but trust me when I say I’ve sunk way too many hours into this game and only got to the final boss once, dying about halfway through.

This game is challenging but always fair and can be furthered in difficulty with the different styles it offers.

Crypt of the Necrodancer

crypt of the necrodancer
Image from Crypt of the Necrodancer Steam Page
  • Difficulty Rating: 8/10
  • Genre: Action Rhythm

You may think it weird to put a Rhythm game on this list, but Crypt of the Necrodancer keeps the beat while having you beat enemies to death.

The combat in this game is simple: moving along a grid and taking turns with the enemies, and deciding to either attack or move, but unlike tactical games, this one makes you act on the beat of the music, with little time to think.

I’ve seen almost everyone that’s gotten into this game give up before the final act.

Even with the somewhat easier sequel (I think?) Cadence of Hyrule, made to appeal to a more casual audience and general Zelda fans, still manages to be incredibly difficult at times, often throwing you for loops, keeping you in the dark on items all the time, and being a rouge-lite.

Overall, if you’re planning on beating this game, you better have a good ear for rhythm and be able to think quickly.

Even more problematic is that there are extra unlockable characters, some of which make the game harder, including one that has half a heart of health, makes the game move at two times the speed, and dies if you miss a beat. Have fun with that one.

Hades

hades
Image from Hades Steam Page
  • Difficulty Rating: 8/10
  • Genre: Roguelite Action

Hades is an isometric, combat-centric roguelite where you must escape from Hell’s depths. Given this premise, it’s easy to imagine why the game has earned its difficult reputation, often throwing you into claustrophobic, difficult situations where you must fight out of scenarios without getting hurt too much.

Due to some permanent NPCs joining you, each run will get a bit easier than the last.

Once you’ve finished your first run, though, you gain access to even more modifiers that can make your subsequent runs more and more complex, as well as being able to start your save file on Hell mode, which completely disables the accessibility option that would make the game easier, as well as adding five heat to your new challenges from the start.

Lisa: The Painful

lisa the painful
Image from Lisa: The Painful Steam Page
  • Difficulty Rating: 8/10
  • Genre: RPG

Lisa is a game that’s quite strange to put on this list. It’s not particularly execution-heavy, but it does ask quite a bit out of you in decision-making, asking you to make permanent and terrible decisions that will impact the gameplay and make you regret your entire playthrough.

It’s not as much of a standard difficulty but more of a morally tricky game to play.

The game does have that extra layer of traditional RPG difficulty, more so than other RPGs tend to. There are a lot of grinding and dead zones in between inns where you can heal, and generally, it is trying to be as painful as it can be, per the title.

It’s also getting a Definitive Edition in just a few days, so this one is worth a look.

Dwarf Fortress

dwarf fortress
Image from Dwarf Fortress Steam Page
  • Difficulty Rating: 8/10
  • Genre: Strategy Simulation

If you’re having trouble parsing what’s happening in the above screenshot, don’t worry, that’s the point.

It’s a game in the same vein as SimCity or Rimworld, where you primarily look around a randomly-generated world, controlling dwarves and trying to play god and get them to construct a prosperous society, but barely being able to interfere.

Where this game gets its difficulty is learning it. There are many options and little instruction or tutorial on what anything means.

Suppose you make a prosperous society that prospers independently without looking anything up online. In that case, that’s an outstanding achievement and takes a lot of messing around and finding out.

I saw my friends who managed to get way too into this game making fun of people for wondering how a game implementing UI was an achievement.

This long-running project used to not have barely any visuals, everything represented by text, with the original version being even more cryptic and difficult to get into without help.

The Witness

the witness
Image by Monica Phillips
  • Difficulty Rating: 8/10
  • Genre: Puzzle

In a similar if not identical vein to Dwarf Fortress, The Witness prides itself on having little to no learning curve whatsoever, just throwing you into a world full of puzzles and leaving you on your own to figure them all out.

The most you get in this game is a controller prompt or two, but no hints or advice are given if you’re stuck on something.

I remember trying to play this game, getting stuck for a solid half an hour on a single puzzle, but still too intent on experiencing the developer’s intended way of playing the game to give up and find a guide, so instead, I just gave up and didn’t keep playing the game.

You could look up a guide, and this game becomes trivial at that point.

That is a bit of the issue with trying to rate the difficulty of this game and Dwarf Fortress, both are difficult exclusively because of their vast learning curve, but nowadays, you can look up any problem you encounter on them.

I decided to place them both here since knowledge can’t buy you skill, and the next games take a ton of talent.

Cruelty Squad

cruelty squad
Image from Cruelty Squad Steam Page
  • Difficulty Rating: 8/10
  • Genre: Psychadelic Shooter

Cruelty Squad is a physically tricky game for most people to play, and by that, I don’t mean it’s the most execution-heavy or incredibly challenging game out there; it’s just highly disorienting and abrasive to look at at times.

This is its kind of difficulty, and I heavily respect its unique take, even if it’s about as challenging as your average DOOM-inspired shooter on paper.

It should be said that you absolutely should not try to play this game if you’re particularly prone to Epilepsy. Since it’s challenging so many different ideas of what a game can or should look like, it will be a mash of flashing lights and colors that aren’t just unpleasant but dangerous to some.

Still, it’s a challenging and complex game if you’re not sensitive to it.

Dead Cells

dead cells
Image from Dead Cells Steam Page
  • Difficulty Rating: 9/10
  • Genre: Action Roguelike

As previously stated, Rougelikes tend to get a free pass onto this list, and Dead Cells is the definitive indie combat-focused roguelike.

It focuses on bringing new weapons and fighting a bunch of pretty difficult enemies, often getting compared to Dark Souls, and yeah, I can see why; it’s because it’s tough and has a dodge roll.

This is one of those games that will never hesitate to throw you straight into challenging situations and watch as you flail around in what is usually still the tutorial area in most other games.

Most Dead Cells enemies can kill you if you’re not timing your dodges, hitting them while watching their attacks, and playing well.

Whenever you beat a boss in Dead Cells, you even get Boss Stem Cells, permanent items that further increase the difficulty while giving you extra cells as a reward.

There’s not much reason to do this, but if you want to increase the difficulty of this already pretty tricky game, you can keep adding more and more stem cells, up to five.

Salt and Sanctuary

salt and sanctuary
Image from Salt and Sanctuary Steam Page
  • Difficulty Rating: 9/10
  • Genre: Action Metroidvania

You can take everything I said about Dead Cells, change Rougelike to Metroidvania, and it would still pretty much apply to Salt and Sanctuary.

It’s a game with some extreme Dark Souls inspiration, giving you an extremely in-depth combat system in a bleak and unforgiving world where all the enemies want you to die.

It does have an even higher difficulty setting after you’ve finished it at least once, and that, on top of the already brutal combat, makes this a surefire game to go for if you’re looking for a gritty, dark, and overall highly challenging and demanding game on the same difficulty level as most Soulsborne titles, just in the 2nd dimension.

Read More: Salt and Sacrifice Review

Cuphead

cuphead
Image from Cuphead Steam Page
  • Difficulty Rating: 9/10
  • Genre: Run and Gun

Probably one of the most unexpectedly tricky games on this list, Cuphead presents itself in the goofy Rubber Hose animation style. Still, you’d be shocked at how unforgiving and brutal this game is. It plays a lot like a more modern version of Contra, with an added parry system and several more mechanics and items up its sleeve.

Cuphead splits its levels into a few different types, with more standard platforming levels involving enemies flying at you that tend to be a little more chill than usual. As well as bosses, which are either straight-up fights to the death or auto scrollers, both of which try their best to decimate you at every turn, often being called a Bullet Hell.

Once you’ve beaten the game on Simple or Regular, you can also increase the difficulty to Expert Mode.

This all gets more and more challenging once you consider the game’s ranking system, incentivizing you to go for a high score on every level that often makes it one of the more difficult challenges out there, especially in this genre.

Pathologic 2

pathologic 2
Image from Pathologic 2 Steam Page
  • Difficulty Rating: 9/10
  • Genre: Open World Horror

Pathologic 2 is designed to drop you right into a bleak, hellish, apocalyptic open-world where you’re expected to make extremely tough choices and do almost everything yourself.

One of the more challenging aspects of this is either trying to take care of everyone’s needs (including your own) or letting people go unattended to and potentially making enemies.

This game has an “intended” difficulty setting you can choose when starting it up, but the difficulty settings provided are dynamic. Despite that, I’ve heard of people lowering everything to be as easy as possible and still suffering.

The game does allow you to ignore everyone else and practically survive and live in isolation (at the expense of missing the story), and it’s so open-ended that it’s hard to rank higher or lower than 9/10.

I Wanna Be the Guy

i wanna be the guy
Image by Kayin on Itch.io
  • Difficulty Rating: 9/10
  • Genre: Platformer

One of the most indie of indie games ever, I Wanna Be the Guy is the precursor to games like Meat Boy and Celeste, a tough-as-nails platformer where theoretically everything should be your fault. I find this game very unpolished and quite a bit more unfair (like a Mega Man version of Kaizo Mario) than most others, but it is still worth mentioning.

A single person made it, and it primarily acts as a Mega Man 2 clone, and released as far back as 2007 with a remaster in 2020.

For context, Cave Story was released just three years earlier, so this was very much in the early ages of indie gaming and one of the first to stick with the gimmick of being an extremely challenging and somewhat unfair game.

I remember when I was younger, I stuck this game on a thumb drive just so I could play it if the internet ever went down because no matter what, this game would be so tricky I’d spend forever playing it.

While I feel like nowadays, there are more challenging games that’ll last you longer; this one is still highly iconic.

Super Meat Boy

super meat boy
Image by Anthony Yates
  • Difficulty Rating: 9/10
  • Genre: Platformer

Another certified indie classic, Meat Boy earned its reputation in almost precisely the same way I Wanna Be the Guy did, just with a far more original premise of being a living block of meat and having a minimal move set, only able to stick to walls, jump, and wall jump around a ton of deadly spikes, pits, salt, and various other things.

The game starts decently manageable, and everything runs on a consistent cycle.

The camera is zoomed out enough that you’ll get about a second to react to anything you see, yet it still manages to be one of the more challenging games on this list. Every time you die, it’s your fault, but you still tend to die exceptionally often.

The game has loads of optional unlockable characters and just a ton of extra stuff to go for in the way of collectibles or challenging bonus levels, all of which amount to a game packed to the brim with highly challenging levels that never get into the realm of being wholly frustrating and unfair, and you pretty much always feel like you’re progressing.

Celeste

celeste
Image from Monica Phillips
  • Difficulty Rating: 9/10
  • Genre: Platformer

Celeste is, once again, a tough-as-nails platformer (wow! three in a row!) that is more focused on exciting movement tech and level design that pushes your limited moveset to its heights. There are still many moments of stressfully platforming across dangerous spikes, but it also sometimes feels more like an execution-based puzzle game.

Celeste starts pretty manageable but still refuses to pull its punches.

Even in the first level, I’d say we see more difficult platforming than most of Nintendo’s output, and it just keeps climbing in difficulty until you’re pulling off the most insane feeling chains of inputs and techniques that make the first level feel like a whole piece of cake in comparison.

It’s also got some of the most content out of any of the platformers on this list, pretty much always getting more complex and more problematic as it goes on, with 23 levels that vary in length and usually challenge you in extreme ways at least once.

The final screen of Chapter 9 is one of the most challenging segments ever put into a video game, bar none, and the Golden Strawberries that require you to do an entire chapter damageless are one of the most intense challenges ever.

Hollow Knight

hollow knight
Image from Hollow Knight Fandom Wiki
  • Difficulty Rating: 10/10
  • Genre: Metroidvania

Every so often, a game comes around that gets so incredibly well-renowned for its difficulty that you have to experience it to believe, and Hollow Knight is absolutely one of those games. Hollow Knight is a unique take on Metroid, offering a big combat focus, with every ability benefiting exploration and taking on enemies.

I’ve beaten Celeste’s chapter 9, I’ve beaten Ballos in Cave Story, and I’ve finished Terraria Calamity Mod’s Death mode, but I cannot complete all of Hollow Knight.

The game’s standard runtime is already pretty tricky; beating the true final boss and even just some essential exploration are always challenging, no matter what.

This gets even more brutal when you consider Hollow Knight’s optional difficulty mode, Steel Soul, which introduces permadeath to an already tough game.

The biggest challenge and one of the most brutal challenges in any game are the Pantheons, gauntlets of boss after boss with little time to heal in between, capping off with some of the most demanding bosses in the game.

Slay the Spire

slay the spire
Image from Slay the Spire Fandom Wiki
  • Difficulty Rating: 10/10
  • Genre: Roguelike Deckbuilder

Finally, at the top, a game that requires both immense skill and some incredible intelligence to pull off. This is like if Inscryption removed its horror elements, then made you horrified by how cruel a game can be.

Slay the Spire has you building a deck, climbing a tower, and using your deck of magical cards to fight enemies, usually dying before hitting the end.

The game has only four main areas in the primary campaign. While that might seem like a small amount, these areas contain many different challenges, all of which you need to take on for extra rewards and items to survive the oncoming onslaught of future enemies that will almost always find a way to break your defenses.

Every area ends with a random boss, each one getting extremely difficult, usually super tanky, and always able to kill you if you aren’t careful.

There’s also the Ascension mode, which has you playing through the game, getting more difficult each time, going up to 20 levels that get more cruel with each layer you get to.

Honorable Mentions

risk of rain 2

  • Cave Story is just under what I’d consider difficult enough to put on this list, but the Blood Stained Sanctuary is an iconic and hellish experience.
  • Risk of Rain 2 is challenging and sometimes not difficult. You’re supposed to have friends carry you, and even more so than other roguelikes, it depends on the random items that can drop. For that reason, I didn’t want to put it on this list; it’s just way too random to rank and easy if you have friends.
  • Subnautica, on paper, isn’t that hard; it’s just that the game is way too good at its horror aspect and scares me into not progressing at all. A similar thing can be said for most horror games not on the list; I personally have horrible anxiety, so I’d be unable to judge them fairly. Miaso, Mermaid Swamp, and Darkwood are a few games that fall under that.
  • Rain World is a strange case, I feel like it would probably average to around an 8/10 on this list, but everyone’s playthrough is different based on the color of slugcat they chose. They’re based around different playstyles (even though the game is terrible at telling you this), so there’s not a hard or easy difficulty, just different playstyles that make this one not a set-in-stone difficult game but also not an easy one.
  • Furi is, plain and simple, a game about fighting bosses, and I feel as though it gets brought up as one of the more brutal indie games. Still, it’s mostly just a series of boss battles to banging music, with little more than a difficulty setting at the start to challenge you once you’ve gotten the combat down.
  • Ender Lilies covers much of the same ground as Salt and Sanctuary, Dead Cells, and Hollow Knight; it’s essentially 2D Dark Souls, but definitely worth a look.

FAQs

Question: What’s the most Difficult Game of All Time?

Answer: Difficulty is subjective, but Slay the Spire, Hollow Knight, and Celeste all offer some of the most significant challenges.

Question: What’s the Hardest Platformer of All Time?

Answer: Celeste is one of the most challenging platformers ever while being highly fair in its design.

Question: What’s the Hardest Challenge in a Video Game?

Answer: Hollow Knight’s Pantheon 5 has you fighting through every boss in the game and is a challenging gauntlet.

Hardest Indie Games of All Time: Conclusion

While I don’t think it’s possible to cover every single one of the most difficult indie games, I think this list, while not comprehensive, does include pretty much every indie game I’ve heard people constantly talking about giving up on or spending hours and hours grinding away at them in the hopes they come back skilled enough to overcome it.

I’m pretty proud that I’ve beaten and even completed many of these games, and if you have, you should be too.

I’d recommend most of them, especially Downwell because it’s incredibly cheap, and Celeste, Hollow Knight, and Terraria because they’re all incredible bang for your buck, and any of these games will be there to give you a hard but good time.

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