Difficulty is a bit of a touchy subject when it comes to video games. On occasion it can be the element that elevates a title to the next level, with the likes of Dark Souls, Bloodborne, and Nioh using their tough nature as an advantage. On the other hand, however, a brutal difficulty has the potential to lead to frustration, unfairness, and the feeling of wasted time. To Leave attempts to balance the two extremes, even marketing itself around its tough difficulty, but is there still a compelling gameplay experience to be found here?
In terms of story, To Leave remains incredibly vague throughout. You play as a boy called Harm, who has locked himself away in his apartment for weeks on end in an attempt to restore power to a device called the Origin Gate. To do this, he must activate eight harvesting temples, which are accessed via the magical door in his bedroom.
Its premise is fairly simple, but what To Leave attempts to explore is anything but. Mental health is at the heart of this story, with every level designed to invoke a different mood, feeling, or state. It’s obvious that Harm is severely depressed, and with even his only way of getting away from it all in his magical door throwing continuous challenges at him, you begin to feel for him more and more. Nevertheless, this is a plot that’s very much up for interpretation. With no real definitive sequence of events, the journey is more about what you learn and take from it rather than investing in a concrete narrative.
At its core, To Leave is a 2D platformer. As Harm clings to his magical doorframe, the two will fly about a level, landing on large rocks for safety and avoiding collisions with anything else. These personified statues act as save points, and if you were to crash into literally anything in the level, you’ll be teleported back to one of them. But you can’t remain floating in the air forever, as vibrance and power output gauges govern how long you’ll be able to fly for. These do deplete fairly slowly and you’ll power them back up by collecting ghostly faces within the environment, and their complete exhaustion only comes into play when you’re faced with a particularly challenging section.
Speaking of which, let’s tackle the difficulty. To Leave markets itself as a hard game, and it's certainly not kidding. The first half or so of the game is fairly light work, with only one or two areas that are likely to give you a tough time, but once you race towards the end, it’s like hitting a brick wall reinforced by concrete. The back half of the title is incredibly difficult, to the point where we doubt the majority of players will be able to even finish the game. It’s not necessarily unfair, but there are set-pieces that just don’t seem possible to carry out. As well as that, the existence of the vibrance and power output meters means that you’ll only have so many attempts at a certain section before you die for good, and that means repeating the entire area again. And it’s here where frustration really starts to set in, as the time spent getting back to the troubling segment is likely to be in vain as you bang your head against the wall in hope that this time around you’ll manage to make it through. There will be some that manage to grind past each and every challenge the game puts in front of you, but for the majority, this is simply too difficult.
In complete contrast, the hand-drawn cutscenes that break up gameplay are absolutely beautiful. Animated wonderfully, they’ll help to tell the tale of Harm’s dreary apartment and the neon filled city outside. The platforming levels themselves fare well too, with colourful backdrops that are sure to impress as vibrancy gives way to gloom.
To Leave is certainly a competent 2D platformer, but its brutal difficulty is sure to stop the majority of its players from even finishing the game. Fortunately, its story and visuals are keen to excite to the point where they may just about be worth your frustration.