Struggling marks an important milestone in gaming. This reviewer has been playing games for more than three decades, but this is the closest we’ve come to physically launching our controller at the wall.
You play as Troy, a gruesome two-headed mutant blob thing with two heads and two arms. If you’ve ever seen the cult 1982 horror movie Basket Case, he pretty much looks exactly like the monster in that. Put simply, it’s not very pleasant to look at.
Troy isn’t just a helpless mutant. Well, technically he is, but he’s aided by his arms, which are actually separate sentient creatures called Achilles and Hector. Each of them can move independently, and initially, all they can do is move and grab. By controlling each of them you can move Troy through each of the game’s stages: or, at least, that’s the idea.
The reality is far more difficult than that. Struggling is one of those physics-based games where most of the challenge actually lies in being able to even control your character in the first place. If the likes of Octodad: Dadliest Catch, Surgeon Simulator and I Am Bread – games that are deliberately difficult to control – make you bubble with frustration, then this one will make you positively boil over with rage.
In fact, imagine if you were playing Octodad but you only had control of one half of his body, and a second player was expected to control the other half. This is the concept that Struggling expects you to embrace in its co-op mode, where each player controls one of Troy’s arms. Just managing to even move in the first place is a herculean task when you’re playing as a duo, let alone taking on the diverse range of obstacles and enemies that you’re expected to be able to overcome.
With a wife handily nearby and willing to help, we started off by playing Struggling in co-op mode, but the first level alone was causing so many arguments and so much frustration that this idea was quickly scrapped in order to avoid potentially irreparable damage to the marriage. Instead, the game was promptly restarted in single-player mode, where a solo gamer controls both of Troy’s arms with the left and right sticks (with ZL and ZR to grab respectively).
The game’s a little easier in single-player than it is in co-op, but only in the same way that being kicked in the groin is a little less painful than being punched in the face; neither can really be experienced without you being subjected to a lot of pain and potential tears. With a bit of practice, you can at least move relatively smoothly when playing on your own, but that’s when you’re moving along a flat surface – and as the game progresses, these become increasingly rare.
Instead, you’re expected to use your extremely fiddly arms to guide Troy through all manner of obstacles, many of which are conveniently located near-deadly ooze, spikes, enemies and the like. Rest assured that you’ll die so many annoying deaths that it wouldn’t be unusual for even veteran gamers to turn the air bluer than Sonic’s backside while playing this one.
You’re going to need a strong stomach for it too, at least during the opening hour or two. The game opens in a lab and many of the hazards you face are disgusting, enormous mutated blob things with massive mouths, some of which move very quickly and happily swallow you whole. If you’re the squeamish type, this opening section is going to make you extremely uncomfortable; we’d like to think of ourselves as reasonably hardened but one particularly grotesque section involving rats made us viciously squirm in our seat.
Thankfully, the majority of the game isn’t like this, and once you break free from the early sections, the later areas aren’t quite as gross – as long as you can put up with your protagonist’s anguished moans as they flump against walls and stretch to reach across long gaps. Sometimes you’ll strain so much their head will explode, and you’ll be sent back to the last checkpoint, potentially accompanied by a swear word from your own poor mouth. After all, it’s difficult enough as it is getting around without the game punishing you for that too.
Over time you slowly get the hang of the basics. You learn to climb up walls and grip the ceilings. You learn how to grab objects and half-heartedly throw them. You even learn to cling onto tree branches and use your momentum to wiggle back and forth until you can slingshot yourself off them to higher areas. Each time you manage one of these feats the level of satisfaction is off the scale, but only because of the untold levels of frustration you’ve had to go through to reach that point.
You also earn new skills as you progress. The first of these lets you detach your arms from Troy and move them around as individual creatures. While this opens up a new variety of possibilities for puzzles, it also opens up a new variety of ways to annoy you. If moving around with two hands was tricky to get the hang of, you should try it with only one, and some of the puzzles that make use of this skill involve moving your hand through extremely narrow corridors which, combined with the controls seemingly fighting against you all the time, made us feel claustrophobic on occasion.
Occasionally it’ll mix things up with some comedy set-pieces, some of which can be the highlights of the whole adventure. The game rarely surpasses the first ‘boss’, which turns Troy into a ball and has you taking control of other disembodied arms as they grab him and fling him around what’s essentially a grim pinball table, as you try to fire him off pulsating ulcers in order to bring down the giant mutant face singing at the top of its lungs. It’s very disturbing, but we’d be lying if we said we didn’t chuckle.
Other times you’ll be presented with unique ways to make use of the controls you still haven’t really mastered yet anyway. When you struggle to go anywhere with any real conviction, it can be a bit overwhelming when you’re suddenly asked to use two levers and a button to operate a giant crane with a magnet on the end of it. Again, you’ll get there eventually, but not without your blood simmering along the way.
That sums up Struggling as a whole, really (well, the title does, to be fair). Nothing in this game is theoretically so difficult that it’s impossible, but it’s so immensely frustrating to make your way through a ‘puzzle’ platformer where the puzzles are so simple that you know what you’re supposed to do almost every time, but the game’s been designed specifically to be difficult to play.
We appreciate that there’s an audience for this sort of thing, but the difference between Struggling and games like Octodad and Surgeon Simulator is that failure in those games results in comedy: tumbling into a wedding cake, accidentally dropping your instrument in your patient’s body and the like. Here, failure only ever results in your moaning, wailing, two-headed mutant dying in a grim way and respawning back at the start of the obstacle in question, forcing you to repeat the same annoying moment over and over again until you finally get there.
There absolutely is a degree of satisfaction to be had in Struggling, don’t get us wrong. We get the concept of overcoming deliberately obtuse controls to achieve your goal, and the sense of relief every time we reached a new checkpoint was immeasurable. The problem is that this particular game goes a little too far, meaning the relief is less “whew, I managed it, what’s next” and more “well, thank God I don’t have to do that bloody bit again” (with added swear words not suitable for this site). When a game is a series of moments you can’t wait to see the back of, that’s not ideal.
Struggling isn't the first game whose main gimmick is a protagonist who's deliberately difficult to control. Whereas other games do this for comedy effect, though, here it only serves to frustrate. It's difficult enough in single-player, but as a co-op experience you're far more likely to want to slap your friend in the face before you'll high-five them. Success does feel like an accomplishment, but the end rarely justifies the means, making this strictly a game for masochists.