7 Games With Devastating Permadeath

4. Mass Effect

The original Mass Effect may have aged poorly in a few respects (and we discussed it in our Mass Effect-focused Laser Time); the inventory system is a boondoggle, the infinite ammo system makes for intolerable reload times, the combat itself isn’t up to snuff against other shooters, and the Mako driving sequences are dreadful. One area where the trilogy starter *actually* outdoes its two successors? Moral choices when it comes to your party. In Mass Effect 2 and 3, the sequences where you chose between two party members were rarer and were far more cut-and-dry in terms of morality; most of your allies could be saved, and any time you had a choice for one to die, it was in favor of recruiting a real jerk of a replacement. This was not the case when you had to choose between Kaidan and Ashley near the end of Mass Effect.

At the beginning of Commander Shepard’s adventure, he or she has two human allies searching for Saren. Ultimately, you’ll have the chance to recruit far more dynamic alien teammates like Liara, Garrus, and Wrex, and while the latter ally can be killed during the campaign, the only time you have to pick between crewmates is when circumstances force one of the humans to stay behind and arm a bomb on the planet of Virmire. Regardless of who you choose, the other squadmate will be relegated to a quick cameo in Mass Effect 2 and spend half of Mass Effect 3 in a coma, but there’s still substantial story to ingest for each character in the time you do get together, at the expense of a dead squadmate. So who do you choose? The boring man or the space racist? Maybe Mass Effect Andromeda will make the first “somebody dies” choice a tad more interesting for the next saga.-Dave

3. The Walking Dead

Just like in Mass Effect, many elements of Telltale’s award-winning Walking Dead series (not to be confused with Activision’s bad Walking Dead game) have improved since the first-ever outing. Characters have become more dynamic and less reliant on comic continuity, the action has become more intense, and the episode-ending tunes are more likely to elicit bouts of sobbing. In another parallel to Mass Effect 1, one of the most far-reaching moral choices comes early on. Near the end of premiere episode “A New Day,” zombies will overrun the temporary hideout and Lee is forced to choose between socially awkward inventor Doug and battery averse reporter Carley.


Ultimately, the person who isn’t chosen ends up getting killed in the crossfire of a confrontation with Lily, but the ensuing time between that event in episode 3 gives time for either Doug to stretch his inventiveness or Carly to approach a romance with Lee, so suffice it to say, you’ll be missing out on some important Walking Dead events regardless of who becomes zombie food in the Telltale series premiere. -Dave

2. Fire Emblem

Fire Emblem Permadeath 2

Fire Emblem has been known as Nintendo’s most hardcore series from day one. Back when it debuted on the Famicom, the turn-based strategy game was synonymous with punishing difficulty even on “normal,” and permadeath was a huge part of that. Besides the lead character, any party member could die in battle and be gone forever. All the experience points earned over dozens of battles, the cool gear you crafted for them, their random dialogue? All gone in the blink of an eye, and could only be brought back by reloading an hours-old save (classic Fire Emblem had no mid-battle saves). It certainly made victories more satisfying, but you knew you were in it for the long haul.


After Fire Emblem icons Marth and Roy debuted in Smash Bros., FE titles finally started seeing release outside Japan, and Nintendo lightened up the difficulty a tad, though permadeath is still a major element. It was only in the very recent entries that you could play the complete game on a lower difficulty setting without permadeath. Hardcore nerds like myself scoffed at it and still play it the traditional way, and intend to keep the experience pure with each new entry. It simply doesn’t feel like Fire Emblem without it. -Hank

1. XCOM: Enemy Unknown

When modern gamers discuss permadeath, XCOM is one of the first games to enter the conversation, because it manages to mix the brutality of losing a high-level character with the emotion of seeing a friend fall in battle. Due to the ability to name your character and customize their look (and compounded by the threadbare narrative), you’ll likely ascribe stories of heroism and sacrifice to soldiers you recruited, armed, dressed, and named.

Tweet your friend's virtual death! It won't be creepy at all!
Tweet your friend’s virtual death! It won’t be creepy at all!

In the rough-and-tumble world of XCOM, one wrong move can mean the difference between a successful attack and death at the hand of the alien menace. Unless you’re the type to reload old saves, a killed-in-action ally and whatever experience they garnered is gone. For maximum pathos, it’s recommended that you name these freedom fighters after friends and family so that you’ll really feel the pain when they pass on. If they’re fellow XCOM players, they’ll likely appreciate your story of their character. It’s pretty much the only context in which you can tell a friend “you just died” that won’t be weird for them. -Dave

Do you have another preferred permadeath game that we didn’t discuss? Did you bring Dave or Hank with you in XCOM? Sound off in the comments below!

4 thoughts on “7 Games With Devastating Permadeath

  1. I’d like to give out an honorable mention to a game that just came out of early access in the past week which was The Darkest Dungeon. It uses permadeth in an x-com like way and the gameplay is just as stressful too. While you can easily just get new recruits you may not end up with the types you’ll need in your party, like a healer, mechanics like that will make exploring dungeons even harder. You guys would love it, so I’ll highly recommend it.

  2. Shout out to Minecraft! Very few games instill terror like that one, and not through creepy music or monsters popping out (though that happens too) but the fear of one misstep, and you could fall to your death, drown, or burn up in lava, losing everything you have with you, what could amount to hours of work, puts that one on the Permadeath list for me.

    1. thats more item based though and not with characters, maybe if you mentioned the option where you set the option to make the whole map being deleted after you die then i would say thats acceptable.

  3. If you played Final Fantasy VII without knowing (SPOILER from 1997) Aeris dies and had her as one of your main three teammates, that put a big dent in your power after her death. All the hours of grinding levels plus the gear and materia she had equipped went to waste.

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