Thanks to a suggestion in response to the last post, I bought and played Banner Saga, and it was a blast. It lets you lose battles and still keep playing, so each battle is able to be a real toss-up. The only punishment is that characters might permanently die (OK that’s kind of a major punishment…) and you gain less “Reknown.” (“Renkown” is used both to buy new items and to upgrade characters in a delightful twist on currency).
And, if you lose too many battles along the way the final battle might be nearly impossible (took many attempts before finally winning by the skin of my teeth). Speaking of battles, they are limited in number, so level grinding is impossible (and once you reach the last battle there are no more opportunities to get stronger, which throws salt on its wounding difficulty).
Now that may not sound like a glowing recommendation, but I played through the whole game in two sittings because it was so fun. I thought it nailed the worldview of “struggling to survive in a harsh, cold climate.” Winning some battles, losing some, suddenly losing a character, and struggling onward no matter what, hoping you can survive the punishing finale… It’s like a brutal, majestic, orchestral version of Oregon Trail.
Also, I forgot to mention an important game in the leveling post- Chrono Trigger! The revolutionary thing it did was make all characters receive experience whether they are in the active party or not. In other RPGs, I don’t like having to worry about which characters are in the group, lest they get too far ahead or behind and then I have to grind to catch old characters up to speed (another source of grinding that I forgot to mention).
Anyway, thanks for all the feedback and sharing of the last post. I feel so viral *blush and swoon*.
In the comments here, on Gamasutra, and on Reddit, many people mentioned that it can actually be fun to grind, and also that they enjoy static enemy levels (as opposed to the level matching approach I described). I guess it goes to show that there are all kinds of play styles and preferences out there.
All we can really do is respect and appreciate all the different kinds of fun, instead of declaring that one play style is the “real” or “best” way. More than anything I hope my posts help people to imagine and explore other ways to playーand hopefully discover something new that they find really fun!