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Variation of the Self-Imposed Challenge. Restricted to RPGs and games with RPG Elements, particularly experience and levels. The goal is to complete the game with your characters' levels being as low as possible. The player avoids or flees as many Random Encounters as possible (while reducing the amount of experience he is forced to gain, if that option is available) while still defeating the required enemies and winning the game. The challenge can be expressed in terms of aggregate levels (all characters' total levels, added up), average character level, or the level of the character with the lowest level, depending on the game.

This challenge is just impossible in some games, but others are well-suited for it. These include games where tactics or reaction time outweighs raw power, as well as games where characters' statistics can be raised to a competitive level without Level Grinding.

Compare Minimalist Run, where the objective is to finish the game using as little equipment as possible.

Examples of Low-Level Run include:

  • Chrono Trigger is well suited for Low Level Runs: characters gain no experience while knocked out, and the battle system is designed in such a way that statistical bonuses gained from equipment far outstrip those gained from Level Grinding. It's possible to beat the game with the main character's level being as low as 1[1]
  • Tales of Symphonia features a special mode where experience gained is determined by the quality of the Combos the player uses. This is intended to reward players who are good at the battle system, but it can be used to keep the characters' levels low by deliberately performing poorly. Since the game is an action-RPG, a good player can avoid all damage, and keep enemies locked in infinite-Combos regardless of the characters' levels. There are videos of low-level parties, with Colette and Raine (the game's healer and defensive mage) leading the battle, defeating Abyssion — the single toughest enemy in the game by poisoning him and dodging attacks for several minutes.
    • There is a title for Lloyd obtained by getting to a certain point in the game with a party level total below a certain number.
    • The New Game+ gives you an option to halve the amount of experience gained, useful for these kinds of runs.
  • Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars similarly features an item that allows the player to gamble the experience he earns. The item is intended to be a bonus, but it can also be used to deliberately retard the characters' development. Therefore, it's possible to beat the game with the characters at level 14 or below, almost half of the recommended level for the endgame.
    • There is, in fact, a walkthrough available on GameFAQs detailing steps to complete the game without having Mario advance beyond Level 3. The Level 3 Run is possible mostly because it is possible to turn Mario's standard 3 FP Jump attack into a Disc One Nuke. For later portions of the game, usage of some hard to find items such as the Star Egg and Lazy Shell is necessary to turn Bowser into a Stone Wall.
  • It is possible to go through the Paper Mario games with the starting stats of 10HP and 5FP. Level-ups are given to the Badge Points (which do nothing except equip badges, which can modify attack, defense, etc.) What makes it difficult is that enemies have high attack power late to post-game. Paper Mario the Thousand Year Door, for example, has a late-game boss that can do 10 Attack in one move if you're not prepared, and the final boss can do 7 attack three times. These are very high stats for these games.
  • Every Final Fantasy game has had someone do this, including the ones that don't actually use levels:
    • Performing a Low-Level Run for much of Final Fantasy VI is essential to those looking to max out their stats as much as possible, keeping levels as low as possible (by avoiding battles, juggling characters when you have to fight, and manipulating when characters rejoin the group) until the player has the right espers, which each grant a different stat boost when the character holding them levels up. The endeavor is helped by a few Good Bad Bugs such as the Vanish-Doom Game Breaker and isn't a strict low level run, as it still allows free Level Grinding of Guest Star Party Members and (at certain times) characters who can't equip espers to gain strength and money. [2]
    • Of the Final Fantasy games, Final Fantasy VIII is most suited to low-level runs. Most of your combat power derives from junctioned Guardian Forces and Magic, not level-grinding, and your enemies don't get numerically stronger to match. Thus, a low-level run is just too easy.
      • While conversely, a high-level but no-Junctioning game is the hardest self-imposed challenge in the entire series. It's impossible. Early in the game, by killing a few water monsters and junctioning their items, you can get 60 strength; at maximum level, unjunctioned, you get a max of 50. No items, no magic, no summons, and no card games either, without a junction.
      • Ironically, Final Fantasy VIII is the only game that makes it easy to get through the game without earning Experience Points. Bosses don't provide EXP; and random-encounter monsters can be turned into playing cards using a special ability (don't ask), which likewise averts EXP gain. Using this method, it is possible to beat Final Fantasy VIII without earning a single level or Experience Point.
    • The level 1 challenge in Final Fantasy IX. Yes, you can beat the whole game this way and even take out Ozma, the hidden superboss. Not for the faint of heart or patience, the hardest part being avoiding leveling up. [3]
    • Final Fantasy X has what's called a NSGNSNCNONENNENBB challenge — that is, No Sphere Grid, No Summoning, No Customizing, No Overdrives, No Escape, No "No Encounters", and No Blitzball. Purportedly, the closest anyone has ever gotten to completing this challenge is getting the final boss down to about half health. Of course, variations of this challenge exist with only some of the previously mentioned restrictions in place.
      • Uniquely for Final Fantasy, since experience in X doesn't net you anything until you spend it on stats and abilities, you can fight (and win) all the battles you like and still be playing "low level" (NSG). This has obvious use in farming.
    • A Low-Level Run of Final Fantasy XII is nicknamed a 122333 run, because the lowest your party's levels can be is Vaan at level 1, Fran and Balthier at level 2, and the other three at level 3.
    • At least one person has attempted to get as far as they could in Final Fantasy XIII without using the Crystarium. Turns out you can get to the last boss of Chapter 9 before it becomes (nearly?) impossible to progress.
  • Fire Emblem games do everything in their power to make a Low-Level Run impossible, with the specter of permanent character death always looming and untrained characters becoming increasingly (and mathematically) unable to stand up to enemies the more you neglect them. However, each game usually gives you several pre-promoted powerhouse units to recruit that are weaker over the long run, but ensure that you won't become completely stuck (excluding the very early Famicom installments).
    • This guy has many videos that demonstrate the next best thing to a Low-Level Run in Fire Emblem: the games are hacked to reduce all stat growths to 0% (stats never increase except from stat boosters and promotion), while usually recruiting all characters, keeping everyone alive, and to really drive the point home, does all of this on the hardest difficulty settings. Suddenly those pre-promotes are a whole lot more valuable to your survival when they're the only people you've got with decent stats. Finishing maps quickly also becomes paramount to avoid having to fight strong reinforcements. The only game in which he lets units die is Shadow Dragon, since the sidequest chapters in that game require you to let enough people get killed to unlock them.
  • Legend of Mana provides experience as crystals dropped on the ground by enemies, which must be picked up in order to gain levels. More significantly, the player affect enemy levels by planning his or her path through the game. As a result, it is quite possible to fight a level 40 final boss at level 1 the first time through the game, and in New Game+ mode encounter level 99 bosses with a level 1 character. As Legend of Mana is an action-RPG, such a challenge is possible, but takes a lot of skill and blacksmithing.
  • Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin has a mode where you can stop your characters from gaining more levels after a certain point. This even allows you to stay at Level 1 the entire game. Since this can only be activated when playing the hardest difficulty level of the game, it can make for an almost impossible challenge when playing as certain characters.
    • But noticeably and notably easy for the main characters, even with the Level 1 restriction, because the money you can grind for, and the variety of vital sub-weapons that can be developed to maximum power, makes all the difference in one's survivability; for example, stock up on lots of potions each time you make a little progress and (ab)use them all together in the same boss fight to take down many earlier bosses. The hardest boss would be Death at around halfway because after that point, start fighting Old Axe Armor enemies until they drop a suit of armor named Ancient Armor, which causes any attack that hits you to only decrease your HP by 10%. The rest of the mode becomes cake among Low Level Runs.
      • The most difficult challenge in the game is to beat Hard mode with a level 1 restriction with the Old Axe Armor. You can't use any of the items you'd normally be able to use with the main characters and your less powerful than Richter and Maria. Dracula takes forever to beat, but it's possible.
    • Order of Ecclesia has level caps in its Hard Mode as well. Presumably, this would be fairly simple for Shanoa (as simple as that game can get) thanks to the Villager sidequests, but may the Ruinous Powers help you if you try it on Albus Mode.
  • In Diablo II, high-level characters could go to the last Waypoint of each act and send a Town Portal to be used by low-level players in their party. This allowed n00bs to gain access to certain areas without completing the prerequisite quests: for example, getting to the Canyon of the Magi without killing the Summoner, or to the Durance of Hate without ever assembling Khalim's Will. This was nerfed in the 1.10 patch.
    • An allegedly popular set of challenges in Diablo II are the 1@17, 2@20, 3@30 Diablo kills — basically, killing the final boss on a difficulty setting at the earliest possible level. To use the Hell entrance in Normal difficulty requires a character level of 17, to access Nightmare difficulty requires a level of 20, and Hell difficulty is accessible at 30. Each challenge is to be attempted solo, though you are not required to attempt or complete any of the earlier challenges to attempt the coveted 3@30.
    • There's also the literal lowest-level-possible challenge, which can be attempted only using outdated patches. And we have the Ironman challenges of various difficulty, the impossible no-items-no-skills-no-stats challenge, and of course any build or item choice less than optimal will be challenging at least to defend against hecklers.
  • Star Ocean: Till the End of Time actually rewards the player for this. The game features battle trophies which are awards for various feats in battle. Three of these (one for each possible difficulty) are awarded for defeating the final boss with a level 1 party, and on higher difficulties up to level 10 is allowed.
  • Star Control II is the most extreme example of this. Although there's no such thing as levels, you can play through the entire game without ever visiting the Rebel Base at Earth. From there you have no upgrades to your flagship, a very short supply of fuel, very few combat ships (gained via alliance pacts, which are rare in themselves) and to top it all off, a new enemy appears every day (about five seconds in real time) headed right at you. You are screwed. The worst part is that even if you can consistently fight off the enemies with 0 damage, each battle resets your ships direction, and due to lack of upgrades, you're forced to travel everywhere with the slowest possible rotation rate and ship speed. Did I mention there's a time limit in the game?
    • This was discovered more than ten years after the game was released, and was not an intended feature. Unfortunately, playing the game like this made it crash immediately before The Very Definitely Final Dungeon (where, in the normal course of things, there's a sequence involving the Rebel Base). Fortunately, by the time it was discovered, the game was already open source and the bug could be fixed easily.
  • The City of Heroes version is to create a 1st level character and race numerous other first levelers through three increasingly dangerous zones. It is an exercise in aggro management, where any villain could kill you with a sneeze and drawing attention is instant death.
  • The first Knights of the Old Republic has a variation of this, as many players will attempt to survive the Taris section of the game on as few levels as possible. This is not to increase the challenge, but rather so they can maximize the number of Jedi levels they can take.
    • Not really much of a challenge because this only applies to your main created character. Feel free to powerlevel your two lackeys to your heart's content. Not to mention grenades can carry you through Taris pretty easily.
  • Speaking of BioWare, Baldurs Gate has had a couple of interesting games. At least two people have played through the first game without gaining XP at all, via a combination of stealth and using enemies against each other. The second game requires you to kill enemies, but minimal XP runs have been completed, with only a few thousand XP gained (the cap being 8 million).
  • Neverwinter Nights, also a Bioware game, is also beatable at a much lower level than you're expected to be.
  • Kingdom Hearts:
    • In the Final Mix+ rerelease of Kingdom Hearts II, there is not only an option for an even more difficult mode not in the original (Critical Mode), but in that mode, there is an ability called EXP Zero, which does exactly what you think it does: You don't earn any EXP, ever, so you can play through the whole game at Level 1. Also, you take double damage and your HP is halved in this mode. The worst part about a level 1 run is the fact that you'll never learn the Once More and Second Chance abilities, which means later on, almost every hit is a One-Hit Kill.
    • This can also be done in the original Kingdom Hearts II by hacking, due to the fact that Antiform has the EXP Zero ability by default.
    • In 358/2 Days, you only increase in level by equipping level-up panels. This allows you to play through the entire game at Level 1, if you want.
    • Likewise in coded. The game actually encourages it by recording the lowest level you've beaten a world at.
  • The closest thing you can do in "Pokemon" to a more conventional low-level run is the "No Evolutions" run. It isn't quite as difficult as you still earn experience, but most players couple this with a "(Enter Species Here) Only Run". Observe.
  • Since you only gain a level in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion when you gain 10 points in your major skills and then sleep, it's relatively simple to acquire very high skill levels while remaining at experience level 1. And since the game's difficulty scales with your level, this is arguably easier than gaining levels the traditional way. Your attributes and equipment will suffer, though. In order to beat the main quest, you must complete at least one of the Daedric artifact quests, each of which has a minimum level, although some are as low as two. It's still possible to complete the game at level 1, but this requires killing an NPC who is about as powerful as the game engine will allow, then giving up her Infinity+1 Sword to short-circuit the quest's level requirement. Alternatively, if you're willing to gain just one level, you can complete the easiest Daedric artifact quest in the game instead.
    • The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind was even more extreme, as the alchemy process was considered a Game Breaker: Because the game was paused when the player stopped to brew potions, a player could brew an INT boosting potion that lasted a short time, drink it, and then immediately brew another potion that provided an even greater bonus (as alchemy stat bonuses were affected by your INT stat), and it would stack to absurd levels until you could create a potion that restored your entire health pool many times over each second for an hour. This allowed the player to wield the game's Infinity+1 Sword without worrying about the required protection (the sword would kill the player without a specific gauntlet to protect them). This exploit can be used to beat the game in under 10 minutes. Oblivion capped this by preventing the player from benefiting from most stat bonuses past 100 (the usual limit).
  • World of Warcraft has two different forms of this; Level 1 Gnome (or Tauren) races often end in an opposing faction's capital, and making your way through is an exercise in aggro management and sheer patience. On the other hand, it's possible to enter many raid dungeons five levels before you are supposed to (the game simply refuses anyone of lower level than that).
    • There are videos of people solo-ing 25-man raid bosses using just the right combination of exploits. Iin particular, someone figured out that a warlock could kite one of the bosses in Serpentshrine Caverns by throwing instant-speed dots and running up and down stairs a lot.
      • This kind of thing is considered an exploit by Blizzard and can easily get your account banned. However in Final Fantasy XI quite a few Ninja (and other jobs) have soloed Jailer of Fortitude without any crying foul from Square Enix. Anyone who has played the game even a little knows just how good Red Mages are at soloing mobs that would normally take six to eighteen players.
    • Not to mention various people succeeding in getting a bunch of level one Gnomes to kill Hogger. Needless to say, they are an amusing spectacle.
      • The Warcraft Hunters Union downed Ysondre (balanced for 40 level 60s) with level 2 hunters, as well as Gnomeregan with a party of level 19 hunters.
    • There are also other interesting challenges, such as trying to get "The Explorer" title at the lowest level possible, which requires visiting a majority of Azeroth. There are also reported cases of "Level 1 Twinks", which (like normal twinks), have incredibly high quality gear, but are forbidden to level past 1 (which can be done just by exploring a bit)
    • A recent addition promoted Low Level Runs to officially-endorsed status by allowing players to disable experience gain altogether
  • There are people crazy enough to take on God Hand on Hard Mode, with only the starting moves, while still keeping their Kick-Me Sign on. By the end of the game, your starting moves are practically Scratch Damage. Hard Mode locks the Dynamic Difficulty on its highest level, "Level Die". The Kick-Me Sign falls off if you use either the God Hand or God Reels. People have beaten the game this way.
  • Many a Speed Run in RPGs can result, inadvertently or deliberately, in a Low-Level Run. For example, winning Fallout 2 in less than half an hour is possible, but even with the amount of XP granted from some of the late-game area quests being insane for a low-level character, you will likely finish the game severely underleveled compared to what most players would feel safe doing.
  • Some Platform Hell Mario ROM hacks enforce a Low-Level Run by having Mario die from doing anything that gets him points (which includes the Goomba Stomp).
  • This is easy to do in Beyond Oasis (aka The Story of Thor), since your character's level is determined by the number of hearts he collects (which also, predictably, increase maximum HP), rather than EXP gained by kills. Furthermore, hearts are rigged to only drop from enemies if you're getting your ass kicked, when you would logically need them. Thus, the game's difficulty rather ingeniously scales itself depending on your skill... or, you can simply go macho and ignore hearts altogether.
  • The introduction of "instanced" areas, where difficulty is determined by a given player's level, has made joining groups with a much lower-level player into a viable tactic in Gaia Online MMO zOMG! The low-level player is sent in first to set the difficulty of the enemies, and then his high-level buddies come in, walk all over the enemies, and revive their sacrificial victim if necessary. Side effects may include situations where the low man is the last person standing against Queen Lorelei... and wins.
  • The Soul Blazer trilogy has different amounts of success with low-level runs. Soulblazer requires the vast majority of monster lairs to be sealed in each level in order to finish that level (as the NPCs do aid you in your quest by supplying items or opening pathways to let you continue). Some can be avoided. But to kill the final boss, Deathtoll, you need the Phoenix magic and the Soul Blade, which requires a bare minimum of level 24 (out of 50); anything less and you can't even touch him , never mind hurt him.
    • Illusion of Gaia has a very unique levelling system, wherein clearing each room of a level gives you a permanent stat increase in either HP, Str, or Def. But when it comes time to face a boss, you get the stat increases anyway, so you underlevelling is actually pointless.
    • Terranigma, on the other hand, has very few monsters that actually have to be killed. Aside from the bosses of course, only a handful of monsters throughout the game have to be killed in order to open certain hitherto blocked gateways, making underlevelling very possible. The game has now been completed at a measly level 13 (out of 50) critical hits of 2 points damage to the final boss (who has like 1200HP or something).
  • A version of this exists in X-Com UFO Defense, in which one uses only default equipment except for the ship needed to get to the final battle. No lasers, no plasma, no stun bombs or blaster launchers...
  • Trying to beat the game with only three hearts is a perennially popular challenge for all The Legend of Zelda games.
    • It's not possible in Link to the Past or Link's Awakening without glitches, as they force you to take the heart to beat a level. It is possible to beat Link to the Past in reverse, to a point, but that's the best you can do. LA, meanwhile, blocks even that by tying several scripted events to dungeon completion.
  • Resident Evil 4 has a varation of this with a No Merchant, No Attache Case run. No Merchant meaning you can never buy new weapons or upgrade your current ones and No Attache Case meaning you can never access your inventory. This means the only weapons you can still use are your combat knife and the basic handgun and you can only use healing items when you find them, so you can never use Yellow Herbs to increase Leon's or Ada's maximum health.
    • Resident Evil 5 has something similar, although the inventory is accessible by default.
  • A River City Ransom tool-assisted speedrun is much faster if it disregards Power Levelling and simply runs to each successive boss and takes them down. Of course, by the final boss fight, it's quicker to trick Simon into attacking himself.
  • Earthbound is both an excellent low level run and a terrible one. The first play area, Onett, turns out to be the biggest challenge in the game; defeating Frank and Frankystein is possible but difficult, but defeating Titanic Ant is virtually impossible without abusing savestates in an emulator, or leveling up once or twice to improve your chances. After that, it's relatively easy in terms of gameplay. However, purists will still find challenge in attempting to dodge seemingly forced battles, including a miniboss fight. At its worst you'll find yourself scrambling for one pixel to avoid a fight.
  • The soullevel 1 challenge in Demons Souls is quite common. Some guys take it a step further though and complete the game in the much harder "New Game +" Mode without leveling up ever. Or beating the game using only your fists.
  • The Gothic expert "The Wonderer" has beaten Gothic II with Expansion with level 6. You can download the videos here (in german).
  • The Epic Battle Fantasy series (as well as Bullet Heaven) allow the player to simply not upgrade, in a somewhat similar way to the sphere grid in Final Fantasy X. Bullet Heaven in particular can get really nasty; compare the first Bonus Boss of four (and yes, the others do get harder) on a Low-Level Run here to that same boss fought with full upgrades.
  • The World Ends With You comes equipped with a level slider, which lets you go as low as 1 and as high as you have advanced. The more you handicap yourself, the higher the drop rate is. It's practically required to set your level to 1 to obtain several rare pins, especially in postgame.
  • Nethack has an unusual example where Low-Level Run is actually a part of a viable strategy. The cost of the divine protection available in Minetown is proportional to the player's level, so rushing for Minetown without leveling allows the player to acquire lots of protection for relatively little money.
  • Wild Arms can be done in a Low-Level Run thanks to a severe abuse of Goat Dolls, an item in the game that allows a character to survive any attack with partially HP. The best part is, you can keep re-equipping more during combat. Experience can be avoided completely after a certain point in this game due to status effect 'forgetfulness', which causes characters not to gain any experience after a fight ends.
  1. It helps that a piece of equipment exists that converts EXP gained into cash. Of course, it's acquired pretty late in the plot. Another critical advantage is that you can learn higher level techs and upgrade character stats (through Tabs) without gaining XP. Part of this indeed due to Wallet. Tubsters are the other key part.
  2. Incidentally, bosses give no EXP in FFVI.
  3. There's a status effect (Virus) that prevents XP gain, making things slightly easier; the biggest problem is one late-game battle where you've been healed and re-statused beforehand, making XP gain unavoidable.