The problem with… The last boss

I’ve been playing video games for the best part of 30 years but I don’t consider myself to be exceptionally skilled. I’ve never excelled at PVP games and I’ve never been top of online leader boards. I don’t mind a challenge but I don’t always crave it which is why I can enjoy an easy run through of Kirby’s Epic Yarn or get stuck into Demon’s Souls should the mood take me.

What I do have a problem with though is excessively scaling the difficulty when approaching the end of a game or when reaching the final boss. Generally speaking I think the concept of a final boss is outdated, sure in some cases it’s useful but it shouldn’t be the default. Did The Last of Us feel as if it were missing something for not including a last boss? Granted genres such as the RPG need a final boss, the whole purpose of progressing and in some cases grinding in a JRPG is to power up and become strong enough to obliterate the antagonist.

There have been a good handful of games that have left a sour taste in my mouth specifically because of an annoying or particularly difficult final boss. It’s almost to the point for me where an outstanding game can be relegated to an “ok” game purely based on that final impression that it leaves. So this then is what I’d like to discuss throughout this article. I’d also like to make it clear that all of the games I’m about to list have left an impression on me over the years for having issues when it comes to the final boss, some are old, some are new. I’ve specifically chosen to not revisit these games while writing this article as the point is this – these games did or almost did turn me off them just because of one final battle and that’s one of the memories I’ve been left with.

Of course spoilers will follow as we’re talking about the end of several games here.

Final Fantasy VIII

ff8

Final Fantasy VIII was defiantly my least favourite of the PS1 trilogy of games, that being said I still enjoyed the game, the story and the characters. I’ve actually played through the game at least 2 times from what I can remember but I’ve never actually completed it. My problem with the final boss, Ultimercia isn’t necessarily with the battle itself but rather an overwhelmingly broken system. The draw system in my mind was undoubtedly flawed, permanently limiting the amount of magic you can store and use and forcing the player to constantly grind to “draw” more magic from enemies offered nothing new or exciting to the battle system. Sure it ensured players thought a bit more about each move. Should you really use the highest tier of Fire magic (Firaga), which you’ve only stocked 10 of when you could use the basic Fire magic which you’ve stored 99 of? Essentially though, I found the system at best a grindy nuisance and at worst game breaking.

When reaching Ultimercia for the first time I quickly realised not only did I need to level up my characters but I would also need to spend time grinding in order to draw useful magic. And here’s where I encountered the second problem – I had no way of returning to the world. I could be wrong here but I could only figure out how to access certain areas of the world map and if memory serves the towns were blocked behind magic barriers, preventing me returning to areas to stock up on items and equipment. I’m sure at the time I consulted walkthrough’s to figure out exactly how to return to different islands but it either couldn’t be done or it was too convoluted. And with that Ultimercia still reigns supreme.

My complaint then might seem more about the gameplay mechanics of Final Fntasy VIII rather than the boss but I’ll stress this, I had no problem progressing through the game up until this point. It was literally a case of I was powerful enough to progress through the entire game but not powerful enough to beat Ultimercia.

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves

Uncharted 2

Now hear me out – pretty much every game on this list I like, some I even love. Uncharted 2 is without doubt a superb game, it’s one of my favourite PS3 games but I can’t deny the last boss, Lazarević was a right cunt. In all fairness I play the Uncharted games on hard and crushing difficulties so I’m fully expecting to die a lot during my adventure. That being said the difficulty ramped up considerably during this fight to the point where I wanted to throw my pad against a wall and feed the plastic shards to Lazarević himself.

On top of being difficult, this boss fight was extremely dull, essentially it involved running around in a circle in order to hide from Lazarević then pop a purple ball of goo over him before he spots you. This process had to be repeated several times in a row and if you were attacked you were screwed. I remember attempting this boss fight many, many times in a row before I finally took the big bastard down.

Uncharted is one of those series where I really wouldn’t mind if they totally left out the final boss fights. There wasn’t really one in Uncharted 3: Among Thieves and I didn’t feel cheated because of it.

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End

Uncharted 4

Alright, so I’m picking on Uncharted here. Naughty Dog are up there as one of my favourite developers and the Uncharted series is one of my favourite franchises of all time, so why am I complaining about yet another boss? Surprisingly I actually thought this boss fight was excellent, I loved it! Mechanically and visually this boss fight was superb, what I didn’t like however was the difficulty of getting through it.

This final boss fight sees Drake in a good old standoff with one of the games antagonists, Rafe. You engage in an epic sword fight with stunning animations and great mechanics, really impressive stuff. The fight itself consists of a series of attack and parry moves where you have to correctly block whichever side Rafe is about to attack you from. These moves feel so quick and difficult to judge that most of the time I either couldn’t react fast enough or I couldn’t quite figure out where he was going to attack me from. There’s also a bunch of quick time / button mash sections which aren’t so bad. I actually enjoyed this battle to begin with before I realised just how damn difficult it is. I think there are 3 or 4 checkpoints scattered throughout this fight but getting to each one became a real chore to the point where the novelty of the fight really started to wear off. It’s a real shame as this game is near perfect but perhaps the difficulty of the final boss could have been better balanced.

Donkey Kong Country Returns

DKCR

I distinctly remember how I felt when I finally finished Donkey Kong Country Returns. I almost didn’t feel like finishing this one, I was immensely frustrated with how broken this boss was. Whereas the previous games featured in this article felt too difficult, DKC Returns actually felt broken. I could pass off the previous boss battles in this article as me not being good enough, with this tough it felt like I needed a whole lot of luck – which in a game like this is unforgivable.

Tiki Tong is essentially a huge head with fists who floats above the stage, pounding down every now and again in order to squash the titular ape. So what’s to stop you applying general boss fight logic and carefully watching his attack pattern? Well that’s just the thing; Tiki Tong seems to break the rules of the game, attacking in ways that are seemingly unpredictable. The difficulty curve throughout the game seemed to gently ramp up but by the final boss it shot through the roof. Why frustrate players like this? I didn’t feel a sense of achievement for defeating Tiki, I simply felt like burning the cart and never returning to the game again.

Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance

metal_gear

Another broken, totally unfair boss fight, there’s no other way to put it. The battle against Senator Armstrong feels like a broken mess and offers nothing except frustration. As with Tiki Tong, I felt absolutely no sense of achievement for taking this big bastard down, I simply felt annoyed that developers, Platinum had deemed this a worthy end to the game.

The boss fight includes a bunch of quick time events where you have to slash in particular directions in order to stop Armstrong from hitting you with various projectiles. I can’t quite remember exactly what I was apparently doing wrong here but I couldn’t get the timing nailed down and he’d repeatedly pummel me. I seem to remember spending a couple of hours over the course of several nights trying to overcome this fight. I’d consulted walkthrough’s and asked other people who were playing the game exactly how I should kill him and I still had issues.

The worst thing here is that slashing in the correct directions was a broken mechanic in itself; I had to look up video walkthrough to figure out how to get around the broken system by moving the analogue sticks in very specific ways to allow the game to correctly recognise my input direction. Bosses like this are truly awful, why should I suffer because of a clearly broken gameplay mechanic?

Bloodborne

Bloodborne

Probably another controversial one for the list then is Bloodborne’s final boss Gehrman (which I’ve learnt isn’t actually the final, final boss but he happened to be the boss I defeated to see the end game). This Jerk doesn’t look anything special, especially in a game like Bloodborne where many of the bosses tower above you. Forget his looks though, this is one difficult boss who caused me to almost stop playing the game right there and then.

Now I realise Bloodborne, along with the Soul’s games are renowned for their difficulty. That being said I’d made my way through the game up until this point and I’d previously finished all the Soul’s games. My character was around level 100 by the time I reached Gehrman, which I’m guessing is pretty powerful considering a lot of people seem to finish the game around the level 70 sort of mark. I’d expected a challenge by the time I reached the final boss but after levelling up so much and killing every boss in the main game I imagined I’d prepared enough for this final encounter.

Gehrman charges right for you and he doesn’t give up so you’ll need to be quick and skilled in order to dodge, shoot and counter him. The problem here is I just never really got comfortable with the shooting to stagger your enemies mechanic throughout the game and by the time I reached the final boss I struggled to get this right. Regardless, I was able to stagger Gehrman multiple times but on the odd occasion he did manage to attack me I’d basically had it. So time and time again I respawed and had to start the battle again, and here is the underlying problem with the boss battles throughout this game.

I noticed fairly early on that the blood vials mechanic was either massively broken or so cryptic that I couldn’t understand or figure out how it worked. Generally speaking you have a set amount of vials (let’s say 10) that can be consumed to regain health. These vials can be obtained by killing enemies and collecting them as loot or bought. Once consumed, they have to be replenished – or do they? I never quite figured this out. Many times I’d start a boss fight, fully stocked up on vials, consume several then die. Once I respawned it was pot luck as to whether these vials automatically replenished themselves back to 10 or whether I was left with the amount I had when I died. This continually happened throughout the game during boss fights. Die – respawn – check vials. Sometimes they’d be full, despite using them during the boss fight, other times I’d be left with the amount I had once I died.

So although Gehrman was a difficult boss battle, the game mechanics made it infinitely more frustrating. I’ts no exaggeration to say that for every time I attempted Gehrman I was probably spending 15 minutes grinding the starting area to replenish my vials. 

Dishonourable mention 

DrinkBox Studios’ Guacamelee came to mind while writing this article but I’d realised it wasn’t the final boss that almost had me quit this game. Jaguar Javier, a boss towards the end of the game actually gave me the biggest headache while playing Guacamelee. In some respects this is the worst offender on my list as I wasn’t even at the end game when I encountered a boss that very nearly made me quite the game. 

Conclusion 

Many games take the approach of the action film genre where the main protagonist finally catches up to the antagonist of the film and takes them down in one final battle. Back when gaming was in its infancy the majority of experiences were action based and involved heavy amounts of slaughtering and thus a last boss was a nice full stop to a game whose ending generally consisted of a “The End” screen. Thankfully games are starting to mature as a medium and in cases like The Last of Us or Journey the narrative is good enough that the inclusion of a final challenge is not always appropriate for the player to feel satisfied.

Developers need to be bold enough and confident enough with the experience they have created to not have to shoe horn in a final boss battle. However if a boss battle is required then developers need to realise that offering one final challenge should be satisfying and not frustrating. A good boss battle should require the player to use the abilities and techniques they have built up throughout the game but not feel cheated by the difficulty curve ramping up inconsistently when facing the final boss.

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