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 Generally speaking I think the concept of a final boss is outdated, sure in some cases it’s useful but it shouldn’t be the default.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

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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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The Problem With… Final Fantasy

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Final Fantasy – A Brief Overview

Final Fantasy is a franchise of role playing games and associated spin-off games. Generally most games in the franchise are totally unrelated to each other but share common themes and mythologies. Reoccurring themes include characters with names such as “Biggs”, “Wedge” and “Cid”, mythological creatures such as the “Chocobo” and “Moogle” and god-like summons such as “Shiva” and “Ifrit”. Each game generally centres around a group of playable characters who are assembled through the course of the game in order to rid the world of an evil antagonist. The name Final Fantasy was originally used as the title of the first game as it was a final attempt by series’ creator Hironobu Sakaguchi to create a successful game. The name does not imply that each game is supposedly the last!

Introduction

I’ll start with a quick game, I shall describe a Final Fantasy game and you say which one you think it is.

I run down a corridor; I am interrupted with the occasional cut scene, I then continue to run down a corridor. Finally I enter a battle, I press a button and the game selects the most appropriate spell to cast against the enemy. The battle finishes and I continue on my epic quest down a long corridor, occasionally I wonder if I will come to a cross roads I can explore or reach a village where I can wonder around for an hour; talking to locals and upgrading my gear – no such luck.

Final Fantasy fans reading this will have no problem pointing out that I have been describing Final Fantasy XIII. Really, this article can end here and conclude with the statement “The problem with…Final Fantasy is FFXIII”. My love affair with JRPGs officially came to abrupt end with XIII but in all fairness this was just the tipping point. The truth is Final Fantasy had been going downhill for years, beginning with Final Fantasy X on the PlayStation 2. For the record my favourite game in the series is Final Fantasy IX, which in my opinion got just about everything right. A good story, set in a beautiful world, filled with interesting characters and literally stacks of nods to previous games in the series. So what went wrong when transitioning between the PS1 and PS2?

Game Play Over Graphics

The PS1 was released in the very early days of 3D gaming, along with the N64. Looking back most games from that generation haven’t aged well, specifically 3D games. Just take a look at some classic sprite based games on the SNES such as Super Mario World, Super Metroid and Secret of Mana; although they look old they still have a certain charm. Now look back at N64 games like Super Mario 64 and Goldeneye 007 or PS1 classics such as Metal Gear Solid, Crash Bandicoot and Tomb Raider. None of the N64 or PS1 games look particularly charming or cute these days; that’s because we were transitioning into 3D. The technology was in its infancy whereas 2D platformers and other SNES games had been using technology that had already been in development for several years.

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Games like the masterpiece that is Final Fantasy VII didn’t get caught up in trying to look mind blowing. Just consider for a minute the above images; on the left you can see Cloud as he appears when rendered in game. On the right you can see Cloud pre-rendered in an FMV, they look vastly different. VII still looked good at the time but that isn’t what it has been remembered for. The game play and narrative alone was enough to keep the player hooked, any technical achievements were a bonus but not the main selling point. XIII on the other hand has put its focus on polished graphics and as a result both the story and gameplay have suffered greatly. I am not alone with this opinion; it’s quite common knowledge among the gaming community that VII is one the most highly requested Square Enix remakes. Yoichi Wada, the Square Enix president, has stated “To get FFVII to something like FFXII, it would take ten times as long”. [1] A statement that in my opinion effectively confirms that XIII doesn’t even come close to the scope and exploration found in older FF games.

The 3 eras of Final Fantasy

The Final Fantasy franchise can be split into 3 eras, the first being the golden age of Final Fantasy to FFVI. These games progressively evolved over several years but remained largely recognisable in terms of looks and gameplay. The first big change then came during FFVII to FFIX era, here the franchise switched to a fully fledged 3D game, came on CD-ROM instead of cartridges and featured FMVs. During this era the Final Fantasy brand reached a whole new level and introduced many new fans to the RPG genre.  The next evolution can be seen in FFX to FFXIII (excluding FFXI as this is an MMORPG); here the games dropped the world map mechanic (more on this in a moment) and really tried to push the graphical capabilities of each system the games were released on. During this era the games somewhat “sold out”, trying to pull in a very mainstream audience and dumbing down the traditional micro-management and number crunching game play and mechanics.

Both the first era (I-VII) and the second era (VII-IX) seemed to build on the success of the franchise and both have flagship games with a large fan base (VI and VII). In my opinion, although the third era (X-XIII) has seen strong sales there isn’t a core fan base behind these games.

Final Fantasy X – The Franchise Reinvents Itself

So why do I believe the third era, starting with X brought about the demise of the franchise? Notably there was a shift in key members of the team; Nobuo Uematsu had scored all previous games in the series but he was now joined by other composers. His work on VII-IX in particular is remarkable, yet from X onwards we see a rise in generic electric guitar and J-Pop music, even featuring lyrics! Hironobu Sakaguchi, who had previously produced all of the previous games in the series, became an executive producer. From what I can gather the role of “executive producer” on a video game can be a very fuzzy area but generally this appears to be a step back from some of the more creative aspects of the game itself.

Voice acting was utilised for the first time which, although a step forward (especially in story heavy games) can also negatively impact the game. Cloud (the main protagonist in VII); for example was always considered a bit of an “emo” filled with teenage angst but the player was able to create their own version of Cloud by imagining his accent and how he talks. Arguably the X protagonist, Tidus, was a very similar character only this time players were able to hear his shrill voice and he perhaps came across as more of a young whiny teen than he would of if this game were text only.

The biggest shock I received when playing X for the first time wasn’t the voice acting, cast or new battle system. After several hours into the game I realised there was no world map! Now it’s fair to say that previous games in the series have also had a degree of linearity; the basic story has to be completed in a set order. The player is funnelled towards new areas with paths that the developers do not want you to explore blocked until a later time. This concept used to be masked quite well with the use of a world map. The player could clearly understand that they couldn’t transverse a mountain or swim an ocean until a later point in the game when they had unlocked an airship or boat. The world map in these older games never really had a massive amount of locations to explore but the few it did have that strayed from the main quest helped give the impression of a non-linear experience.

Final Fantasy XII

Aside from the fact that I couldn’t follow the story in XII and didn’t have a clue what was going on half the time; the gameplay itself was pretty good. As with X, there was an absence of the classic world map. Instead a compromise was made in which the player was able to explore the world via interconnected regions, this felt much closer to the old world map system. XII still had its fair share of problems, in particular the forgettable characters and the Gambit system, a catalyst of sorts to the “autobattle” system featured in XIII.

The gambit system did present a few interesting ideas; the basic concept of which was to set up a list of rules which your AI party members would follow when in battle. For example, a character on your team could be set up to always attack using magic. If however, anybody in the party has less than 5% health left, the character will use a health potion on their next turn instead of a magic spell. Although a deep system, the problem here was that your party was now essentially fighting for themselves while you took control of the main character. This, in part, has lead to Final Fantasy games becoming the linear, corridor crawler, dumbed down game we see in XIII.

Final Fantasy XIII – The Franchise Sells Out

Right from the moment you pick up a copy of XIII you can clearly see Square Enix have tried to reach out to a wider audience. The European box art features the game’s main protagonist, Lighting in all its Americanised glory. This might not sound like a big deal but previous Final Fantasy games in both Europe and Japan featured a simple logo while the movie poster Esq. Box art was typically reserved for North America. See the images below of the Final Fantasy VII box art for the Japanese, European and North American covers. Why did the Europeans now have to suffer with the American box art? Probably because the simplistic box art of previous Final Fantasy games doesn’t appeal to your typical FPS gamer.

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As I mentioned in the introduction, XIII was a very linear experience. The game has strayed far from its classic JRPG roots and has turned into a beautiful but dull experience. XIII seems like a tech demo that somehow managed to get green lit into a fully fledged game because it looks pretty and will draw in the mass market. There is a compromise a development team must make with games, more polished and beautiful games will be more linear. Create a more open, flexible game and you have to compromise somewhat on graphics and polished, scripted experiences. Games such as Battlefield 3, Uncharted 3 and Portal 2 look so polished because the experience is very structured and you are clearly being led along a path the development team have carefully crafted. Compare this to something like Fallout 3, which doesn’t look very pretty but you are placed in a massively open world environment that you can explore as you wish. Final Fantasy has clearly opted to be based in the Uncharted camp rather than remaining in the less attractive, massively open RPG camp and here lies a massive problem. Final Fantasy is an RPG choosing to attempt to have its cake and eat it and it has failed massively.

Undoubtedly XIII was the game that killed the franchise for me. Obviously, being the most recent game this could be a one off mistake. After all Square had developed a new engine, which they were getting to grips with on a new console generation (but wasn’t this also the case with VII? And that was brilliant). I doubt this is the case though, as going back to analyse the changes made during this “third era” it is quite clear that some bad decisions had been fermenting since the development of X, mainly the development team trying to push the tech rather than looking at what made the older games in the series so good.

Other than linearity, XIII also implemented a new battle system, which has a similar feel to the Gambit system used in XII. The worst thing about the new battle system is the “autobattle” feature, which essentially presents the player with a “one button to rule them all option” as it selects the appropriate command to use. Now many people who have experienced a Final Fantasy game in the past know that many attacks, summons, potions and defence commands can be gained and utilised in battles throughout the game. JRPGs normal consist of many of these commands and part of the fun of the genre is the micromanagement and decision-making involved. Having a command to bypass this is killing the whole fun of the battles. Of course this feature doesn’t have to be used but it is very tempting in some situations, not to mention new comers to the genre will probably rely on this button constantly than complain that the game has no depth and you can win by just pressing one button.

XIII has also followed a recent trend of releasing sequels. Sadly, this is something that began with VII. VII started the trend for releasing sequels, spin-offs and other media in the form of Crisis Core, Advent Children and Dirge of Cerberus to name a few. The VII collection however was justified as the game had such a strong following and releases came years apart (Crisis Core for example was released over 10 years after VII). However, it wasn’t really until X that the flood gates truly opened for these types of Final Fantasy collections. Here is a list of the X, XII and XIII collections to date:

Final Fantasy X
Final Fantasy X-2

Final Fantasy XII
Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings

Final Fantasy XIII
Final Fantasy XIII-2
Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII
Versus XIII (TBC)

Conclusion

It seems very fitting that my first real JRPG experience was VII while XIII put me off JRPGs. Saying that both Dark Souls and Demon Souls are absolutely fantastic RPGs from an eastern developer and they shine a ray of hope that JRPGs haven’t all turned into a mess. I believe that a much more interesting RPG experience can be had with western RPGs. Games like Fallout 3 and Skyrim are absolutely huge while quests and game play style can be approached in a variety of ways. Other games, that aren’t strictly RPGs but include RPG elements such as Bioshock have also provided a refreshing way to revitalise both the RPG and FPS genres. Compare this to The Legend of Zelda or Final Fantasy. Although I am a massive fan of both Zelda and Final Fantasy I can’t help but think about how disappointing they have been in recent years. Zelda has gone stagnant and struggled to move with the times, offering a very hollow experience while Final Fantasy has tried to evolve and failed miserably.

[1] http://kotaku.com/5551606/how-long-would-a-final-fantasy-vii-remake-take