I Hate Final Bosses
Hydrophobia: Prophecy is the most mundane game I've played in a long time. The water physics are impressive, but not utilised in interesting ways. I was expecting more sophisticated physics puzzles based on manipulating water flow. At the very least, I wanted to feel like water was something to be afraid of.
When I first heard about the concept I imagined Hydrophobia would seem cold, dark and dangerous. Survival horror where you stay just one step ahead of being submerged or swept away. It's nothing like that, of course. It's mostly a game about shooting exploding barrels and scanning for invisible-ink graffiti. It's full of grey corridors, cult-crazed soldiers, and crystal clear water sloshing from room to room. The main character is an inhumanly strong swimmer, and water is a handy tool more than it's a hindrance. There is absolutely no sense of fear.
It's emotionally disappointing, but I didn't think Hydrophobia: Prophecy was completely terrible. Generic, sure, but possibly still worth a playthrough. At least, that's what I thought until I reached the final boss. Now I think it's a piece of shit and I'm ashamed to have wasted my time on it.
I say final boss, but in Hydrophobia: Prophecy's case it's actually the only boss. That's naturally going to make it very difficult for the boss encounter to feel integrated and in keeping with the tone of the rest of the game. I gather the previous version of Hydrophobia had a more abrupt ending, so the tacked-on feeling is unsurprising. Is a clunky boss fight really the only solution they could come up with to create a more dramatic ending?
Hydrophobia: Prophecy's boss fight isn't particularly challenging, but it doesn't build on the game that came before it. Up until that point I'd been getting away with using default sonic ammo for everything, and suddenly I was required to use specialised ammunition to stun the boss. It also requires powers only acquired in the final few rooms of the game. You gain the ability to raise a column of water and use it to lift and throw objects. The controls are awful, by the way.
The boss fight made all the difference in how I view the creation as a whole. A game with potential became an unforgivably flawed yawnfest. Admittedly, Hydrophobia: Prophecy already had me on the tipping point between neutrality and dislike. I probably wouldn't have played it all the way through if I didn't have a particular interest in game design – it's a good case study in creative strengths and weaknesses. It's probably best played by game design students, critics, and anyone with a water physics fetish.
Still, resenting final boss fights (or boss fights in general) isn't exactly a new experience for me. Fine if the game's built around them, but too often bosses become cheesy barriers I have to force my way through to get back to the game elements I'm enjoying. And having that final boss hurdle to finish the game often leaves a bitter taste in my mouth.
The worst offender I've experienced is Beyond Good & Evil. It's been long enough to get some distance from it, so now I can focus what I enjoyed about the game. It's all about that feeling of sneaking into a heavily guarded facility, snapping some incriminating photographs, and getting out again. Jade will fight when she has to, but she's a journalist not a warrior and the game plays to that. I wasn't required to take down soldiers head-on until almost the very end of the game.
But, Beyond Good & Evil does follow the standard model of ending sections with boss fights so of course we were always going to conclude with a dramatic battle. And it's a hell of a fight. It's divided into something like six phases, but feels like more. To be fair, the phases do build on each other with earlier segments obviously designed as training for the more difficult phases. It makes perfect sense on paper, but it's tedious to play through. The major gimmick involves phases with reversed controls, which is just annoying. The final blow brought relief instead of triumph, and I was extremely happy to put the disc away and not touch it again. A drawn-out battle didn't do Beyond Good & Evil justice, and was an unfortunate final impression of the game.
I have one more boss fight I want to write about, and it's from Shank. I didn't quite reach the end of Shank myself but I helped someone out with the strategy on this one and it was an interesting bit of research.
The boss fights in Shank are pretty standard: find an opening and exploit it for massive damage. There are hints, and it doesn't usually take too much working out. Until you reach the final encounter against Cesar, and suddenly there doesn't seem to be a weakness. He's very similar to one of the earlier bosses, so we are encouraged into a familiar pattern of dodging and counter-attacking. But he's much tougher and recovers quickly. Most players probably fought him by gradually chipping away at his health bar.
Cesar does actually have a weakness, but it's not intuitive or easily stumbled upon. It requires you to counter attack followed by a grapple, causing Shank to perform a piledriver knocking off 25% of his health in one hit.
It sounds simple enough, and it is, but there's a serious problem here. Very early in the game we learn that we can't grapple bosses, or indeed any enemy larger than Shank himself. Worse still, by this point the button to grapple is instead being used for a heavy katana attack. So, to work out the trick for yourself means remembering a move you probably haven't used all game, thinking it might be useful in a situation where it previously failed, and unequipping one of your powerful weapons.
(Note: I'm talking from a console perspective, I assume the PC version doesn't have the keybinding issues.)
I don't believe in having "rules" of good game design, exactly. I could think of places where this kind of thing might work. For example, the Monster Hunter games have such a co-operative community surrounding them that researching and learning from other hunters on forums and YouTube is practically part of the game. Alternately, if a game set out to unsettle the player there might be reason to change the rules and keep them on their toes. But Shank has no such excuse. The Cesar fight fails with its gimmick, to the extent that at the time it took several pages of Google results to find the answer. Shank's designers probably weren't trying to appeal to nerdy researchers like me who get a kick out of digging up information.
Boss fights work when they fit the vibe and mechanics of the game as a whole. Final impressions really do matter.