Tuesday, August 12, 2008

RPG Clichés: Boss Battles

A typical boss battle in the Xbox 360-exclusive RPG, Lost Odyssey.

For anyone who is familiar with the genre, traditional/console RPGs, or role-playing video games are infamous for their trademark gameplay aspects and unspoken “rules” or clichés that many of the games follow. Planned as a recurring column, I hope to provide background information for those unfamiliar with the genre and give some insight and commentary on their role in the RPG genre as a whole. While boss battles aren't unique to traditional RPGs, they can feature certain elements that can be more annoying or questionable than bosses in other game genres. Clichés like multi-stage boss fights, scripted battles, and ridiculous enemy stats make RPG bosses more of an encumbrance at times rather than a true challenge.

Whether it be action games, first-person shooters, platformers, or RPGs, many games feature a boss of some kind. Usually seen at the end of a level segment or a dungeon, they are meant to be the culmination of the enemy characters in that area and are usually much more of a challenge. While other genres depend more on skill, weapons, strategy, and scripted AI to dictate the outcome, RPGs use statistics and leveling as well to control the battle. They are usually a monstrous-sized creature and sometimes relate to the story. Leveling up your characters adequately becomes critical to avoid death and harder battles. While most RPG bosses will be throwaway enemies, they still maintain that epic scale and feel to them. This is especially true as the game nears its end as you face the primary villains. Because final bosses can be very unpredictable when it comes to expectations, many save their items, magic/skill points, and other helpful tools until the very end. This tactic makes them useless in everyday battles, but are usually a requirement to ensure victory. However, multi-stage boss fights take this annoyance to another level.

The Final Fantasy series (FFX pictured above) is well known for their elaborate boss battles.

The final boss in any RPG is usually the most dreaded. Before the final dungeon or area, they allow you a period of freedom to get any secret weapons, extra quests, or whatnot before there's no turning back. It's hard to gauge if your party is prepared for the battle and you never know if you should expect multi-stage boss fights. This is when you not only fight any sub-bosses that come by, but having to fight the final boss in multiple forms and stages. The dungeon itself is usually enough of a challenge that you will end up using some of the items or skills that were being saved for the final fights. Since story is so intricately weaved within the battles, you never quite know when it's over. One of the worst battles is when the final boss returns for a second time even stronger before you even have a chance to recuperate. They often force you to use your entire party, half of which ends up much weaker than your core members. While I love a challenge as much as any other, I always hesitate when entering that last portion of the game. Developers have become a little more forgiving in recent games, making the bosses a little more balanced. But I would much rather prefer feeling a sense of accomplishment for defeating a hard boss rather than cursing at my television for having to fight the battle multiple times and sit through story scenes I can't skip.

Scripted battles are more of a minor annoyance rather than a true hindrance to the game. The story-heavy nature of RPGs manifest themselves in fake battles that are at times more obvious than others. Most will show how invincible the enemy is, where your party will quickly fall as the villain gloats about his power. But at other times, the battle will seem like a true fight you are supposed to win. This leads to wasting valuable healing, attack, or support items that have been used in attempts to stay alive. Conversely, a tough boss fight may seem like a scripted battle that can't be won when it's only a really hard battle. These type of battles aren't seen as often, as consoles are powerful enough to show more elaborate and rendered story segments without using fake combat as a crutch.

PSone Square RPG, Xenogears had its own share of epic and frustrating battles.

Another annoying aspect of many bosses is that they are immune to almost any status effect you have at your disposal. Many spells like poison, sleep, confuse, or paralyze are useless as they aren't needed for regular battles and can't be used in boss battles. Some enemies would also have attacks that would inflict multiple status effects on the party, having to use expensive healing items or healing spells with a hefty magic cost. This is also more of an annoyance than an unfair advantage, as it just adds to the challenge of the fight. But with traditional RPGs going more with an action-oriented combat system rather than turn-based fights, this leads to new kinds of experiences and more flexibility with strategy and attacks.

Most boss battles are annoying for their sheer difficulty, but RPG bosses can be frustrating for their ridiculous clichés. The genre is gradually evolving and pushing away from them, which is a good thing for the overall experience. Whether you prefer the story or the gameplay, needlessly annoying boss fights shouldn't break the immersion and fun.

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Mo,  August 17, 2008 at 1:50 AM  

As you know, I'm not the huge gamer that many who frequent your blog is. I have been a huge fan of the Legend of Zelda series, and I think they do a good job of the Boss battles.

Each battle tests a skill that you learned in the dungeon beforehand, and each dungeon has a different element. For example, in Ocarina of Time, each dungeon has an earth-related element, and Link utilizes a weapon or magical skill. This weapon or skill comes into play to defeat the boss at the end. I like it because of the nice, thematic tie-in. It wraps the game up nicely.

The only issue that I have seen is that these weapons are virtually useless elsewhere in the game. I would much rather be able to use my full inventory everywhere, even if that meant making a more defined storyline in the Zelda universe.

I do think that, on the whole, RPG battles in general aren't very interesting. (No offense to the RPG - lovers!) The lack of physical gaming skill and the predictability of the gaming experience in RPG battles becomes very tedious.

Redskyy August 17, 2008 at 4:21 PM  

I haven't really played much of the 3D Legend of Zelda games, but I do agree with your points. Boss battles are supposed to be a true test of your new abilities and the skill you have gained in the game up until that point, and many RPG boss battles don't really do that. LoZ allowed you to test out your weapon/item/ability in that current boss battle dungeon, although they weren't always useful throughout the entire game.

In traditional RPGs nowadays, they seem to be largely going away from the turn-based predictability and either going for a more strategy-oriented gameplay experience or putting in a more physical, action-based combat system. While turn-based are supposed to be part strategy, they can end up following a predictable formula. Very good points made, Mo.

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