Boss-fights are one of the most iconic features of video games and for good reason. Villains are so often the highlight of a story and many a book, movie, and play have featured villains that went on to become cultural icons. But there is a major difference in watching a hero fight the villain at the end of a movie and having to actually control that hero. You are no longer the reader observing Harry Potter as he battles Lord Voldemort, you have become him and the climactic battle is now your responsibility.
Good boss-fights are always a treat in any video game and I have long had a respect for the so-called boss rush games, which cut out a lot of the in-between content and have players battle an ensemble of colorful bosses. No More Heroes is perhaps the best example of such, and Furi sought to join this genre of action games as well. This French-developed hack & slash game puts players in the shoes of a powerful and mysterious stranger, who escapes from his prison high above the planet and must fight a roster of guardians in order to unravel his destiny.
It’s an action-packed, fast, and colorful game, which asks you to rapidly switch between gunfights and close-combat. You’ll dodge enemy projectiles while lining up shots yourself, then rush in to cut him up for a bit, parry his attacks, and unleash powerful counter-attacks. By all rights, this is a game that should feel satisfying to play, but of course, the bosses are suitably powerful to give you a good challenge.
And that is where Furi begins to fall apart. While it’s action is challenging and rewarding, failure is punished harshly. Each fight is cut up into phases where you and the boss both have a set health bar. If you deplete the boss’ health, then you move up to the next phase of the battle and your own health bar is filled up again. However, if your health bar is the one to reach 0, then the boss is completely healed. After losing your health bar a number of times, the boss will win the fight as a whole and you’ll have to retry it from the very start.
This seems fair on paper and not too different from most video games. After all, there is a healthy market for people that want games that are more challenging than average. But difficulty can come around and become frustration. While many factors play into this, a good rule of thumb is that the less time you waste, the easier it is for the player to accept that they need to retry something. Super Meat Boy is an excellent example, as an average player will die thousands of times attempting to conquer the game’s stages, but each attempt immediately puts them back into the action within a second. Dark Souls will put a player at their last bonfire, but playing through the stage again allows them to discover different paths, hone their skills, and at least it’s something pro-active.
Furi will also put you back in the boss-fight immediately, but at phase 1. Each battle is also filled with various animations and cutscenes you have to watch again, all of which is small on its own, but brought together they take up quite a bunch of time for something that isn’t interesting at all. And that comes on top of the already frustrating time-waster that is the game’s filler content. Between each battle, the player must walk their character through large, empty zones. There are no battles, there is no exploration or puzzles, you just walk slowly. Boss rush games typically have some in-between content to indulge in, like old SNES games will have short platforming stages, and No More Heroes has the jobs and hack&slash levels. Just walking through empty areas, however, is not content.
The combination of rewatching all these animations and cutscenes, as well as the dull walking sections, pushed me to the point where I no longer enjoyed the game’s difficulty. I considered switching to Easy Mode, so I could at least see the rest of the story while having a bit of an easier time. However, in a particularly surprising act of shooting oneself in the foot, turning down the difficulty removes most of the phases from each boss-fight, leaving only the walking around you do between. A six-phase fight that had me retrying it for an hour suddenly turned into a two-phase fight I overcame within minutes.
While I lobbied for alternative difficulty modes on this very blog before, it’s important to know what the appeal in your games is and preserve that any cost. In a game like this, the appeal is the boss-fights, the hectic feeling of a complex battle against a mighty foe. While it would be kind of dull, simply giving the player more HP and making the enemy do less damage would have sufficed for a difficulty mode in Furi. Removing phases of the battle, however, removes most of the reason to play the game at all. Sure, there is the mysterious story, but a lot of that hinges on the stranger’s encounters with the guardians he fights, and removing so much screen-time for the bosses also limits how much they contribute to the story through dialogue and banter during these fights.
This led to an awkward position where I neither wanted to continue the game on the normal difficulty nor on the easy one. I didn’t want to deal with the frustrating side-effects of losing in Furi and I didn’t see the point in continuing to play it when the easy mode took so much of the core enjoyment away. I still firmly believe in handling difficulty in games in alternative ways, but this will always be a case-by-case basis. One game’s solution could be another game’s downfall. Furi had to learn this the hard way.