Breath of Fire III, Final Fantasy IX, Final Fantasy VIII, Final Fantasy X, Lord of the Rings: The Third Age, Metal Gear Solid 4, Metroid Prime 2: Echoes, Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, Soul Reaver 2, Wet
Sometimes a gaming experience is running along fine only to suddenly and unexpectedly fizzle near the end. It’s not just that what you expect to happen doesn’t, but nothing really happens at all.
Such was my experience with Wet recently, an acrobatic shoot’em-up hack’n’slash experience which was commonly reviewed as “flawed but fun” in some capacity- a review I largely agree with.
What hurts the game more than the graphical imperfections, in my opinion, is the complete void of a final boss fight, or any real boss fights in general. What’s weird is that there are a few characters, henchmen to the bad guy, that clearly fit the boss-fight bill, but are dispatched through interactive cutscenes rather than any fight at all.
Maybe Wet’s lack of such fights is due to a lack of time or budget to truly finish the game as they intended. Maybe the fights weren’t coming out as they intended or maybe they couldn’t build compelling fights in the game’s infrastructure for some reason.
Regardless, design decision like this invariably hurt the overall game, even if they make it better than if they’d implemented the alternatives. It’s not to say the designers were necessarily wrong to omit a more interactive climax, but it could be a case where there was no truly “right” decision to make.
This isn’t to say that there necessarily needs to be a boss fight specifically to carry the climax- but something needs to happen that the player is enough part of to reduce it from being a cutscene-fest, even if it’s an interactive one.
One good example, I feel, is Soul Reaver 2 of the Legacy of Kain series. The game didn’t have a true final boss (or any real bosses at all, insofar as I can recollect), but it ended with a sequence and a series of encounters that were so integral to the events at hand that the game ended on a high note- even if that note turned out to be a cliffhanger.
Alternatively, Metal Gear Solid 4 also lacked a final boss fight- if you look back at how the game in the series are structured, this is functionally true. In the last chapter you fight the last member of the game’s FOXHOUND-type unit, and while this foe has a few unique qualities the main story doesn’t hinge on them.
Normally, this would be followed up by Snake singlehandedly taking up some sort of giant robot monstrosity- only this never happens in any form. Instead, some climactically exciting gameplay sequences follow, cutscenes up the wazoo, and finally the token one-on-one fight that normally would happen after the final boss fight occurs.
The game isn’t bad for it; some might argue the game is bad for other things, but the Snake vs. Ocelot bit at the end is never really evoked as one of them. While there is technically a void of a final boss fight, the game doesn’t necessarily hurt for it.
The absence of a climax can mean other things as well, like whole pieces of gameplay. Lord of the Rings: The Third Age is a narrative laundry list of things not to do with the story in an RPG- not because the idea was bad, but because it was really badly executed.
Case in point, and I’ve cited this in the past so bear with me, there is no final dungeon. There’s no sense of approaching finality near the end of the game, no chance for the player to get psyched up. Sauron, the final boss simply happens much as how rain or car accidents sometimes happen.
This would be a case where the developers confused outcome with climax. Climax isn’t just the big fight but the things leading up to the encounter as well. In the case of Wet the character who was marked as the bad guy didn’t show any indication of fighting talent on par with the heroine- to a point this was refreshing because it existed outside of the norm for games, but I was worried with the encroaching finale, indicated to me solely through the magic of checking the Achievements, that I might not get a final boss that was up to snuff with what I was looking to expect.
I was right to be concerned as it turned out. A flunky, however cool, is still just a flunky. And I didn’t even get to fight her head-on; I just had to press a few buttons at the right time.
Anti-climax is something that can be built up through the story just as much as a failure to execute. I think Final Fantasy X’s story suffered from this due to its rather murky antagonists- not morally murky, but structurally murky, to be clear.
Part of the problem is that the game presented Seymour Guado as part of the series line-up of token of creepy pretty boys that tweenage girls are meant to enjoy looking at and feel so bad for wanting to date. Except, as a villain he never quite has any teeth- the worse thing he tries to do is force heroine Yuna to take his hand in holy matrimony, and even that felt more like a plot device so main character Tidus could save her to advance his own token love story with the white mage of the party.
Seymour seems like he’s going to somehow take the reigns of Sin, the ever-destroying hate machine of the world, but never really follows through. He just sorta shows up for no reason, fights and dies.
It was the same problem with Final Fantasy VIII years before-hand. Not only did Squall’s antagonist Seifer disappear after the third disc, the supposed bad guy, Edea, actually turns out to be just possessed by a different bad guy whom you don’t really encounter until the end, has almost no scene presence because of it and has a silly name to boot.
Final Fantasy IX (since I seem to be operating around these games right now anyway) provided an alternative where the climax was undercut for no real reason. Kuja, who should’ve been the final boss and even had the requisite pre-final-boss boss fight is suddenly supplanted by some douchebag named Necron who pretty much shows up just to cast Southern Cross on your party again and again like a dirty bitch instead of having a reason for existing.
This was a case where the climax, which was doing fine, was senselessly undercut by a pointless follow-up encounter right out of left field. As a result, the impact of the climax diminished a little bit.
An overall lack of development can be equally harmful to the presence of a boss fight. In the case of Metroid Prime 2: Echoes, the Dark Samus character felt like an after-thought, showing up largely without provocation to provide one more boss fight during the escape sequence.
It was worse in Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, where the character had been mysteriously catapulted to final boss status without any real sense of reason. Assorted logs in the game identify Dark Samus as being some sort of effective leader, but never once is that seen in the game. The character never speaks to you and in the end comes off as the same idiot monster she was in the last game- only now she’s the final boss for some reason instead of some tacked-on bonus boss.
The inherent problem with this failure to design is that it drags down the whole experience. Part of the thrill of the finale is that it should be, ideally, what you’ve been waiting to get to; what you’ve wanted to do for a long time.
Ergo, if the game doesn’t make you want it enough to derive any satisfaction, or similarly fails to even attempt to give that satisfaction in any way at all, the whole experience kinda crumbles. It doesn’t make the game bad, but rather it makes it not as good.
Part of what has to be remembered is that the ending may be the last thing the player does with the game- it’s the defining stroke, the thing that made it worth playing. A friend of mine never got to finish Breath of Fire III for years- he always hit some technical hitch near the end and never quite made it to the final dungeon. I lent him my copy of the game and he enjoyed it until that point- the endgame material was such a letdown that he wished he’d never finished the game as it now just left a sour taste in his mouth.
This all invariably ties into a game’s memorability as well as what people say about it. If I have to tell people that Wet is fun but there’s no real end boss fight, they lose motivation to play it or decide to get it later when’s cheaper/used, which ultimately hurts the developers.
While the game of course needs to be playable and engaging enough to get there, the climax of a game should be one of the most important parts to any developers. After all, it’ll become the most important part to a gamer because, as I said, it’s likely the last part they’ll ever see.