The Difficulty Spike

WHY? That is all I could initially think of to say on this matter. Why oh why put ridiculous difficulty spikes into video games? Who thinks it’s fun to play a game for 60 hours, then spend another 30 just levelling up so you can defeat the last boss? Not me.

Most competently designed games teach players gradually how the game works and what the rules are. This applies to all genres even though the learning experience will be thoroughly different in a First Person Shooter than in a JRPG.

Again, in most competently designed games (erm, apart from Upsilon Circuit, wtf?), you are able to fail, try again and learn from your mistakes. This is good. Sometimes this will mean learning the weak points of an enemy on your first attempt and using that knowledge to blow them to bits in your second (or third), in other games it will mean realising that you are not strong enough to win the fight so going off and finding something else to do until you are. Sometimes I think the developer actually expects or knows you will fail first time. The Evil Within (Tango Gameworks/Bethesda, 2014) is a good example of this, some of the ‘puzzles’ involving traps are impossible to do first time without getting blown up (unless you are a ninja with reflexes of lightning), the same goes for dealing with some of the enemies. Yes, poor old Sebastian Castellanos died many times when I, er, watched this game being played.

This is all well and good, if sometimes a little frustrating, but what about those games that you think you’re good at, you’ve mastered them, you’ve enjoyed them, you can’t wait to beat that boss to see what happens next to you and your band of randomly attired strangers. But wait! What’s this? I died. I had no idea what I was doing and I died. In 3 seconds. That giant lizard thing moved so fast I could barely even see it, and then WHAM! Dead. Then, you put those last few sentences on repeat. For an hour. And then give up.

That is exactly what happened (minus the Lizard) for many hours of my life whilst watching the final boss fight against all-american bad guy Senator Armstrong, in the finale of Konami’s 2013 entry into the Metal Gear franchise – Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance. The controls in this game are difficult, far too difficult for me, and involve a combination of sword fighting, parrying and a mechanic called blade-mode, in which you are encouraged to dismember your enemy, angling your blade correctly to take out their ‘hit-box’ (weak point, I guess?). However Senator Armstrong seemingly has no weak points, you just go at him again and again, usually not registering any hits as your life bar drains away amid the flurry of fire and extreme violence he launches at you.

Image: Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance (2013, Konami/Kojima Productions/Platinum Games)
Poor Raiden! (Image: Konami, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance)

After trying this 10 or so times you feel demoralised. You have learned nothing. It is just impossible. So of course, it’s time to google the answer, because these things have an answer right? Its just that I can’t see it. But no. Go on, try googling “how to defeat Senator Armstrong”. All you’ll find is a few fluffy tips, and a whole host of people in the same boat as you, which I guess is at least reassuring. After a while though, you do begin to make progress. You learn his moves to some extent and figure out when damage can be done. You start to think, ‘I can do this!’. So, as if that was all far too easy, they introduce a weird section where he throws stuff at you which must be destroyed with perfectly angled blade-mode cuts, and if you fail its pretty much game over. Not fair Konami! But hey, apparently some people like having to do things over and over again, so who am I to complain?

MGR:Revengeance is a difficult hack and slash, with a ridiculous final boss. However as I inferred earlier, the difficulty spike is found in all genres, so for a change of pace I’ll have a look at this issue when it rears its head in JRPGs, specifically in Final Fantasy XII  (Square Enix, 2006).

All in Vayne! (Image: Square Enix, Final Fantasy XII)

If you take a look to your left (or above if you’re on a mobile), you will see Vayne Carudas Solidor. The image you can see is before his transformation into both the penultimate and ultimate boss of the game. Prior to fighting Vayne, you are given the far easier task of fighting Galbranth (or to give him his proper name, Noah), which, when looking at the story from a far really highlights the level to which brothers are important in this game (but story discussions are for another time). This is all well and good, but this final incarnation of Vayne is so absurdly difficult, he added about a quarter to my total game play time.

Final Fantasy XII is a well constructed game, clever game-play & combat with a much more open-world feel than many games of its age, or any of its Final Fantasy predecessors. The battle system eases you in gently but really has great depth. It has in fact been recently remastered for the PS4, with some interesting alterations which may further improve the game. I wonder if addressing this difficulty spike is one of them?

One thing especially adds to the psychological difficulty here, and that is that the first time (and really all the other times) you lose to Vayne, you have no idea how much damage he has sustained and how near to beating him you are. You go into the battle the first time, having not saved for about 2 hours (as there is no opportunity) and having just defeated a slew of other bosses of increasing difficulty levels. You throw everything at him (you know, Flare, Holy, and some of those sexy quickenings), but he has this one move that can just KO everyone all in one go. And so it is over. So you think about what happened, go away, level up a bit and come back. Same result. You do the same again. Same result. Ok, so strategic planning starts. A pen and paper are utilised. Some more levelling is done. When you try again you get much further this time. He reaches his final form, you know you’re nearing the end. But one mistimed cure spell from my dedicated healers and it’s over. KABOOM.

I think I gave up on the game at that point for at least 24 hours. Upon returning I knew I still needed something extra, so took on a series of impossible mark-hunting missions, none of which I was able to complete. I would say it was by chance, but one final fling of desperation saw me take on a mark just outside Balfonheim, and after a few attempts, I managed to slay the damn thing. The item reward for this hunt was the bubble ring (which effectively doubles the HP of the wearer). So put that on Captain Basch (“I’m Captain Basch!”) and away you go. After a (very) long battle, this was the thing that finally clinched victory for me. However, it seems strange that after all that I only just managed it by the skin of my teeth. This game is supposed to be hard, the bosses are difficult all the way through, but I can’t help thinking they made a mistake here, as by the time I was finally able to defeat Vayne, the preceding bosses were too easy.

Do you have any games you couldn’t complete just because of that one ridiculously difficult boss? How often have you googled “how to beat Senator Armstrong?”, or do you just enjoy this insanity? Let me know in comments.

Pix1001 x

Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance is available now on XBox 360, PS3, XBox 1 & PC

Final Fantasy XII is available now on PS2, and the remake, Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age is available now on PS4

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