GREAT BOSS FIGHTS AND WHAT THEY TAUGHT US, NO. 2: “PHALANX”

Last time we looked at the endearingly icy antagonist of Arkham City, “Mister Freeze,” and after several hundred words deduced that boss fights – and stay with me on this one – should generally be a bit harder than the bits of the game that aren’t boss fights.

I know, I know, it’s certainly bold new thinking, but what made Monsieur Gel work so well was the fact that he was testing every aspect of the player’s skills up until then. In a game split evenly around reaction-brawler combat and stealth, Freezey is the enemy who demands perfection in the latter of those two, as well as an organic understanding of how to use all the tools you’ve acquired.

But now we’re leaping back in time by half a decade and a whole console generation to a game beloved in indie circles, to the point where it’s recently gotten a shiny new re-release to bleed pennies out of all the people who bought it the first time, but don’t get to play it on the new, (allegedly) superior consoles. That’s progress, apparently.

 

“PHALANX/COLOSSUS 13/THE SNAKE,” SHADOW OF THE COLOSSUS

Replaying Shadow of the Colossus recently, what struck me was how many of the Colossi frankly seem to be struggling to live up to the promise offered by the first few you encounter – that promise of big, epic struggles between towering monstrosities and an anime pretty-boy in a poncho, who hangs from their pubic hair and hacks diligently at their exposed ‘nads.

You can certainly tell which Colossi feel more like gimmicks than fleshed-out ideas: Buffalo Bill and his baffling pyrophobia, Crash Thompson and his penchant for headbutting pillars into perfect locations, or Tooth-Temple Terry pootling around his lake until you steer him into a wall. They’re not bad, these fights, they’re just a little… token, dropping in quality because of what they’re not, rather than what they are.

But then there’s the thirteenth Colossus, referred to as “Phalanx,” or sometimes as “the Snake.” Neither term does it proper justice. Show up at the vast stretch of bleached desert sands to the North-West of Dormin’s Temple, and there’ll be a moment of confused searching before the ground begins to rumble and nearly six hundred feet of flying tapeworm explodes out of the sand, dwarfing even the huge monsters you’ve seen so far and making you feel like something barely worthy of notice as it begins to fly in wide, looping patterns, supported on giant, organic balloons of gas.

Uh… now what?

 

WHAT IT INCLUDES

A bit of everything, largely. To begin with, you can’t even get up to reach Phalanx as he circles lazily through the air, and must engage in a bit of precision shooting with your bow, trying to pierce the three air sacs that keep him at his lofty altitude. This done, he’ll descend to the point where the tips of his sixty-foot fins are dragging through the sand, and this is probably the best moment of the fight, as you charge alongside him on horseback, trying to keep pace, trying to keep an eye out for obstacles, trying not to freak out at the size of this thing, and must organically pick a moment to throw yourself at the fin and cling on for dear life before his airbags refill and he begins to raise back up into the stratosphere. Hope you don’t mind heights.

And suddenly, you’re higher than most birds can fly, gawping over the edge of oblivion as you pull yourself up onto his broad, fur-flecked back, and try to hold on as you pull yourself against the wind currents to his three weak spots and stab furiously at them in an attempt to bring this beast down. He’ll try and shake you off, even dropping back down into the sand to get rid of you if you take too long, which means you’ll have to try and pull this off again. Sounds good to me.

 

WHY IT’S GOOD

What, weren’t you listening? This is a huge fight that actually feels like both of you are doing your utmost to get rid of the other, and has a sense of scale and majesty that few other games can match. It’s not just big, it’s… well, colossal.

Heck, not only that, but nothing here is scripted. Yeah, there’s an order to how you need to do things, but the way you go about it is up to you, no quick-time events or anything. Start by doing a bit of sharpshooting with only your own skills to rely on, ride on Aggro alongside this runaway train of a beast, literally stand on the horse’s back to leap at Phalanx’s fin (desperately trying not to miss), then pull yourself up to his body proper and crawl around his lengthy frame at your leisure, hunting down the magical equivalent of jugular veins and carving them up royal. It’s big, and it’s epic, and it feels like you’re the one doing it, not just the game setting you up for this moment disingenuously like it’s a fairground ride at Disneyland. And when Phalanx barrel-rolls through the air to shake you off, hanging upside down off his back hair by one hand as your feet drag through the clouds feels like an untouchable adrenaline high.

 

ANY MISTEPS?

If I had to object, I might say that the fight is perhaps a smidge too easy and could afford to be little more punishing when you do something stupid. Traditionally, once you’re on a colossus, the big threat is running out of stamina and losing your grip, but at this point in the game you’ve got a stamina bar as long as Das Boot and playing with even a modicum of care should see you getting rid of at least two of Phalanx’s weak points before he finally just throws himself back into the dirt for a guaranteed breather.

Not to mention that if you do fall off his back before then, the end result is surprisingly tame, with our prepubescent protagonist not even losing half of his health as he drops though the air and lands face down in sun-scorched rocks and sand. Hell, it’s not long before you realise that Phalanx never actually attacks you, just trying to shake you off his back after you stab him one too many times, so there’d be odd moments of disconnect where I’d look up at this thing soaring overhead after I just hacked half the blood out of it, still apparently unconcerned by the aggressive little microbe shooting arrows up at it and screaming angry, Ico-brand non-language.

 

WHAT WE CAN LEARN

That huge-scale stuff has to be handled carefully, and never to the player’s detriment, putting the cinematic too far forward. I admit, running around all over the giant figures in the God of War series never really did much for me, because everything about it felt scripted and planned in advance. Not to mention that Kratos’ absurd power didn’t make it feel like that much of a fight to begin with, so who cares about the distinction in size?

But Team Ico designs Phalanx like some strange, alien airship, something so big that it can hurt you by accident, and placing it in an environment large enough that you keep forgetting how huge this thing is until you ride close to it. Then moving around on its back feels real, roughly speaking, with everything going towards making the battle feel plausible and terrifying in scope. The game doesn’t give you anything, you have to claim it all for yourself, and that’s far, far more satisfying.

 

NEXT TIME: “I’ve done everything this world has to offer. I’ve read every book. I’ve burned every book. I’ve won every game. I’ve lost every game. I’ve appeased everyone. I’ve killed everyone.

“Sets of numbers… Lines of dialog… I’ve seen them all.”

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