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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GREAT BOSS FIGHTS AND WHAT THEY TAUGHT US, NO. 1: “MISTER FREEZE”

Few video game traditions go as far back as the noble boss fight. From the valiant pursuit of a single pixelated barrel-slinging, kidnapper ape in the original Donkey Kong, to the cinematic destruction of cosmic beings and the gods themselves in the Bayonetta series, half the games we remember, we remember for their climatic showdowns.

That being said, a boss fight is no guarantee of excitement, nor of satisfaction. A lot of modern games are happy to condense what should feel like an epic confrontation down to a series of quick time events, like the pirate slavery goon squad leaders in Far Cry 3, or perhaps decide to test something totally illogical, like making the Bed of Chaos in Dark Souls a platforming boss. Or what about Fable II, in which you spend the whole game trying to get to your hated nemesis, only to press one button and unceremoniously blow a hole in his head ten minutes from the end, never to be mentioned again?

So bearing that in mind, over the next week or so we’re going to be going over five great boss fights from gaming history, what made them work, what they have to teach us, and where they might just have fumbled too. And to begin with, we’ll begin with something a little…

Hold on, were there any ice puns that Arnold Schwarzenegger didn’t use up?

 

“MISTER FREEZE,” BATMAN: ARKHAM CITY

Nobody would initially look to the Arkham series for examples of good boss fights. Out of the whole four games and all that DLC, I think I recall only one worth mentioning, maybe two if you count the Scarecrow sections (which I do think are slightly over-praised as a whole).

That boss fight is, of course, the confrontation with frosty foe Mister Freeze, taking place midway through the second game. After an uneasy alliance between him and Batman collapses with all the predictability of the Statue of Liberty in a disaster movie, Freeze seals the doorways with ice and decides to clip this bothersome Bat’s wings. Acting fast, the caped Crusader retreats into the shadows – and the game is suddenly on.

 

WHAT IT INCLUDES

This is one of those fights that actually feels like you’re doing the Batman shtick, because Freezey isn’t going to just go down with a sturdy punch to the face. The guy’s surrounded by more metal than the editor of Decibel magazine, and the only thing apparently bigger than all that power armour is the ice-powered proton pack he’s carrying around with him.

So the key is to slink around, staying stealthy, and using all kinds of special tricks to slowly compromise Freeze’s suit until it’s worn down to the point where you can drive your fist through his helmet and take time showing him the true meaning of the phrase “cold snap.” But Victor isn’t exactly going to go along with that, and what makes him genuinely intimidating is the fact that every time you use one of your tactics, he does something to ensure it can’t be used happen again. Leapt up at him through a floor vent? He seals it shut when he realises what’s happening. Power up a generator to mess with his electronics? He’ll break it afterwards. Tried sneaking up behind him? He turns on a jetpack to burn you if you try it again. No gimmick will work twice, so you’d better be playing it smart, and playing it very, very careful.

 

WHY IT’S GOOD

Oh, this is good for a whole bunch of reasons. First of all, you’re forced to Batman as well as a Batman can. This is the make-or-break moment, where your cunning is suddenly put against an AI who learns from your actions, and it feels tense and exciting in a way that we haven’t encountered since Killer Croc in the first game, and certainly not as well.

In fact, considering you’re usually against thugs who pose about as much threat to you individually as a stale Hobnob, the single figure of Freeze suddenly throws that sense of superiority off-balance, making you feel like you’re the one being hunted. He can follow the warm footprints you leave behind, devastate your health bar in a couple of shots, and even getting close to him feels nerve-wracking, as he scans for a hint of bodily warmth or fires off drones to pinpoint your location. Not to mention the fact that his emotionless, artificial voice and glowing red goggles beneath the misted helmet make him startlingly creepy as an antagonist, even in a series that was usually pretty good at that sort of thing to begin with.

 

ANY MISTEPS?

As crazy as it sounds, I think a bigger environment with some more elements at play wouldn’t have gone amiss, nor would I have objected to seeing him come back in a different location with new tricks later on, considering he’s a great part of the game that’s finished with halfway through the second act.

Also, taking stock of Freeze’s tricks does take a while, but once you’ve worked out everything in your arsenal, he’s not as difficult as you’d think to take him out. The warm footprints can even be used to lure him around into certain traps, and he’s slow enough and loud enough that a clever player can avoid being caught without using their detective vision. Ideally, this would be the moment in which he brings in more drones or throws something new at you, but that never really happens. It’s not so much an error in the fight as the unused potential to be even better.

 

WHAT WE CAN LEARN

A boss fight is not only some culmination of spectacle or the chance to try out a gimmick, it’s the moment where the player’s skills are truly put under the magnifying glass and milked for all they’re worth. There’s so many times where a boss doesn’t seem measurably much more difficult than their collected minions, and you wonder A) how they got to be the boss in the first place, and B) where on earth the challenge is supposed to be if not here.

But Freeze is most certainly the grand exam for the stealth element of the game, testing the player by forcing them to try out every pouch in their utility belt, not to mention stopping them from using the same tricks over and over. He pushes you in every respect, surely the true point of a boss fight?

Well, depends who you ask. I know some games that would Pokemon X. Er, I mean, that would disagree.

 

NEXT TIME: Big, bad and beaky.