What Makes a Good Boss Battle?

While preparing for the upcoming presentation, I’ve been asking myself what makes a game good or, at the very least, what makes people enjoy them.  Since I mostly play RPGS, I mostly pulled from my knowledge of those games and thought about what I did and did not enjoy about some of my favorite games.  This brings me to Dragon Age: Inquisition, a game which, while mostly enjoyable, had one of the worst boss battles I have ever played.

The final boss of Dragon Age: Inquisition, Corypheus. Source

In order to figure out what makes a boss battle work well, I want to use what Inquisition did poorly.  By figuring out what Corypheus did poorly, we might be able to figure out what to do well.  NOTE: there will be spoilers ahead for the end of Inquisition.

The biggest problem that Corypheus had is that he never feels menacing.  He rarely interacts with the protagonist, choosing instead to send his many lieutenants after the Inquisitor.  While his actions had an effect on the world, it never really felt like he was the one to do them; instead, he felt like he just happened to be there, floating in the right place at the right time.

Partially because of this, Corypheus never really feels like an intimidating boss.  Another factor that leads to him not feeling intimidating is the fact that we’ve actually seen him before, in DLC for the previous Dragon Age game, Dragon Age II.  That would be fine-the Dragon Age series is known for its reliance on interconnecting lore, so this isn’t unexpected.  The only problem is that the protagonist of the last game soundly beat him in a moderately challenging but ultimately forgettable boss battle.  Knowing that he’s already been beat before, even if he didn’t die, doesn’t exactly make you doubt your ability to do it again.

Image result for corypheus stockings
Another reason he isn’t intimidating: his wicked witch of the west stockings. Source

However, none of these things would have mattered all that much if the battle itself wasn’t so dull.  It starts out fairly well-you are in a meeting with your advisers when Corypheus appears outside your stronghold and starts destroying it.  Unfortunately, battle’s atmosphere is almost immediately destroyed when you and your army rush outside to face him-only for you and the three specific companions you chose moments before to be lifted into the sky with Corypheus on floating rocks, separating you from all but your chosen company.  This feels incredibly contrived, especially when one of your scouts who was standing right beside you falls off the cliff and you don’t.  If my stunning description of the cutscene doesn’t do it for you and you have 15 minutes to spare, take a look at the entire battle here (keep in mind that the actual fight with Corypheus ends around the 15 minute mark).

What’s more, the fight isn’t actually hard or even interesting.  Instead of making the fight dynamic or challenging, the developers just decide to split it up into a few sections, having you do a certain amount of damage to Corypheus, then teleporting him to the next stone over and so on until you get to the final fighting place.  It’s also rather telling that the fight lasted only 15 minutes in the video I posted above, especially considering that that person was playing on the hardest difficulty available in the game.  In fact, one of my friends who played this game with an archer character was able to one-shot the boss on the final platform, just because of how easy the fight was and how leveled up her character was.  All of these elements lead to a boring boss fight that doesn’t feel impactful in the least.

So how can we do better?  For one, it’s important to make a boss who feels like a part of the story instead of a glorified onlooker.  It’s also helpful to instill upon the player a sense of intimidation to make the boss battle feel important.  Furthermore, mix up the gameplay in a unique way to make the actual battle feel like something the characters have never faced before.  Finally, instill some sort of difficulty into the boss, otherwise players won’t feel like they’ve accomplished anything by beating the boss.  With those four elements in mind, you should be on your way to creating a decently interesting boss battle.



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