Boss fights: good or bad?

Chris criticised Far Cry 5 for its boss fights in his otherwise positive review. They remain a strange tradition of games, and are usually used to cap off the end of a level with a challenge, even if they end up as misfires in a bunch of our favourite games. Do they still have a place, though? In this PCG Q&A, the PCG writers share their thoughts. Let us know your opinion in the comments below. 

Samuel Roberts: Good (but only in the right games)

Boss fights end up in all sorts of games where they don't really have a place. I didn't enjoy any of Resident Evil 7's boss battles, for example, since each fight was basically just a bullet sponge, and this detracted from the game's otherwise imposing atmosphere. 

I asked this week's question about boss battles, though, because I just beat a tricky one in the Devil May Cry HD Collection, and that's one game where they definitely have a place. The challenge adds a lot of drama, and they're built to be taken apart by skilled players. There's an art to how they're executed. 

The same applies to Platinum's Bayonetta, too. Developers just need to offer the player a satisfying solution to beating them, based on what kind of game they're making. That's why talking a boss down in Deus Ex: Human Revolution's director's cut makes so much more sense than just shooting them to death. 

Tom Senior: Good (in the right games)

I thought I was a boss fight hater. Even in great games boss fights can be awful. The Batman Arkham games are a prime example. The combat system is brilliant at letting you take on hordes of thugs, but it's terrible when you have to punch one big thing many times. I groan inwardly when I see a massive health bar appear, knowing that I'll probably have to spend the next 30 minutes or so whittling it down.

But then I played Dark Souls. The bosses are works of art. They are tragic, monstrous, brilliantly soundtracked, and challenging. I remember the euphoria of taking down the gaping dragon—a creature driven by hunger, whose entire stomach is split open in a gigantic mouth. I remember the tell for his charge move, and how to long-roll left to get into a good counter-attack position. This is what the best boss fights do. They imprint themselves on your memory and give you memorable moments of victory to savour long after the game is done.

Phil Savage: Mostly bad

Dark Souls is good and all, but it's definitely the exception to the rule. The rule being: basically all boss fights are rubbish and bad. Resident Evil 4, for instance, is an all-time classic that revolutionised an ageing series and redefined what an action game could be. It's inventive and elegant in many things, but not in its boss fights. Its boss fights are the same as pretty much every boss fight. A big thing attacks you while you shoot the pulsating maracas of flesh that denote its weak spot until its limbs fly off and the process repeats with a different conveniently glowing patch of flesh.

A good boss fight should challenge you to perfect the systems you've been practicing throughout the game. Few games actually do this. Weirdly, one that does is Deus Ex: Human Revolution's Missing Link DLC. Its final boss is essentially a puzzle room that challenges you to reach the end by using that games regular systems. But it was specifically designed in response to DX:HR's non-DLC boss fights, which are all hot garbage.

(Actually, I also like DmC's Fox News-esque boss sequence, because it's basically edgy sixth-form level satire made manifest. The fight itself isn't great, but god damn it's stylish in a petulant teen kinda way.)

Andy Kelly: Bad (with a few exceptions)

If I'm judging boss battles by the majority, then they suck. I get no pleasure from learning repetitive patterns and exploiting them, and that's what most boss fights boil down to. But the annoying thing is, when boss battles are good, I love them. Pretty much every boss in the Metal Gear Solid series is memorable in some way, forcing you to use your imagination to beat them—and there are often multiple interesting ways to do it.

But mostly it's just some big, dumb ogre with ten times as much HP as a regular enemy, who calls in minions when you deal enough damage, or attacks faster as their health bar dwindles. Even great games are guilty of having shit boss fights, and it seems to be one aspect of games that hasn't gotten better over the years. Bosses work best when they break up the flow of regular play and force you to play differently, but they rarely offer that.

Andy Chalk: Real bad

Bad. BAD. God, they're so bad. "Hey, are you enjoying the game? Engaging with the characters, having fun with the mechanics? Well too bad, EAT THIS." And then it's a hard switch to an infuriating garbage-storm that serves absolutely no purpose except to test your commitment: How much shit are you willing to swallow so that you can get on with what you were actually doing? I cheated through Painkiller, raged about Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and straight-up quit High Hell (which I was really digging) because of that bullshit. The only good boss fight I've ever had was in Planescape: Torment and that was a conversation. 

Man, I'm mad just thinking about it. Boss fights are the worst. 

Steven Messner: Good in MMOs

At the risk of accidentally drawing Tim's ire, I will bring the MMO perspective here and say that boss fights are a universal good. I mean, MMO dungeons and raids are basically boss fight gauntlets, and it's what makes those activities so damn fun. There's obviously a lot of salt and tears that comes with running a raid boss for the first time, but MMO boss fights bring something to the table that you don't see in any other genre: coordination. 

I love the idea that every member of your party has a crucial role to play in a fight, and the way a well-designed boss fight layers mechanics upon mechanics. You're not just tanking the boss, you're tanking him while managing a stacking debuff that requires a timely tank swap, soaking fatal hits with active mitigation abilities, positioning the boss so that he doesn't accidentally cleave the party, and taunting any monsters that spawn so they don't curb stomp the healer—it's a lot to remember and it gives boss fights this frantic, terrifying pacing. But when you master that same encounter, it suddenly becomes a beautiful group choreography as each player moves perfectly to the rhythm of the boss' abilities.

I probably shouldn't have written this days after downing Aggramar, the final boss of WoW's current raid. I'm riding a potent high right now.

Samuel Roberts
Former PC Gamer EIC Samuel has been writing about games since he was 18. He's a generalist, because life is surely about playing as many games as possible before you're put in the cold ground.