Friday, August 10, 2012

Notable RPG Bosses vol 1.

This blog is drifting more and more towards RPG design. Post-game RPG bosses have been a particular interest of mine for a long time. I guess ever since I fought and defeated the two Weapons in Final Fantasy VII. This series of posts introduces some of my favorite bosses from games I have played. In order to get into this list, a boss needs to be exceptionally challenging while remaining fun to fight and plan strategies against. The ultimate point of these writeups is to collect implications on how to design better boss fights, especially considering post-game and hard difficulties. Let's start with a very recent experience that inspired this entire series.

Gilgamesh (Final Fantasy XIII-2) 

Gilgamesh is a classic adversary in the Final Fantasy series. He was first introduced in FFV as a recurring boss and has since appeared in several games in some role. His latest appearance is in FFXIII-2 as a downloadable post-game boss and he is the toughest enemy in the entire game. He is portrayed as a sword collector and his trademark in battle is the use of multiple swords from fake Excaliburs such as Excalipoor to the real thing and other legendary weapons such Masamune. In FFXIII-2 he starts the battle with firearms instead in what can be called a mock battle before the real thing. After going down pretty quickly he discards the firearms and the real fight begins.

As is quite typical for very hard boss fights, the battle is divided into two sections. I'm actually not such a big fan of dividing lengthy battles into sections because usually dying happens only in the later sections and a lot of time on attempts is wasted simply by getting there. It does serve a purpose on first attempts as it allows the player to learn some of the core mechanics in the fight but after that it's just a chore. This is how it is with Gilgamesh as well. It does allow you to benchmark your strategy against his main gimmick. But yeah, in the beginning he is not that dangerous. He hits with attacks from random sword that are not particularly dangerous and sometimes goes into defense mode. This is a good time to stop attacking because he will launch a rather powerful counter attack with damage based on how much he was attacked.

As boss fights in FFXIII and also -2 tend to do, this one also revolves around the use of stagger. This is also where his main gimmick enters play. I guess a quick reminder of how stagger works is in order. Battles feature a chain gauge which has two purposes: it acts as a damage multiplier and also as a stagger meter. Most enemies in the game have a stagger point, after which they enter a more vulnerable state where their chain gauge can be driven up all the way to 999.9% after which you can deal massive damage. However stagger only lasts for a limited time and after that the enemy goes back to 100.0% chain gauge.You can also lose the chain gauge while you are building stagger if you don't attack often enough. To make it a little more complex, certain attacks (mostly, those by commandos) kind of strengthen the chain but raise it only minimally while others raise it more but make it weaker. The length of the stagger depends in the chain's strength.

Gilgamesh has a ton of hit points so you will definitely want to stagger him to make the fight go in any reasonable amount of time. Staggering him also has other benefits: he loses his weapons while staggered, lowering the threat he poses temporarily. However, staggering him also has a downside: after recovering from stagger, he heals himself for a big chunk of HP. This means that whenever you stagger him, you must be able to deal significantly more damage than this chunk, otherwise you won't progress anywhere in the fight. This requires two things from the player: optimizing party damage output and selecting optimal paradigms. Paradigms are role configurations for the party. You can have only six paradigms, and you can only use three monsters in them (which means your third party member can only be chosen among three roles instead of six). To maximize damage output, you would need to include a commando, a ravager and a synergist.

So far so simple. Using these three guarantees the best damage output. However, once you get Gilgamesh below half of his total HP, the battle gets a lot crazier. Not only does he get Haste which makes him attack more often, he also gets longer attack chains and a bunch of new attacks that are a lot more devastating. To have any chance of survival, you need to have a monster sentinel out at almost all times which seriously reduces your ability to raise the chain gauge and to deal damage. You won't really have time to cast buffs at all because you'll find yourself juggling between building the chain, strengthening it and healing yourself. On top of everything else, Gilgamesh gets a really powerful attack that is not telegraphed (unlike every other mega attack in the game) which in addition to doing a load of damage puts one character into sleep. If you don't have your sentinel out when this attack happens, your lead character is guaranteed to die and it is your monster that goes to sleep (that is, your sentinel!)

Getting a stagger in is now harder. He does still lose his weapons in stagger but gets to keep his Haste. This is important because throughout the battle he can make an attack that causes Fog and Pain statuses which disable a character's magic and physical abilities respectively and this forces you to spend valuable stagger time to heal them. Since he's on Haste for the latter half of the battle, the chances of getting hit by one of these go up tremendously. You are still supposed to do massive damage on each stagger because of his healing ability.


The reason I like this battle is that it (along with some other DLC fights) gives the game the challenge it originally lacks. Since choices in FFXIII-2 are always limited: three monsters, six paradigms, 100 accessory equipment points (with most great accessories costing over 50 points, that's a big limitation), the player is forced to make compromises to deal with all aspects of this battle. It's also a necessity to develop some really kickass monsters, especially in terms of damage output. Resistance to Pain and Fog need to be factored in, because getting hit by these constantly is a severe hindrance. But the element I like the most is the time pressure during staggers. Your party that is geared towards survival still has to be able to dish out a lot of damage on every single stagger. All in all, the fight takes a lot of planning and subsequent development.

It also makes great use of the game's battle system, forcing the player to utilize every aspect of it in order to optimize damage. Especially in the latter half, situations change rapidly and the player needs to swap paradigms frequently and keep an eye on Gilgamesh's chain gauge to avoid losing it and having to start building it up from scratch again. All the planning and battle performance is due to multidimensional pressure. Gilgamesh has all sorts of nasty tricks that will force the player to adapt their strategy to take all those into account. It is important to notice that the huge amount of damage he deals is there to hinder the player from focusing into dishing out tons of damage and the main piece of the puzzle is the healing ability. As we will see in future parts of this series, having multiple sources of pressure is the key to interesting boss fights.

Appendix: How I defeated it

My strategy was far from optimal, since I took an hour to defeat it. The target time is 24 minutes. I'm aware of at least one better strategy that involves using different monsters, but I wanted to try my own first. This section is not particularly explain-y, I'll be using game terms with abandon, explanations in footnotes. I was using the following paradigms:

COM-COM-COM (dish out the hurt during staggers)
RAV-RAV-RAV (build chain gauge rapidly)
COM-COM-SEN (keep the chain gauge alive while shielded)
SYN-SYN-SEN (cast defensive buffs while Gilgamesh is defending, was quite useless)
MED-MED-SEN (for healing obviously)
SAB-SEN-SEN (for taking the biggest blows and casting debuffs at the beginning of stagger)

I used Lightning as my commando for her high damage output and rather lengthy feral link* (to make use of chain gauge locking**). I chose Valfodr as my ravager because he's from the same pack as the other two which gave me a damage boost from Pack Mentality for Lightning and Valfodr. He also has exceptionally high damage for a ravager. Finally I used Snow as my sentinel. He has the highest HP in the game and should have no trouble shielding Serah and Noel. He also has a highly damaging feral link attack which could be used to boost damage during staggers. I equipped Serah with a fog resistance accessory and Noel with a pain resistance accessory.

I was controlling Serah for this fight. The start of the fight was spent mostly in the first two paradigms, building stagger and charging feral links. To maximize damage output during stagger I used the following process: immediately upon stagger I switched to the last paradigm to quickly cast Deprotect and Deshell. They stick on Gilgamesh on the first casting during stagger so then I immediately switched to RAV-RAV-RAV and ordered Serah to attack and then activated Valfodr's feral link so that Serah would reach full ATB while the gauge was frozen to attack again and push the chain gauge to or near 999.9%. Then I switched to COM-COM-COM and pounded the boss for two full ATBs, using items to heal pain from Lightning or Noel if necessary. A quick switch to COM-COM-SEN and, utilizing ATB cancel***, ordered Serah to attack and immediately activated Snow's feral link (again to allow Serah to reach full ATB while the gauge was locked)

Again, immediately after Snow's feral link animation ended I switched back to COM-COM-COM for some final pounding. For Serah's last attacks I switched from magic to physical attacks and timed it to hit when Scourge would be activated (magic attacks can't use Scourge) and finally activated Lightning's feral link to allow Noel to get in more attacks with Scourge. Especially during latter half of the battle I sometimes had to visit more defensive paradigms briefly to stay alive but this process was mostly repeated as it is presented here for every stagger.

During latter half of the fight I mainly stayed in COM-COM-SEN to keep the chain gauge alive and to do some damage. Every two full ATBs I switched to RAV-RAV-RAV for one quick burst of chaining (using ATB cancel) unless I suspected a Divider might be coming (that's the non-telegraphed mega attack). I also took his telegraphed mega attack in SAB-SEN-SEN to reduce its damage. After Divider I typically had to go to MED-MED-SEN for a while to heal (I dropped the gauge a few times because of this actually). Whenever Gilgamesh went into defensive mode, I switched to SYN-SYN-SEN to cast some defensive buffs, particularly Veil which reduces the chances of getting hit by status effects. Although Gilgamesh can dispel these, Serah usually got to keep her buffs because she was nowhere near Snow (who took practically all the hits in this battle).

After an hour of constant juggling between paradigms he was down. It didn't feel like such a long fight because it demanded constant attention and although my stagger process sounds a bit repetitive there was a bunch of timing issues to constantly stay aware of. Of course I didn't take him down on my first attempt, no, it took several just to figure out this strategy and then a couple more to perfect implementation.

* Feral links are unique special attacks monsters have and work like limits etc. in older games of the series. They can be used at intervals and have varying effects (most do damage though). 
** Enemy chain gauge is frozen during feral link animations but rest of the world moves normally, allowing more attacks during a stagger and also more hits with Scourge, an attack that activates when the enemy has very little stagger time left and deals a lot more damage than normal attacks. 
*** Whenever you have used to full ATB gauges before switching paradigms, you'll start the new paradigm with full ATB gauge instead of empty. This accelerates damage output (among other things) a lot. 

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