Friday, August 17, 2012

Notable RPG Bosses vol 2

Since I'm still playing Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor I don't want to write about it just yet. Instead, we're going to continue our boss series. This time around you're in for a real treat. This particular boss is pretty notorious and indeed does test the limits of fairness. It is however also a really brilliant design. Here goes:

Demi-Fiend (Digital Devil Saga)

The Demi-Fiend is better known as the protagonist of Shin Megami Tensei: Lucifer's Call (Nocturne if you're on the other side of the Atlantic) but makes a cameo as an optional boss in the second playthrough of Digital Devil Saga. Half-human, half-demon, he is able to summon and control demons and also possesses a nasty array of skills. The Demi-Fiend has six different demons which he will summon in order whenever he has less than two demons out. This is the list of demons he uses: Cu Chulain, Girimehkala, Pixie, Arahabaki, Titania and Parvati. He starts the battle with the first two already in the field. All in all, this is an "endless allies" type boss battle which are often difficult due to the high number of turns the opposing side is able to take. This is particularly true in the SMT's press turn system where you get a bonus turn for hitting an opponent's weakness or getting a critical hit. He does the latter a lot.

If you've played this game or taken a look at its skill list, you'll notice that there are skills that allow you to become immune to pretty much everything, so how can this fight be any challenge? Well, that's because this guy doesn't really approve of unfair fighting and rewards your "cunning" with an almighty spell, Gaea Rage,  (almighty, as the name suggests, being the only damage type that cannot be cancelled) that does more damage than it is possible to have hit points in this game. He does generously allow you to have resist skills though, which will be needed to cover any weaknesses of the characters you bring because otherwise his allies will be creating way too many bonus turns exploiting your weaknesses. He also allows you to have two null skills because they don't actually work like the rest of them. I find it just a little baffling that they didn't give them more discerning names.

Although he doesn't approve of your unfair fighting, he has absolutely no trouble fighting unfairly himself. He's immune to most damage types with three exceptions, two of which are actually useful against him. He also gets a second turn to start off with. His attack patterns are actually pretty limited, he's just throwing out various physical attacks that deal a lot of hurt to all characters. The most annoying of his attacks is one that causes mute which, if it sticks, makes you unable to cast spells. Another attack causes stun. Curiously this is a blessing more than anything else because if a character is stunned they cannot be muted. Since by this time you'll have access to a healing spell that cures full hit points and all status effects, mute is usually only a nuisance but occasionally can kill your entire turn.

Of course his allies add their own ingredients to this mix of nasty. Stuff like instant kill attacks, petrification and tons of debuffs can be expected. As long as you're prepared, you should usually survive all this. I'm saying usually because sometimes an unlucky streak of attacks can really throw you off. Such is life in the Junkyard. Anyway, so far so simple, so what's the big deal? Remember Gaea Rage, the attack that kills your entire party off if you dare to have any immunities on you? Well, he actually throws it out at specific times during the battle even if you are fighting according to his rules of fairness. This will happen exactly after he has summoned Pixie and after he has summoned Parvati. There is only one way to avoid getting wiped out by Gaea Rage, and that is a skill called Null Sleep.

This may sound a bit weird but it's mostly because of poor naming. What actually happens is that after Pixie and Parvati are summoned, they will cast Dormina, a spell that causes sleep. How's this important if you are equipped with a skill called Null Sleep? Well, that's because the skill doesn't make you immune to sleep. Instead, when afflicted by sleep a character with Null Sleep is guaranteed to dodge every single attack thrown at them. So that's good news, Gaea Rage won't hit you. Bad news is, there's no guarantee that sleep will stick. This is where the fight is borderline unfair, because there's not much you can do besides bringing Cielo who is weak against all ailments, it's all based on luck. The only thing you can do is to minimize the number of times you have to roll this particularly deadly die. Easy right, don't kill his demons, he'll never get to even Pixie.

Right. That's where the other nasty mechanic of this battle comes to play. Whenever a demon ally has taken 30 turns using anything except Dekaja or Dekunda (these skills clear enemy buffs and ally debuffs, respectively) they will cast Recarmdra which kills the demon but heals the other demon and Demi-Fiend back to full HP. Which is typically worse than having to start all over again, so at this point retrying is a good idea. This forces you to kill those demons. You just don't want to do it too quickly, otherwise you're pushing your luck with Gaea Rage. The odds of sleep sticking are by the way uncomfortably low, so you really don't want to do that. On top of that, even if it does stick and you do survive Gaea Rage, the aftermath is messy. There's no telling how long your character will sleep and on whose turn they wake up.


So, this boss sounds mighty unfair, no? I mean having something depend on luck is bad design right? Although that's what it initially looks like, the design can be defended. There is one way to have single-use failsafes against Gaea Rage which will somewhat mitigate the effect of luck. Most importantly though, having it depend on luck is what gives this battle its urgent nature without introducing hard time limits. They could have easily switched to some lose condition that works similarly, like after a total of ten demons are killed, Gaea Rage is imminent. However, selecting that threshold would have been a tough call. Too lenient would make the battle too easy; too strict would have made it even harder.

Actually, having a hard limit might have actually made the battle even more luck-dependent in a paradoxical way because then it would matter a lot more how many turns are lost to unlucky Javelin Rains (the attack that causes mute) and attack combinations. Although these need to occur more often to screw up your battle plan, they also can occur on about every single turn in the fight. But, because there is no hard limit, it is always possible that the next Gaea Rage won't wipe you out and you get more time. It is still infuriating to lose the battle to an unlucky Dormina. There is however also the thrill when everything is hanging on just (figuratively) one roll of a die.

Unfair or no, the two mechanics that make this battle unique, that is Gaea Rage and Recarmdra, are brilliant because they implement a two-sided time pressure. Defeat the demons too soon and you will be getting hit with more Gaea Rages. Defeat them too slowly and you risk redoing the battle. Everything else in the fight mostly serves one purpose: it forces you to think about your skill choices very carefully. There are only eight slots, and there's 5 skills that you'd want to set for every character to maximize survival. After this you're still going to need skills that heal your party and deal damage to the demons and Demi-Fiend. The high damage output also means that maximizing your characters' stats is a requirement for this battle. This consequently means that there is no way to over-level to make this battle easy.

Although the appendix is actually longer than the post itself, I suggest skimming through it just to get an idea how tightly planned a strategy needed to be to clear this fight. It also shows that the randomness of Gaea Rage is in fact a lot less random once you really prepare for it. Controlling the chances in random scenarios by the way is a really enticing game mechanic. That's actually explained by the flow theory's notion of the paradox of control. I quote: "Only when a doubtful outcome is at stake, and one is able to influence that outcome, can a person really know whether she is in control."

Appendix: How I defeated it

First of all, I'm afraid the details might be a bit hazy. It's been quite a few years since I did this battle and although my recall is pretty good, this probably won't be as detailed as the Gilgamesh entry. I actually checked my saved games to see if I still had my skill configuration in one of them but no dice. Overall it took me about half a year to clear this one. Not all of it was spent playing of course, and I did have a four month break from the game after deeming this battle just too damn hard. At some point though I had to get back to it. This time around I gave up my pride and looked up some strategies (well, two) online but, and this is the second time I recall this happening, they didn't really work for me. Both required too much luck to my taste so ultimately I ended up developing my own. I'd be the first to admit those two strategies did affect my own quite a bit of course.

For starters I had to do some more grinding to get all the relevant stats to 99. That's magic and vitality in this battle for all characters and strength for one character. Maxing these stats is important because they reduce damage. Magic also increases magic damage which is by far superior to physical damage in this battle. Cielo had to be in the party because he's more likely to go to sleep than anyone else. Serph, being the leader that you're free to develop, is an automatic choice and finally I chose Argilla because a) I like her and b) she has the highest magic in the game and the least points in useless stats for this fight which means less grinding. Because both Serph and Argilla have an elemental weakness they are going to need to cover that with a resist skill. Everyone needed to have Death Resist, Phys Resist, Null Sleep and Null Critical (which does only decrease the chances for critical hits, huh?)

After trying this battle a lot of times I figured that one really important aspect is to be in good control when exactly the Demi-Fiend's allies die. More specifically, I wanted them to die at the same time. The best way to do this is to have an attack that does a lot of damage to all targets because the higher the damage of a single attack, the less you need to worry about the difference in remaining HP the two demons have. The most damaging attack in the entire game is Black Sun. It does very high and very constant damage (also important) but it's a combo spell that uses up everyone's turn. It also means forgoing the most powerful area of effect almighty magical attack (Celestial Ray) in the game for a slightly weaker one because the weaker one (Megidolaon) is required for the combo to work. The other two required skills, Ragnarok and Salvation, are fortunately necessary for this fight anyway.

With AoE taken care of using Ragnarok, Megidolaon and Black Sun, there's still need to cover healing, single target damage and debuff recovery. I figured out that two characters with Salvation is actually sufficient for this battle if they are the first two characters to act each turn since passing doesn't use up an entire action but two passes in row does. So to account for healing, normally one of the two characters would be able to do it by spending a turn. If the first one is muted, he can pass and the second character can use the passed bonus turn to heal resulting in only one lost turn. If both are muted, there is no way to really avoid spending two turns even if the third character has Salvation. The first character can pass, the second can use a Dis-Mute to cure the first character, the third character can then pass and the first can finally cast Salvation, leaving one turn.

So that left me with one extra slot available for the last character (Argilla) which allowed me to boost her damage potential a lot by adding (I think, not sure) Mind Charge. To cover single target damage I think I gave everyone Last Word which is the only single target almighty magic attack in the game. Finally I gave exactly one character, the middle one (Cielo) Dekunda to clear those debuffs. I left Dekaja out because it can be cast from an item, which I simply harvested lots of. I don't actually remember what I used Cielo's last skill slot for (I'm not even sure if I gave him Last Word or not) but I'm pretty sure it was something important. Could have actually been Rakukaja which increases my defense, and more importantly, forces one of the demons to cast Dekaja (further decreasing damage).

The last piece of the puzzle to reduce my chances against Gaea Rage was Close Call, a skill that allows a character to survive death once per battle. The problem with this skill is that it leaves you in human form* with 1 HP and it's insanely hard to recover from this situation. Besides, there was no space for it, seriously. However, there were two perfectly good candidates for having this skill: the two characters that were in reserve (you can switch active characters during battle). So I set them up with the skill and something else that didn't really matter. Phew, that's quite a lot of setting up but hey, this is the single most epic boss encounter in any game I've played.

Armed with this setup, a calculator, a pen and one sheet of paper I was ready to go. Wait, what? Yeah, because of the 30 turn Recarmdra rule it is highly recommended to keep careful track of demon actions, so I used tally marks. The calculator was for counting Demi-Fiend's hit points, particularly when he was about to enter half HP because that's when one of the demons will cast Mediarahan, healing the entire group back to full HP. This only happens once, but it needs to be timed quite carefully. It also allowed me to know when he was one Black Sun away from dying, which was also very helpful to know. I kept track of demon damage in my head because Black Sun allowed for quite large errors. All this tallying and calculating is why the fight takes a lot of time (even a failed attempt often takes 30 minutes!)

In the fight itself, I would first drop both demons to low enough HP that I could take them out in one turn (don't remember whether I pummeled them to Megidolaon or Black Sun range), and then pound the Demi-Fiend with Last Words until the demons had taken around 25 actions. I didn't want to get too close to 30 because a double mute could disrupt my ability to wipe them out in time. For the first pair of demons I also avoided using Ragnarok because it causes Rakunda along with damage, which in turn causes Cu Chulain to cast Dekunda and leaves Girimehkala to cast Mamudoon (instant death fun all around). Normally most of Girimehkala's turns go towards casting Dekaja after Cu Chulain's Taunt because Taunt debuffs and buffs the player party.

Wiping both out at once was particularly important when preparing for Gaea Rage. When out of demons, Demi-Fiend gets only two turns. One is spent to summon a demon and the second turn goes to the summoned demon, in this case Pixie, who will then cast Dormina. Since it is now my turn I can react to whether anyone fell asleep or not. I got shitty luck and the first two Dorminas in the battle didn't stick so I had to prepare one of my reserve Close Call characters to take the Gaea Rage. I think the procedure was like this: Ragnarok, switch one character out, Rakukaja. This way, when it became the Demi-Fiend's turn and they had 3 actions, one would go to summoning the second demon, and then the demons would spend their turns casting Dekunda and Dekaja. That allowed my measly human form 1 HP character to keep me in the fight.

My tactic also involved a curious healing pattern. If my characters were inflicted with stun I would actually avoid using Salvation and use full recovery items to heal instead to keep the stun. Although stun is slightly inconvenient, being inflicted by it makes characters immune to mute because of the one ailment rule in the game. If I remember correctly it was particularly useful when preparing to cast a Black Sun because that can be easily disrupted by a single mute. All in all, finding the windows to cast Black Sun was hard, but in the end I think it was the piece that was missing from my earlier strategy. In order to safely cast Black Sun all characters need to be in very good condition and preferably free of debuffs.

The fight was over in an hour and a half. The last 30 minutes when I realized I could win the fight were pretty intense. I screwed up at one point because I lost count of some demon actions and had to take them out "just in case" so I actually had to endure one more Gaea Rage that I had hoped for, but I got lucky (finally!) and Dormina did stick to one character who was able to recover my fighting potential which allowed me to bring victory home. The sight of the Demi-Fiend vanishing was probably the biggest rush I've gotten from a game. I think it was actually my first attempt with the Black Sun strategy. It did take a lot of failed attempts to arrive at this strategy though. I haven't tested this strategy again, and I won't because of the 1.5 hours it takes, but I felt that it was pretty stable - I only had to rely on luck for that one Gaea Rage because of my own screw-up, the other two were dealt with the failsafes.

I'm sad about one things though: I've lost the paper that had the tally marks from the victorious battle.

* Characters usually fight in demon form and normally start fights in them as well. Human-form is a lot weaker, and most importantly you can't use any skills. They have two advantages: natural immunity to light and access to the gun damage type. The reason why it's so bad getting stuck in human form is that it takes one turn to transform and you have to do it with that character. Furthermore, if you die in human form, you are resurrected in human form. Switching is often preferable because you can switch out dead team members for living ones using another character's switch command which allows the new arrival to often act on the same turn. 

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