How God of War nails boss fights
Making a boss fight is easy, but making an enjoyable and memorable boss fight is hard. I’ve lost count of the number of bosses that were too easy, ridiculously tough, unpredictable, padded with mile-long health bars, or just didn’t give any feeling of satisfaction upon being bested. A good boss will make you quail upon first viewing it, kill you multiple times before you learn its attacks and patterns, and will make you feel like a boss (haha) when you finally vanquish it.
The God of War franchise is lauded for some facets and derided for others, but its high-octane, level-spanning, and intimidating boss fights have conformed to a high standard across all three games in the series. Before we delve into how God of War bosses are meticulously designed, let’s look over some elements that good bosses should have:
- They should be challenging. This is pretty much a given. A boss shouldn’t merely be a trumped up version of enemies you face in the level, killed by the same attack combos and tricks. Challenge can be generated through two means: the boss’s move set and the boss’s appearance. The move set should be varied and the attacks should deal more damage. The appearance should be intimidating and convey dominance in the trait the boss possesses (strength, dexterity, weirdness).
- They should be fair. If a boss is challenging but unbeatable without blind fortune or cheat sheets, it’s a missed design opportunity. Fairness can be introduced through the boss’s animation and environmental affordances/signifiers. The animation should convey, even if for a split second, which attack the boss is going to perform so that the player learns and adapts. The environment (or the boss itself) should help convey its weak points, tell the player when the boss takes damage, and hint towards techniques to achieve victory.
- They should be varied. If a boss has only two attack moves and a huge health bar, the player is in for a long fight of drudgery and boredom. Similarly, if all bosses in a game have similar attacks and appearances, the satisfaction of beating each successive boss races towards zero. Variation can be achieved by dividing the boss fight into different stages and making each boss fight a uniquely challenging experience.
- Beating them should be rewarding. This ties into the first point about bosses being challenging. Beating an easy boss rarely results in the endorphin rush that players crave. Rewards for beating a boss can be story progression, collecting new weapons/items, or just an intrinsic fist-pump of jubilation if the boss is challenging, fair, and varied.
Let’s take an example from God of War 3 (I played this one most recently and it’s fresh in the memory, but all three GoW games have consistently great bosses) and see how Sony makes the boss fight an adrenaline-pumping ride.
The first boss fight in God of War 3 had a lot of hype to live up to. The game starts with Kratos (your character) clinging onto the titan Gaia (basically a moving mountain) as she scales Mt. Olympus to wage war against the Gods. This magnum opus setting required a magnum opus boss, and Poseidon brings it.
Is it challenging?
Considering that it’s the first level of the game, yes. More than the move set (which is potent but basic), it’s the appearance that truly intimidates. Poseidon is God of the Sea and God of Horses, right? What appearance would best convey dominance over these two realms? Well, five minutes into the game, you meet this thing:
This is not even Poseidon’s final form, but it does enough to set the stage in terms of scale (look how small you are in comparison) and relevance (Poseidon is going to come at you with water and horses). Again, it’s not super tough to beat, but the boss’s intimidating appearance lends great gravitas as you swing the final sword.
Is it fair?
Yes. Each of Poseidon’s attacks has an animated ‘tell’, a split second that foreshadows the attack so that a discerning player can perform evasive maneuvers.
For example, the water horse opens its mouth for a second before letting forth an aqua-energy-blast-thing…
Gaia moves to the right when Poseidon is about to hit a right hook…
…and she moves to the left when the left hook is imminent.
Later in the level, when you meet Poseidon in a different form, he draws back his hand for a second before landing a punch or elbow, allowing for evasion.
Some animations are subtler than others. Notice below how Poseidon’s trident crackles for a second before the ground is engulfed in electricity. Observant players can use this tell to their advantage.
To sum up, the boss fight provides ample clues to players about Poseidon’s attacks and patterns, making the fight an exercise in growth rather than frustration.
Is it varied?
For sure. The Poseidon battle isn’t an isolated incident and takes place throughout the first level. After beating a few goons, the water horse jumps out at you first…
Not content with springing this surprise, Sony makes you fight this thing upside down two minutes later…
When you complete the first encounter, you progress through the level with a degree of unease because you know that thing is still out there and can accost you at any time. And it does.
After you’ve faced various iterations of this beast, Poseidon finally shows his face in all its watery glory.
And when you finally separate the God from his aqueous monstrosity, Poseidon is merely a battered man.
There are enough stages here to keep players interested, guessing, and on their toes. All versions of the boss have their own unique move sets that need to be studied and learned from. Along with the Hydra in God of War and Colossus of Rhodes in God of War 2, Poseidon is probably the boss with the greatest variety in the series.
Is it rewarding?
In terms of abilities gained, no. Most boss fights in God of War end with Kratos stealing their weapons (Claws of Hades, Nemean Cestus), accessories (Boots of Hermes), or body parts (Head of Helios). Beating Poseidon rewards the player in terms of story progression and intrinsic satisfaction.
As Poseidon devolves into water and falls into the sea, we see the real repercussions of killing a God. The sea is enveloped in chaos and floods the human world.
While each subsequent boss inflicts a new horror upon the world after dying, we are introduced to it through Poseidon. We see how far Kratos is willing to go in order to extract his revenge, plunging the world into darkness as he does so.
And as for intrinsic satisfaction? Well, you just beat a super intimidating boss in the first level of the game! Kratos is a bad-ass Spartan, and it’s important to make players feel like one during the course of gameplay. Few boss fights do this better.
I’ll stop this here. Let me know if there’s something I’ve missed out or identified wrongly. If you’re interested in reading more, I can take other bosses from the GoW series and do a similar deconstruction. Until next time!
References (for screenshots and content ideas):
snowmaN Gaming: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YmwLPF11eos
Rajman Gaming HD: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EuJxCRwuO_g