Let’s get back into the swing of things, shall we? I’ve been playing a lot of Titan Quest: Immortal Throne lately. It’s pretty much Diablo 2. It’s pretty, it has some new ideas, but ultimately it comes down to running into a room and clicking a thousand times until everyone’s dead. That being said, this game had one moment that was nearly a dealbreaker for me.
Problem: Cerberus. Or: Bosses that require entirely different tactics from the rest of the game, but don’t tell the player what those tactics are.
Near the end of the Immortal Throne expansion, players run into Cerberus. And this puppy is hard. I kept grinding my character to higher and higher levels, and trying to use special items, but still he tore me apart in an instant.
I looked online to find out how to beat Cerberus, and I found that a lot of my problems were based on false assumptions, assumptions that the game never bothered to train me out of…and one big control issue.
- Cerberus deals poison damage. I came into the fight assuming Cerberus would do fire damage, as would befit a guardian of Hell. When he roared back and breathed a spray of green flames on me, or summoned bursts of green fire from the floor, I never guessed that the damage type was actually poison, rather than fire. The problem here is the game failing to give sufficient feedback about the damage the player is taking. Unless the player has learned that green = poison, there’s nothing to tip them off to the unusual damage type.
- Poison damage is not elemental damage. This was another misconception I had while going into the fight. Poison is displayed right alongside the player’s elemental defenses, but a Scroll of Elemental Resistance doesn’t help against Cerberus at all. It took a lot of trials and deaths before I realized that all the Scrolls I was spending my money on were having no effect.
- The controls of Titan Quest aren’t precise enough to allow the player to reliably dodge some of Cerberus’s attacks. Cerberus is one of two monsters in the game that interact with their battlefields: in the puppy’s case, he causes green flames to erupt from cracks in the ground, dealing massive damage. (You can see the cracks in the screenshot above: notice that they’re all over the place, not running in nice straight lines.) The player must run to a safe point and wait out the flames. The problem is that the Diablo-style control scheme is not at all suited to this kind of precise movement. The player has to try to click on a tiny safe point while the camera is moving and they’re trying to manage their skills and inventory, and hoping their character doesn’t decide to stop halfway, or attack Cerberus instead of moving, or any of a dozen other pathfinding problems that got me killed over and over.
Solution: Be clear about your assumptions, and give the player the knowledge they need to create a battle plan.
First: When the player takes damage or is killed, they should have the opportunity to learn a bit more about what killed them. An excellent implementation would be for the game to display an icon on the side of the screen after a player is killed. When clicked, it brings up information about the attack that killed them, how strong the attack was, what special properties the attack had, and how the player’s defenses and resistances affected it.
Second: If you use keywords in your game, define them. Even if it seems obvious, players will always make bad assumptions unless you give them straightforward definitions. In my case, I assumed that ‘Elemental’ just meant anything that wasn’t physical damage. My mistake, but it’s also the game designers’ mistake for not teaching me otherwise.
Third: Know your genre’s strengths and weaknesses. Precise positioning is not a strength of Diablo-style games, so don’t have your enemies use attacks that require dodging to precise locations. A better challenge for this style of game would be a range-based attack: Cerberus could cause an aura of massive damage at close, medium, or far range, and the player would have to quickly identify the dangerous zone and move to a different range. The controls are more suited to handling broad ideas of ‘near’ and ‘far.’
For this post, I’m just talking about PS0’s single-player campaign.
Problem: Once the player hits the boss, they have nowhere to gain XP.
After adventuring through a dungeon for two hours, the party reaches the area’s boss. Unfortunately, the boss kicks their butt, and sends them back to their home base. The teleporter out of their base will return them directly to the boss fight, and in the meantime, they have nowhere else they can go to earn experience.
The player has two options. They can throw themselves at the boss again, but with no way to gain experience and power, they’re sure to lose. Or, they can abandon their quest and gain XP elsewhere – but they’ll have to spend another two hours going through this dungeon if they want to fight the boss again. (And even then, they have no way of knowing if they’re strong enough yet.)
The main source of this problem is the final boss. She waits at the end of a 2-3 hour dungeon, and is significantly harder than anything else in the dungeon (or in the game.) It’s entirely likely that the player’s party will be eradicated the first few times they meet this boss. I had to gain about 10 levels to beat the final boss, and I tried fighting her every 3 levels or so – that meant that I ran through her entire dungeon 4 times before I was strong enough to beat her.
Solution: Allow players to access XP-building zones while in the middle of a quest.
Phantasy Star 0 has two mission types: quests, and ‘access field.’ The quests have plots and progress the storyline, whereas the field allows the player to run around an area just to adventure and level up. The player can only be on mission at a time, and must abandon their mission to start a new one.
To fix the boss frustration, that restriction should be raised so that the player can be on one quest and one field mission at the same time. That way, if the player gets stuck in their quest progress, they can set the quest aside for a while and run through fields to gain levels and items. Whenever they feel like testing their strength against the boss, they can do so. They’ll jump straight to the boss fight, and the only cost for failure is their time and the cost of the items they use.