When bad endings happen to good games

, | Games

After spending literally dozens upon dozens of hours to get to the culmination of this epic RPG, I am disappointed to discover that all the time I put into advancing my characters; all the personal feelings of investment; all the various story arcs; all these myriad worlds; all the sacrifice, betrayal, romance, and camaraderie; all the sophisticated themes about the nature of organic and synthetic life; all the hard work I did — yes, hard work, that I paid good money to buy a game to do — all came to this.

After the jump, an ending is a very delicate time

You’ll know when you get to the last part of Xenoblade Chronicles. It gives you the standard “Are you sure you want to go through this door, because there is no turning back after this point?” message. You’ve played RPGs. You know by now what a message like that means. It means get your affairs in order. Turn in whatever quests you haven’t turned in. Make sure your gear and skills are set up the way you want them. Because you’re about to see the final cutscene. You’re about to get your payoff.

When I reached that point in Xenoblade Chronicles, I’d been doing pretty well against the last round of boss fights, so I figured I was ready. I still had plenty left to do in the world, but after 118 hours, I wanted to see the end of this particular saga. I wanted to find out What Happens. So I went through the door.

What followed was a series of about ten boss fights with no save points between them. Which was odd, because I’d been able to save my progress almost any other time in Xenoblade Chronicles. At first, these boss fights were tough, but fair. I had to replay some of them a few times. I had to play smart. I often ended up playing the healer, hanging back and nurturing two other characters who were doing the actual fighting. Any dummy can punch something, so the AI could handle the fighting. But the careful business of healing and aggro management took a lighter human touch. So I let the AI do the fun stuff while I watched health bars and cooldown timers.

As the boss battles progressed, they got cheaper. I’d kill a boss and then get a cutscene of the boss mocking me, and then have to start the fight again with the boss at full hit points. Stage two. But I could handle it. Tougher, but still mostly fair.

And then came the last — last? — boss with a crazy spike in the difficulty level. Up until that point, each boss had his level next to his name, which was a good indication of how tough he was compared to my characters. I’d been within a few levels of everyone I’d seen so far, which was how I knew I was ready to be there. But that last guy — I say that as if I know whether he was the last guy — was level ???. That’s what it said: ???. Those are the same symbols that appear over the head of a cartoon character who gets punched really hard. Coincidence?

So was I supposed to be there yet? That last guy, who may or may not be the last guy, was slinging Titan Bazooka VII attacks, and Cosmic Punches, and Black Holes. Sometime he’d call in a couple of henchmen. Sometimes crazy flashes of light would go off and I’d be suddenly dead. I tried a variety of approaches, with a variety of characters and builds. I tried reckless, cautious, and various levels between. The setting of the fight, which I won’t spoil, didn’t help matters. Suffice to say it was a pretty confusing place for a battle with a lot of crazy special effects. After well over an hour attempting multiple fights against a single boss — and it’s the second stage of what is at least a two-stage battle — I decided I’d had enough for the night. I decided I would come back the next day. Except that I couldn’t save the game, so I’d have to start back before the “Are you sure you want to go through this door?” message, which was well over two hours ago.

I could perhaps accept that maybe the game didn’t want me to be there yet, and that I should level up a bit more. But if that was the case, why wasn’t that ultimate-ish boss a level number instead of three question marks? What was the game telling me? Or not telling me? What was it hiding? Because now that it’s the next day, I’m not sure I care enough to go through all that again. A string of difficult boss fights was never what I loved about playing Xenoblade Chronicles. I felt like I was having to pass a tedious endurance test to determine I had the dedication to see the final cutscene. Maybe I don’t.

I get that a final epically tedious battle is a convention in RPGs, and especially JRPGs. If I opt out of this final endurance test, Xenoblade Chronices won’t be the first JPRG to stop me cold late in the game. It certainly won’t be the first bad ending. Videogames, like TV and movies, have a long tradition of bungled, disappointing, or formulaic endings. Many outraged former Mass Effect fans seem to have recently discovered this.

How much does a supposedly bungled ending matter? How much should this series of boss fights color my perception of Xenoblade Chronicles, a game I have adored up to this point? Do the last two hours invalidate the other 118 hours? Do they minimize them? Do they even have any bearing on them? And how prominently should it figure into a review? Should it affect the actual rating? An ending, bungled or otherwise, is without a doubt a relevant part of any conversation about a story-driven RPG, but to what degree?

As a long-time videogamer let down in the end by games as diverse as Bioshock, Red Dead Redemption, and Far Cry 2, I like to think an ending is about as important as, say, a beginning, or an interface, or artwork. That is to say, screwing it up in no way invalidates the experience. It colors it, to be sure. But being the last part of the experience isn’t the same thing as being the ultimate part of the experience.