Elden Ring, Monster Hunter, and the end of my affair with health bars

Think of FromSoftware and your mind immediately flies to a skeleton doing a forward roll, doesn’t it? Or an electrified goat that rolls. Or a bald man who cackles when he kicks you in a hole. And of course the tricky boss fights with deformed dragons and Fell Omens from the West Country.

Since playing Monster Hunter Rise, which is largely a sequence of ever-escalating boss fights involving large lizards, I’ve started comparing those brawls to the boss fights of the Elden Ring. And I’m guessing a lot of their differences stem from the basic health bar, or lack thereof.

In Elden Ring – or any other Souls game – go through a foggy door and you’ll be faced with a horrific one thing and his equally terrible health bar. You cut down the boss with your halberd and watch closely to see if the health bar responds the way you want it to. Either you’ll see a nice big chunk evaporate, at which point you’ll be recharged with new energy, or you’ll barely see a dent in it, at which point you’ll likely spread your arms and embrace death’s warm embrace.

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Of course, the health bar isn’t an Elden Ring exclusive feature – I get that. But it’s something I’ve become a lot more aware of since jumping back and forth between Monster Hunter Rise and the Lands Between. In mid-fight, I not only duck and switch between a couple of claws, I gather intel from a horizontal red stripe. At the most basic level it tells me how much pain I’m dealing with each punch, but beyond that it’s also a timer that doesn’t expire unless I act on it; a reminder that if I am to emerge victorious, I must hit the hourglass and make the sand move.

Large lizards in Monster Hunter Rise have no health bars. They hit their scales and some damage numbers pop up. At first it’s an oddly esoteric process where you’re bombarded with 7 and 31 and 14 with no way of making sense of their meaning aside from occasionally turning orange when you’ve tickled a weak spot. But then you learn to follow your intuition and figure out how to make those big orange numbers appear, which is the first step from amateur trapper to gon freecs. And if you learn to follow your gut instinct, you’ll learn that the monster’s behavior corresponds to the red health bar and its complete denial.

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First of all, monsters in Monster Hunter are like athletes who are taught not to emotionally reveal anything and soak up punches like it’s nothing. Make those numbers appear, however, and they’ll tire and wiggle, even fleeing the scene entirely! Elden Ring’s bosses do nothing of the sort, and only get progressively stronger as you knock them down enough.

A hunter and his NPC companion Arlow fight against the powerful Seregios in Monster Hunter Rise: Sunbreak

Literal monster shreds litter the landscape after you get into a real brawl.

Both games look at challenges differently I guess. Elden Ring’s bosses want you to feel like you’re up against insurmountable odds, using the health bars as a tool to both apply pressure and encourage bravery. At all times you can see the finish line dangling in front of you and the key is – literally – to hit the bad guy and not get hit by the bad guy. Meanwhile, Monster Hunter’s brawls are chaotic psychological scraps that can last up to an hour, with the challenge more of uncovering a beast’s behavior and knowing that it’s just as vulnerable as I am: the person you’re dealing with Honk over head hits great hammer.

The bosses of Elden Ring are deities and rulers. Spectral beings and dog statues orbiting an almighty tree. Once that health bar shows up, it’s a signal that you need to prove you can survive running the gauntlet with a creature that demands excellence. Defeat them and you will wipe out an irreplaceable being. Compare this to Monster Hunter, where the monsters – no matter how menacing or large – are resources. They engineer a routine to harvest them more efficiently, even wearing their own skin to streamline the process. They’re scary and powerful, but they’re not out of reach.

While I adore Elden Ring and Souls and appreciate the ecstasy of taking down a nightmarish boss for the first time, I’m starting to grapple with Monster Hunter’s distinct lack of them. Yes, they’re two very different games with combat serving a different purpose, but without a health bar you really get tuned into the beast you’re fighting it out with. Sure, Elden Ring beat Monster Hunter in terms of the sheer size and size and importance of its creatures, feeding the fantasy of defeating a monstrous, deformed catchy tune, but I’d argue their health bars keep you at a distance. Reduce every interaction with these supreme beings to a one-way street.

Elden Ring player in Prophet's robes kneels to cast a summon as imps run toward them.

Aside from going into an enraged state or a snippet of dialogue, Elden Ring – and many other bosses from other games – rarely show any signs of weakness. They might be beating each other’s snot, but other than the health bar saying their health is low, you wouldn’t know. They are emotionless and pound you like you haven’t been in this fight for twenty minutes.

Turn to Monster Hunter, however, and you really feel like you’re at odds with a being who acknowledges the situation. Remove the health bar and it’s like the big lizards have been unlocked emotionally and physically, showing their strengths and weaknesses through behavior changes, rather than standing upright and pointing at a meter going down.

Listen, I’m not saying I want all health bars to go away. I love the exhilaration of emptying a bar to zero. I just think Monster Hunter’s rejection of such a video game adds more than it subtracts, making fights a true representation of the character of both parties, not just one.