Where the heck did this come from?
And I love it.
I shouldn’t of course, having reached a point in my gaming life where I’m somewhat allergic to boss fights. For every Shadow of The Colossus or Dark Souls (which even then, I’ve recently admitted to be being wrong about for five years) there’s all the other, lazier, examples which tear up the known rules and introduce new ones just to confound the player. So as a 6-10 hour exercise in wall-to-wall boss encounters, it’s a good job Furi is excellent. Part of why it stands out, even from recent efforts such as Titan Souls, is the more pared down, focused nature of the fights. The bosses aren’t hulking Goliaths to your David, but instead equals, drawing from broadly the same abilities as you. They don’t incite awe or a change in underwear, but calculating appraisal and gladiatorial honor.
"The bosses aren’t hulking Goliaths to your David, but instead equals"
You play as The Stranger, a prisoner with bone white hair and a dark attitude. As Furi starts, you’re locked in a jail, tortured, until a mysterious man with a rabbit mask frees you. What follows is a protracted escape from your futuristic prison (whose architect presumably dabbled in hallucinogens), with a succession of dangerous Jailors in the way. The rules are simple. You can slash, shoot, and dash from the first minute, with a charged, more powerful variant of each (at the cost of slower movement). The sword can parry as well, which handily provides a health boost should you get the timing just right—but there are no powerups, weapon customization, XP, skill trees or any other distractions. It’s just you and a single enemy duking it out, volleying back and forth attacks like a particularly lethal tennis match. You have as much power at the beginning as you do in the end—it’s only your skill that changes.
But this welcome parity between player and foe throws up an interesting design dilemma. A boss battle, after all, is first and foremost a battle against a unique character. With such an intentionally limited repertoire, surely Furi risks being a shallow, monotonous bore? Thankfully, depth and variety comes from a fascinating marriage of two gameplay genres: the bullet-hell twitch shooter and the third person beat-’em-up. Opponents are an eclectic mix tape of long range gun battles and close range sword duels, each keeping you on your toes with unique patterns and phases. I’ve personally never seen this delightful genre mash up before, but it definitely works a treat. Elevating itself beyond a mere gimmick, having these two disparate mechanics allows opponents to challenge the player in many different ways.
"Depth and variety comes from a fascinating marriage of two gameplay genres: the bullet-hell twitch shooter and the third person beat-'em-up."
The simple grammar of slash/shoot/dodge/parry allows for a sense of mastery, so that when you’re eventually pulling off complex strings of all four, you do so with an almost zen fluidity. Playing Furi can actually be a bit like a Guitar Hero song: you’re given four notes to play, and each boss is a partition that must be learnt. Instead of Pearl Jam and The Rolling Stones to listen to though, there’s the moody electro beats of Carpenter Brut and Danger; who incidentally create perhaps my most beloved soundtrack of 2016 so far. So. Very. Good. Take listen for yourself:
What’s impressive is that there’s very little trial and error involved. Almost everything that happens in the game is telegraphed. Sure, the telegraph is sometimes hurtling towards your face at lightening speed, but it’s there all the same. Melee attacks that can be parried are marked by a blinking weapon just before the strike (this was initially confusing, actually, as years upon years of Arkham clones have taught me to counter as soon as you see this blinking flash of light. In Furi, you actually counter during an audio cue shortly after the flash).There’s a color-coded specificity to each attack and danger zone that remains consistent, while the difficulty curve is pitched in such a way that each encounter is a sensible progression of remixed challenges. As far as I was able to tell, there’s no way to cheese your enemies, no way to succeed by brute force or luck. You simply have to be better, faster, stronger. But while Furi is fair, it’s certainly not easy! The Game Bakers aren’t messing around here, you’ll either embrace the sweaty palmed adrenaline rush—or you won’t.
"There’s no way to cheese your enemies, no way to succeed by brute force or luck. You simply have to be better, faster, stronger."
To my mind, however, Furi’s nifty take on health meters attempts to meet you halfway. Completely whittle down an enemy’s health meter and they’ll lose one of numerous health ‘tokens’, while your health meter will be completely replenished. Its next phase will then be initiated, with different attack patterns or combat leaning. If you slip up, you’ll lose a health token the and the enemy regains its current health meter. But if manage to regain your footing— learning from your enemy’s weaknesses and exploiting them—you can claw back those tokens and press the advantage. I loved the tense tug of war this creates, mitigating rage quits by providing the space to learn and make mistakes.
You’ll need that space too, as each boss phase builds upon the last in terms of complexity. Take the second boss, The Strap, an ex-prisoner turned Jailor. She’s attached to a one-wheeled device that’s like a cross between a sci-fi segway and a gurney. Every time you smash her health meter to pieces, she breaks some part of the device, first freeing her arms, then her legs, eventually scuttling around on all fours. Right after the prisoner, you’ll face an old man, The Line, who looks suspiciously like a fortune-telling hippie version of Metal Gear Solid’s The End (he even tells you that you should wait for him to die of old age—referencing one of Kojima and co’s sneakier tricks). His first phase will have you carefully lining up shots against his rotating shields, whereas later on you’ll be trading blows in a neon minefield. Out of the nine Jailors you’ll face, only two stood out to me as being noticeably weaker in their design. Furi is at its worst when there’s a lot of waiting around during stints of invulnerability, dodging repetitive patterns of bullets and waiting for windows of opportunity. At its best, Furi uses all of those tightly scripted visual and kinetic rules to create superbly flexible fights.
"The bosses are mysterious, creative characters leaping straight from the sketchbook of Afro Samurai creator, Takashi Okazaki."
I wouldn’t dare spoil any other bosses; part of Furi’s irresistible charm is seeing who exactly you’ll be squaring up against next. But they’re all mysterious, creative characters leaping straight from the sketchbook of Afro Samurai creator, Takashi Okazaki, and all seem to have close ties to The Stranger, whose questionable intentions are reflected in how they talk to him. Turns out you’re not a great guy, being in celestial prison and all, but there’s a chance for redemption in Furi’s story, which goes further and hit me harder than I expected it to. Not that it made a great first impression. When not fighting bosses, you’re walking to the next one. The bulk of the backstory and emotional tenor comes from these interstitial walking sections, where you’re accompanied by the mysterious rabbit-masked character that acts a like coach
I can appreciate the point of these quiet moments—often a welcome breather after a hectic fight, the audio/visual experience builds the pre-combat tension, like a boxer walking towards the ring. Each Jailer has their own dimension, so while you learn more about The Stranger and his troubled past, you’ll wander through a massive red desert with bulky pipes worming in and out of the surface, a topsy-turvy series of zen garden islands of magenta sand or a verdant oasis. You go from pressing all the buttons while fighting to just pressing one to walk. Add an excellent 80s synthwave track and you’ve got something like a surrealist painting in motion.
"Your wrestle with the camera is as difficult as the Jailors themselves."
These sections can vary wildly in quality, however. Sometimes the all-important music is dropped entirely. Sometimes your Rabbit Mask friend is either too quiet or too eager with the nonsensical philosophy. Sometimes it’s just agonisingly slow and ponderous. Worst of all though, is experiencing these walking sections without knowing you can auto-walk. Furi never indicates that you can do so, so your first trudge to a boss is one of immense frustration. Camera angles change often and dramatically, making control a challenge. ‘Forward’ in one shot might mean left in another, ensuring your wrestle with the camera is as difficult as the Jailors themselves. I have no idea why The Game Bakers gave players this degree of one-to-one control in these sections, if the implementation of that control was so janky. It just serves to put a sour taste in your mouth.
The occasionally frustrating nature of the downtime can be seen as a backhanded compliment however—they stand out because showtime is so very good. Furi stacks up these big blocks of distilled style—colorful vistas, glassy synth pump-up jams, bonkers anime adversaries with funky clothes—and converts the sticky-sweet excess into adrenaline, tension, and confidence through its simple, challenging combat system. It’s a great action game with a few potent hang ups that’ll rightfully push impatient players away, but I for one adored it. It harkens back to the weird and wonderful days of the PS2, where we’d be showered with beguiling presents from the likes of Suda51, or when you caught sight of Viewtiful Joe or Devil May Cry for the first time. Furi arrives out of nowhere fully-formed, and where it matters, is truly excellent.