Think FromSoftware and your mind instantly flies to a skeleton doing a forward roll, right? Or an electrified rolling goat. Or a bald man chuckling as he kicks you into a hole. And of course, the tricky boss battles with warped dragons and Fell Omens of the Westland.
Ever since I’ve been playing Monster Hunter Rise, which is mostly a series of escalating large lizard fights, I’ve started comparing these battles to Elden Ring’s boss battles. And I find that a lot of the differences between them come down to the simple health bar, or lack thereof.
Wander through a fog door in Elden Ring – or any Souls game – and you’ll be greeted with a horrible working and his equally horrible health bar. You’ll catch the boss with the halberd and watch carefully to see if the health bar reacts the way you want it to. Either you’ll see a nice big chunk evaporate, at which point you’ll be charged with renewed energy, or you’ll barely witness a blanket in it, at which point you’ll likely open your arms and accept death’s warm embrace. .
Of course, the health bar isn’t a feature exclusive to the Elden Ring – I get that. But it’s something I’ve become much more aware of since jumping between Monster Hunter Rise and Lands Between. In the heat of battle, I not only duck and weave between claws, but also glean information from a horizontal red strip. At the most basic level, it tells me how much pain I’m dealing with each hit, but beyond that it’s also a timer that doesn’t tick unless I act on it; a reminder that if I want to emerge victorious, I must punch the hourglass and make the sand move.
The large lizards in Monster Hunter Rise have no health bars. You hit their scale and some damage numbers come up. At first, it’s an unusually esoteric process, where you get hit with 7s and 31s and 14s and have no means of gleaning their meaning, other than occasionally turning orange if 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 as you learn to follow your gut, you learn that monster behavior is the equivalent of that red health bar and its complete rejection.
At first, monsters in Monster Hunter are like athletes who are taught not to give a damn emotionally, absorbing hits like they’re nothing. Get those numbers up though and they’ll start to tire and falter and even run off the stage! Elden Ring’s bosses do nothing of the sort, they only get stronger if you hack them enough.
Both games see the challenge differently, I think. Elden Ring’s bosses want you to feel like you’re up against insurmountable odds, and they use their health bars as a tool to apply pressure and encourage courage. At any moment, you can see the finish line dangling under your nose and the key is – literally – to hit the bad and not get hit by the bad. Monster Hunter’s fights, meanwhile, are messy psychological scraps that can last up to an hour, where the challenge lies more in unraveling a beast’s behavior and knowing it’s just as vulnerable as I am: the person hitting them over the head with a horn. big hammer
The bosses of the Elden Ring are deities and rulers. Spectral beings and statues of dogs orbiting an almighty tree. As soon as that health bar appears, it’s a signal that you need to prove you can survive a gauntlet with a creature that demands excellence. Beat them and you wipe out an irreplaceable being. Compare this to Monster Hunter, where monsters – no matter how menacing or large – are resources. You build a routine to harvest them more efficiently, even wearing your own skin to optimize the process. They’re scary and powerful, but they’re out of reach.
While I love Elden Ring and Souls and appreciate the ecstasy of taking down a nightmare boss for the first time, I’m starting to get a kick out of their distinct lack of Monster Hunter. Yes, they’re two very different games with combat that serves a different purpose, but without health bars you really feel in tune with the beast you’re dealing with. Sure, Elden Ring beats Monster Hunter in terms of the size, scale, and importance of its creatures, feeding the fantasy of defeating humans as a monstrous, warped monster, but I’d argue that their health bars keep you at arm’s length, reducing each interaction with these supreme beings in a one-way business.
Other than a switch to a rage or a bit of dialogue, the Elden Ring – and many bosses in other games besides – rarely show signs of weakness. You might beat the primordial snot out of each other, but aside from the health bar saying their health is low, you wouldn’t know it. They are emotionless, swinging at you like you haven’t been in this fight for twenty minutes already.
Go back to Monster Hunter, though, and you really feel like you’re on a threshold with a being that recognizes the situation. Remove the health bar and it’s like the big lizards have been unlocked emotionally and physically, displaying their strengths and weaknesses by changing their behavior as opposed to standing around and pointing at a decreasing meter.
Look, I’m not saying I want all health bars gone. I love the joy of emptying a bar to zero. I think Monster Hunter’s rejection of such a core game adds more than it subtracts, making the fights a true character stage on both sides, not just one.