First released last year for a bevy of other platforms, Furi is all boss fights. With pounding synth-heavy music and a visual style riffing off of anime and cyberpunk, it’s an unending stream of big-bad showdowns, the sort of challenging, mano a mano fights usually served up as level or quest climaxes in other games. With sword flashing and feet dancing in time with both the music and your enemy’s moves, the game thrusts you into a series of heroic encounters, each one ending in death—either your opponent’s or your own.
My first fight is against a sort of cosmic jailer wearing Greek drama masks, simultaneously furious and mocking. My silent protagonist, with a grimace, a cape, and a sword vomiting electricity, has just escaped a prison cell perched in a psychedelic torture chamber on top of an asteroid, itself suspended high above the earth. He attacks quickly and with a voice full of taunts, his stave slashing and feinting relentlessly.
Even as a tutorial boss, the Jailer is hard, a revelation of how demanding and long each boss fight in Furi is. The battles transpire in repeating phases, like verses in a song. At the end of each phase, both the player character and the boss have their current health bar refilled; both of you have several. The only way to make progress is to cut down an entire health bar in that window. A fight can easily turn into a stalemate, dragging on and on. Each boss fight in Furi really does feel like a battle; a performative effort against an opponent who might be better than you.
I never got an opportunity to play Furi when it first came out, and went in with only two impressions: the game was stylish, and it was hard. Both are true. It demands quick understanding and application of nuanced rules, and a willingness to follow along with an aesthetic and a story that at least initially make virtually no working sense. It is, like some of my friends say, a videogame-*** videogame, built for enthusiasts down to the last rivet. There’s no room for casual players here, and that’s justly controversial among the game’s detractors.
But what Furi offers, now preserved in a stylish handheld/home console hybrid on the Switch, is a meditation on boss fights themselves. Its minimalist play, pared down to nothing but encounters, offers a chance to reflect on the value of these sorts of encounters in games. Unlike Shadow of the Colossus, another game composed almost entirely of boss fights, Furi doesn’t try to use that meditation as the basis of a morality play.
Instead, Furi, beneath its high aesthetic values, is remarkably matter-of-fact: Here are some fights. Win, if you can.
The conflicts within function both as performance and punctuation, self-contained one-off challenges meant to threaten and engage, to push against a player’s sense of efficacy and progress. Boss fights are challenges that demand you rise to meet them, set on a stage of music and lights. People will talk about difficult games like this as valuable to their own mental health, curatives for depression or crutches to help walk during a time of emotional injury. And this is why: on a stage of someone else’s making, a challenging boss fight lets the player externalize and then defeat their own internal threats. As a trope, they are a perfectly elastic metaphor for adversity.
My second fight in Furi was against a woman whose head had been replaced by a laser beam, design courtesy of Takashi Okazaki (of Afro Samurai fame), whose art is responsible for much of the game’s distinct style. The opponent is changeable and punishing, peppering her eye blasts with unpredictable flailing strikes in an arena full of tight passages all too easy to get trapped in. The fight felt like it took an hour, both of us trading hits but rarely quite enough to do lasting damage. Slowly, I whittled her down. On the game’s punishing regular difficulty mode, I beat this boss in one try. It’s the most proud I’ve felt of anything all week.
Furi provides the opportunity for that sort of challenge, and that sort of thrill. It’s a welcome addition to the Switch’s growing library of independent games that are a delight to have in a portable form. Just make sure you know what you’re getting into.