Elden Ring, Monster Hunter, and the end of my affair with health bars
Why keeping boss HP a mystery adds depth to a scrap
Think FromSoftware and your mind instantly flits to a skeleton doing a forward roll doesn't it? Or an electrified goat that rolls. Or a bald man cackling as he kicks you down a hole. And, of course, the tricky boss fights with deformed dragons and Fell Omens from the West Country.
Since I've been playing Monster Hunter Rise, which is largely a succession of ever escalating boss fights with big lizards, I've begun comparing these scuffles with Elden Ring's boss battles. And I reckon much of their differences come down to the simple health bar, or lack of it.
Wander through a fog door in Elden Ring – or any Souls game – and you'll be met with a horrible thing and its equally horrible health bar. You'll clip the boss with your halberd and watch closely to see if the health bar reacts in the way you'd like. 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 dent in it, at which point you'll probably fling your arms open and accept death's warm embrace.
Of course, the health bar isn't a feature exclusive to Elden Ring – I get that. But it's something that I've become much more aware of since I've bounced between Monster Hunter Rise and the Lands Between. In the thick of battle, I'm not only ducking and weaving between some claws, I'm also gleaning info from a horizontal strip of red. At the most basic level, it tells me how much pain I'm dishing out with every blow, but beyond this it's also a timer that doesn't tick down unless I act upon it; a reminder that if I'm to emerge the victor, I've got to punch the hourglass and get that sand to budge.
Big lizards in Monster Hunter Rise don't have health bars. You smack their scales and some damage numbers pop up. At first, it's a weirdly esoteric process, where you're barraged with 7 and 31 and 14 and have no means to glean their meaning, apart from 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 the monster's behaviour is the equivalent of that red health bar and the complete rejection of it too.
At first, monsters in Monster Hunter are like athletes who are taught not to give anything away emotionally, soaking up blows as if it's nothing. Make those numbers pop up, though, and they'll start to tire and wobble and even flee the scene entirely! Elden Ring's bosses do nothing of the sort, only ever growing stronger if you chip them down enough.
Both games view challenge differently, I think. Elden Ring's bosses want you to feel like you're up against insurmountable odds and uses its health bars as a tool to both apply pressure and encourage bravery. At all times you can see the finish line dangling under your nose and the key is – quite literally – hit the baddy and not get hit by the baddy. Meanwhile, Monster Hunter's tussles are messy psychological scraps which can last for up to an hour, where the challenge lies more in unpicking a beast's behaviour and knowing that it's just as vulnerable as I am: the person bashing them over the head with a honkin' great hammer.
Elden Ring's bosses are deities and rulers. Spectral beings and dog statues that orbit an all-powerful tree. As soon as that health bar pops up, it's a signal that you've got to prove you can survive a gauntlet with a creature that demands excellence. Beat them, and you're erasing an irreplaceable being. Compare this to Monster Hunter, where the monsters – no matter how menacing or large – are resources. You construct a routine to harvest them more efficiently, even wearing their own skin to optimise the process. They are frightening and powerful, but they aren't out of reach.
While I adore Elden Ring and Souls and appreciate the ecstasy of whittling down a nightmarish boss for the first time, I'm beginning to come round to Monster Hunter's distinct lack of them. Yes, they are two very different games with fights that serve a different purpose, but without health bars you really do become attuned to the beast you're having it out with. Sure, Elden Ring has Monster Hunter beat in terms of its creatures' sheer size and scale and importance, feeding into the fantasy of besting the likes of a monstrous, deformed earwig, but I'd argue their health bars keep you at arm's length, reducing each interaction with these supreme beings into a one-way affair.
Aside from a shift to an enraged state or a snippet of dialogue, Elden Ring - and plenty of bosses from other games besides - rarely show any signs of weakness. You may be pounding the primordial snot out of one another, but aside from the health bar saying their health is low, you wouldn't know it. They are devoid of emotion, swinging at you like you haven't been in this fight for twenty minutes already.
Turn to Monster Hunter, though, and you genuinely feel like you're in a scrap with a being that acknowledges the situation. Strip away the health bar and it's like the big lizards have been emotionally and physically unlocked, displaying their strengths and weaknesses through behavioural change, as opposed to standing tall and pointing to a meter that's going down.
Listen, I'm not saying that I want all health bars to disappear. I love the elation of emptying a bar down to zero. I just think Monster Hunter's rejection of such a video game staple adds more than it does subtract, making battles a real display of character from both parties, not just one.