“Everything that lives is designed to end.”

A calm, female voice sounds out from a milky white screen.

“We are perpetually trapped… in a never-ending spiral of life and death.”

As our android heroine 2B monologues on the nature of existence, that milky white screen becomes a blur of cloud, quickly clipping by as her steely gray flight unit appears from the bottom of the screen.

“Is this a curse? Or some kind of punishment? I often think about the god who blessed us with this cryptic puzzle… and wonder if we’ll ever have the chance to kill him.”

From its opening moments, it’s clear that NieR: Automata is going somewhere.

Five more flight units appear alongside 2B and suddenly I’m in a Starfox-style dogfight, strafing and barrel rolling through a few small openings in a barrage of slow-moving purple cannon balls. Massive pink energy beams appear periodically out of the sky and quickly disintegrate the rest of the squadron. Soon 2B is alone again, steely gray flight unit clipping along, now against the shining surface of the ocean.

The flight unit morphs, positioned vertically now—standing up— and the fight morphs to match. Now 2B is taking on enemy machines in the round, and I rotate the right stick in complete circles to get shots off at opponents at the left, right, top and bottom of the screen.

Once my machine opponents are vanquished, the flight unit transforms back into its horizontal position, flying past oil derricks and bursting through a large window into the factory, my target. The broken window opens into a tunnel and 2B barrels through, maneuvering around fast-approaching rafters, air ducts and low walls, before eventually breaking through another window, ejecting from her flight unit, and unsheathing a curved, shining sword for ground combat.

Before I reach the first boss battle, I explore a decrepit (but dazzling) rust-covered factory, fighting angry tin can robots in the traditional over-the-shoulder perspective of third-person action games, at times trading it in for the left-to-right scroll of a 2D platformer.

Soon I’m fighting the factory itself. A massive crane appears, breaking down a wall in front of 2B with a whirring, buzz saw fist.

“Is that our target?” 2B gasps.

Her defense pod replies, “Negative. This enemy is unrelated.”

This boss may be the size of a building, but as the pod’s response indicates, soon there will be bigger fish to fry. However, before I get more than a half-dozen blows in, the saw hits 2B, staggering her. The screen goes gray. Before I can recover, the saw finishes her off.

Okay, I wonder, where am I going to respawn?

Credits running at 10x normal speed roll.

I feel a touch of dread, and then:

“Everything that lives is designed to end.”

Dammit!

“We are perpetually trapped… in a never-ending spiral of life and death.”

2B’s opening lines may be a rumination on the futility of life—specifically the life of an android soldier designed with the sole purpose of fighting for the human race—but her monologue also serves as an expression of the blood-boiling frustration that is uniquely triggered by bad checkpoints. As a gamer, I am often spiraling from life to death, and 2017’s games have frequently made the process of being reborn needlessly irritating.

While NieR: Automata’s opening half hour is one of the most gripping moments of the year, it’s also one of the year’s worst offenders. As 2B— soon joined by her soldier companion 9S— hacks and slashes through the machine factory, the boss evolves through a bevy of deadly permutations. First, I fight the crane arm and buzz saw. Then, two crane arms; two buzz saws. Then, 2B and 9S wage war against an entire building, eventually completing the battle by detonating explosives on the anthropomorphic structure’s head.

Throughout this process, there is no opportunity to save. I died three times before I finally bested the building. The first time through, this opening salvo is undeniably cool and gripping, but after dying repeatedly, this sequence lost its luster. Hearing 2B pine for an opportunity to murder god intrigued me the first time I heard it. By the time I completed the sequence I was content for 2B to just finally murder the boss.

Back in August I faced the same frustration when I started playing Sonic Mania. Each of that game’s stages serves up an interesting one-two punch: the first acts of each are faithful recreations of their retro progenitors, with some variation; the second acts are breathlessly inventive, introducing new mechanics and well-crafted boss fights that often serve as callbacks to Sega’s ‘90s catalog.

Mania is a fun, colorful game, full of variety, well-designed branching paths that reward multiple playthroughs and delightful homages to a series that I love, but I didn’t finish it, and I didn’t finish it because of how it handles checkpoints.

Unlike the excellent iOS ports of Sonic the Hedgehog, Sonic the Hedgehog 2 and Sonic CD that Christian Whitehead—one of the indie devs behind Mania—created back in 2011 and 2013, Sonic Mania doesn’t save between acts. Instead, it holds off on offering a checkpoint until the player completes the stage, meaning both acts.

The end of each act boasts a boss bent on killing you, and some of them are stupidly difficult and unfair—Yes, I’m talking about you, Oil Ocean Zone Act 2. This meant that I would often be sent back to the beginning of the first act because of an out-of-nowhere death at the end of the second. This is frustrating, and as my time with Mania progressed, the joy that I felt at the beginning of the experience was replaced with dread at the possibility of death waiting around a blind corner; a death that couldn’t be avoided, even by a skillful player.

However, two recent releases have handled checkpointing exceptionally well, despite being intensely challenging: 2016’s Hyper Light Drifter and September’s Cuphead.

Both are deceptively gorgeous, colorful games, whose inviting art styles belie punishing difficulty. Both titles also rely heavily on pattern recognition and memorization. Defeating a boss in either requires the player to observe their opponent, learn its attack cycles and successfully evade screen-filling onslaughts—all while working to reduce its health to zero. This is difficult, but both games provide quality-of-life concessions that make the process of bashing your head against a wall as painless as possible.

After each loss in Cuphead, a meter appears with Cuphead’s silhouette running to the point where you last died in battle. Functionally, this isn’t much different from your standard boss health bar (which Hyper Light Drifter uses) but the fact that it appears after the battle, not during, makes it seem more like a report card. It feels like measurable, tangible progress to watch Cuphead run out further and further each time.

Hyper Light Drifter, meanwhile, provides the player with a checkpoint right outside the boss chamber. Health packs stay at the level they were when the checkpoint was reached, and it only takes a matter of seconds to load back into the action. Hyper Light Drifter’s battles are incredibly challenging, multi-stage affairs, but developer Heart Machine makes the challenge the battle, not getting to it. Cuphead takes a similar tack, with the player traversing and selecting battles from a world map. Getting between boss battles is as simple as possible.

I’ve slowly been making my way through Bloodborne as well this year, and Hyper Light Drifter and Cuphead, while difficult, are far less punishing than From Software’s action RPG. That isn’t because Bloodborne’s bosses are as hard as the foes in Hyper Light Drifter or Cuphead; they aren’t. Bloodborne, however, forces the player to run through the level— often through hordes of enemies— to reach the boss. The player is aided in this task as they unlock shortcuts, but between sprinting and load screens, the player is on hold for at least a few minutes between attempts.

This is exacerbated by the fact that the player’s blood vial (health potion) supply doesn’t regenerate between attempts. So, after a few scrapes with a difficult boss, the player will find themselves grinding an easy level or shelling out blood echoes (currency) for more health.

I plan to finish Bloodborne and Sonic Mania before the end of the year. But, as I anticipate hours of frustration, I can’t help but echo 2B.

“Is this a curse?” I ask, as I throw my controller. “Or some kind of punishment?”

Andrew King

Andrew King

Lying by a blazing fire, reading Nintendo Power's coverage of Mario Kart Double Dash while the adults talked about adult things. Mainlining Ocarina of Time on 3DS over the course of a few days while holiday candles burned and prime rib roasted. Staying up all night on his friend's water bed blasting each other with Holy Hand Grenades in Worms 3D and discovering the mystery of Latios and Latias in Pokemon 4 Ever.

Some of Andrew King's best memories are tied up in games and game culture. Writing for GameCritics is his sure fire way to ensure that his future memories are, too.

When Andrew isn't writing about games, he's working as a News and Sports Reporter for the Hillsdale Daily News. His work has been featured in The Detroit News and The Washington Times.
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10 Comments on "2017: The Year Of Bad Checkpointing"

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Richard Naik
Admin

It’s funny that you mention Bloodborne’s boss runbacks, since of all the problems I had with that game, the checkpoints weren’t one of them for the most part.

The runbacks to Cleric Beast and Gascoigne are incredibly frustrating, and one could be forgiven for bailing right there. However, after that I felt they were pretty fair.

just a box
Guest

In a “normal” game I agree completely, but Bloodborne? Surely by now we all get that’s part of it’s appeal – getting through this nightmare for unparalleled sense of accomplishment?

Andrew King
Guest

Yeah, I went into Bloodborne knowing it would be grueling and really enjoyed the first two or three hours of beating my head against the wall of the opening level. What bothers me, I think, is that during some of the late game boss fights, it’s hard to get into a flow because you’re constantly running back to the fight between losses. I like the challenge; I don’t like the tedium.

Mike Suskie
Guest

I had pretty much the exact same thing happen to me with Nier Automata. The way it played out, it seemed like a bug to me, like my character actually clipped through the big saw and got stuck inside. Once I saw that the game was going to put me back at the very beginning, I never touched it again. Life’s too short and there’s been too much else to play this year.

Andrew King
Guest

It’s worth returning to if you find the time. The checkpoints get much better after that opening blitz. But yeah, it’s a rough way to start a game.

tom
Guest

Life might be futile but it’s also precious, and for shitty devs to ignore the the value of time and a busy life by placing Terrible checkpoints to keep replaying their boring 2D shooting game that wouldn’t make it in the top 100 of all time, shows how clueless, singleminded, blinkered and mindless they are.

frogofdeath
Guest

Enjoyed reading this commentary. Very well written!

Played a game this year that made you respawn with the same health you had when reaching the last checkpoint. Became a huge issue when trying to defeat end of level bosses. Made the game more frustrating than it should have been.

Andrew King
Guest

Yeah, that sucks. I get where devs are coming from: the possibility of punishment adds to the sense of stakes and tension. But, I feel that same tension when I get near the end of the battle and am holding on for dear life, even if the checkpoint is right outside the boss’ chamber.

Ryan
Guest
Great article about an important and often overlooked element! I can enjoy a relatively significant amount of challenge but also find my interest waning if a game fails to remove unnecessary frustration. Another great example from this year is Metroid: Samus Returns. While I’ve loved previous Metroids, this one added an extremely helpful new feature: when Samus dies in a boss fight, she’s respawned not at her last save point, but outside the door of that boss. This drastically reduced my frustration level in much the same way you say Sonic Mania increased yours–I raced through the game bravely, totally… Read more »
Andrew King
Guest

That sounds fantastic. I played Metroid Fusion for the first time a couple months ago and that game made me furious during a couple boss fights because the most recent checkpoints were 3-5 minutes away. That sort of checkpointing makes it so that the challenge is the tedium, not the battle itself.

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