My issue with Furi isn't that it's too hard. For a fast-moving action game entirely built around boss fights, a certain amount of exasperation is to be expected. My issue is that the game is too hard in the wrong ways and, perhaps, for the wrong reasons. Furi, released yesterday for Steam and PS4 by the French indie studio The Game Bakers, offers a series of boss fights of escalating difficulty. There are no levels in between, no disposable cannon fodder enemies. Just you and the bosses. It's a premise that is immediately compelling to fans of old-school beat-em-ups, nostalgic for the adrenaline rush of defeating inflated enemies. The premise is bound by a plot thin enough to account for an all-meat kind of game: You are an escaped prisoner fighting your way to freedom. At the outset, the game offers you two difficulty modes: "Furi (recommended)" and the easier "Promenade". "Furi" isn't coy about its difficulty: "The game is balanced to be challenging and demanding," it confidently explains.
Later, if you defeat "Furi", you're offered "Furier", described as "The true challenge for masters of combat". After that, you can unlock "Speedrun" mode.
Although "Promenade" isn't significantly easier than "Furi", it does offer you more lives. You're shamed for picking it, which made me wonder why it was included at all. Really, you're not only shamed for picking it as much as you're shamed for being the kind of person who would pick it: "Anyone will be able to enjoy the universe and the story, but the game will be much shorter and very easy. Does not unlock trophies, the Furier difficulty and the Speedrun mode." After you select "Promenade", Furi warns you again that you're a wimp: "Are you sure you want to change the difficulty? It will prevent you from feeling the rush of combat... Once you have changed the difficulty, you can't go back to the current difficulty." Ouch. The word "Promenade" is a constant reminder on-screen that you're not playing the game right.
OK, I thought, I get it. This is a hard game for real gamers.
Combat is brutal. You can slash, shoot, parry and dash, mechanics that, for me, usually inspire a state of flow regardless of a game's difficulty. The key, it seems, is memorising bosses' animations and training your reflexes to adequately respond to their attacks. No problem — but the delay on your dash mechanic (intentionally, I'd imagine) makes it extremely difficult to time when dodging an area-of-attack blow.
Similarly, the window for parrying lasts only for a fraction of a split second, which is masterable if your reflexes are acute. These design choices assuredly are why Furi is billed as extraordinarily challenging, and yet, I wished that instead of a delayed dash or a too-quick parry, I was offered more opportunities for strategic rather than reflex-heavy play. On the second boss level, a maniacal, screaming female enemy manoeuvers around a maze, firing lasers at you. You're forced on the defensive, hiding in the maze's strategic nooks, while she occasionally hurls barely-announced attacks at you that you've never seen before. In moments like this, I couldn't tell the difference between "balanced to be challenging" and "imbalanced, also challenging".
Seven minutes of tedious walking cutscene between the fights wasn't enough to cool me down.
In more direct combat, if you land three successful slashes against an enemy, your character goes into an automatic attack animation. It's a reward for rare successes, but also made me feel like I had less agency over my character. It's distancing, but looks excellent.
As I played Furi, I kept thinking of Hyper Light Drifter, another demanding-by-design slash-and-dash game. HLD has similar combat mechanics but appears more indifferent to its own difficulty. Classier, really. When you die in that game, the music doesn't even pause. The game's menus don't denigrate you for failing to meet its standards; it just implicitly asks you to try harder. And you want to. Furi, by contrast, antagonises players with its difficulty so unabashedly that I felt like it was consciously and specifically catering to gamers who like to brag about being good at hard games.
Each of the Furi's villains was designed by Afro Samurai creator Takashi Okazaki, and each one shines with his gift for character design. Their wildly fantastical appearances somehow aren't enough to outweigh their repetitive dialogue: "And you think you can get out. Look at you. You're a joke," the first boss repeated a half dozen times to my limp corpse. "No way," he said. "Let's do this." Still, Furi looks damn good, rich with purples and deep blues. The visuals are complemented by a vigorously synthy (and original) soundtrack composed by Danger, The Toxic Avenger and Carpenter Brut.
I wanted to love Furi. Its trailer begged me to recall the adrenaline rush I associated with my favourite boss fights from my youth, where dynamic and touching storylines added urgency to these one-on-one matches. But what I thought would be the game's greatest draw — its promise of epic brawl after epic brawl — detached me from investing in my own success. I soldiered on if only to prove that I wasn't a "Promenade" kind of gamer.