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They entertained us in the first half, not gonna lie. Why does nearly every video game get worse after the second half or final third?

R.R. Bigman

Coolest Guy
I had playing through Secret of Monkey Island: Remastered Edition, when I thought to myself how much more fun and interesting the first half of the game, set on Melee Island, was than the second, on and below Monkey Island. I had also been watching an LP of Dark Souls, and the person playing stated that after Anor Londo things get way less well designed, and after thinking about I had to agree.

The obvious answers are “ran out of money” and “bad management“, so I was wondering what are other egregious examples of this all too common occurrence in video games? Conversely, what are some good examples of games that get way better in the second half or have a very strong finale?
 

ShakeWell

Slam Master
(he, etc.)
I honestly think that "there has to be more game, because players want more game" is, at least recently, a partial cause of this. People will bitch online endlessly if a game has the gall to be shorter than like 20 hours, even if the last 8 suck.
 

nosimpleway

(he/him)
Chrono Cross springs immediately to mind. And on its heels, Xenogears.

Searching for Triforce pieces in Wind Waker. Also: Temple of the Ocean King.

The Meat Circus.

The flipped castle in Symphony of the Night is divisive, but I don't think there's much argument to be made in favor of Portrait of Ruin recycling the first four paintings into the last four paintings just to pad the game out.

Third-gen Pokemon games trade the varied forest/mountains-volcano/desert in the beginning of the game for open ocean. They're going for a balance between land environments and water environments to reflect the Groudon/Kyogre conflict, but man, all that water is pretty tiresome to surf over.

Earthbound Beginnings, Earthbound Zero, whatever you wanna call it, the first Mother game has a famously unpolished finale. The dev team just got tired of working on it and threw playtesting out to get the game released.
 

Regulus

Sir Knightbot
There's a lot of leftover data in Mass Effect 3 that implies the Priority: Earth finale mission was at one time supposed to play out more like 2's suicide mission sequence, with the player committing the forces they'd gathered through the game to various roles in the final battle. The released version is instead a multi-wave "horde mode" battle that is less exciting than the multiplayer mode.
 

R.R. Bigman

Coolest Guy
I honestly think that "there has to be more game, because players want more game" is, at least recently, a partial cause of this. People will bitch online endlessly if a game has the gall to be shorter than like 20 hours, even if the last 8 suck.

I remember Metal Gear Rising: Reveangence getting some guff for being fairly short upon release. That game is great but could have honestly stood to be even shorter, as one stage is just running through a previous area with no boss or unique challenge.
 

Pajaro Pete

(He/Himbo)
more effort is put into the initial areas and set pieces and whatnot because that's what most folks will see
 

MetManMas

Me and My Bestie
(He, him)
4 Heroes of Light had some really cool town designs and some really bland dungeons that were basically varying kinds of "featureless hallways with maybe a half-baked gimmick", so I lost interest around the time the game expected me to go back through all those same dungeons again but with a different set of monsters and no new treasure except what the bosses at the end of the dungeon reprisals have.
 

Issun

My way, soon
That, or is the high point of the whole thing.
FF8's final dungeon may be the best part of the game. The PSX Final Fantasy games all have pretty strong endgames, actually, it's just the third quarter that feels like padding.

Several Metal Gears have great back halves: Metal gear 2, and MGS 3 and 4 come immediately to mind.
 

Zef

Find Your Reason
(He/Him)
I guess, sometimes it's a function of the narrative? I can immediately think of the narratives of Final Fantasy VI, VIII, IX, X, XII, and XV, Spider-Man PS4, Ghost of Tsushima, every single Persona from 1 to Q2, where the third act is typically where things have gone to hell and it's up to the protagonist to climb back up for the climax. So the last impression the game makes, at least before a victorious (or at least bittersweet) ending is a dour one.

In those games, by the third act you have also accrued all of your skills, spells, companions, what have you, and have opened up all of the map and the only thing left between you and the conclusion is a bunch of sidequests. The sense of discovery is gone or diminished, and all that's left is to actually put all your tools and skills to good use (though, more often than not, players will have burrowed into a comfort zone and are less likely to experiment with their full repertoire.)

As for games that have strong final acts or ones that match their openings, I can also think of Super Metroid, FFIV, V, the mainline SMT games (II and Nocturne really do feel like a crescendo!) the Katamari games but especially the original, We ❤️, and Touch, Chrono Trigger, and Vagrant Story.
 

Nich

stuck in baby prison
(he/him)
more effort is put into the initial areas and set pieces and whatnot because that's what most folks will see
Yeah, there are metrics indicating that most players never reach the end of any given game. I don't know if you can still do this, but you used to be able to use SteamSpy to take a game and see how many players got the achievement for beating the first level vs. how many got it for beating the last boss.
 

Mogri

Round and round I go
(he)
Staff member
Moderator
You can check global achievement stats directly from Steam. They're particularly illuminating for games like FF15 that have achievements for each chapter you finish. FF15 has a huge drop-off after chapter 9 IIRC.
 

Pajaro Pete

(He/Himbo)
PSN does that for trophies as well. It's probably disheartening for devs to see those numbers tbh because some are like "Engaged with basic gameplay mechanic three times - 34%"
 

karzac

(he/him)
more effort is put into the initial areas and set pieces and whatnot because that's what most folks will see

This, plus it's probably easier to play test the early parts of the game, because for most games, a playtester would have to play through the whole thing to have a representative experience of the ending.
 

Sprite

(He/Him/His)
I can't think of any games were the second half (and literally half) is way better than the first.
Final Fantasy XIII. The first half is an extended tutorial for a battle system that becomes transcendent once all the pieces are finally in place.
 
Final Fantasy XIII. The first half is an extended tutorial for a battle system that becomes transcendent once all the pieces are finally in place.
I agree with that. If you run past enemies early on, you can cut that time down to maybe only 1/3 of the game.

For many JRPGs, the story is best in the first half and mechanics in the second.
 

karzac

(he/him)
Mass Effect 2 has a really strong second half, as you're completing loyalty quests to lead up to the amazing finale.

Pyre really opens up after the first third, and has a great finale as well.

I really loved the final area of Celeste.
 

Bulgakov

Yes, that Russian author.
(He/Him)
I play a lot of games that aren't designed to "end" in the traditional sense (roguelikes and strategy games), but IMO:
  • Hollow Knight had a great ending that lived up to its beginning and expanded it.
  • I liked Undertale's ending quite a bit and felt no drop-off in gameplay. If anything I was more interested in the end over the beginning.
  • I loved the way Braid came together at the end.
  • Toki Tori 2 was just as fun in the second half as the first.
  • Slay the Spire had solid escalating challenges throughout
  • I liked the ending and back half of The Witness as well as the expanding challenges, though I realize that's pretty polarized as a game experience and others may completely disagree.
  • Sayonara Wild Hearts was super-fun and novel throughout the entire game experience. I loved replaying that game as much as I liked playing it the first time.
  • Chrono Trigger never felt like it was falling off to me, even as I was going for multiple endings.
  • Virtually every 4x strategy game I play (Civilization, Master of Orion, and Heroes of Might and Magic 3 being some of my favorite examples of the genre) do not feel like unsatisfying back-ends.
  • Super Mario Galaxy was fun to me the whole way through; It singlehandedly proved to me the Wii was a good purchase.

I think what's interesting about the way Bigman has raised this question is it seems to presuppose that a game should entertain a player equally and potentially in the same way at the beginning and the end of the game. I don't know if I agree with that.

4x games, for example, are all about modifying your understanding/approach to the game as it continues and you shift the balance of power from a potentially threatening unexplored world to a fully-understood map which you've strategicallyset yourself up to conquer. All phases of the game are exciting and interesting to me, but the execution of each phase emphasizes a different type of experience that can't be compared apples-to-apples.

In story-driven games, I don't know if I feel bad that the second half of a game is more predictable than the first half; if I'm playing well and building my power as a player in the game world, I'm intentionally building toward predictability and trying to accomplish the goals the game has signposted for me. In a lot of cases, a predictable storyline is indicative of success in my ability to understand and manipulate the game system itself.

In something like a platformer (which, admittedly I don't play much), I'm looking for continued challenges and a feeling of satisfaction when I beat levels. If the game is delivering that, I would consider it doing its job, even if that feels repetitive at times.

Anyway I think the question for me if I want to keep playing a game is less "which half is better?" and more "Is the game still engaging me?"

EDIT: How could I forget Hades? That had an amazing amount of gameplay and story that got deeper and better as I progressed.
 
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Octopus Prime

Mysterious Contraption
(He/Him)
About midway through Starlink, the game suddenly becomes an updated Star Fox 2, and while the game was fun before that, that's the point where it becomes exceptional
 

Bongo

excused from moderation duty
(he/him)
Staff member
Later in the game is where the player's activity shifts from learning to mastery. In theory, at least. Sometimes mastery is less fun than learning. Sometimes it gives you more to learn even though you're ready to exercise mastery of what you already learned instead.
 

Sprite

(He/Him/His)
About midway through Starlink, the game suddenly becomes an updated Star Fox 2, and while the game was fun before that, that's the point where it becomes exceptional
Ooo, yeah, for sure. It’s a shame they didn’t make a mode that starts with the enemy fleet in full force.
 

Torzelbaum

????? LV 13 HP 292/ 292
(he, him, his)
In something like a platformer
I think this is also can be less of an issue or not an issue at all in shorter games. Contra and River City Ransom are two games I can think of where this isn't an issue (but I could be wrong about that).
 

Phantoon

I cuss you bad
Pokemon might count, purely because you struggle to get a good selection of types before gym #4. You get fully evolved pokemon and the best movesets after that.
 

Adrenaline

Post Reader
(He/Him)
The first half of Nier Automata is set up for the second half to hammer you in the gut repeatedly

In a good way
 
Yeah, there are metrics indicating that most players never reach the end of any given game.
This has been a pretty consistent refrain from developers going back as far as I can remember. Even in old post mortems done in old magazines like EGM, devs would discuss how it was just a basic matter of prioritizing what people were more likely to see. If the vast majority of your audience will never finish a game, why spend crazy resources on something they'll never see?
Super Mario Galaxy was fun to me the whole way through
I can't speak to Galaxy because I only dabbled, but the recent Odyssey did a good job of being fun from beginning to "end". And I put end in scare quotes because I suspect Odyssey very intentionally put its grindy, hard content after the credits on purpose so that fairweather fans like me could feel like they beat a full game, while leaving all the challenging and annoying stuff for "post-game" content that in past Mario games like 64 would have driven a gamer like myself insane trying to complete. I figure more games ought to have this kind of setup. Keep the main story easy breezy, give the more rabid fans tons of post-game content to continue digging into. Another game that's similar to this is Peace Walker, that has a second ending that's completely optional and doesn't really change anything that important but adds a lot of flavor and context to the story, that you can really only get by grinding a bunch post-game.
 

Zef

Find Your Reason
(He/Him)
The first half of Nier Automata is set up for the second half to hammer you in the gut repeatedly

In a good way

Unfortunately a lot of people watch Ending A, or even B, and think that's it just because they saw the first regular credits roll.
 

Trar

Grilling
(I am a man)
Halo suffered from this. The crunch near the end of development (because Xbox launch title) led to the infamous revisting of three earlier levels in the last third of the game, albeit with some new wrinkles added. It's a bit of a miracle the game was in good shape at release.
 
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