As the tagline of this blog indicates, it may be the Plotting Machine but it would also be my “random ramblings on writing, story and everything else”. That’s why I thought it was time for a slightly different topic for today and that topic is: Dark Souls! Having finished the third and final installment of this outstanding videogame series from From Software a few months ago after playing all three throughout 2016, I’ve decided it’s time for some therapy. Lots and lots of therapy. And this blog will assist me by getting all my frustration off my chest. Because, in case you haven’t heard of Dark Souls’ infamy by now, these dark fantasy Action-RPG videogames are notoriously difficult. There is a reason its tagline is “Prepare to die”. It’s because you will be doing that. A lot.
In case you’re interested in a dark fantasy adventure (with lots of lore and a highly complex, developed fantasy world, but little direct explanation) that’s also a significant challenge, I can highly recommend it. It takes a lot of inspiration from one of my favourite manga and anime series, Berserk (perhaps a topic for another day), while still absolutely remaining a unique experience. And that’s just the story. In terms of the gameplay, the fights can be frequent and fast-paced, while still usually allowing for enough breathing room to explore the gorgeous areas that you’re in. But above all, it’s tough: make no mistake, even the weakest enemies will kill you in this game if you’re not careful. And while navigating the separate areas can be a pain sometimes, it is the major bosses of Dark Souls I, II and III that will provide the games’ most monstrous challenges by far. They have become the series’ trademark, simultaneously the best and worst aspect of these games. Why the best? Because so many of these fights are a spectacle in and of themselves, putting your puny human character (and his or her assortment of bladed, ranged or magical weaponry) up against massive, horrifying, well-designed creatures or warriors that can be incredibly difficult to take down. Many of them have interesting backstories, if you care to discover them, and all the fights take place within epic areas, accompanied by an epic musical score and all come prepared with epic attacks with which they’ll pummel you senseless. Of course, all that is also what makes them the worst: many of these things are so ridiculously tough, you’ll lose track of just how many times you’ve attempted to defeat them. Often, you’ll feel you’re just beating your head against a wall in the vague hope that this time, it’ll suddenly break. Or you’ll have to backtrack and spend hours killing random, weaker creatures to level up or improve your weaponry – and then you fail again. I consider myself by no means a n00b when it comes to these types of games, but I’d be lying if some of these bosses didn’t push me to the edge. These bosses, at their easiest, are still quite dangerous for a first-time player. At their very worst, they have tempted me to throw my console out the window (thankfully, I never did) or nearly made me burst into tears. Yes, they are that horrible. There is an undeniable sense of accomplishment when you finally do succeed – but it’s one that (at least for now) I’m unwilling to repeat.
So, to pay my respect to this amazing series, as well as rant uncontrollably to get all this rage out of my system, let’s take a look at the top 10 toughest bosses of the Dark Souls-series today. A few points of clarification: 1) this does not include bosses from those other From Software games similar to this series, namely Demon Souls (which I’ve never played) or Bloodborne (which I have), 2) of the ones I’ve fought, I’ve only summoned NPCs or other players on three encounters, only one of which is on this list and I felt that I really needed, 3) I definitely haven’t done all the DLCs and faced all the optional bosses, so this is by no means an exhaustive list, and 4) this list is just my personal countdown of the bosses that have given me the hardest time. Feel free to let me know where you agree or disagree in the comments below.
Also, there are definitely some SPOILERS for the Dark Souls-series below.
Dishonourable mention: The Bed of Chaos – Dark Souls I
Anyone who has played through Dark Souls I will understand exactly why I put this boss in a special spot. Not because this boss narrowly failed to make the list based on its toughness, or it’s some sort of amazing encounter that should be mentioned anyway, but purely because getting past this thing is one of the most horrible experiences in this series for all the wrong reasons. You’re fighting the Bed of Chaos, the horrendously altered remains of the Witch of Izalith, a master of pyromancies that has now morphed into this gigantic, overgrown, plant-like creature that is pretty much invulnerable aside from two weak spots you’ll have to get to first. The first of these is usually no issue, but you’ll still have to reach the other on the opposite side of the room. No problem, right? Except once you start getting there, the arena suddenly starts crumbling: it can be notoriously easy to suddenly fall into a hole and die and if that wasn’t hard enough for you, the Bed of Chaos can just sweep you into a chasm with its massive hands, with almost no room to dodge. After a lot of difficulty, you can take down the second spot, but then you’ll need to jump into the bottom of the arena, land on one of the huge branches and get inside the Bed of Chaos to deal the final blow – a jump that can also go wrong quite frequently. A person’s hatred of this boss will vary wildly depending on how lucky you get. I was extremely fortunate in taking down this boss in only two attempts on my first playthrough of Dark Souls I, but had a lot more difficulty with it the second time. I’ve also heard horror stories of people being stuck on the Bed of Chaos for hours. Overall, I find this to be a very strange, clumsy boss-fight that is very different from the usual, clear-cut battles you face in Dark Souls. I know From Software has apologised for the design of this boss-fight and in this case, it’s warranted. The Bed of Chaos is simultaneously one of the easiest and most difficult bosses in the entire series, memorable only for how extremely annoying it can be.
10. Artorias, the Abyss Walker – Dark Souls I – Artorias of the Abyss DLC
Now we’re getting to the real list and this guy is one hell of a way to start it off. I know that the encounter with Artorias is a fan-favourite among the Dark Souls community and having fought him myself, it’s easy to see why: Artorias is a fast, vicious boss that can jump all over the arena, dishing out enormous amounts of damage with his greatsword if you’re not careful, all the while withstanding a lot of punishment himself. But more than that, he simply has a very erratic, unpredictable style, being able to take some distance and then close it again deceptively quick, with combo’s that can be hard to follow. For all his massive power, this fallen knight is as slippery as the black ooze all over his armor and all of this can make it tough to decide when to attack and when to lay low. I know that for me, it took a lot of trial and error in order to learn when to move in, get a hit in with my Zweihänder and then get out again, as anything more than that you’ll usually have no time for. Couple this with his ability to boost his attack power and you have one of the most formidable boss fights on your hands for all of the first game. Artorias the Abyss Walker has a tragic backstory, but it might take some serious effort to put this poor soul to rest for the last time.
9. Dragonslayer Ornstein & Executioner Smough – Dark Souls I
Holy shit, just looking at that picture is enough to give me flashbacks. What’s more difficult than one insanely tough Dark Souls boss-fight? Two boss-fights at the same time! The fight against Ornstein and Smough in the Great Cathedral of Anor Londo is one of the most memorable and beloved battles in the entire series, because it encapsulates absolutely everything that makes Dark Souls so adored and so hated at the same time. By the time you reach Anor Londo, the city of the gods, at around the mid-point of the first game, you’ve already encountered so much shit that you start thinking you can finally handle whatever next they’ll throw at you – only for From Software to bring in these two bastards to punish you for that hubris. One of these two bosses would’ve already sufficed for a challenging encounter: you’ve got the smaller, faster, spear-wielding, lightning-tossing Dragonslayer Ornstein on one hand and the slower, humongous, massively punishing Executioner Smough on the other. To face both of them instead (with each complementing the other’s fighting style) pushes this battle from hard to ridiculous. A first-time player can be overwhelmed the first time they see Ornstein and Smough charge at them simultaneously, uncertain how they could possibly match that level of power. Your only hope is retreat, always staying on the move to avoid their assault, strike one of them once you see an opening and retreat again. Those who get greedy are punished relentlessly. And just when you bring down one of them and think you’re halfway there? That’s when From Software decides to really make you suffer: the surviving boss absorbs the power of the other one. Either Smough takes on Ornstein’s lightning or Ornstein absorbs Smough’s strength and grows to a massive size. Oh, and did I mention that the surviving boss is fully healed? Of these, the latter scenario (Hyper-Ornstein, as I call him) is the worst by far, but it’s the one I’ve always preferred, as it’s the only way you can obtain Ornstein’s kick-ass Dragonslayer Spear. Ornstein and Smough is an absolutely relentless fight and one that is clearly meant to push the player’s resolve to the limit, as you may fail enough times to want to quit this game (as many players have). On top of that, these are two interesting, bad-ass characters and you’re actually rewarded for all your trouble with something worthwhile if you win. You are acknowledged as the Chosen Undead that must re-kindle the First Flame and you receive the Lordvessel: a crucial item to proceed and one that finally allows you to warp through the world, which makes the entire game a lot easier. And if all of that isn’t enough, the arena you face these two in is astounding, while the soundtrack to the battle is possibly the best of them all (probably my personal favourite). One way or another, this is one boss-fight you will never forget.
8. Manus, Father of the Abyss – Dark Souls I – Artorias of the Abyss DLC
Yep, we’re still sticking with Dark Souls I, but don’t worry – the rest of the series is coming up soon. For now, we still have Manus to contend with: the ancient, monstrous Father of the Abyss and the creature that even Artorias could not defeat. If you’re wondering how one guy could possibly be even worse than the combined power of Ornstein and Smough, here’s how: by being a giant, powerful and enormously aggressive boss with a huge range and devastasting combo’s. Manus’ giant arms and hands can reach across massive distances and if you couple that with his incredibly vicious nature, you often barely have enough time to get away and heal yourself with your trusty Estus Flask. And if you get caught in one of his combo’s? Unless you’re at full health, you’re usually a dead man. Strangely enough, given how horrible Manus is, his first phase isn’t actually that bad once you’ve gotten used to his attack patterns. But once you get him down to about 50%, he starts using Dark magic with the staff/club in one of his hands – and that’s when this fight just gets god-awful. One move in particular (in which Manus sends out a ring of Dark flames) is almost impossible to avoid, requiring either absolute perfect timing to dodge or a massive health bar to survive. This fight was so bad for me, I only managed to win when he exhausted all his spells at a certain point, which meant I only had to keep an eye on his physical attacks for the last stage. Even then, I probably only got that far because I was wearing Havel’s armor (providing massive protection) and the Mask of the Child (for extra stamina). Either way, Manus is one foe I’m keen never to revisit again.
7. Champion Gundyr – Dark Souls III – Optional
We finally get to a boss in another game of the series and oh boy, did this one frustrate me: Champion Gundyr is an optional encounter, hidden in the mysterious Untended Graves, located behind the area of yet another optional boss, Oceiros, the Consumed King. You remember how I mentioned that Manus was aggressive? This guy wrote the book on it. Champion Gundyr is armed with a massive pole-arm and he swings that thing like nobody’s business. But while you’re expecting a warrior wielding a large weapon, clad in heavy armor, to be relatively slow, Champion Gundyr is a monstrosity, easily chasing you down and getting within range with his halberd. And for those (like me) that think they can be clever by rolling to avoid the swings of his weapon and staying close to strike when the opportunity presents itself, he has a couple of tricks up his sleeve: he has a quick, sudden kick that can catch you off-guard and he can also grab you and smack you across the arena. But all of this is still nothing compared to his second phase: around half his health, Champion Gundyr goes from a monstrosity to an unholy terror, becoming so fast and vicious that you barely have any room to breathe any more. He now also has a devasting charge in which he spears you on his weapon (almost impossible to avoid) or can jump across the entire arena to plant his blade in your face (nearly the same). I seriously believe that Champion Gundyr is one of the most underappreciated bosses in terms of difficulty, especially in Dark Souls III (though Pontiff Sulyvahn also comes pretty close to matching him when it comes to a fast, relentless playstyle). I know I was dancing up, down and all around trying to avoid this guy and striking when I could, squeezing every last bit of stamina I had (light armor and the Grass Crest Shield for extra stamina were crucial for this one). I succeeded in the end and, much like Ornstein and Smough, defeating Gundyr was worth it as it allows you to get two valuable items: the Coiled Sword (which allows you to warp back to a bonfire, your save-stations, from any location) and the Eyes of the Firekeeper, which are essential to get a different ending. But it certainly takes a fight worthy of a champion to get them.
6. Gwyn, Lord of Cinder (without parries) – Dark Souls I
Did you notice the caveat I put up there? The difficulty of the final boss of Dark Souls I depends heavily on one thing: your ability to parry. I know I suck at it, which is exactly why Gwyn, Lord of Cinder, is still ranked so ridiculously high on this list. I’ve seen those who have no problem deflecting attacks easily obliterate Gwyn by countering everything he throws at them, but for me, the former Lord of Sunlight and ruler of the gods is the toughest of all Dark Souls I bosses: much like Champion Gundyr, he is relentless, has a jump that allows him to cross practically the entire arena, he can grab you and blow you up for good measure, but worst of all, he just tears through you with that flaming greatsword of his. The range he has with that thing is insane, but its sheer force is even worse. In my first playthrough, I relied heavily on my shield, but no matter how much endurance I had, Gwyn just punched through my guard, leaving me at the mercy of his powerful attacks. On my second playthrough, I put a lot more emphasis on dodging, but I found it quite difficult to avoid Gwyn’s strikes. He can be so aggressive that the only hope you have to heal yourself safely is to put one of the pillars in the arena between you and him, but even that isn’t enough sometimes. Finally, Gwyn just takes a lot of hits and all of that adds up to create a furious boss-fight. It can take quite a while to bring Gwyn down and it’s a long time for something to go wrong. Still, it’s a memorable boss-fight and a worthy finale for the first Dark Souls game, especially with that hauntingly beautiful soundtrack playing in the background. With the final Lord out of the way, you can finally make the ultimate choice of the game and end it: sacrifice yourself like Gwyn once did to restore the First Flame and bring light back to the world or walk away after killing Gwyn, to become the Dark Lord that he feared. Regardless of your choice, you can congratulate yourself on finishing Dark Souls I and defeating a notoriously difficult boss – that is, if you don’t parry him.
That’s it for the first half of this list! Check back soon for the second half, as I continue with the top 5 of (what I consider to be) the most horrible Dark Souls boss fights!