This is now the final part of our three-part series looking in-depth at the recently-released Dark Souls 3 and its two DLC offerings, Ashes of Ariandel and The Ringed City. In our first part I looked a bit at the narrative ambition of Dark Souls 3, set in a world millennia in advance of the world of the original Dark Souls, and how cleverly and skilfully it took that world and extrapolated how it might look immeasurably far in the future; new forces have risen and fallen, but those forces have not come from nowhere, but are instead entirely grounded in the story and the world of the first game, and develop this amazing sense of long-term continuity between the two. In the second part we considered how Dark Souls 3 answered a number of the fundamental questions about the world that those us interested in the games’ lore have had since the very beginning, and how this both reinforced previous beliefs – e.g. that the Age of Fire and Gwyn might not be as benevolent as they first seemed – and offered the answers to entirely unanswered questions, such as the identity of Gwyn’s firstborn son. In this part I’d like to conclude this little series by thinking a little bit about the “gimmick bosses”, where they go well, where they go less well, and the glimmers of other kinds of bosses within the Soulsborne formula they showed – and then, sadly, didn’t really take to their full potential.
In this final part, I’d like to offer some thoughts on some of the “gimmick bosses” in the game. These were nowhere to be found in Dark Souls 1, nor in Bloodborne, but there were a small number in Dark Souls 3. By gimmick boss, I mean a boss where one doesn’t defeat it by ordinary means – i.e. dodging or blocking its attacks, responding with your own, not dying, and proceeding until the health of the boss is reduced to zero – but there is instead something special one has to do to defeat it. This could be a special item, something in the arena, and so forth. These are sometimes controversial, but also sometimes appreciated for the gameplay variety they can provide. The two DLCs have no bosses of this sort, but the main game has three bosses that fall into this category, which do a range of things well, a range of things poorly, and I think are interesting to take a look at. Relatively few games ever try to shake up the boss formula, and although I think these are semi-successful, the best of them do seem to point the way for ways to innovate the Souls boss formula (although the series is now over!), whilst the least successful seems nothing more than an arbitrary way to reduce the amount of development effort.
High Lord Wolnir
For almost all players, the first gimmick boss encountered will be the mass of fused skulls and skeletons known as High Lord Wolnir. Wolnir’s boss fight takes place in a dark, abyss-like area with somewhat unclear physical boundaries, although much of the boundary is created by Wolnir’s abilities and behaviours. Wolnir occupies much of the screen in front of the player, and carries a toxic cloud with him; as he moves towards the player (blocking off a large portion of the arena) the space the player can move in becomes severely restricted. He has a range of attacks, although none are especially challenging or fast, although when he climbs up the screen and spawns skeletons (one of his abilities), things certainly get a bit trickier. When the player attacks him normally, only a tiny fraction of Wolnir’s health is actually taken off; this is the case whether you hit his hand, a part of his ribcage-body, or even his head. However, you will note from the picture below he wears three glowing bracelets; two on one wrist, and one on the other. Each of these takes several hits, but when shattered, Wolnir is thrown backwards (opening up the arena a little more) and one third of his health is taken off. With all three bracelets destroyed, Wolnir’s health hits zero, he screams, and plummets down into the abyss (rather than “exploding” or disappearing like most bosses too, offering an interesting conclusion to what is already quite a different fight.
The issue with this fight, therefore, is that there’s a reasonably large jump from “no idea what to do” up to “I know what to do”, but then a tiny gap from “I know what to do” to “I’ve done it”. One might fight him for several minutes without doing any damage, and then upon finding out what to do, it is relatively trivial to destroy all the three bracelets. This is especially true when we keep in mind the fact that he recoils and remains briefly “stunned” each time a bracelet is shattered, allowing a player to quite rapidly hack through all three of them if they get into a good cycle. The problem I felt with this boss fight was that this temporal flow of damage – minutes of nothing, and then once you work out what to do, he’s dead moments later – turns this into a potentially rather unsatisfying battle. Equally, once you work out what to do, it’s quite trivial actually enacting it, and the acting of that solution feels somewhat trivial and perfunctory, as the main challenge comes from working out where Wolnir’s weak point is. However, I do think that attacking particular body parts – something slightly done in Soulsborne games before (and with tail cutting in DS1 for special weapons), but never with as extreme a difference between low-damage and massive-damage as this – is a potentially strong way to shake up the boss fight routine. I would have liked to have seen Wolnir potentially only exposing one bracelet at a time; or having periods where no bracelets are exposed; or having numerous other weakpoints; as a way to mix things up. Ultimately, I think Wolnir must be regarded as an interesting attempt to shake-up the traditional Souls formula, but one which is non-trivial to solve, but utterly trivial to execute once solved.
Later on, in an optional area, the player might encounter the Ancient Wyvern boss. Upon stepping through a door, the wyvern lands, and the boss fight begins. It doesn’t instantly attack, so I think most players would sprint forward and try to land one initial hit, only to find that the damage dealt is worryingly low. Since one’s weapons seem so ineffective in direct combat, it is immediately apparent that there is some trick to this boss fight – until one reads one of the developer messages on the floor, which instantly gives the game away, and tells the player to perform a plunging attack. At this point it is obvious that one needs to climb up this arena – for this boss arena is more like a complex and extensive set of rooms, corridors and bridges than an “arena” (it is very akin to the Krauser bossfight in Resident Evil 4), and there are several areas high up which might allow the player to perform a successful plunging attack on the Wyvern’s head. Moving through the arena is a fun and interesting challenge, especially as the Wyvern moves and prepositions itself to attack you in various ways depending on which part of the arena you move to – although I think the wyvern actually could be more aggressive here, since the size of the creature makes it harder for it to respond rapidly to the player’s changing location. I found this to be a really compelling and dramatic moment of the game, heightened both by the threat of the boss itself, and the power of the enemies occupying the arena and standing between you, and climbing to the top of the arena to perform a plunging attack. However, once you got to the top and you drop onto its head, the fight ends; a single hit is sufficient, the Ancient Wyvern is slain, and the boss fight is completed.
In most ways, I think this is a far stronger “gimmick” boss fight than Wolnir is. However, I think there are two fundamental problems here, in some ways similar to the problems with the Wolnir fight. Firstly, why did From Software feel the need to immediately give the game away? This is so far below their traditional subtlety. Consider the same boss fight with a slightly different system of conveying information. We enter the fog, see the wyvern, attack it, do minimal damage. We note the statues of someone who looks remarkably like a famous dragonslayer from Dark Souls 1 dotted around the place. We realise we need to run from the wyvern and find something to tackle it with, so we start exploring the area. This could then play out two ways. Either the player climbs all the way to the top of the scaffolding and plunges off, killing the wyvern, figuring that strategy out entirely for themselves, by noting both a) the presence of something which looks almost build to be jumped off, and b) the fact that the wyvern struggles to attack you when you’re up there. Alternatively, perhaps in one of the many rooms in this complex and multi-layered boss area, we could simply have a statue of a dragon being felled by a single blow to the top of its head; or a painting; or perhaps an item can be picked up in the arena that mentions, purely in passing, perhaps a “famous kill” of an ancient dragon performed by a knight of Gwyn that leap ontop its head, and dealt the final blow. These would all have achieved the same goal, but would have done so in far more subtle, and less immersion-breaking, ways. As such, I think the fight itself is an exciting and interesting change; but DS3 gives the game away the minute you start the boss fight, instead of getting the player to think a little and do what they normally do to understand a Soulsborne game – paying attention to the environment.
Equally, I think changing this boss fight from a one-hit kill, to a three-or-four hit kill, would also have been much more exciting. Consider the same kind of arena, but split into three distinct areas; you make it through the first third, do a plunging attack, one-third of its damage is dealt; then you go into the second area, do another plunging attack, the second-third is taking off; then you go through the longest and trickiest part of the arena, and perform a final plunging attack which finishes the boss off. This would lengthen the amount of actual gameplay challenge which takes place after solving the puzzle; give a more interesting rhythm to the fight, which as it stands ends very suddenly; and by not telling players what to do but giving them a small initial area to explore and figure out the solution, would also solve the first problem at least in part by encouraging player experimentation, instead of explaining things up-front to the player. Nevertheless, I think this is the best gimmick fight in the game: the interplay between the arena, the Wyvern and the other elements is very rich, although sadly too short and too binary, and dividing this fight into different parts – and got giving the mystery away up-front – could have actually transformed into a brilliant boss fight.
Yhorm the Giant
Now we shift from the best gimmick boss – albeit, again, one which didn’t take full advantage of the idea, and could have done a lot more with it – to what was, without doubt, the most flawed gimmick boss of the game. Although the overwhelming majority of all players will encounter this boss before the Ancient Wyvern, I wanted to talk about this “gimmick boss” after rather than before the Wyvern. The Wyvern is an example of a gimmick boss which has a great concept, and is well executed, but simply gives the game away too easily (though if we wanted to nitpick, I think the wyvern should be more aggressive towards the player and respond more rapidly as the player progresses through the “maze” of the arena). By contrast, unfortunately, Yhorm the Giant is an utterly trivial and uninteresting gimmick fight, which transforms what could have been a great boss – he looks impressive, the music is great, the arena is great, and with a little more speed or some larger hitboxes his attacks could actually be challenging – into something that simply takes up time.
Yhorm is a boss encountered probably towards the end of the mid-game, or the start of the end-game, depending on how one wants to look at it. Yhorm, as one might expect, is a giant, and wields a tremendous cleaver as his weapon. When the first begins, he storms towards you, and swings his weapon down; you dodge, roll past, attack him… and do only the tiniest amount of damage. This helps you realise this is another gimmick fight, but it’s far less clear what to do here. Where Wolnir had glowing bracelets – obvious in hindsight as signifying his weakness – Yhorm has nothing of the sort; where the Ancient Wyvern has a massively complex arena which invites the player to climb, ascend, and evade its blows until finding a solution, Yhorm’s arena is basically a rectangle, without any distinguishing features. However, up at the front of the arena there is an item on the ground; collecting it, you find a special sword. This sword is the only thing that can hurt Yhorm; it must be “charged up” for several seconds, then unleashed on Yhorm. He is sufficiently staggered by each blow that, to an ever greater extent than Wolnir, one can just put together these attacks and defeat Yhorm within moments.
In Wolnir, the gimmick boss element was a part of his physical structure – and we later find out, his lore – and required some figuring-out, even if the boss fight was trivialised afterwards. In the Ancient Wyvern, the gimmick boss element was woven into a deeply complex and multi-layered boss arena ,and the behaviour of that boss within that arena, even if the fight would have been improved by needing several attacks on the Wyvern, rather than merely one. In this case, however, I see no reason why this couldn’t have simply been a traditional boss fight. Yhorm has a range of attacks (although some are strangely trivial) and even powers up as the fight goes on – although given the strength of the special weapon, it doesn’t really make a difference. There isn’t really any lore impact to the use of this special weapon; I’ve seen extensive discussions about the meaning of the cryptic tree-related description of the weapon, but although there are some interesting conflations of people and trees in the Souls series, there doesn’t seem to be any deeper impact here; and, indeed, the area Yhorm is in feels like the most quickly-put-together part of the game world. The gimmick to Yhorm’s fight therefore only really denies the player what could, and I think should, have been an otherwise exciting boss – and I think it’s very hard to see why this was turned into a gimmick fight.
Overall, I think the gimmick boss attempts in Dark Souls 3 are interesting enough – at least, Wolnir and the Wyvern are – that I’m pleased they found their way in. Although neither one was perfect, and I’ve outlined a few ideas here which would definitely have improved both of those boss fights, they were still an interesting contrast to the usual boss fight fare, although both lost a lot of their interest once the solution was apparent (or given to you). Wolnir is a nice idea, but should have been longer, with more space between destroying bracelets, and therefore making the enacting of the solution much less trivial to complete. The Wyvern is certainly the best of the bunch, but again, only has a single “hurrah” once you know what to do, which you are immediately told; this fight is thrilling whilst it lasts, but could have been so much more. Yhorm’s fight is certainly the worst of the bunch, and I really see no compelling narrative or mechanical reason for making this into a gimmick fight. Overall, I’m glad these boss fights were in there, and showed the potential for some interesting iterations on the genre; but they all certainly feel short of their potential. Naturally, I have no more idea than anyone else what From Software are working on next, but if whatever it is has bosses in them, and it resembles Souls in any way, I’d love to see them develop these ideas a little further – just don’t have these gimmick bosses into binary unsolved/defeated puzzles, introduce gimmicks where they are interesting and meaningful, and develop the ideas as fully as everything else in Soulsborne games tends to be.