Trial by bonfire: Quantity or quality from your Dark Souls 2 bosses?
[Boss-related spoilers ahead. You’ve been warned.]
As you’ve likely noticed from our ever-lengthening list of Dark Souls 2 guides, the game is brimming with intimidating bosses. Drangleic, it seems, is a far more popular realm than Lordran, as the region has attracted denizens to even its darkest reaches. The four Cursed Beings are challenge enough for the untried Undead, but many more bosses pepper the landscape, all eagerly waiting for their next victim to trudge through their fog gate.
Come on in!
What’s more, they’ve learned to hide their presence, if only for that first shocking encounter. Gone are the days of visually striking archways betraying the impending fight. Instead, you’ll often stumble unwittingly into a brawl, only coming to your senses as you stagger up by your most recent bonfire. However, like all tricks, this can grow stale after a time. Not annoying, and certainly not boring, but after the umpteenth surprise encounter, you’re less an unfortunate adventurer and more a contestant on a game show, eager to guess what’s behind door number two.
Worse still is how simplistic some bosses prove to be. Mytha, the Baneful Queen, for example, is essentially a standard enemy with a larger health bar and access to spells. Her existence is less as a boss and more a ribbon on the lore of her area, Earthen Keep. Would it not be better to leave some areas boss-less in exchange for more detailed and varied bosses later on?
Such is the drawback of Dark Souls 2’s numerous bosses. The ubiquity of boss battles adds an edge to each area—which are often home to two or more fights—but grows repetitive after a time. Luckily (says the masochist in me), those bosses are no longer just big guys with big swords. And the nigh-infinite Belfry Gargoyles, towering trio of Ruin Sentinels, Dragonrider duo and Throne Guardians make for much more exciting combat.
Exciting is one word for it, as Polygon's experience shows.
At some point in Dark Souls 2’s development, FromSoftware, the evil bastards that they are, came to the realization that fighting more than one boss enemy at a time is exceedingly difficult. As a result, the game has abandoned the one-on-one mentality in favor of the occasional horde. As any Souls player will tell you, introducing even a second enemy into combat makes the situation drastically worse as you struggle to evade enemy attacks while maintaining damage output of your own. This rule invariably turns two- and three-man fights into races against time as your Estus stock is pitted against the health bar(s) across the bottom of the screen. And don’t even get me started on the hordes of minions that are often prepackaged with bosses. (Damn you, Freja’s spiders!)
The result of all this is a much more tense and difficult Dark Souls with dynamic bosses to match. However, like their frequency, these multi-man bosses are not without their downsides.
Let’s start with Dragonrider, the easier of the two bosses residing at Heide’s Tower of Flame. On the whole, he’s a slow and predictable, though valiant, warrior with obvious attacks and exploits. It comes as no surprise, then, that you’ll end up fighting him quite early in the game. What’s strange, though, is the reappearance of Dragonrider at Drangleic Castle, at which point he is joined by a blue Dragonrider who snipes you with bow fire from above, only entering melee range once you’ve damaged the familiar red rider to a set degree.
Speaking of familiar. Props to alphacoders on this one.
Although the blue rider does add a few new tricks to the fight, Drangleic Castle’s double Dragonriders still ring oddly familiar. Difficult as it can be, the fight plays out like a long version of your encounter at Heide’s Tower. More accurately, it plays out like FromSoftware couldn’t be asked to design a new boss (perhaps an elite officer of the Dragonrider ranks) and instead plopped two of a previous enemy into the same room. This is the issue, not with multiple combatants, but with repeat enemies. Interestingly, though, it is not universally problematic.
The Ruin Sentinels of Lost Bastille, for example, are nothing more than three identical warriors. However, they are encountered as a boss only once (and as normal enemies in Drangleic Castle), meaning they stay fresh each time you walk through the gate. They don’t feel old and they never become the norm. The same can be said for the Belfry Gargoyles whose spawning mechanic is explained by their history.
Let’s move now to New Game plus, the terrifyingly unfamiliar domain that it is, and its means of keeping encounters interesting. The Lost Sinner is one of the finer examples here. In NG+, two pyromancy-wielding Black Phantoms enter the fight after a time, chucking fireballs at you as you dodge the Sinner’s relentless sword. Again, we see that boss fights can be improved (read: made harder) through multiple fighters.
But what of the double Dragonriders? What is it that makes them, as I’m arguing, so plain? Well, literally copy-pasting enemies to a new area is always an eyesore, as Dark Souls’ Demon Ruins and its many mini-bosses so kindly demonstrated. Or is it, as mentioned previously, the lost potential—the supreme Dragonrider overlord that could have been? Whatever the case, I would argue that FromSoftware needn’t concern themselves with a boss quota and should instead prioritize the diversity of each fight—their attacks, evasions and weaknesses. I’ll take a single boss with flavor, flare and die-hard challenge over a handful of average any day, though I’ll likely die more easily to the latter. What about you?