In a game as sustained and brutal as Dark Souls 3, victories tend to be small and short-lived. But those moments, when they present themselves, are as sweet as they come.
It’s part of the reason why From Software games are so compelling. Rewards are sparing. Rewards come with a real sense of achievement.
I believe there are roughly five different emotions you feel upon defeating a boss in a From Software game, ranging from white-hot rage, to zen-like satisfaction, all the way to a low level thrum of disappointment. It all depends on the difficulty and how you finally dispatch of the boss itself. It differs from person to person, from boss to boss.
[Warning: the post contains spoilers for Dark Souls 3.]
Capra Demon: spitting white-hot rage.
Ornstein & Smough: a beautiful, zen-like state of ultimate understanding.
Gaping Demon: weird sense of ‘that was a wee bit too easy’ disappointment.
Last night I finally defeated the final boss of Dark Souls 3, Soul of Cinder. It was a boss fight that somehow succeeded in making me all of those things at once. I was fuelled with white-hot rage, I was overwhelmingly relieved, I was zen. Then it all settled itself into a strange disappointment. It might have been one of the most intense boss fights I’ve ever experienced in a video game ever.
In technical terms, it was some wild ass shit.
It took me a while to finish Dark Souls 3. Finding time to play with kids was difficult, then came the distraction of other games like Uncharted, Overwatch, etc. But in terms of raw time spent with the game, I cruised through Dark Souls 3 with relative ease. I must have clocked about 34 hours by the time the credits rolled. A relatively short period of time by Souls standards.
Only a handful of bosses caused me significant grief. Aldrich was a motherfucker, on account of the fact I was significantly under-levelled when I fought him. Pontiff Sulyvahn was a significant roadblock as well. The others felt okay, I’m a Souls veteran at this stage. I know most of the tricks.
But the Soul of Cinder was an interesting case, for a number of reasons. He’s the final boss. Some people managed to get past this encounter problem free. Some summoned the help of NPCs or co-op partners, some simply got past easily on their own terms.
Me? I died. A lot.
The Soul of Cinder is an amalgamation: that’s the high concept. He represents the collective consciousness of bosses from the Dark Souls series in its entirety. He’s a number of different characters combined into one bipedal being. He is a walking, breathing excuse to combine movesets from at least four or five different bosses in one bugger of a fight. He even has attacks derived from player movesets in the original Dark Souls.
Long story short, he’s a bastard. He’s insanely unpredictable. His vast repertoire of potential attacks makes him different to learn how to fight.
Worse still: he has two separate distinctive phases.
The first phase is manageable. At least it was for me. Depending on which moveset the boss is using he’s fairly easy, relatively speaking. I remember coming close the first time I fought him, and thinking, “ah, I’ve got this.”
Fourth or fifth time, I 'got' him. BAM. You’re dead. OK. Time to sit back and watch the credits roll, right?
The Soul Of Cinder revives himself. He once again has a full energy bar. I’m sitting here on two Estus Flasks, one hit away from death.
Suddenly I feel hella vulnerable. Second phase Soul of Cinder is a completely different boss fight, with a completely different moveset. His timing is way different. His strikes break my stamina bar in half and I can’t get the timing right to roll out of harm’s way.
Long story short, I get my ass handed to me in seconds. You died.
You died. You died. You died.
This happens over and over and over again.
I get frustrated, but I persist. I get to the point where I can manage Soul of Cinder’s first phase roughly 40% of the time. The second phase? No matter what the hell I do, I die quickly without making the barest of dents in this bastard’s health bar.
Soul of Cinder’s second phase is aggressive. He has the moveset of Dark Souls 1’s final boss, a boss which I had a severe amount of trouble with in the original game. Why? Because he is unpredictable, he doesn’t have a ‘safe’ range and his strikes are often delayed beyond what you normally expect in a Souls boss fight.
Fuck this. Fuck everything about this. I continue to die. Frequently. Brutally. At this point I haven’t even managed to get second phase Soul of Cinder to half health. He feels utterly insurmountable.
Then, Monday night.
Monday night. As is customary among my friends, a group of us come to my house to watch Game of Thrones together. Very nice. Friends, snacks, television. Good times. There are about seven adults in the house, four kids sleeping upstairs. The process of getting the snacks together and the goddamn kids to sleep is taking longer than usual.
Bugger it, I have a second. I’ll give this boss battle a go.
I have an audience. Two brothers-in-law, one of whom is a Souls fanatic. Another friend who is curious about the whole thing, openly wondering why I continue swearing at my television like a crazy person.
As usual with this boss battle, I die a lot. It’s been a while since I last played. I need to find my rhythm and I’m attempting to find it by verbally abusing my PlayStation 4.
Then, progress. I start making it to the second phase with encouraging regularity. But I'm still getting my ass handed to me, to the point where I start feeling a bit desperate. Most Dark Souls boss fights offer a sliver of hope. A pattern to learn, new techniques to practice. This time it all just felt impossible, to the point where I was starting to consider giving up.
But then, finally, a decent run. I get through Soul of Cinder’s first phase relatively unscathed. I have a ton of Estus flasks in the bank. I quickly beef up my health bar, add a lightning buff to my Dark Sword and think to myself, “okay Mark, time to die.”
I get a few hits in. I get hit back. I replenish my health and I get back into the fray. I’m rolling like a goddamn buffoon with little-to-no forethought. I am abandoning strategy. I am swinging my sword.
I am not looking at Soul of Cinder's health bar. I have forgotten his health bar even exists.
For some reason – pure luck I guess – Soul of Cinder becomes staggered. This happens frequently in his first phase, but I never managed to pull it off in the second. I seize the moment, by smashing R1 like a man possessed. Maybe I am possessed.
I am probably possessed.
I zip out, replenish my health. I have one Estus flask left.
“You’ve got this man,” says my brother-in-law -- the Souls fanantic.
“What the hell are you talking about,” I think to myself, utterly confused. As far as I’m concerned I’m two seconds from death like I always am with this motherfucker.
But then I look at Soul of Cinder’s health bar.
That's when I realise: he only has a third of his health left. I'd been having the run of a lifetime and I hadn't even realised.
I might do this.
I might actually do this.
I get tight in my stomach. Breathe. Okay, here goes...
I get a few hits in. I’m freaking out.
I get hit. I’m on low health. Shit. I play this situation conservatively. I get out, create some distance. I use my last Estus Flask. I’ve got nothing left now. I roll into striking distance, I swing my sword a few times.
His health is low. Two, maybe three hits away.
At this point I’d like to explain a phenomenon that most Dark Souls players are familiar with. It’s a moment of temporary insanity, a pre-victory freak out if you will. You’ve struggled with a boss for so long, you’ve died so many times. Now you’re within touching distance and you just want this fucking pain to end…
You abandon strategy. You abandon technique. Abandon all hope and common sense ye who enter here. Sheer panic. You start attacking with no goddamn thought as to why you’re doing anything. You might even be screaming at the television in anticipation of your impending victory…
And that’s when it happens.
You get caught off guard. The boss hits you once, twice, maybe three times in sequence. You are dead. You are fucking dead.
You scream internally. You were so close. One hit away. You take a screencap, you tweet, you tell your buddies how close you were. It’s the “I once caught a fish this big” of video games.
It’s happened to me on so many occasions.
But not this time.
This time: same reaction, same freak out. Same old Serrels rushing in like a headless chicken.
This time: luck beyond belief. I am not hit. I am not dead. I hit Soul of Cinder once, twice, three times.
Sweet lord. Sweet relief. Sweet justice. He dies.
I did it. Oh my god I fucking did it!
In a house full of my closest friends and family I stood up. Controller in hand I began screaming the word “yes” over and over again, my entire body shaking. Pure euphoria. Then, a turn for strange. I began screaming at the TV hysterically, “FUCK YOU FUCK YOU”, laughing like a cursed hyena.
Most of these people in my living room at this point had never played Dark Souls. Some didn’t play video games period. They had no context for the scene they were now witnessing. They couldn’t possibly understand this temporary insanity, this grown adult man -- this responsible, married father of two -- who was now howling at the moon like a perverse troglodyte.
It was a strange culmination. How could I explain that? This boss battle, this amalgamation of previous Dark Souls bosses, he had elicited a reaction akin to every single emotion I had ever felt whilst playing Dark Souls: rage, injustice, euphoria, hilarity, pain, disappointment. All of it.
The credits rolled. I sat down in my chair, mildly embarrassed with myself. We watched Game of Thrones, trying to forget the madness we were all privy to. We ate some snacks, we talked we laughed. It was a pretty good episode. How about that Jon Snow guy, huh? Do you remember when he did that thing?
Yeah, that was great.