Versus series rematch: Dark Souls DLCs

I actually had another versus match planned between Fallout 3, Fallout: New Vegas, and Fallout 4, but I was still debating who gets the win on that trio. At the same time, I’ve been continuing to play through the DLCs of the Dark Souls games when it struck me that for as much as I love the vanilla games, I mostly just suffer through the DLC to get the extra loot.

I think it comes down to the design philosophy that goes into balancing the main game versus the ones used for end game content. The directors want to keep your character on the back foot in the DLC, so everything, even little minions do massive damage. You’re feeling confident coming off a well earned win against The Nameless King and his giant thunder turkey and yet, the moment you step into The Dreg Heap, pathetic crawling imps rise out of the ash and with a weak ass swing lob off half your health. The very first boss is a pair of demons, and when they both fall, one rises for a second phase fight. Doesn’t matter which one you kill, they both have massive super attacks in their second phase. Where you were dishing out 500 points of damage per swing of your OP weapon of choice, suddenly it’s only doing 100, and that Demon Prince is damn near one-shotting your character with every attack.

I think in most cases, the developers wanted you to do the DLCs co-op. The number of minions and the sheer density of them suggest that they didn’t want players to go it alone. For instance, in Ashes of Ariandel, there’s a forest with over forty soldiers as well as some dire wolves and a few giant warriors just to sprinkle a little extra pain into the mix. Frequently, once one enemy is alerted, it starts a train of new arrivals, and as a single player experience, it’s frustrating to have killed twenty enemies in a single area, only to turn around to see three more running up to join the fight.

This is to say nothing of the bosses, all of whom demand an almost Ultra Instinct level of fight awareness. Yeah, they can be soloed with enough practice, patience, and a stubbornness to never give up, even though this motherfucker has already dusted your carefully crafted character fifty times before. We’re talking about Kalameet, Manus, Artorias, and that hellacious Sanctuary Guardian. I called the bosses of the vanilla Dark Souls easy compared to Dark Souls III bosses, but then I got into the DLC and my confidence dried up faster than a drop of water on a hot skillet.

Do you remember how I said I played the series in reverse order? The second game and its DLC brought more even pain with a trio of crowns to be collected before fighting the true final boss, the Scholar of the First Sin. This takes place after suffering through Elana the Squalid Queen, Sihn the Slumbering Dragon,  and the triple threat of Afflicted Graverobber, Ancient Soldier Varg, and Cerah the Old Explorer. That’s just one of the DLC packages, and in the next chapter, you also have to fight a second, stronger version of Smelter Demon, Sir Alonne, and Fume Knight (which can be even harder if you didn’t collect all of the smelter wedges to banish the four ash idols outside of his arena, because then they will heal him during the fight…yeah, it’s a real bitch to win if you leave even one idol, and damn near impossible if you leave all of them up and running.)

For the last DLC (relatively speaking, since you can take these in any order), you fight a tiger who can be invisible if you failed to get the right item. But let’s say you did, and you can see Aava, the King’s Pet. Doesn’t matter because this beast is still going to kill you a lot. Then you have to wander through a blizzard with these weird demon deer/elk-like beasties coming out of nowhere to fire magic missiles or just trample you to death. Get past that and the game goes “Man, wasn’t that tiger fight fun? Why don’t you try that again, but with TWO TIGERS.” (Yay?) Then you rescue some imprisoned Ivory Knights and get to the fight against The Ivory King. Oh-ho-ho, but before you actually fight him, you must slay wave after wave of corrupted knights, waiting for the freed Ivory Knights to seal the portals spewing an endless army of pain. Then, and only then does the king himself arrive, and partway through the fight he goes, “Surprise! Twenty foot magic sword!”

You do all this, and then you have to go through a gauntlet of bosses. This part was apparently so cruel that FromSoftware, Kings of Sadistic Gameplay, decided that once you defeated one wave of the gauntlet, you didn’t have to do it again. So first, there’s a pair of jokers called Throne Watcher and Throne Defender. You have to defeat them both quickly, or else the one you didn’t put down will revive their ally and heal them up a bit. They both hit like jackhammers, and they LOVE pulling trains of pain on your ass. Survive that, and it’s on to Nashandra, a corrupted queen who summons orbs that will curse your character over and over. Every time you get hit by another curse, you lose another massive chunk of health. So you survive all of this, and it’s time to face the eponymous Scholar of the First Sin, who loves two things: setting you on fire, and violating you with giant tentacles. (How very anime!)

Yes siree Bob, this triple gauntlet of DLC followed by ANOTHER triple gauntlet of bosses is one of the main reasons why I play the second game far less frequently than I do the original and third outings.

Oh, but when I played Dark Souls III the first time, there was no DLC. So I thought The Nameless King was The Literal Worst Boss Ever. No, those honors are a quadruple-tied knot of agony spread across two DLCs. In Ashes of Ariandel, you’ve got Sister Friede tag teaming you with her adopted father, a corrupted king who will try to beat you to death with a stone bowl the size of a small car. After you beat them both, Sister Friede jumps back up for a second round of Fun with Frostbite. So you suffered two phases of agony and put her down again. Well, guess what? THIRD PHASE, BITCH, and this time, Sister Friede is powered up with super anime black flame effects. And yeah, it looks cool. You might even go “Ooh, pretty!” right before she cuts you down with a flaming scythe. It took me forever to solo this chick, and even on lucky days when I could find folks to summon for help, Sister Friede could easily put all three of us down before ever getting to the third phase. She’s legit a beast of a boss.

Let’s say you wanted to get into the new arena combat for some meaty PVP. To do that, you have to defeat the Champion Gravetender and the Gravetender Greatwolf. First, the Champion has a set of normal sized dire wolves who, like real wolves, will try to flank you and attack from angles you can’t see them coming from. The Champion himself has a sword and shield, and they hit HARD. If you fail to put him down quickly, you’ll be fighting him and a gigantic white wolf who has a special attack where he leaps at you and creates a vortex of snow. Get hit by him or the vortex and your health plummets. Two dashes chained together can kill you even if you stat dumped in Vigor. And this asshole often spams that attack eight, nine, or ten times. There’s a way to cheat and break this boss fight, and it takes almost half an hour to do all the convoluted steps to make it happen. I legit would rather do all that bullshit than have to get blizzard-fucked to death a hundred times.

Over in The Ringed City, you can decide to retake on Dragonslayer Armor as an optional mini-boss and maybe feel good about yourself until you first meet Dark Eater Midir, a dragon who antagonizes you on not one, but two bridges, even before you fight him as a boss. The first time you meet him, he’s doing flybys, using his flame breath to keep you from getting to the next bonfire. You have to sprint to a cave, where FromSoftware set up a troll up to push you back out of the cave and into toasty, crispy death. Dodge the troll and get inside, and then you have to make another sprint to drop off a ledge and to a supposed safe spot. Oh, but there’s another troll ready to jump on you and stab you in the face. When you make it past all this bullshit, Patches, AKA: Troll Number One, will show up to kick you off a ledge. There’s an NPC invader with a giant hammer, a dozen well armed skeletons, and finally, the bonfire. So you light it and step outside, and there’s Midir lounging on the side of a bridge, ready to roast you again. Worse, this time he can do a Godzilla style breath attack that starts off as fire and ends as a super heated plasma beam.

Past this point, you finally get the chance to plunge into his lair and fight him for real. So, one, his flame breath is actually also poisonous. Two, his claw swipes require perfect timing to dodge. You get cute and try to get under him to hit his back legs, and he’ll just rear up and blow flame on you. Oh, also, he can fly, so half of the fight will be you running back and forth without landing a single blow and screaming “WILL YOU JUST HOLD STILL FOR ONE FUCKING SECOND!” This guy took me over a hundred tries to beat, and later, even my personal best runs were around ten to fifteen attempts. Finding anyone to summon on this guy is damned hard, and that’s no shock because few people want to dance with Midir unless they have to to get his nifty katana boss weapon.

Last but not least, there’s Slave Knight Gael, whom I hate, and it’s not just because of the boss fight. When you get to The Cleansing Chapel about midway through the vanilla game, Gael is huddled over making a raspy gasping prayer for someone to enter his painted world and get fucked by Friede’s scythe a hundred times. If he did it just once, it would be fine. But every time you fast travel back to the chapel bonfire, Gael winds back up with “Oh merciful goddess…” and he does the whole fucking prayer again and ends with the same creepy gasp that sounds like he’s cumming himself. Every. Single. Fucking. Time. FromSoftware, I didn’t need every trip to a busy hub to filled with “You know we’ve got DLC? Uhn uh uh uuhhhhh!!”

But let’s set that aside. Take deep breaths, and proceed to the ultimate troll. Slave Knight Gael makes it to the home of “The Furtive pygmies, so easily forgotten.” Yes, at the end of the world, FromSoftware looped back around to that old chestnut, and Gael eats them. All of them. What a swell guy, right?

Now, in theory, this should be one of the most forgiving boss fights in the franchise because the arena for the fight is huge, and there’s none of the usual clutter of obstacles to trip you up. All you have to do is dodge, get in a good swing, and don’t be greedy looking for chained attacks. You get him down to half his health and think, Wow, this is actually kind of easy. I might even— That’s when the cut scene triggers, where Gael sucks himself off and becomes bigger, stronger, and faster. He throws out spinning discs that you can mostly dodge, but you can also be hit by when they fly back boomerang style. He grows a cape made of death, and every spin attack he does makes the cape flare out. If it so much as touches your toe, it does massive damage. He can shoot out a flood of little red skulls that are like homing missiles. Individually, they’re not so bad, but if more than one hits you, it might trigger a stun lock, granting the rest of the skull barrage time to arrive and send you back to the start of the fight all over again. Each time after that, you’ll know the easy first half is a troll, and it will just make you madder to have to do it again.

I could mention Halflight, Spear of the Church, but they don’t really count as a boss fight. The idea is certainly novel enough. Players who join the covenant of Filianore can be summoned into the arena to become the boss. To this end, their equipment and spells are augmented by some special bossy attacks. When the DLC came out, this shit could be downright devious because a lot of those master “Soul Level 1” runners were jumping in to stomp people like me of more mediocre levels.

Just getting to Gael’s fight could be a real struggle…unless you just went to offline mode. The NPC version of Halflight is decidedly less troubling. I’m not saying he’s a cake walk, but every time I’ve fought him, I’ve only needed three or four attempts to get back into the muscle memory groove needed to beat him and his minions. (More NPCs get summoned, and these can heal Halflight, making their death mandatory. It sounds vexing, but is still manageable.) After the first few months, trying to Be The Boss meant standing around for as long as half an hour with nothing to do until you get the call. So even playing online, nine times out of ten, you’re getting the NPC boss, and they’re just not that big a deal compared to the other bosses in the Dark Souls III DLCs.

Okay, so first, I apologize both for how long winded this got, and for the added F-bombs. But I really wanted to convey why the DLCs are frequently not part of my runs in either of my favorite editions, and I wanted to make it clear that because the DLC of Dark Souls II is damned near mandatory to get the “Good Ending,” it really weighs heavily on my mind whenever I ask myself “Should I try it again?”

With that out of the way, it’s time to crown a winner in the contest, and this time, you might be surprised because I’m giving it to Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin. Let me go back to Fume Knight to explain. I fought him maybe twenty times before deciding I needed to get back to the old crones at the start of the game and rework my character’s stats. Another twenty attempts in, and I was back at the old crone’s shack, thinking “Okay, this time for sure.” Ten attempts later, I finally landed the killing blow, and I set the controller down, walked to the kitchen to pour a drink, and then took it to the living room to toast that evil bastard.

Dark Souls fans frequently love to gush about the euphoria of finally beating that one ultra-hard boss, though for each fan, that one boss might be different. I’m not really that kind of gamer. Most of this time, that final victory doesn’t lead to joy, only relief that the slog is finally over. But most of the DLC bosses in Dark Souls II did lead to that joyful celebration when I finally put down one hard boss after another. The flood of happiness I got for dodging the Ivory King’s giant magic sword one last time to cut him down from his flank brought a genuine cry of “”Woo-hoo!” out of me. I needed ten minutes after that to get out all the laughter and other celebratory cries before I could move on.

I’m not saying that didn’t happen with Midir when I finally brought him down, but he’s just one boss in a DLC with two others, one of whom was a relief to be done with, and another who was just disappointing. Similarly, Sister Friede brings me no joy to defeat, just a sensation of untensing all my muscles because now I can stop being angry. The same goes for the DLC bosses of the original Dark Souls. So even though I rarely play them, even though the idea of slogging through the longest chunk of extra content makes me feel tired, I have to admit that those were the bosses that finally brought me the joy that so many other FromSoftware fans feel. I think that sense of connection makes those fights all the more special for me.

So, there you have it; the dark horse of Dark Souls charges out for a surprise first place DLC finish. See you next time for another (wink wink) upset victory.