Sunday, 26 February 2017

Dark Souls 2: A Trip Report/Boss Fight Critique (Part 1)

(Hey, kids! Here's the reason why I haven't been writing things for the past two weeks! Now it's over and all I need to do is write about it while it's fresh and I'll be free! Free to fire off even more special words, both promised and not! This one's about Dark Souls 2 and it'll be in two parts. As always, there will be spoilers for Dark Souls 2 in this here writeup so if you care about that, be wary. Onward we go!)

"That which is called ego-death is coming to you. Remember: this is now the hour of death and rebirth; take advantage of this temporary death to obtain the perfect state - Enlightenment."

-Timothy Leary, The Psychedelic Experience

One of the opening cutscenes all but states outright "YOU'LL
As the Bells Of Awakening chime, the hour of death and rebirth has come to our little wordspace. Yes, it's time to tackle Dark Souls for an extended period of time. I briefly touched on it in this piece about roguelikes and "reincarnation simulators", but time has grown and so have I. Our main focus will be the game in the Souls series that I just cleared, Dark Souls 2, but I want to give context and meaning to where I'm coming from. So, a brief intro to talk about how I feel on the original Dark Souls. This was a game I got on the suggestion of friends with Christmas money, and I plunged into sheer hell for the next little while. I'm no stranger to difficult games, but this was no hour-long masocore jumper from the pixel days. This was a full-on big console game on my Xbox 360 and it destroyed me, repeatedly, at every turn. I, a humble dextrous character with a katana, was forced to dodge and roll away from dozens and dozens of deadly attacks from dread beasts who towered over me. Still, I made progress. The nature of Dark Souls is such that death is a mere hassle. Even through the worst areas, I made progress. Even when faced with the infamous brick wall duo of Ornstein and Smough, who fight you in a two-on-one battle to the death, I made progress. Eventually I made it to the final boss, not even knowing this was the end. I overcame that foe with a cheeky trick, and was amazed when the credits rolled. I beat this game. Oh, thank God, I beat this game. I never wanted to see it again. 3 days later, I purchased Dark Souls 2 for the 360. I didn't intend to touch it right away, however. The entire ordeal of Dark Souls had left me drained. I had survived the hour of death and rebirth, but I felt more like a boxer who'd narrowly won a fight than an Enlightened One. This would change, of course. I would regain my strength and I would go back. I went back to Dark Souls half a dozen times, and with the familiarity I found myself adoring it. I did it with swords, with spears. With magic and miracles. I did the DLC and its ultra-tough bosses and I loved them. The original game may be one of my favorites of all time now; it's just that good at what it does. I didn't think so at first, but I do now. So then I tried that copy of Dark Souls 2 I had. I... wasn't feeling it. That was when I learned about a whole new version called Scholar Of The First Sin that rebalanced stuff and changed it around. I found a copy of that for my "new" PS3 I'd obtained, and this is what I played for most of the month of February. Pity, then, that the PS3 version isn't actually Scholar Of The First Sin. It's just the base game with all the DLC stuff included on the disc. I was hoodwinked there, but it's okay.

I won't lie and say that Dark Souls 2 wasn't draining, because at times it absolutely was. I will, however, reserve total judgement on it because I might go back to it in years to come and really fall in love with it. There are some... telling signs about its design that I can criticize, however. I watched a critique video by Matthewmatosis not an hour after I beat the thing, and I agree with quite a lot of it. One thing he says stuck with me, regarding the boss fights: "It feels like the designers were asking themselves "How can we make this fight difficult?" rather than "How can we make this fight interesting?"." I find the boss fights in the two Souls games I've played to be some of the most interesting parts, for sure. The regular areas have lots of minor enemies with their own attack patterns and placements, but the boss fights really put your skill to the test. So, that's what this writeup is for. I'll go through every boss fight that I took on, and give my thoughts on it. What I liked, what I didn't like, what I felt was utter genius and what I felt was utter bullshit. I hope that by doing so, I can air all my praises and grievances with the game in a unique matter other than just plain "reviewing" it. I did skip a handful of optional fights, but from what I can look up on them I wouldn't have liked them anyway. I should also note that my build in this game was a rather standard Strength build with a Greatsword and a Greatshield; I could do lots of damage on a swing, but there was some windup. I could also block some attacks with my shield, but they would eat at my stamina or do some damage through it. I'll be linking to videos of the bosses that I'll dig up online, just so you have some visualization of what some of this bullshit looks like. Just click on the boss name and you should go to the right one, if all my links are good. With that in mind, let's dive right on in.


Unlike the first game, Dark Souls 2 takes its time before hurling a boss at you. You have to run around a few areas before you meet up with this big boy, and he's... well, a big boy. He hits hard, but being a big boy in Dark Souls means that he has huge windup and lots of recovery time. Dodge, punish, pull back, repeat. His stamping foot move can get you and it did get me once, but I didn't find it that difficult of a fight. Still, we're only in the early game, and things will get harder. Things did, in fact, get harder for me with the next boss.


Well, holy shit. For me, things got hard in a hurry when this nice friend showed up. The Pursuer actually crops up a bunch of times as a miniboss, but here he's got full on boss status with a healthbar and an arena and everything, so he counts. I didn't know it at the time, but The Pursuer would end up setting a bar for a lot of the bosses in this game. He's a big guy with a sword, and Dark Souls 2 is just packed with "big guy am sword" bosses. At the time, of course, I wouldn't hold it against him. This is a fight where my shield wasn't really helping because he had lots of attacks to drain my stamina, and a shield bash to drain all of it. I had to learn his attacks pretty well in order to succeed, and once I got that down it was a fun and tense battle. I only got to fight him once more, but by then I had my greatsword and had learned quite a bit.


Another big dude, this one's got a big spear and a shield. Blocking seemed to help quite a lot with this fight, as he was enough of a beefy fellow to not eat all my stamina with quick and powerful combos. Another case of "block, get hits in, pull back and put shield up". The designers definitely liked this guy for reasons we'll get into later, but as I recall this was the first boss I beat on my very first try. Also the area he's in is a cool lighthouse-themed thing. Lots of seaside vistas in the early game of Dark Souls 2, and I like that. Dragonrider isn't the only boss around here, though, but he's the only mandatory one. On a side path, you can run into...


Sweet shit. For anyone totally new to the Souls games playing this, Old Dragonslayer will be a regular sized dude with a spear. As I've stated, I'm not totally new to the Souls games; I beat the original Dark Souls. With that in mind, I walked into a fog door and was promptly encountered by a grey recolor of Dragon Slayer Ornstein from the original Dark Souls, aka one half of the dynamic duo which took me five hours to clear on my first playthrough. My internal screeching coupled with the existential fear of this asshole led me to die quickly. Old Dragonslayer is pure DS1 fanservice, and totally optional unless you want to join one of the in-game covenants. He's a little different! I mean, for one, he doesn't have his buddy Smough helping him out. For another, he's using dark magic instead of lightning. Other than that, he's about the same. A little tricky for me in this build, but only by a small margin. Thankfully only two (well, two and a half I guess) boss fights in the game actively crib concepts from DS1. All of them are optional and this is the only one I stumbled into.


Now this guy is cool. You've got a big monster thing with two swords, but it's also got another monster on its back that's wielding two spiked clubs. There's no real way to flank it, so you just have to pick a side and deal with it. I dealt with the clubs side, mostly, and had a pretty decent time with it. Like The Pursuer, this guy ends up getting miniboss status a few times. It created an Old Dragonslayer moment again when I was wandering through a later area and saw Flexile Sentry rushing at me with his swords. I dunno, I really like the design on him. It's just got that extra touch of creativity for a new monster in this dark fantasy world, and the fight itself is solid enough. I hear that water rushes in to limit your movement if you take too long, but I didn't encounter it so it didn't ruin my time.


It begins. Remember those existential fear moments? Well, we have another one here. Dark Souls, the original, kept itself focused on one-on-one boss fights until you got past the midpoint and hit Ornstein and Smough. The shock of seeing two assholes coming at you at once was really something; a total game-changer. Anyway, in the Lost Bastille you walk through a fog door and see THREE FUCKING LIFE BARS. Good god. What saves this fight is being smart. You land on a little platform with one of the Sentinels, and you can deal with them up there. They've got halberds or something, but  my shield and big sword did well for me here. After you beat one, the other two come after you and it's here that you can safely drop down to the large arena below. If you go down before killing that first one, all three would come after you. No bueno. Fighting two at once is interesting and tense, and they're thankfully not quite as aggressive as Ornstein and Smough when it comes to heatseeking your butt with their attacks. They have some scary jumping attacks, but it wasn't too tough for me to focus on getting rid of them one at a time. What's concerning, though, is that Dark Souls 2 has seen fit to throw an escalation of the Ornstein and Smough fight in as the sixth boss fight I faced. Things are only going to get scarier from here.


This nice lady is one of the keepers of the Great Souls. There's four Great Souls bosses in the first half of the game, and you need to beat them all in order to unlock this shrine and continue onwards. Anyway, The Lost Sinner is... a big lady with a sword. We're in Pursuer territory again. In hindsight as I write this, it's a little disappointing that "big boss with sword" was the default for a good third of the game's bosses. In the moment, The Lost Sinner fight was pretty good. I don't have much more to remark on with this fight, other than that. Sometimes that's a good thing, because it means I have no long-standing gripes with the fight's inclusion or design or pacing or whatever. On the other hand, it's only memorable in a "oh yeah, I fought her and got a Great Soul" sense. At least, for me.


Oh, God. This boss, like Old Dragonslayer, is optional save for a covenant. Unlike Old Dragonslayer, I didn't like it all that much. I guess you could call the first phase of this fight a "puzzle" boss. You have to run down a hallway and pull a lever to stop this ghostly chariot in order to make it vulnerable, all while periodically ducking behind cover as the ghost chariot rushes the hallway with these Ben-Hur wheel spikes smashing everything in sight. That's not so bad, but the extra wrinkle comes with the random skeletons that come after you as you do this. They come back to life because of a pair of necromancers hiding in alcoves along the path. A perfect run of this involves rushing to cover, dealing with the necromancers, and not getting fucked by the five skeletons relentlessly chasing your ass. I'll grant that it's a better puzzle boss than Bed of Chaos from the original Dark Souls, but the first phase of this just brought endless frustration as I got trapped in the alcoves by skeletons and stabbed to death in seconds. Once you pull the lever, you have to fight the ghostly horse. It's not so bad, having just a few charge moves where it rears back. I won on my first try once I actually made it to the lever. This is the first boss fight I actively disliked, and it won't be the last. Speaking of...


Three bosses after the Ruin Sentinels, and we get this. Three Skeleton Lords at once. They all share the same health bar this time, but there's an extra trick to this fight. Killing a Skeleton Lord will spawn a couple of skeleton enemies, and each one spawns a different type. I killed all three of them in quick succession, and my reward was an absolute hell horde of skeletons coming at me. Including Bonewheels! Bonewheels that, if they hit you, will keep hitting you to drain all of your health or stamina! I should mention the difficulty of the normal encounters at this point; Dark Souls is a series built primarily for 1v1 combat. The design team of Dark Souls 2 wanted to make shit harder, and one of their many go-tos for this was just throwing more shit at you at once to overwhelm you. I'll go into their go-tos a little later, but for now this boss fight that ends with mobbing you with a shitload of skeletons is indicative of that. The difficulty comes from not getting skewered by asynchronous attacks in a hot second, and despite all that I still beat this first try. That won't be the case for later...


This fight comes out of nowhere and it's somewhat interesting, if not a similar case to Old Dragonslayer of "here's a twist on a boss from the first Dark Souls". Dark Souls had a boss called Quelaag who had the upper half of a woman and the bottom half of a spider, and attacked you with fire whips and the spider half vomiting up lava. Scorpionness Najka is a lot like Quelaag in that she's part woman, part monster... but she's a scorpion. With a spear. And sorceries instead of the whole pyromancer angle. The sorcery thing I'll touch on later, as I have a lot to say. What I will say is that prior to playing Dark Souls 2, I did another run of the original Dark Souls as a sorceress myself. Seeing the same spells I used on my previous run, in a gigantic state as conjured by a scorpion queen, really spooked me. Other than that, this is a cool fight and it wasn't the hardest in the world.


Okay, I know I'm playing the "Original Dark Souls" reference card a lot here, but it's important context for how I interpret these fights since it's the only game in the series I played prior to this. Right, so in the original Dark Souls there's an infamous boss called the Capra Demon. He's a big goat demon with twin machetes and you fight him in a small area. What poisons this fight is the two fast dog enemies included with him. They turn the fight into a crapshoot; you either kill the dogs quickly and have a fair fight with Capra one-on-one, or the dogs keep you in place by blocking your movement/biting you, and Capra's heavy swings finish you off. I'm convinced that in designing Royal Rat Authority (again, an optional boss whose defeat unlocks a covenant to join) that the designers looked at the Capra Demon fight and asked themselves "how can we make a fight like this, but harder?". The answer they came up with is devious. Four small rats instead of two dogs. I grant this fight the good will of being right next to a bonfire and being a large arena, but that good will evaporates once you realize that this fight is even more of a crapshoot than Capra Demon. The four rats all come at you in unison, because again the design go-to is stacking the deck against you with a quantity of small things to overwhelm you asynchronously. You have about ten seconds to deal with the four little rats before the actual boss, a big rat, chomps on your face. Also the little rats can inflict poison, and good luck healing from that while killing little rats AND avoiding the big rat. You either kill the little rats in time to lock on to the big rat and avoid it, or you die. Simple as that. Did I mention that dying in this game lowers your maximum HP every time? To a maximum of 50% HP loss without a special ring? The rat itself isn't too bad, but it's just a big thing that charges at you and swipes. Nothing special. The most memorable thing about it is how bullshit the first 10 seconds are. How sad is that?


This is a really easy fight if you know what you're doing, mostly. I didn't on my first try but I did on my second. It's also got the same sort of obnoxious qualities as fights like Skeleton Lords or Royal Rat Authority. You have the three "big" enemies, the Prowling Magi, who huck magic spells at you. Not hard on its own, BUT WAIT THERE'S MORE! How about a congregation of zombies to, you guessed it, swarm you and possibly attack asynchronously for the win? I know I say that a lot, but that accounts for a lot of my deaths in this game. I go for an attack, don't kill one guy, and then I get punished by multiple enemies attacking out of sync and destroying me while I'm staggered from the multiple successive hits. It doesn't feel good, and there are many fights where I'll complain about that feel. This one isn't quite one of those as I beat it in two gos, but it has the potential to be and is another example of the "just throw MORE SHIT at the player" approach the designers had in mind as a go-to to increase the difficulty.


Before we start, I need to banter about the area before this boss; a big sand pit with a vortex at the bottom, and a series of ledges all around it. On these ledges are sorcerers who shoot honest to god homing magic at you that will track you every which way and is all but guaranteed to hit you. It was annoying and it took me quite a few tries to get to the boss, and what do I find? A giant spider. Guess what, though? Our good friends on the design team must have mulled over all of their options for making this big spider tougher. Hmm, it has lots of attacks... it's not very fast so it can't overwhelm you... I wonder what we can do? I KNOW! HOW ABOUT A SWARM OF LITTLE SPIDERS! Of course! More enemies is automatically harder! I keep harping on this, but the boss writeups make it abundent. The past three or four bosses in a row, basically, have relied on this "MORE MOBS" approach to amp an ordinary fight up. I hate to say it, but it feels like a real crutch they rely on instead of making the fights themselves really memorable or tricky. There will be memorable fights to come, yes, but right now they're playing this card all the goddamned time and it's so blatant as to be clear as day. Freja herself has a big laser attack that's scary, but only a few close range attacks that are easy enough to block or dodge. Also, two faces for some reason. Also, she's a Great Soul boss and there's a big miniboss at her ending bonfire. Weird.


Thank god, a bit of a reprieve from "HEY LOOK A MOB!". With it, we have a reprieve from difficulty as well. I beat this Jabba The Hutt-looking motherfucker on my first try with very little effort on my part. He's a bit more mobile than he looks, with a jumping attack. That was the only thing that threatened me and my great big sword chopping into him. An easy boss every now and then is good. We once again run into the problem of him being simple and bullshit-free, though, which leaves little else to say about him. It's not a bad fight, though, and we need that every once in a while when these devs try and make shit hard. Case in point, the next fight.


Christ. This fight is either hard as all hell with the deck stacked against you (my first time trying it), or relatively simple with little difficulty (my second time trying it). There was no in-between, no sweet spot. Mytha was either utter bullshit or downright trivial with my build. What makes her hard is the fact that you encounter her in an area filled with gross poison swamp water. The stuff will quickly poison you, draining your health... but Mytha actually heals in the poison water. You're fighting a boss that's constantly regenerating health while you're constantly losing it. That would be utter abject bullshit deck-stacking, but there's a way to get rid of the poison! You set a random windmill near the bonfire on fire with a torch. There's no way to know this without looking it up or seeing a hint message by the windmill. There's no spatial awareness I could see that would help you connect this windmill with making poison swamp in the boss arena above. There's still a little ring of poison swamp left when you drain it, but you have actual stable ground to fight. Even though she's another boss with a spear who can use sorcery, I like one touch about her. She's a headless Medusa holding her head in her free hand. Sorceries in Dark Souls need a cataylst to use, like a small staff to channel the magic through. Mytha actually uses her own goddamned severed head as her sorcery catalyst, and that's a really cool design decision. I just wish there was a middle ground with this boss.


Ohhh fuck. Shit got real. The Smelter Demon is tough, and the run back to him is a bit time-consuming. He's the right kind of tough for me, though; you need good pattern recognition to study his tells, and patience and good timing to dodge and counterattack. Yes, I said dodge. This is the first fight where my shield approach only helped at the start. Smelter Demon is a big demon with a big sword, and at the beginning of the fight you can indeed block his strikes and get your counter attack in. As he loses health, he gets tougher. First, the flames on his midsection flare up; this makes getting close to him drain your health by a small amount. The real pain comes when he shoves his sword into his midsection and lights it on fire; when he did that, I was unable to block him without the fire piercing my defenses and still doing damage. As such, I had to learn how to dodge his attacks. It was difficult, but I found it a good kind of difficult. No enemy mobs, no random sorcery attacks; just me and a big boss that I had to learn. It was punishing when I messed up, but the chance for recovery was there. Healing in Dark Souls 2 takes longer than in the first game, and your health bar has to climb up. It does feel, though, like bosses specifically go aggro on you if you press that healing button. Smelter Demon certainly did, and he took a while to take down but I really liked him.


The third Great Soul boss, Old Iron King... ain't that great. He's a big old demon hanging out in lava and he swipes his big meaty arms at you and slams his fists. The issue comes from the terrain you have to work with; there's not a lot of vertical space, so it can be tough to avoid him. He's not the worst boss, but there's just one little teensy issue I had. Along the wall behind you, there's this one little open pit of lava. Somehow, whiffing a dodge caused me to get knocked into that lava pit a few times. Instant death. I didn't like that, but once I changed up my positioning the issue went away and I was able to win. I have just enough ill will with the design decisions made in previous boss fights that I question the placement of that lava pit. God help me, but it feels like that old AVGN chestnut of "some game designer who's laughing his ass off put this bullshit here". My own salt at work, I suppose.

With that, we're at about the halfway point for bosses that I fought! This seems like a good enough place to call it, and we'll make this post a two-parter. Do come over to the second half to meet some of the best boss fights, some of the absolute worst, and the thrilling and chilling final boss gauntlet!  Until then, praise the sun or some bullshit, I dunno.

No comments:

Post a Comment