Dark Souls 3 brings it all on home. While Hidetaka Miyazaki will likely continue making games in the ‘Soulsborne’ vein, it feels like Dark Souls 3 is the trilogy taking its right and proper bows; there’s an elegiac tone to the proceedings, as the fires we’ve blazed through this dark world have faded to embers, and certain elements of the lore come full circle: Farron Keep shows us what has become of the Abyss-accursed Oolacile and Darkroot from the first Dark Souls, while we revisit a very familiar city that time has really let go to pot, and even fight a major boss in the very same room where we once confronted one of the series’ most infamous duo-bosses. It feels as much like some important setpieces taking a proper encore as it feels like a way to enrich the lore through continuity.
But primarily, I want to talk about the final boss, the Soul of Cinder, because this is a boss that, in addition to being a fascinating being in terms of lore, is also a nigh-perfect demonstration of how to conduct an appropriate final boss battle to a multi-part series.
Phase One: I Against I
At the heart of the Kiln of the First Flame, where time-space has distorted to such an apocalyptic extent that the landscape itself has gone from merely ‘converging’ to becoming a jagged miasma of wrack and ruin, the Soul of Cinder waits. He is brimming with countless entities, an amalgamation of all those in past cycles who have sacrificed themselves to link the flame. In the first phase, he fights using most combative playstyles a gamer can adopt in these games, from a straight-up melee fighter to a pyromancer to a spellcaster to a hybrid build.
I lauded the final boss of Bloodborne (or semi-final, depending on if you got the Childhood’s Beginnings ending or not) as a terrific ‘final exam’ on all the skills and strategies you were meant to learn over the course of the game. In that vein, the Soul of Cinder tests your skill against every kind of humanoid enemy you’ve fought in these games, all the PvP you’ve sunk your humanity/effigies/embers into, and your thorough knowledge of the series mechanics. Once you best the Soul of Cinder, you can consider yourself a graduate of most that Dark Souls has to teach you.
But we’re picking up what they’re putting down: in the first phase, you are more-or-less fighting a We Are Legion equivalent of when Pokemon players fought Red in Pokemon Gold/Silver. We are fighting, in essence, the Chosen Undead and the Accursed Undead that we journeyed with through Lordran and Drangleic, their essence summoned and amalgamated among all the others who have linked the flame in their own time-zones. We are fighting Solaire who supposedly went on to link the flame in his own cycle should he survive the events of Dark Souls; we are fighting those dudes who summoned us in jolly co-operation against that really tough boss and went on to link the flame in their own world. In the end, having reached this point, we – as a collective of players – are the most dangerous enemy we could face at the Kiln of the First Flame, here at the end of everything but the dying embers.
Of course, though, who else could it have been? We, as a collective of players, have conquered Manus, the Father of the dreaded Abyss itself. We’ve slain Queen Nashandra and her husband and brought an end to many Lords of Cinder. We’ve used a variety of builds to do so, and come at it from so many different angles, and now it’s all crashing back down upon us, distilled into the trilogy’s final encounter.
Of course, while that adds a certain level of meta to the fight, it doesn’t overwhelm it. It does, however, have a richer context when you consider how the series’ multiplayer aspect has been pretty much integrated into the lore from the get-go by the overlapping timelines that allow for cooperation throughout Lordran, Drangleic and Lothric.
Phase 2: Gwyn Reborn
But the second phase is interesting, because it funnels all those different fighting styles into a singular moveset that will ring familiar to all Dark Souls 1 players as soon as they hear the recognizable piano motif weaving its way through the score: Gwyn’s moveset. It can be inferred that as the Soul is an amalgamation made up of all those who have ever linked the flame, that in the second phase, the Soul straight-up channels Gwyn, the first Lord of Cinder.
The Gwyn element is interesting, both in how it’s another example of Dark Souls 3 coming full-circle, and because From Software were notoriously unsatisfied with how the Gwyn fight in Dark Souls turned out: they wanted a final boss that proved a worthy test of all you had learned to that point, and unfortunately they ended up with a boss that is made trivial by anyone who knows how to parry with an even half-decent success ratio. Well, now that moveset is back, and the Soul of Cinder can’t be parried. The Gwyn conundrum is testament to how, even in a game as well-designed as Dark Souls, the simplest things can seep under the radar when it comes to a task as mind-bogglingly complex as making a big video game. But finally, Miyazaki got his wish of a final boss that provides an intense, dynamic challenge that tests all you’ve learned in the game to this point. (I’d argue Gehrman does the same, but now we get it in a Souls game proper.)
The Epitome of Dark Souls
And, really, none of these observations on the Soul of Cinder are particularly a game-changing secret to the fanbase, but I think the boss epitomizes what the Dark Souls play experience is about at its core: challenge that is legitimate because it can be overcome via strategy, observation and lateral thinking, rather than the rote memorization and blind luck that many games confuse for challenge. For a while now, I’ve been of the opinion that FromSoft has been a big player in bringing back great bosses to the forefront, whereas a lot of modern games only have a few bosses to their name.
It’s appropriate, too, because From Software’s games proudly hoist the banner of bombastic bosses that give the player that inimitable “Holy s***!” feeling when they first appear, and fill that same player with an ecstatic sense of accomplishment when they finally triumph. Sure, not all are certified gold (most of us wouldn’t have ever assumed that Prowling Magus & Congregation in Dark Souls II were even a boss if the big health bars hadn’t shown up at the bottom of the screen), but the positives outweigh the negatives by a vast margin. Speaking as someone who grew up with these kinds of larger-than-life bosses as a core part of his video game experience, who vividly remembers marching Samus Aran into the boss chamber only to be confronted with a Godzilla-sized Kraid, I think there’ll always be room for these kinds of encounters in our games, provided they keep themselves fresh and intense rather than formulaic affairs. Long live the epic boss battle.
A great Souls boss tends to fulfill both form and function, after all. Father Gascoigne in Bloodborne is very much a pop-quiz on all the techniques that the player should have been hammering out in the first act of the game, in terms of how to effectively dodge, watch the enemy’s tells, adapt to Bloodborne’s more aggressive playstyle, capitalize on the foe’s missed attacks and parry when needed. Iudex Gundyr in Dark Souls 3 is an ideal way to introduce new players to how things are going to go in terms of bosses that pack surprises midway through the fight, without being overly punitive given it’s the tutorial area. The Asylum Demon that sees us into Dark Souls 1 is From’s way of saying, “What we’ve cooked up is going to intimidate you…but there’s always a way to triumph.” Challenge is not hopelessness. Even if a significant chunk of Dark Souls’ lore deals with the idea of the fire-linking cycle as, perhaps, a placebo of hope against the ever-encroaching Dark, there will always be a way for you, the player, to triumph with skill and ingenuity.
So it makes me very happy to be able to say that the Soul of Cinder concludes the Dark Souls trilogy in as fine a form as I could have hoped for, because if you beat him, it means you’ve mastered whichever play style you’ve chosen to build your character around. The term ‘final exam boss’ might conjure up images of boring Scantron sheets, but really, it just means that the challenge ahead of you will force you to demonstrate you’ve picked up the skills the game has endeavored to teach you. And when it comes to the complexities of game design, that’s better than a boss that suddenly disregards all you’ve learned leading up to it.
And, of course, we have two DLC packs awaiting us in the months to come. Judging by the previous titles, From Software’s DLCs are more like proper expansion packs; we just call them DLCs, a term that has much more negative connotations to some, because that’s what the industry is nowadays. And judging by the game-changing content of previous DLCs in terms of both lore and terrific battles, we can safely get our hopes up for greatness. So those will be additional opportunities to tie up loose ends: perhaps we’ll have one last confrontation with the shards of Manus, the closest thing Dark Souls has to a Big Bad. Or, as I saw one Fextralife commenter suggest, the final foe in the whole trilogy might end up being the Dark Soul itself. Time will tell, but one thing’s for sure: remember all the times you died in past DLCs to super-tough, but also superbly designed bosses like the Fume Knight and Artorias? Suffice it to say, we can prepare to die – but we’ll be doing it with a smile.
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