Taking Lessons in Boss Design from From Software

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morecowbell24

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Edited By morecowbell24

With its Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls series’ boss encounters, From Software has displayed a deft handling of the boss concept. Regardless of how difficult, there always seems to be some X-factor making Souls bosses more memorable. Some are gigantic, some are monstrous or disgusting, some are a spectacle, some are relentless, some require outside thinking, some are just waiting for the right moment to crush your hopes and dreams, some are even compelling or sad and in Demon’s Souls there is even a boss you can be.

When they want to be, the folks at From Software are masters of subtlety. Their mastery has impressed me so much that whenever there are destructible pillars in an arena I expect something to happen when all of them are destroyed. Nothing has in that particular set of circumstances, but it seems like something is always making a boss battle more dynamic. Because the Souls games are so punishing, you often spend your time so focused on enemies you might not even realize what is happening around you or why enemies behave in certain ways.

The Gaping Dragon showing off its uglier side
The Gaping Dragon showing off its uglier side

Take the Gaping Dragon from the first Dark Souls. It’s a massive crocodile looking lizard, and when it gets on its hind legs it reveals a whole new terrifying side of itself. As intimidating as it can be, this dragon is smalltime, because as you may or may not have realized, the dragon is blind. Many bosses barely give you a moment’s respite, but all it takes against the Gaping Dragon is to back up while it runs into another wall. The fight becomes almost trivial once you know how it works, which is how Souls games often work in the first place. However, because the Gaping Dragon is such a good example of From’s boss design, there is even more to it.

Compensating for the dragon’s blindness is a sorcerer who, if not killed before beginning the fight against the dragon, will endlessly rain magic down from on high. This sorcerer just appears to be an ordinary obstacle in the area leading up to the dragon, so you might never know the true value in his disposal, and if you missed him or thought it better to go around him you’ve probably already suffered his magical rain. This in-level boss barrier is also used for the Iron Golem and it’s used in Dark Souls II. Demon’s Souls featured a more clever and radical approach to the in-level barrier, making it literally possible to get past one of its bosses without doing something very specific earlier in the level.

Another great example of From’s subtlety is the Flexile Sentry in Dark Souls II. At first it just appears to be a really cleverly designed creature with its twist being there is no way to get behind it. It’s an interesting design, because one of the most efficient Dark Souls tactics is to lure something into an attacking and then whale on it when its back is exposed. Despite its design, there is a mast in the middle of the arena that makes this tactic as viable as ever, and the boss battle ends up being one of the game’s easiest because of it. What makes this fight more interesting is the ankle high water, slightly impeding your flow of movement, and you’re probably going to be too focused on making sure the boss doesn’t get around that mast to realize the water eventually rises to your waist to greatly impede your movement.

If it wasn’t for the mast, the Flexile Sentry might be one of the game’s hardest bosses instead of one of its easiest. Regardless, it highlights what From Software understands better than most developers. The arena in which you fight something can make all the difference. It isn’t until you reach the Demon Ruins in Dark Souls that you see that Capra Demons aren’t so bad when they’re out in the open and not rushing you alongside two of their pets the second you enter their claustrophobic dwelling.

Brief respite awaits atop those stairs
Brief respite awaits atop those stairs

There is a set of stairs in the Capra Demon boss’s lair that if reached makes the boss much more manageable than it initially appears. It’s that arena’s mast. When a Souls boss seems like massive roadblock, there is usually (not always) something you’re missing. There might be something in the arena that you can use to your advantage like a set of stairs, a mast, perhaps there are ballistae waiting to be fired, or maybe you just missed something outside of the boss arena.

Sometimes the arena itself is the true boss battle. A boss in Dark Souls, the Dark Sun Gwyndolin, turns a small hallway into an endless one. He warps away from you every time you get near him too. It’s as if you’re fighting the endless hallway and the only way to defeat it is to kill the man firing arrows and magic at you. It isn’t until you defeat him that you are reminded just how small that hallway really is.

Some bosses are more difficult up front, and some get more difficult as the battle progresses. The aforementioned Capra Demon is an example of a boss that’s more difficult up front. The boss has the opportunity wind up for an early finishing blow while its minions immediately bum-rush you. These kinds of bosses end up becoming more difficult across multiple fights as a result. If you’re dying, you’re generally dying quickly, and you don’t get to see all the boss has to offer, so when it whips out a move you haven’t seen before you might react the wrong way and die again.

From also employs the more common and reverse approach of a boss becoming more difficult as the fight goes on as well. However, they often think outside the box and go beyond increasing a boss’s damage output, or at least do it in a clever way. Some bosses change their attacks up or add new attacks as the fight goes on. One boss sets its sword on fire for more damage, but not before setting itself on fire, so you can’t get in close.

They are two before becoming one
They are two before becoming one

Additional bosses showing up in the midst of a fight is commonplace for the Souls series, but a fight that begins with multiple bosses is only going to get easier as it goes on. However, Ornstein & Smough of Dark Souls are an interesting duo, because fighting them could be argued to fit either category of harder up front or harder as it goes on. Up front you have to deal with both of them at the same time, but when the first one falls the other absorbs what remains of them and becomes a powerful mix of the two.

Some bosses have a special attack that changes everything. In Demon’s Souls a boss could steal a level from you. In Dark Souls II, one boss devours you and unequips all of your items before spitting you out. Other bosses are like the Gaping Dragon and have a unique characteristic about them such as blindness. One might regenerate health and another curses you.

In some instances, there isn’t anything special going on, and a boss is what it is. So many bosses are out there trying to distinguish themselves, and some already know who or what they are. These more pure boss encounters benefit more from the boss’ appearance and behavior. The Flamelurker is a great boss because it’s relentless, but there is nothing extraordinary behind the scenes of the fight. Because so many bosses have quirks, the bosses that don’t are interesting because they feel more pure.

Maiden Astraea, a boss of Demon’s Souls, is unlike any other in the series. Sif, the Great Grey Wolf of Dark Souls sort of hits the same tragic note, but not as effectively. Upon entering Astraea’s domain, she will ask that you turn back the way you came. She doesn’t want to fight you. Astraea has a guardian, Garl Vinland. Garl will only fight you if you provoke him and if you run away he will not pursue you. If you go around Garl to fight Astraea, she will use her magic defensively, and like Garl, she won’t give chase should you flee. If you kill Garl, you can talk to Astraea. She hopes you’re satisfied that you got your demon soul and commits suicide. If you kill Astraea before Garl, Garl will kill himself since he’s failed to protect her. It’s a tragic encounter that puts your quest into question. Every other boss you fight is some sort of monster, but Astraea doesn’t appear to be that at all. In their Souls series alone, From Software has displayed an unparalleled ability to make bosses strike all kinds of chords.

From Software isn’t immune to making mistakes with their boss battles though. Boss battles that repeat throughout the game are rarely a good substitute for a new boss. The Stray Demon and Demon Firesage of the first Dark Souls are the Souls equivalent to a repeating boss battle. They are re-skinned versions of each other, and they are already based off of game’s tutorial boss, the Asylum Demon, except they’re bigger.

The Bed of Chaos in Dark Souls is prime example of a failed boss experiment. It is rooted so deep in luck and trial and error that it is the only enemy in the series that doesn’t reset after you die or leave the area. Even so, the Bed of Chaos shows that From isn’t afraid to explore new ways to keep one of the core concepts to its series fresh. The Executioner’s Chariot of Dark Souls II, feels like a much more successful attempt at the spectacle fight From was going for with the Bed of Chaos.

One of Dark Souls II's most thrilling fights is actually a lot like the almost universally loathed Bed of Chaos
One of Dark Souls II's most thrilling fights is actually a lot like the almost universally loathed Bed of Chaos

With a wide array of concepts at their disposal From Software mixes up its boss battles in clever and often subtle ways. Each boss has its own pacing accentuated by one or many of From’s stable of concepts. Some bosses are more difficult up front, some get more difficult as they drag on and some just have a clever twist about them you may not even notice. There is plenty to admire about the way From Software has handled bosses, so while I wait for the next round of Souls bosses I’m content enough to dream of ceilings and walls collapsing when all those pillars crumble.

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Yummylee

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#1  Edited By Yummylee

Great read! The boss battles are definitely a core components of the Souls series, even more so than most games even. I can still remember sitting there mouth agape in Demon's Souls upon my first encounter with the Tower Knight... and yet it's actually a pretty basic and even surprisingly easy boss fight. Still, first impressions can go a really long way in a Souls game; the musical theme that plays only added to the intimidation, for how it basically sounds as if the game is laughing at you. After facing Tower Knight I was thusly a little hesitant in heading through any newly discovered fog gates because of what might be on the other side...

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#2  Edited By morecowbell24

@yummylee: Thanks! Music is definitely another thing they do really well in these Souls games, especially since the levels themselves for the most part go without it. When music kicks in for the boss fights, it's powerful. The Tower Knight is great example. I really liked a lot of the Demon's Souls boss themes, the False King especially. I kind of wish they kept that composer on for Dark Souls, but there are still some more great themes regardless.

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I didn't like fighting Bed of Chaos because the reason you would die on it was because you fell through the floor or were swiped in there. It were frustrating deaths that felt cheap. We all know that Dark Souls is about learning the patterns of your enemies, but immediate falling trial and error just wasn't any fun. Especially not because the run back to that place was just shitty long.

Funnily enough, I really enjoyed fighting Charriot Archer. It is (to my knowledge) also a boss that you cannot defeat until you do something in the environment like with Bed of Chaos, except there is room to have you figure stuff out during the boss battle, instead of making you retry immediately. Yeah... I did beat him first try, so you could say he's easier. Maybe he is. But if Bed of Chaos wasn't dependent on trial and error I would have beaten her first try as well.

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#4  Edited By Yummylee

@zevvion: Bed of Chaos is undoubtedly one of the worst boss fights in the series, if not the worst. It's so very poorly designed and, most importantly, just isn't very interesting. The Dragon God boss in Demon's Souls I think was a much more well made puzzle boss.

Also speaking of the bosses in general, one idea I've loved to float around is a Souls game that is basically From's answer to Monster Hunter. I would love if it was released as DLC or a spin-off or something that heavily incorporated boss battles that were specifically designed for multiple players. Coop in the current Souls games is fun and all, but pretty much all of the boss battles are designed for single-player. In some cases coop can actually make some bosses more difficult, because of how a bosses patterns may get a little janky and what have you with multiple people running around. Most bosses will otherwise just crumble when there's other players around as well; cooping bosses usually breaks them funnily enough, as opposed to opening up a whole new dynamic to the fight.

So, instead I'd love a Souls game that had a lot of simply gargantuan bosses; bosses that are big enough in scale and scope that you would require players to take up different roles, rather than simply one guy aggros and the other throws lightning spears over and over. One battle I've envisioned is you facing against one of the very original skyscraper Dragons, and as it's flying around, you could potentially bring it down by having a player climb up a bunch of cliffsides, and then actually try to jump on the dragon and dish enough damage so as to bring it down to the ground. Though alternatively if you have a player who's, say, heavily specialised in archery could try and bring it down thatta way maybe. Or Hell, you could even maybe add in an 'The End' sorta gimmick where the dragon may even potentially get tired after so long and will be forced to land.

Of course this probably this shouldn't be the direction for the next big Souls game, but as a spin-off I think it'd be pretty neat. The core gameplay is so alike Monster Hunter as it is, so I think it'd be interesting to see From actually attempt their own spin on the actual MH genre... if you could call it that.

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#5  Edited By morecowbell24

@yummylee: In the loosest possible sense I think the Ancient Dragon in Dark Souls II kind of speaks to the direction you're speaking of. It's massive and more difficult with more people, because it becomes less predictable. Obviously there is no climbing up cliffsides to leap onto it or anything, but it could be something of an indicator to what their future boss designs might be like. As weak as the Bed of Chaos was, they still worked with the basic concept with the Executioner's Chariot. Personally though, as a side project that'd probably be fine, but if they made a coop focused core souls game I'd be kind of disappointed, because I like playing by myself my first playthrough. That said they seemed to have coop more in mind than ever with Dark Souls II. The Ruin Sentinels, the Royal Rat Vanguard and The Pursuer (because of the ballista) seem seem especially tailored for coop.

Edit: Sorry I misread part of your statement, I thought you meant you wanted bosses to be designed to be more difficult when done cooperatively, so kind of disregard that first bit.

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#6  Edited By Zevvion

@yummylee: In the loosest possible sense I think the Ancient Dragon in Dark Souls II kind of speaks to the direction you're speaking of. It's massive and more difficult with more people, because it becomes less predictable. Obviously there is no climbing up cliffsides to leap onto it or anything, but it could be something of an indicator to what their future boss designs might be like. As weak as the Bed of Chaos was, they still worked with the basic concept with the Executioner's Chariot. Personally though, as a side project that'd probably be fine, but if they made a coop focused core souls game I'd be kind of disappointed, because I like playing by myself my first playthrough. That said they seemed to have coop more in mind than ever with Dark Souls II. The Ruin Sentinels, the Royal Rat Vanguard and The Pursuer (because of the ballista) seem seem especially tailored for coop.

Edit: Sorry I misread part of your statement, I thought you meant you wanted bosses to be designed to be more difficult when done cooperatively, so kind of disregard that first bit.

I'm with you. I like playing through these games myself first. I do enjoy helping others out, but I don't enjoy getting help from others.

Ruin Sentinels most certainly seem made with co-op in mind. Because even in the end game much, much later, I still hate fighting 2 of those things at the same time. You can still do it. I've done it many times now. It's easier with some builds than others. But the first time I fought them it was frustrating for sure.

I don't think Royal Rat Vanguard or The Pursuer are created specifically with co-op in mind. I've beaten both on my own several times, they are very different from Ruin Sentinels. I parry Pursuer to have him stunned in front of the ballista, then kill him with it. Royal Rat I use some AoE spell if I am a caster, otherwise I use Green Blossom and just tank while I dispose of them. Both worked very well. I've rarely died on that boss.

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@zevvion: Yeah, I agree that they aren't the impossible or anything and I don't think Coop was the specific focus of either the Royal Rat Vanguard or the Pursuer. They seem like more creative ways to make coop interesting where the Sentinels just put 3 of them in an arena and said "good luck, I hope you brought friends". The Rats are easy to crowd control with firestorm and similar spells, and really aren't that hard to funnel into a line that makes them easy to deal with without such spells. However, playing cooperatively would accomplish crowd control, and making getting overrun less likely, without breaking the boss fight. The Pursuer has the ballista that is much easier to use when its distracted by another player. It's not impossible to hit him with the ballista by yourself, nor is it impossible to beat him without even using the ballista, but it's so much easier that it seems like coop was being considered when they put the ballistae there in the first place.

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