For a great final confrontation in video games, we can generally agree that there needs to be a good buildup, and the fight itself must deliver as well. But there are fights, some fights—some very special ones, where elements of the battle itself convey the story, the stakes and everything riding up to that battle, with minimal dialogue or propping required. And there are even fewer battles where they are both great experiences in themselves, but elevated to a class of their own, when they suffice as excellent experiences themselves, but are also can pack an emotional gut-punch to those following the world and lore wherein the boss and the battle takes place in.
This is particularly challenging when you consider games that are at the final/latest iterations of a trilogy, saga or series in general. There is the acknowledgement that both newbies and series veterans would be playing it, and so the final boss has the difficult task of delivering on both as a standalone experience, as well as a satisfactory finish to expectations and wishes of the long-time followers.
The Dark Souls trilogy is legendary for being able to express a maximum of narratives with minimal spoon-fed expositions, bar none by many opinions. As one of the most celebrated and beloved video game series of all time, the individual filling the spot of the final main game boss of Dark Souls III had the truly unenviable task of living up to an almost impossible hype, with expectations within battle that have been raised over and over again throughout the series. All this, while having to satisfactorily sate the veterans on their investment to the lore, while also not convoluting the lore for a series newcomer. FromSoftware delivered. And they delivered with emphatic fashion. The Soul of Cinder of Dark Souls III remains in my book, my second favorite Dark Souls III boss, my favorite Souls’ main game final boss, in the top 10 of my Soulsborne bosses and definitely, one of the greatest video gaming bosses of all time.
A Buildup Across the Ages
To speak about the Soul of Cinder, it is necessary to touch upon the past and lore of the Dark Souls to some degree—which is no easy feat, as it is one of the most heavily speculated, and ferociously debated lore even to this day. Yet it is necessary to dwell into this a bit, as the Soul of Cinder is not just a character that existed within the lore of Dark Souls I and II until Dark Souls III. This is because the Soul of Cinder is a product of what transpired across the ages and events of the previous games. It is a final manifestation of cyclical nature of things that is a pivotal aspect of the Souls lore. So, in hopes we do the lore justice, we look into the past, so that one can maybe– just maybe, appreciate that final walk up to the final fog gate a little bit more.
In the world of Dark Souls, the world was said to have started with the Age of Ancients, where gray abstract fog was thematic to the world’s existence, ruled by ancient dragons. But then, there was Fire. The Fire represented and led to a disruptive state to the status quo, as heat and cold, life and death, light and dark came to be. From the dark, emerged Gwyn, the Lord of Sunlight, and with his fellow Lords and knights in tow, waged a war to victor over the dragons—thus beginning the Age of Fire. But over time, the First Flame began to dwindle and fade, which would usher in the dark, and thus the Age of Dark.
Gwyn and his followers would make various attempts to prolong the flame’s life, in the process causing great destruction to the world. In a desperate attempt to keep it alive, Gwyn took vigil at the Kiln of the First Flame, pouring in his power to keep it alive. This would come at a great cost, as Gwyn became fully hollowed, and becomes a husk, a shell of his former glory as a deified god. Worse yet, the flame continued to fade. And so various forces sought to either continue the Age of Fire, or let it extinguish. You, as the player character, would be an otherwise unremarkable pygmy being tasked with gathering the souls and strength enough to reach the First Flame, where whether you came in support of Gwyn’s goals or not, would have to confront Gwyn—he lost his kingdom, his family, his knights, his sanity, his godly might, and was now purely a being running on a primal desire to protect the flame, unable to distinguish between friend or foe.
Having bested Gwyn, the Chosen Undead (your player) can choose to take vigil and link the Flame, or let the Flame die. Whatever the choice maybe, it is implied that the whole process would begin again. Some debate that there is a cycle of fire and dark that would happen regardless of whatever choices anyone makes. Others speak that the canon ending is to extend the age of fire. In any case, it all leads to the same resulting effect as the Souls games progresses—the Age of Fire does extend. You and the Chosen Undead made that journey and took over from Gwyn. Your character would be replaced by another, they by another, and so on with countless more Chosen Ones across the eons. Someone would go on to link the Flame, and others would go onto replace them. Kingdoms, civilizations, empires rise, fall and rise again across thousands and thousands of years. However, it comes at a price…
Every time the First Flame is extended, the flame reignites a little less stronger, with less intensity. And the world itself is feeling the effects too. Some argue that because the Age of Fire is being extended artificially, it is against the cyclical nature of how things should be, and so it ends up leading consequences in the shape of the world slowly dying away, getting twisted and converged, with lands and realms becoming twisted and crumbling to ruin.
In this final, dying period of the Age of Fire, former Lords of Cinders (exceptionally powerful Chosen ones who previously linked the Flame) are revived/tasked with giving the Flame the power it needs. Whether it is by disillusion, ignorance or indifference—whatever reasons they maybe, they appear to be reluctant, and in need of more.. coercive readjustment of their stance. Thus, your player character, the Ashen One—a being who perished and failed once in the pilgrimage, is brought back. You would go onto defeat the Lords, and empowering yourself in the process, so that you can reach the First Flame, and do what you need to do.
Full Circle: Where it all Started
Having gathered the Souls required, you are now imbued with the power necessary to reach the First Flame. You reach the destination, and the first impression of the destination and what awaits is different depending on what kind of player you are.
You arrive at a destination that is desolate and in complete ruins. The landscape is littered with cracks, fissures and disjointed structures. The sky is dark with an ominous eclipse in place. You walk towards a very large open field, where you see hundreds of thousands of blades planted to the ground, outnumbered only by the hauntingly beautiful flowers that have bloomed in this most unsightly of places. This circular field and the walk up to it is but a great presentation of a great boss fight location to a new player.
To the veteran, this is the opening salvo of the nostalgia gut punches. This is the exact final area, and the big flower field arena is the exact boss fight arena where they, as younger gamers had once fought Gwyn. Except this place in near unrecognizable now. The constant extension of the Age of Fire has taken it’s toll across the natural cycle, and the whole location appears completely foreign. Players are made to feel this coming of age I suppose. After 3 games that tested and polished their abilities through the countless victories, defeats and experiences, the gamer entering this arena now, is a very different one from the one that walked in ages ago. The gamer is one who is now wiser, more appreciative of the gravitas, yet likely with more belief in themselves and with better perseverance. It is a homecoming of sorts, after the series had tested them thoroughly across the years. The veteran also knows exactly what those weapons littered across the arena mean. This is evidence to them of the many who had come and gone, just like they did.
At the centre sits a humanoid figure—it is the Soul of Cinder. It gets up. It is a tall creature that is several feet taller than the Ahsen One, and is mostly burnt to a crisp, with armor pieces and gear that is a mix of various gear sets. Wielding a coiled sword, with flames dancing across it’s body, it says not a word, and begins lunging at you with frightening speed unexpected from a being of it’s size.
Culmination: Putting ‘You’ Down
The Soul of Cinder is the manifestation brought forth by the First Flame as last defense mechanism of sorts to protect itself—an inherent and naturally reactive action that occurs just as all living things tend to jump to a survival mode when the going gets tough.
The boss is a Frankenstein-ish amalgamated construct made of the many, many souls that had linked the Flame before. The Ashen One is effectively fighting a collective sum of every single Chosen One that came before them. This amalgamation of Chosen Ones and their power is demonstrated in the staggering amount of attack options that the Soul of Cinder possesses, which ranks among if not the most amount of varied boss move sets in Dark Souls history. It can switch between key character class builds that players would have tried and used across the years. From its default quality build focusing on wide physical attacks, a pyromancer with deadly mid-range spells and erratic movements, to long range sorcery build spamming spells after spells, it attacks with speed and dexterity equivalent to that of a regular player, making it a very fast and ferocious tangle. The similarity in builds, the attacks and it’s animations are all very vivid indicators that you are fighting your predecessors.
And to the veteran player, there is the tearing realization that if what you’re fighting is made up of previous Chosen Ones.. then you are also effectively (as a gamer) using your current build in Dark Souls III to put down your Chosen Undead character from the first Dark Souls game. As I realized this, it was… a somber feeling. A bittersweet farewell to my character with whom I made that journey not just in game, but as a player when I discovered this amazing series, and grew as a gamer. My character was now part of a mindless, feral creature in front of me that needed to be put down. I silently nodded to my DS1 Thundertoise as DS3 Thundertoise continued to dodge, roll, block and strike his way to depleting the impressive health bar of this final boss. Eventually, the blow is struck… so it’s over… right?
Desperation: Plin Plin Plon
Not quite. Dark Souls III is in my opinion, the best Dark Souls when it came to boss fight quality. One of the biggest contributing factors to this was the fact that almost all bosses had a ‘Phase Two’ where after their health bar was depleted completely, or a certain chunk of it was gone, they would take new forms or add new attack dynamics that kept the fights fresh and interesting.
This was one of the few cases where the entire health bar depletion was required for the ‘Phase Two’ to kick in. The Soul of Cinder recovers from the stagger of the previous final blow.. and rams the sword to the ground, blasting waves of flames in all directions and enveloping itself in this newly emerged flame. When the flames recede, the Soul of Cinder begins rushing at you, health regenerated and appearing more aggressive than ever. It has stopped shifting it’s forms, and is sticking to one form now.. one with a familiar looking crown, and the coiled sword it had been wielding is now flaming with an arduous rage.
Up until now, the battle was complemented with an orchestra filled with raging trumpets, drums and heavy instruments that were evocative of the epic confrontation thus far. Suddenly, the music has shifted, and you hear it. “Plin Plin Plon.”
Three notes. Three piano notes that tell the new players this is a new phase. Yet three notes that hit veterans like a train. It is the signature piano piece from the theme played during your final boss fight against Gwyn, back in Dark Souls I. With that, the music shifts steadily into an orchestra remix of the original final boss fight theme from Dark Souls I.
As it begins hurling regular and amplified lightning spears, along with leaping lunges and wide sweeping attacks (along with a particularly nasty air juggle combo attack), we are put to the realization (along with the music already indicating to it as well) that we are now essentially fighting Gwyn, with some enhancements via the body of the Soul of Cinder. More accurately, it is likely that the First Flame, in it’s last desperate attempt at self-preservation, manifested the essence of Gwyn via the Soul of Cinder, who was the first Lord of Cinder, and one connected to the Fire like no other.
Many a veteran player I knew, along with myself included, acknowledged this emotional rematch. As younger players, we faced down Gwyn in capping off one of the greatest games that was ever released. Now, as wiser and more ‘complete’ souls players, we as gamers were facing an old opponent with possibly a smile, maybe even tears, as if greeting an old friend, in regards to the good times and capping off the whole Dark Souls trilogy experience.
One may attempt parrying like the last time they fought Gwyn. They may not find it as easy, as the Soul of Cinder is essentially a roided up Gwyn, likely so as the Soul of Cinder, as the manifested protector of the First Flame, makes one last desperate push against the Ashen One.
Amidst the final stages of a dying world the battle comes to an end amidst the plethora of spells, attacks and clashes as the violin and piano laden soundtrack plays the lullabies of this final battle. The final blow is struck, truly this time.. and the Soul of Cinder, and all the Chosen Ones that came before, are no more. There are no post battle cutscenes, no speeches or exchanges of insults or pleasantries. The Soul of Cinder dies and you, the Ashen One stands in front of the Flame once again, where you decide what to do next.
Excellence in Battle and Nostalgia
Being the final boss is a challenge in itself. Being the final boss in a series finale is even tougher. And there are various pitfalls that such final bosses tend to fall into when attempting to create a good boss fight experience. If narrative and nostalgia are put forward too much at the expense of actual gameplay aspects, it becomes problematic. Yet at the same time, purely gameplay without satisfactory story telling leaves the feeling of unfinished business to players who invested time and interest.
Dark Souls III was released at a time when the initial niche crowds and perceived roadblocks of it’s difficulty were now getting widely accepted by both returning players and new players who wished to explore the Souls experience. More recent speculations spoke of alternative bosses and settings where other in game bosses were considered for the final boss position. But I do believe, that From Software made the right decision in sticking to the Soul of Cinder. The interesting composition of it’s existence, the battle itself effectively balancing excellent battle mechanics with just the right spots hit on the nostalgia front makes the Soul of Cinder a worthy final main game boss of Dark Souls III, and that of the series as well.