In game design, a “vertical slice” is a representative chunk of a game, showcasing important facets of its design within a limited space. At Loser City, Vertical Slice is a place for us to talk about the small but essential pieces of a work of art that might get lost in broader analysis. This is where we talk about the chunks that stood out to us and told us something, good or bad, representative or fluke.
Today, Jake talks about the DLC for the original Dark Souls and what might be his favorite boss fight in video games.
To truly appreciate everything Dark Souls has to offer, you need to play it twice: once without the DLC, and once with. The reason for this is that Dark Souls, as you play it, has a way of weaving legends around you, giving you glimpses into its world’s old stories, its classic heroes. Exploring the game’s world of Lordran, you are part folklorist, catching glimpses of stories that few remain alive to tell.
One of these stories is about a great knight named Artorias. Artorias is one of the four highest-ranking knights serving Lord Gwyn, the father-god at the top of Lordran’s pantheon. Artorias was legendary for his valor in facing the Abyss, an ethereal force of the malignant Dark (you know how legends are—lots of ill-defined proper nouns). He was known as the only being that could stare down the Abyss and live to tell the tale. Late in the game, when you need to journey into the Abyss—which you experience as a blank, black void—you seek out Artorias’ final resting place to help you.
See, on your own, you can’t even enter the Abyss. Even touching it will kill you. But with his grave, buried deep in the forest, there’s a ring: the Crest of Artorias, which holds his power and can allow you to walk into the Abyss without fear. So you plunder his grave, killing its guardian—the Great Gray Wolf Sif, Artorias’ companion, who has been keeping watch over his friend for decades? centuries?—and claiming his power as your own.
Killing Sif and stealing the Crest was a guilty act, but a necessary one. I truly felt I had no choice, and seeing the loyalty Artorias inspired, wielding the power he held, I grew to respect this champion, separated from me by generations. He seemed like someone I might have liked to meet. If only to apologize for murdering his dog.
In Artorias of the Abyss, as the name implies, you do meet him. And that’s why you need to experience the original game without the DLC first. In Dark Souls, you learn the legend. In its expansion, you learn the truth.
“Thou shalt see further on, an Abyss was begat of the ancient beast, and threatens to swallow the whole of Oolacile. Knight Artorias came to stop this, but such a hero has nary a murmur of Dark. Without doubt he will be swallowed by the Abyss, overcome by its utter blackness… Indeed, the Abyss may be unstoppable…”
— Elizabeth, keeper of the Oolacile Sanctuary
Artorias of the Abyss takes you into the past, opening a gateway into a place called Oolacile, a civilization that disappeared centuries ago. Oolacile is not in a good way. The whole place seems to be falling apart, collapsing as the Dark, which is seeping into everything like a corrosive oil, eats away at it. Upon entering Oolacile, you press forward into a forest, following on the trail of the legendary knight. Artorias himself.
Eventually, you come to a coliseum-like building. Even now, centuries before the events of the rest of Dark Souls, this place looks ancient, a ruin in the time of ruins. Black tendrils of Dark are creeping up its sides. Around it, far below, you can see a city made of the same beige stone. This is your gateway into Oolacile proper. It’s a momentous location, haunted, imposing. You walk in.
A cutscene begins playing, and the camera pans to the center of the arena. And then you see him. A tall, lean knight in gnarled armor. With his right arm, he’s impaling a giant sword into a half-human monster. His left arm hangs limp at his side at an unnatural angle, broken. He wiggles his sword, pressing the tip as far into his prey as it can go. After a moment, he looks up, the blue tassel on his helmet flinging backwards like a ponytail. There’s something off about his movements, simultaneously deliberate and animalistic. Dark begins to bleed off of him in waves, like a fog machine, circling him.
He stands there for a moment, power building around him, looking at you behind a helmet without eyes. He roars like a wounded animal. Then he lifts his sword, the monster still impaled on it, and flings it at you. He follow sit, charging at you, one arm flopping in the drag, the other holding ready a sword as tall as he is.
As the cutscene ends and control returns, the boss’s life bar at the bottom of the screen confirms what the player might have already begun to suspect. This is him. Knight Artorias. The Abysswalker himself.
This is the real Artorias, as you find him: Consumed, half dead, feral. It’s true, what the legends say; Artorias fought the Dark. He lost. The Dark has taken him over. And now you have to kill him.
Even in his diminished state, with only one functioning arm, Artorias is every bit the consummate warrior his reputation would suggest. He’s tenacious and fast, his greatsword moving with the heft of a boulder but the attack speed of a dagger. He doggedly stays on the player, punishing every mistake with agility and precision.
Artorias moves, in fact, a lot like a player character himself. He rolls frequently, to avoid attacks and to reorient himself in the arena, and almost all of his moves, with the exception of a pair of jumping attacks, feel like something a player could conceivably pull off. It lends him a sense of intelligence, and makes the fight feel like a duel between relatively equal parties, two warriors squaring off in an honorable contest.
Or it would be that, that is, if Artorias wasn’t also overflowing with the Dark. It seeps off of him as the fight goes on, and he uses it to power up his attacks, lattices of purple magic flowing over his blade. The Dark lends Artorias an animal-like quality, as there’s a real sense that it’s taken over his mind, turned him into the Abyss’s puppet. Occasionally he will pause in the middle of the fight and just roar, pained and furious.
This contradiction—between the knight and the monster—makes the fight resonate even louder. This is a warrior who is so skilled that he can match swords with the greats simply on autopilot. And he’s so consumed with dark power that you have to give him a wide berth, lest he overwhelm you with it.
It’s a fight that took me a week to master. I spent hours learning his attack patterns, upgrading my weapons, and figuring out the exact moments where I could press my attack. The context made the work feel less like grinding, though, and more like veneration. Even in his fallen state, I respect this guy. In a previous life, I used his power in my quest. The least I can do is give him a good fight and, finally, put him out of his misery.
I finally settle on a strategy using a heavy shield, letting me lean into his powerful attacks. I follow him around the arena, staying immediately on his flank, refusing to give him a single moment to regroup. I strike at him with a plain uchigatana, the slightly curved edge of my sword slicing chunk after chunk of life away from under his armor.
He dies with a rending howl. I pick up his soul, turned dark from the Abyss. When I walk out of the arena, I feel heavier.
“The Legend that Artorias repelled the Abyss only told half of the story. It seems that he was defeated, and his honor preserved, by some unsung hero, who is the true victor over the Abyss.”–Item description, Soul of Artorias
Deeper in Oolacile, you find a path into the Abyss itself. Hidden there, you’ll find a young Sif, Artorias’s faithful wolf companion. You’ll also find a ruined and corrupted greatshield. Artorias’s greatshield. Perhaps that’s how he died: Saving Sif from a mortal blow, wrecking his greatshield, mangling his arm. And Sif is there waiting for a master who no longer knows him. Poor thing.
That’s not the only remnant the Knight left behind. If you return to the boss arena after Artorias’s death, you will find a woman praying to a makeshift grave. She is the Lord’s Blade Ciaran, another one of Gwyn’s knights. If you talk to her, she’ll ask you if you’re the one who put her friend out of his misery. She thanks you for doing it, and asks for his Soul, the better to mourn him with. As long as you’re in Oolacile, she’ll remain there, reflecting on the loss. That’s the sort of loyalty Artorias inspired, the sort of knight around whom legends could be built. And even if fighting him put a lie to that legend, I can still respect it.
I gave Ciaran the Soul, by the way. She needed it more than I did.
Jake Muncy is a freelance writer, editor, and poet living in Austin, TX. In addition to functioning as Loser City’s Games Editor, his writing appears on The AV Club, Ovrld, Vice and anywhere else he can convince people to post it. You can contact him by email or twitter, where he tweets regularly about video games, the Mountain Goats, and sandwiches. He has very strong feelings about Kanye West.