Ed. Note: This is part four (and hopefully, last) of my review of the Dark Souls III DLC, The Ringed City. Spoilers ahead, so don’t read if you want to play the game fresh. Part three here.
Once I finished everything with the DLC* with my two casters, there was only one thing left to do–confront Slave Knight Gael with my tank in NG++. At this point, I was rocking most of Havel’s armor set, the Black Iron Greatshield (BIG), and my beloved Quakestone Hammer +5 (found in the first DLC, and at its highest upgrade). I knew even with my tank, this was going to be a long and arduous journey for me, but I wanted to end the series on a high. Astute readers will note that I have not beat Darkeater Midir with my tank, and it’s because I don’t want to put the effort in to beat him solo, but there are way less summons in NG++ than in NG. Will I do it at some point? Maybe. But it’s not a pressing concern.
I can’t tell you how many times Uncle Gael wrecked my shit. I’m sure I lost to him in the first phase alone at least twenty times. As I’ve said in previous reviews, I’m old, and my reflexes aren’t great, so I’m not going to be able to roll out of the way in time if I don’t know the patterns. I heard a Dark Souls enthusiast disavow that the games are about rote memorization, but for someone like me, memorization of patterns is extremely important. I can’t just react to Gael’s movements because by the time I process that it’s happening, he’s already hit me. Once I can recognize his tells, however, then I have a chance of reacting properly.
You want to feel as if you’re making progress with each death, but I didn’t feel that way for a long time. At some point, I started experimenting with my armor, shield, and weapon. I knew he was weak to poison and frost because of my runs with my caster, and I decided to do something I don’t do much of in Souls games–infuse a weapon with a poison gem. The problem was, my Quakestone Hammer cannot be infused, so I had to choose another weapon. I mained the Greataxe +10 for most of the vanilla game, but the main drawback of it is that it has short reach. Gael’s weapon is really long, and his cape is even longer. I wanted a weapon with reach, so I bypassed my beloved Greataxe. The other problem was that I would want a fully upgraded weapon, of course, and I didn’t have very many of those. I did have a Greatsword that was either fully upgraded or nearly so, and I decided to go with that. I took it up to +10** and had Andre infuse it with poison. Then, I took it back to Filianore’s Rest to face Gael once again. Because it weighed more than my Quakestone Hammer, I had to lighten up my armor. I can’t tell you how much I fiddled with my loadout during this fight.
Side Note: One of the things Dark Souls does best is take you out of your comfort zone. I don’t always like it because I tend to glom on to one weapon, get comfortable with it, and take it through the game. I marvel at people who can switch weapons on the fly, but I’m not one of them. Part of my skill is knowing a particular weapon’s moveset well, and it takes me some time to adapt to a new one. However, when I’m able to pull it off, I feel like a god. For example, the infamous Ornstein & Smough fight. That fight almost broke me, and I nearly quit the game for good during the depths of my despair. I tried everything I could think of, but I could not beat that damn duo. In desperation, I did something I had never done before and would never do again: I put the Lightning Spear in my left hand and Quelaag’s Furysword in my right. I was maining the Furysword at this point, but I never used the Lightning Spear, and I never dual wield. Anyway, I took care of Small with my pyromancy, then girded my loins to take on Supercharged Biggie. I pulled out the Lightning Spear and the Furysword, and I swiped swiped left right when I had my chance. That’s how I beat Super Biggie, and it made me proud that I had adapted my playstyle to beat him. Them. Whatever. Granted, I never used that playstyle again, but still.
I took my poisoned Greatsword and Snap Freeze (a frost spell) into the fight with Gael. I also ate a Green Blossom for stamina regen before going into the fight. That’s another thing I rarely do in Souls games–use items. I was chowing down on those Green Blossoms like I was addicted to them. I had pumped up my endurance and vitality to a ridiculous degree, but wearing all the heaviest shit and carrying a heavy shield and weapon drain stamina like nobody’s business. I was wearing Havel’s Ring +3, which gave me an increase in equip load, the Ring of Favor and Protection +3, which gave me a boost to health, stamina, and equip load, and then I kept changing the other two rings. Ring of Steel Protection +3, Chloranthy Ring (stamina regen) +3. Carthus Milkring, which slightly boosts dex and obscures the wearer while rolling. I know I settled on the Estus Ring which gives you 20% more estus per chug because I kept running out of Estus Flasks by the end of the game. Using this ring meant I had to change my playstyle as well because I’m using to chugging when I’m at half health at the very least. With this ring, I could wait until I was under half a bit before swigging.
The thing about the poison is that it builds. You have to get several hits in a short window of time before the poison takes. The number of hits you need before the poison takes is based on Luck, a stat I never put points into. I think it took me six or seven hits before the poison took, and that’s not easy to do with a Greatsword because it’s so slow. Still. Once it does stick, the poison continues to do damage to the enemy over time until it wears off. The problem is once I infused my Greatsword with a poison gem, it strips all scaling from the sword, which means less physical damage. I wasn’t sure the trade-off was worth it, but I did love the poison damage.
The Snap Freeze spell wasn’t worth it, though, because it missed more often than it hit. Also, as a tank, I didn’t have much FP (mana), and I wanted to keep all my Estus Flasks for health purposes. I did have two Irithyll weapons, however, and they did frost damage. Frostbite drains an enemy’s stamina regen and reduces their defenses. I tried out my two Irithyll weapons, preferring the straight sword to the rapier. I upgraded the Irithyll Straight Sword to +5, then equipped it in my second right hand weapon slot, right next to my poisoned Greatsword. This is another thing I don’t do–switch weapons during mid-battle, but I was desperate enough to try anything. So, I went in and used my Greatsword until the poison took, then I switched to the ISS to get in some quick hits and inflict frostbite. It also takes several hits to cause frostbite, which is easier to do with the ISS than the GS. Once the poison wore off, I’d switch back to the GS, and it was rinse, lather, and repeat.
I also took breaks and helped other people with the boss from time to time. I love being a phantom, and I can’t believe how much I’ve taken to jolly cooperation in Dark Souls III. Solaire would be proud of me! It’s still weird to be a tank phantom because I’m used to standing back and hitting the enemies from afar. Being a tank and getting in there is not as foreign to me these days, but it’s still fun to do side-by-side with another tank or two, or with casters. I love the little ritual of each player doing their own emotes at the start of a boss fight. I do a dignified bow at the beginning and the end of the fight (if we survive), and I’ve started to follow it up with a hand wave as I twirl in a circle. After a particularly hard boss fight, I might do the stretch out emote or the joy emote, but I mostly stick to the dignified bow and the wave.
At some point, I was able to reliably get out of the first phase, only to be fairly quickly killed in the second. This is one of my major complaints about the bosses of this game–they all have multiple phases. I am not categorically against multiple-phase bosses, but every one? That gets old pretty fast. I also don’t like making a boss difficulty simply by giving him a huge health bar. That’s artificial difficulty to me, and I don’t like a fight being a war of attrition. It’s one reason I refuse to fight Darkeater Midir on my own. His health bar is insane, and he does massive amounts of damage, whereas I do relatively little in return. Sister Friede from the first DLC is an epic fight, but it’s not because of her huge health bar. I love the Twin Princes fight from the main game even though I suck at it, and their combined health pool isn’t that huge. Neither is the Soul of Cinder’s (the final boss), and he’s one of my faves as well. What I love about the Soul of Cinder fight is that he’s the embodiment of every person who’s linked the flame in the past, so he has all the moves possible to have in the games. He’s a creative boss, and when Gwyn’s theme music kicks in in the second phase, it’s an incredible moment.
By all rights, I should hate the Souls games. I’m not good at them at all, and I don’t usually stick with things I’m not naturally good at. When I watch elite Souls players, I feel so much envy. People who can kill every boss in less than a handful of tries and not even break a sweat. Watching them play, I can see how you’re supposed to react to the bosses, and they make it look so easy. They do that on the first try, whereas I’m fumbling like a n00b the twentieth time I face a boss. I don’t know why I’ve stuck to the games or when I got hooked, but it’s my favorite series by far.
Back to Gael. You get a cool cutscene once the first phase is done–which is when you chop off about a third of his health, by the way. During the first phase, he’s crawling on his hands and knees the whole time (except when he transports), but during the cutscene, he rises to his feet, and he’s a frightful sight to behold. He is walking slowly towards me, so I have plenty of time to heal and chomp down another Green Blossom if I so choose, which I do. In this phase, he’s much more mobile, whipping around (going invisible and transporting) and using a crossbow to repeatedly shoot at me. That’s followed up by a Way of White Corona spell (disks of light like frisbees), which I have to remember goes back to him, so I have to watch it coming and going. His cape becomes part of his arsenal, and he whips it out to lash me with it. Honestly, I can’t tell you too much about this phase because it’s so fucking frenetic. It also seems to go much faster than phase two, and phase three is more of the same except he has a crying AoE spell that is easy to avoid, and electric bolt circles on the ground that detonate in succession. They’re also relatively easy to avoid, unless you get caught up in fighting Gael, which happened to me several times.
The problem is, I spent so much time learning phase one, I was ill-prepared for phase two. I noticed that by the end of my battles with Gael, I had phase one down cold. I knew all his tells, and I was rolling and dodging like a ballerina to avoid his attacks. My goal was to make it to phase two with ten out of fifteen Estus Flasks, and by the end, I could reliably make it into phase two with twelve or thirteen. Funnily enough, I found phase two and three to be much easier than phase one for whatever reason. Still. it was a war of attrition, and by the time I made it to phase three, I was mentally exhausted and more prone to making mistakes. One of the main tenets of Souls games is, “Don’t get greedy”, and it became a mantra because the impulse when you’re near the end of the fight is to get that one last hit in. I died to Gael for that reason several times, but it was mostly because I was out of Estus Flasks and any other healing I might be able to do, and I still had a fifth of his health to chip away at.
Between battles, I experimented with different equipment loadouts. One run, I’d try light armor with Havel’s Greatshield so I could roll around and shield at the same time. On the next, I’d try no shield and heavy armor so I could just tank shit. What I finally settled on was lighter armor and my beloved BIG because the shield was really helpful in this fight as long as I used it judiciously. I also two-handed my Greatsword much more than I normally would. There was a point when I saw the glimmer of a victory, but I wondered if I really wanted to do the work to get there. Who was I trying to impress? Who would give a shit if I called in phantoms to help me with this fight? I was so close. I would stand on the summon signs and see whom I could call in to help me, but something inside me rebelled. This was the last boss of a Souls games I would ever fight,*** and I wanted to go out with a bang.
There’s one element to a successful tough boss fight that rarely gets mentioned–luck. The best fights are when the boss doesn’t do the one move that you hate more than others very often. He seems to move a bit slower and gives you more time to heal. It’s partly because you’re more locked on for the fight, but I swear the less of the hated move thing is real.
I died several more times to Gael. Twice, I got him down to three or four hits, but didn’t have the Estus to finish him off. After the second time it happened, I set down the controller and took a good hard look in the mirror. It was at that moment that I was most tempted to call in a phantom or two, but I refused to do it. I’m fucking stubborn, and I wanted to take out Gael on my own to finish off the series. Keep in mind that these battles took place over several days. I made a policy when fighting Biggie & Small that I would not bash my head against the wall for more than, say, ten tries a day. It keeps me fresh, and it keeps my frustration under the maximum limit it can reach. On the third or fourth day of fighting Gael, I completely changed everything up. I kept my BIG, but I took the poison gemstone out of my GS, inserted one into my Uchigatana +10, and picked up my ISS again. I put on the best armor against dark I could wear with three weapons and the BIG. Three weapons? Are you mad, Minna? Yes, but I was at that point where I was willing to try anything.
I stood in front of that damn fog gate, preparing myself to traverse it yet again. I ate a Green Blossom and stepped through. I waited for Gael to do his opening attack, which is the same one 90% of the time, and I smoothly offered a counter attack with my Uchi. The reason I chose my Uchi as the poisoned weapon is because it’s fast, and I can get in four or five hits before my stamina runs out. It was much easier to stack the poison with it than with my GS. I noticed during this phase that I was rolling and dodging his attacks like a champ. I built up that poison, then pulled out my ISS and inflicted frostbite on him as well. Once that was accomplished, I pulled out my GS and went to town on him. I couldn’t believe I was using three weapons, but if that’s what it took to kill Gael, then so be it.
I made it to the second phase with twelve or thirteen Estus Flasks, and I pulled out the Uchi again. Once the poison took, I rinsed, lathered, and repeated. I love being a tank, more than I ever thought I would, but I found it better to get in as many hits possible in as short of a time as possible with this boss, so I stuck to the Uchi and the ISS in the second and third phases of the fight. At one point, I was caught up in a combo and thought I was dead for sure from the inevitable follow-up, but inexplicably, he didn’t do it, and I knew I had gotten away with something. That’s what I mean by luck–he should have finished me then, but he didn’t.
One other thing I didn’t mention–Embers. They’re used to heal you, to make you ‘human’, which is how you can summon and be invaded, and they give you 30% more maximum health. Apparently, you’re supposed to use them when you fight a boss, but I tend to hoard them, just as I did Humanity in the original game and Human Effigies in the sequel. During this fight, however, I would use them in the third phase to heal and increase my maximum health if I felt it was a winnable situation. I did that during this fight, and I had a few more Estus Flasks (Sips, actually. It’s one flask.), but I wasn’t feeling confident at all. I tried to remain calm, but alert, and I strafed to his left side like a champ.**** When I got him down to a sliver of his health bar, I had to actively tell myself not to get greedy. I was so close, and yet, he could kill me in one combo. I watched and waited, then took my opportunity when it was given to me. I struck him with the ISS and held my breath while I waited for him to disappear into smoke. Once he did, I let out a whoop like you wouldn’t believe. I had beaten Gael on my own as a tank in NG++ with a playstyle I probably will never use again, and it felt fantastic. I have never been prouder of myself in a Souls‘ game than I was in that moment.
This is running long, of course, so I’ll wrap this up now. See you in the next (and final!) post for my wrap-up on The Ringed City DLC.
*Except for whatever secrets I missed, obviously.
**This game is generous with the Titanite Slabs, which are needed to fully upgrade a weapon, exceedingly so.
***Of course I’ll play the games again, but I play much differently on subsequent playthroughs than I do on a first playthrough. I still considered this a first playthrough, even though it’s the third time I was facing Gael.
****It’s a running joke in Souls games–strafe to their left and smack that ass, but it’s actually sound advice for many bosses.