Probably one of the most talked-about elements of From Software's flawed masterpiece Dark Souls is its boss encounters. The game is an intentional throwback to retro-style gaming, so bosses are unforgiving monstrosities with attack patterns to learn and overcome. Every Dark Souls player has their rival, their most hated (or loved) boss fight, the one that kept them awake for days as they strove to overcome it. There's one boss, though, on which everyone is agreed. This boss comes around halfway through the game and marks a major turning point in terms of tone, level design, narrative, and general atmosphere. That boss is Anor Londo's Ornstein and Smough, encountered while players are searching for the Lordvessel on behalf of the serpent Frampt (probably, anyway), and it's this pesky pair we'll be discussing today in Bullet Points.
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The first two-fifths or so of Dark Souls are spent rooting around in ramshackle abandoned towns and their filthy underbellies. Undead Burg, Undead Parish, the Depths, Blighttown, the Catacombs and (to some extent) Sen's Fortress are all fairly mucky, murky places, devoid of grandeur. All of the bosses the player is likely to have encountered at this point are animalistic demons, grotesque monstrosities, and unfeeling automata, so the overwhelming feeling the game imparts is one of abject hopelessness amid the grime of a lost world. And then ...
Of course, everything in this glorious palace of Anor Londo wants to murder you, too. There's a few notable exceptions, but this area is just as hostile as anywhere else in the game. Navigating Anor Londo is a bit of a pain, with occasionally unclear pathfinding (I have to climb that? Really?) and that archer section. Successfully traverse this treacherous palace, though, and you'll eventually reach the vast main hall, clearly built for beings far, far larger than you are. Up a set of stairs is a very, very ominous-looking fog gate. Pass through, and you'll be greeted with this.
Again, if you're anything like me, you'll be thinking "so I probably have to fight these guys in turn, right?" If you're thinking that, though, you're wrong. Dead wrong. Dragonslayer Ornstein (on the right) and Executioner Smough (on the left) must be fought together, and they are aggressive. As soon as the fight starts, you're treated to a leitmotif repetition of the Anor Londo musical sting, and Ornstein is extremely likely to just straight up rush you. Smough's a little slower, and he'll probably take his time attacking, but as soon as the fight starts Ornstein is on you. I'd like to call what follows an intricate ballet of dodges, blocks, and weaving in attacks, but for most players it's likely to just be a complete massacre their first time. This first impression is very important in understanding why Ornstein and Smough represent Dark Souls as a whole.
First off, the deck is completely stacked against you. This is not fair. It's objectively not fair. There's two of them and one of you, and they're bigger, stronger and faster than you. Dark Souls is completely unashamed of this. Yeah, it's unfair. What are you gonna do about it? Are you gonna rage quit and rabidly forum-post about how unfair it is, or are you gonna step up, get your game on and bring the fight to them? Dark Souls is often described as "hard, but fair," and although I know "fairness" in this case refers to the game playing by the rules it establishes, Ornstein and Smough is an absolutely unfair battle (again, provided you don't summon help). Ornstein and Smough provide probably the most challenging experience players will have had with the game up to this point, and they do it in a way that's unabashedly not in your favor.
Players can learn so much about Ornstein and Smough simply by watching how they fight. Ornstein's combat style is balletic, because he's a trusted ally of Gwyn and trained in combat, while Smough's is wild and wanton, that hammer swinging around with reckless abandon. Ornstein calls on the same lightning miracles Gwyn did in the opening cinematic (and also Solaire, interestingly) to smite his enemies, while Smough simply crushes with brute force.
It's worth mentioning here that this is a two-stage fight; depending on which of the two you kill first, the other will become supercharged and the fight will continue anew, any damage you did to the remaining partner completely healed, plus a new set of attacks you need to deal with. This might seem a little cheap, but again, the game communicates the reason so effectively it's hard to be angry. If Smough is killed first, Ornstein places his hand solemnly on his fallen partner, praying for aid and imbuing himself with Smough's size and brute strength. Conversely, if you kill Ornstein first, Smough simply crushes Ornstein underneath his hammer, gaining his power but with absolutely no regard for chivalry or honor. All of this is done without dialogue, without lengthy exposition. It's just organically presented to the player, theirs to draw their own conclusions.
There's one final main reason why this fight so perfectly encapsulates Dark Souls as a whole: you don't have to go it alone. Near the middle of the Anor Londo area, players will find everybody's favorite optimist Solaire resting next to a bonfire. He'll give you the same advice he gave you in Undead Burg: "do not hesitate to call upon me wherever you see my brilliantly shining signature." His summon sign is a little hard to spot in Anor Londo's main hall, but it's there, and (after taking out the giant Royal Guards stationed around the hall) it's possible to summon Solaire to assist you in the fight with Ornstein and Smough. Doing so immediately makes the fight a lot easier, but also a lot harder. Solaire will tank a lot of the damage you might take, and he'll also draw the attention of one of the pair (usually Ornstein), but summoning aid in Dark Souls gives bosses more health, so there's a trade-off at play. Also, if you're angling to take one of them down first because you find the other easier in the second phase (it's Smough, Smough is easier in the second phase), then having Solaire as a wildcard element makes things a little more difficult. It's this give-and-take that characterizes the co-op element of Dark Souls: it's nice to have help, because it makes the world feel that much less lonely, but From Software isn't gonna let you get away without balancing the scales.
Victory over Ornstein and Smough represents a polar shift in the way Dark Souls works. Up until this point, you've been traversing a lonely, hostile world that loops back on itself, providing you with solace through shortcuts, kicked-down ladders, unlocked doors, and looping corridors. Each bonfire is respite from the relentless battery, and finding one (whether it's one you've already found or a new one) means everything you've done since the last one was not in vain. When you defeat Ornstein and Smough, though, things change.
You ride one of the two elevators (correctly sized for Ornstein and Smough, natch), open a pair of creaking wooden doors, and find Princess Gwynevere reclining on a sun-dappled divan, hanging curtains and elaborate architecture surrounding her. She congratulates you for your achievement, and hands you the Lordvessel, which Frampt told you earlier would be necessary if you were to succeed Lord Gwyn and keep the First Flame burning. The Lordvessel blows the game wide open, allowing you to fast-travel back to areas you've been to before. Now you're the hunter, not the hunted.
A fair few candidates crossed my mind when I was considering which of the boss fights of Dark Souls would best encapsulate the experience. Ornstein and Smough, Artorias of the DLC, Sif, Gwyn ... the list of memorable battles in this game is endless. In the end, though, I picked everyone's favorite bickering twosome, because this fight was the first time I sat up and took Dark Souls seriously. Thanks for joining us on Bullet Points—although I'm aware this ended up as more of a Sparknotes situation—and we'll see you next time.
What are your thoughts on the Ornstein and Smough battle? Think anything in Dark Souls tops it? Maybe you want to wave a flag for one of the sequels? Let us know in the comments!