Picture this: you’re new to the world of Souls, but you’ve got the basics down, and you’re starting to gain some confidence – enemies feel a little easier, bosses are taking fewer attempts, and trudging through the unknown is marginally less scary. But then, it happens – full of anxious anticipation, you walk through that next fog gate, and you see them – two bosses, two health bars. HUH? How, you might be asking yourself, in the name of chicken fried fuck am I supposed to face two bosses by myself? Dread, panic, depression – all valid feelings. Maybe it was Ornstein and Smough from Dark Souls, or the Double Ape fight from Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice – whatever your first duo boss in a FromSoftware game was, I bet you’ve never forgotten.
For me, it was Ornstein and Smough from Dark Souls – while the Gargoyles from the Undead Parish are technically the first duo, they just hit different (literally and figuratively). As notoriously difficult as the O & S fight is, I tend to believe it’s close to a perfectly designed boss battle. I’d excuse you for hating it (if you’re like me, and were tearing your hair out by the time you beat them on your first playthrough), but if we’re focusing on design, can we all agree it’s well executed? The trick to besting any double-boss in a FromSoft game – besides, you know, surviving – is in many cases more about understanding how the fight works. How do you find an advantage in a battle where you’re outsized and outnumbered? Well, despite the fact that FromSoft is pretty mean, they’re usually fair… usually.
Ornstein and Smough are arguably the most recognizable duo FromSoft has created (despite the Maneaters from Demon’s Souls being the first), but it’s a trend they’ve continued throughout the games; every Souls title, as well as Bloodborne and Sekiro, have included a “gank” boss, designed to test your skills, your perseverance, and yes, your patience. Despite not having finished Elden Ring yet (I’m taking my time, let me live) I’ve already faced down several duos – the Gargoyles in Nokron, the Crucible Knight and the Leonine Misbegotten at Redmane Castle, and the Iron Virgins near Volcano Manor, to name a few. The thing that stood out to me the most about these fights is how badly they’re designed – badly meaning, without intention. Sure, Elden Ring is an entirely different beast in terms of mechanics and scale, but I can’t help feeling like that’s not the whole story. Dare I say FromSoft has gotten complacent? The size of their newest title certainly seems to have taken something away from this developer’s usual methodical style; of the group fights I’ve done so far, none have stood out to me in the same way as these signature encounters in their previous games. So I’ve been thinking – what makes a good gank fight?
*Of course, all of these fights can be changed considerably by summoning a co-op buddy, but I’m approaching this from the perspective of a solo player.
Play smart, not hard
The environment, or boss arena, is such an important element of these duo fights – the most important element, I would argue. Sometimes, being able to use the environment to your advantage is the difference between a fight being challenging, and being excruciating. Shout outs to the pillars in the cathedral where you fight Ornstein and Smough – y’all the real MVP’s, I couldn’t do this fight without you.
Being able to create distance, and separate the two amigos (or three, in certain cases) or having access to some kind of cover can be absolutely essential in these encounters. Whether there are pillars, rocks, statues, or simply just tricky terrain – all can be used to turn the tables on your adversaries. Fighting in a well-designed arena, created with these concepts in mind, is key to crafting a manageable duo showdown.
However, sometimes even with the power of inanimate objects on your side, the way that the boss behaves can be more critical in taking advantage of the dynamics of these kinds of fights. Take the Demon Prince from Dark Souls 3 for instance – in the first phase, you’ll have to manage both the Demon in Pain, and the Demon from Below. While they’re aggressive and have a fair amount of health, the fight feels balanced because they take turns trying to murder you – which is honestly pretty considerate. They trade between being ‘active’ and ‘passive’ (you can tell because they ignite and extinguish themselves) – whichever is active will pursue you relentlessly, while the passive one will hang back and spit clouds of poison at you. The arena is also quite large, giving you plenty of room to move around, and making it perfectly feasible to focus on one of them at a time. Whichever you end up killing last will effect the final moveset of the Demon Price in phase 2 – so choose wisely.
Which brings me to the eternal question – the key consideration while facing a Dynamic Duo™ – which one do I target first? Personally, I tend to focus down one of two options – whichever is the most aggressive, or, whichever has ranged attacks. Ranged attackers are annoying for obvious reasons, but on the other hand, having one boss be especially aggressive can be a more pressing concern; because they’re breathing down your neck, they’re often easier to separate from the other(s) but, you know, they’re also breathing down your neck. When I fight the Shadows of Yharnam in Bloodborne, I always kill the one with the katana first – because he’s awfully anxious to get up in my personal space, I’m more than happy to dunk on him before the rest of the squad gets my attention. With katana-boi gone, I have a lot more space to retreat and heal without fear of being cut to ribbons. In these types of gank fights, prioritizing a certain boss to take out first can often be an important strategic choice – but this varies from player to player, and really depends on your style. Sometimes going with the flow, and not having a plan at all can be just as effective.
These three elements are often my main considerations when I’m thinking about how best to approach a group fight – environment, moveset, target. If all of these aspects are designed with intention, it can certainly make the life of the player a lot easier – in theory, at least. Execution is an entirely different matter (the usual, results may vary). But these are the kinds of things I’ve been thinking about – and missing – in Elden Ring. Most of the duo bosses I’ve fought so far have felt like throwaway encounters – put together without much thought, maybe for the sake of surprise or challenge. Its made me long for the structure and style of previous duo bosses, and how FromSoft has historically crafted these difficult encounters. From Demon’s Souls to Elden Ring, these bosses have had varying degrees of quality, but for me, it all comes down to design.
Maneaters (Demon’s Souls)
Technically the first duo boss in FromSoft’s Souls series, the Maneater(s) are the boss of 3-2 (Upper Latria), in the Tower of Latria. In terms of duo dynamics, these two aren’t as renowned as some other fights (though they are known for being a pain in the ass), because the second Maneater only appears once the first is around 20% of its HP, or, a certain amount of time has passed (around 2 minutes). Having to deal with both of them at the same time isn’t as stressful, because the game gives you plenty of leeway to deal with the first beast before its friend joins the fight. They also have a tendency to fly off mid-battle, which can give you some extra breathing room. While the arena can be quite tricky to work in, it does provide some opportunities to hide and separate them, should you find yourself facing both Maneaters at the same time.
Truthfully, the Maneater arena can be scarier than the actual boss, because of the aesthetic of Upper Latria – you’re on a narrow walkway between towers, suspended above a fall-waiting-to-happen. It’s quite easy to roll off the edge, or be knocked off by an attack. Which is unfortunate. But there are some environmental assets to help you out: there’s a giant brazier about halfway down the walkway, and it’s incredibly useful for kiting these two around. If you need some space to heal, or maybe re-buff your weapon, you can use this to keep them away. The pillars that frame both sides of this perilous walkway are also great for blocking their ranged attacks, or just trying to get them stuck so you can sneak in a free hit or two.
As a basis for the duos to come, I love this fight. The second beast entering the fray quite late gives you plenty of space to fight the first Maneater one on one. Rarely have I had to face these two together for long, as I’ve usually murdered the first Maneater by the time the second one has returned from his coffee break. The narrow walkway provides more of a challenge than the actual boss (my condolences to all those who were yeeted off the edge by their charge attacks) but the pillars and central brazier can provide some much needed cover. A lot of people argue that this boss is cheap (and I don’t necessarily disagree) but foundationally, I think it provided a good launching point for FromSoft to keep developing these duo bosses moving forward.
Ornstein and Smough (Dark Souls)
Here they are. The classic. The OG dynamic duo. O & S. Pikachu and Snorlax. But before we get to them, I do want to give a quick nod to the Gargoyles – they can be one of your first boss fights in Dark Souls, and they’re technically a duo. Once the first Gargoyle is down to about 50% of its HP, the second one will join the fight. The second Gargoyle is already missing its tail (which already limits its moveset), and generally hangs back to try to catch you with its fire breath. As long as you’re mindful of your positioning, you can stay out of range and focus on the first Gargoyle. The rooftop arena is spacious, and the slight slope gives you just enough of an elevation difference to be able to avoid certain attacks easily. This seems like a punishing fight for so early in the game, but it’s key to preparing you for a later encounter down the road – namely, the knights guarding the princess in Anor Londo.
Dragon Slayer Ornstein and Executioner Smough are still touted as THE challenge of Dark Souls – and for good reason. They balance each other perfectly – Ornstein is faster and more aggressive, but also has some ranged lightning attacks. Smough is much slower, but his size makes him powerful, and occasionally hard to dodge – especially his charge attack. Whichever of these formidable foes you choose to down first, you’ll have to fight the Super Saiyan version of the other in the second phase (I prefer to fight Super Ornstein, personally). Despite the genuine challenge of this fight, there are a few elements that will help turn the tide in your favour; taking advantage of the cover provided by the environment, summoning your buddy Solaire, and choosing your openings carefully can all be critical for success.
I know I mentioned the pillars earlier, but this boss arena is quite literally perfect for this fight – both Ornstein and Smough have big charge attacks, which allow them to quickly cross the room and run you down. How to deal with this, then? Run? Hide? Dodge? Have no fear, the pillars are here! These pillars can help block those charge attacks, among other things. They can also give you some room to chug an Estus (so you can do your bestest), and most crucially, help to separate the two amigos. If you’re trying to get some hits in while they’re together, you’re going to get slapped, no question. If you’re able to separate them a bit, you’re in a much better position to attack without taking damage in return. You’re asking for trouble if you’re hanging around in the middle of the cathedral, where O & S have too much freedom to move around you. Imagine if this fight took place in a giant, empty room with no cover at all, and how much that would change the dynamics of the encounter.
The Gank Squad (Dark Souls 2)
This is probably the only time I’ll acknowledge the existence of Dark Souls 2 on the blog, so enjoy. This fight is actually from the Crown of the Sunken King DLC, not the base game, and is technically optional. I also happen to believe this is one of the better group bosses in Dark Souls 2 (Throne Watcher and Throne Defender, as well as the Ruin Sentinels are a “meh” from me). Deep beneath the city of Shulva, in the Cave of the Dead, you’ll have to face the Gank Squad, AKA, the Afflicted Graverobber, Ancient Soldier Varg, and Cerah the Old Explorer. Which doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. These three NPC’s all have different attack styles, which balance each other fairly well – Cerah uses a greatbow, and will stand toward the back of the cavern and try to shoot you (if you get in their face, they have an Estoc which is much less dangerous, honestly). The Graverobber uses a weapon called the Berserker’s Blade – a katana – and though he’s strong, he’s also fairly fragile. The third member, Varg, might be recognizable to fans of Dark Souls – that’s right, we have a Havel cosplayer on our hands. He’s rocking exactly what you would expect: the Dragontooth, and Havel’s Greatshield. Unsurprisingly, he’s also an absolute tank.
In case you haven’t guessed by the affection behind their community-given nickname, this boss is kind of a nightmare. Having to deal with 3 aggressive NPC’s at the same time is, by default, quite a challenge, but the difference in their movesets, and the cavern in which you fight them are designed to help you. The trick to this fight is to always be on the move – there are multiple pits and drop-offs that lead to a lower section of the cavern; while its flooded with water, and some of the deeper areas will slow your movement speed, it also slows your enemies down. It could be worse, is what I’m saying. This could be Demon’s Souls, and you could be fighting Selen Vinland in the swamp of the Valley of Defilement, poisoned and unable to roll in the water while she can move freely. I’m not traumatized.
Ahem. Anyway, you can use this spacious network of caves (and ramps to get you back up to the main area) to get some distance on the Graverobber and Varg, who are both chasing you like its election season and they need to tell you about their campaign. Cerah, on the other hand, is pretty content to camp at the back of the top section of the Cave of the Dead, and spam greatarrows at you. I usually try to ditch Varg and the Graverobber so I can deal with Cerah first. After wailing on Cerah for a bit, the other two will catch up – so its time to move again. Rinse and repeat. After a few laps around the cavern, Cerah can usually be dealt with, and then the fight feels a little bit less hectic.
The other trick to this fight is similar to the Ornstein and Smough showdown – you need to pick your openings carefully. Since both Discount Havel and the Graverobber are actively pursuing you, you can’t try and engage with one while the other is there – you’re just asking to get pancaked with that Dragontooth. Thankfully, their movement is slightly different – Varg’s cumbersome armor makes him a bit slower than his companion, and once you’re utilizing the environment to separate them, you can usually get a few hits on Mr. Graverobber before Varg is up your ass. Once the Graverobber bites the dust, a one-on-one battle with the last remaining boss feels like a cakewalk. And of course, the final note to be mindful of: these are NPC’s – like any other fight against an NPC or invader, they can be parried and backstabbed. Taking advantage of the increased damage of a backstab, or trying to get a spicy parry can help to turn the fight in your favour. What once felt like an overwhelming encounter can be made doable by staying mindful of your surroundings, and understanding how to capitalize on the differences between the three bosses.
Shadows of Yharnam (Bloodborne)
As if the duo bosses weren’t enough, we have another trio on our hands – the Shadow of Yharnam (x3). Once you walk into this arena, three hooded, Ringwraith-looking humanoids will emerge from the fog – yup, you came to the wrong neighbourhood. While at first glance, this arena doesn’t seem to be very remarkable, you will be taking advantage of a particular headstone to help you out – say hello to your new best friend (move aside, pillars). Like the Gank Squad, the three Shadows are all slightly different: katana boi, candle boi, and mage boi. The katana boi is the most aggressive, and will chase you, while the mage boi will hang back and lob fireballs at you, like the filthy casual that he is. The candle boi is somewhere in between – he uses both a katana and pyromancy; occasionally he’ll try to get in your face if you’re close to him, but he tends to be more on the passive side.
As I’m sure you’ve already surmised, you’re going to want some cover while two of the three Shadows are trying to rain hellfire down upon you. The signature giant headstone in this boss room is perfect for doing just that – neither of the two mages can fire directly at you, and you can force the more aggressive ones to move around this obstacle to get a piece of you. Need to heal? This headstone has got you. Making some quick blood bullets for those extra parry opportunities? Its got you. Hiding from magical giant demon snakes? Guess what – its got you. Without this simple environmental addition, this fight would be significantly harder. Couple this with the differences between the three Shadows, and their approaches to ending your whole career, and you’ve got what feels like a fair fight on your hands.
In true, two fashion
In a cruel and ironic twist of fate, I’ve actually decided to split this piece into two parts – firstly because I’ve been rambling for much longer than I intended, and secondly, because I haven’t actually gotten to some of the more notorious duo fights in Elden Ring. I’m thinking specifically of the two Crucible Knights, and the Godskin Duo. So I’m hoping by the time I’m ready to write the follow up, I’ll have at least encountered (if not beaten) one of those bosses, so I can round out my Elden Ring hot takes. But we can also pretend that I’m splitting this article for thematic “duo” purposes. Totally. So look forward to the next piece, where I’ll cover some more terrible two’s from Dark Souls 3, Sekiro, and of course, Elden Ring.