The last thing the world really needs right now is more Dark Souls analysis. Every square inch of every game has been dissected for lore, exploits and hidden items. In some cases something doesn’t even need to still be in the game to be explored. I’ve seen plenty of people talk about cut content and out of bounds areas. From Software doesn’t even really seem that interested in exploring the Souls series anymore. With Bloodborne, Sekiro, and probably the upcoming Elden Rings they seem to be focusing on taking that gameplay we’ve grown to love and putting it in a new universe where we can talk about something else for a change. I want to stick around though and do one last little investigation. Let me try to entice you with one last little tidbit.
You see, people have dug so deeply into the series because, well, it’s good. The excellent gameplay and impeccably crafted worlds make it easy to run through again and again in order to find those little hidden secrets. From my experience, people who love Dark Souls games seem to just be in a constant state of playing through them repeatedly. I know I’ve done about 3 new game plus loops of every game in the series I’ve played. But if all this careful consideration is given to the parts of the game that are good, then what might we be missing from the parts of the game that are admittedly lacking. The parts that people just rush through or skip entirely to get to the good stuff. What can we learn from the worst boss in the Dark Souls series?
Firstly, I suppose we should decide on what the worst boss is. The series is largely subjective in that area. Bosses are one of the standout aspects of the series, and there’s just so many that everyone has a whole different range of emotions from one to the next. Different people have difficulty with different bosses. Different people have different favorites. Some people like fighting giant monsters and hate bosses that are just guys. Some people feel the other way around. I think everyone who’s had the misfortune of experiencing it though can agree on what is probably the worst. It is of course a boss from Dark Souls 2. Now, I don’t think 2 is as bad as a lot of people say it is. It’s the low point of the series, sure, but it’s the low point of a series that sets such high expectations that it ends up being a failure by basically being just as good as most other good games. Anyway, the worst boss of the game and therefore the series is almost definitely the Royal Rat Vanguard.
The Royal Rat Vanguard is more of a puzzle than a boss. Well, actually it’s more of a flood of enemies than a puzzle. You enter a crypt located at the back of the Grave of Saints, and after a brief moment of the fog gates going up, rats come in from holes in the wall. There are multiple holes on each wall and what starts as a couple of rats at first eventually becomes a screen filling wave of rats so dense and overlapping that if you cross your eyes you start to see 3D pictures. Eventually a life bar pops up, but still you only fight endless rats instead of one specific boss. Or so you think. The real boss is one individual rat with a mohawk that has planted himself among his colleagues. He scurries around trying to get lost in the crowd, and when you fight him he ends up being only slightly tougher than the standard rats. It’s an exercise in patience that is just as much up to the luck of the rat AI as it is up to your skill as a player. You’re rewarded with the ability to join an entire covenant devoted to the Rat King (also just a slightly different looking rat) and a soul that you use to make a poison spell, I think. I know you couldn’t use it to make any cool weapons, so I probably just used it to get some extra souls and a few level ups. A pretty miserable experience, but still one that’s part of the Dark Souls series and therefore still has its own secrets and subtext to uncover.
From a gameplay point of view it’s actually pretty interesting to look at what this battle is trying to do. It’s intentions, successful or not, are noticeably ambitious. It was clearly meant to shake up the usual boss formula and surprise players who thought they knew what to expect. Everyone hates when bosses get help from normal enemies. The boss battle as a concept is really meant to be a one on one challenge. This is especially true in the Souls series, where many of the bosses are mythical and legendary figures. You hear slight whispers of the godlike beings that ruled this world, and then you’re asked to prove your might by facing off against them. Regular enemies that show up just sort of muddy the waters on this. They immediately shift the scale against you in a way that feels unfair. Plus they actually tend to make fights more boring and formulaic. When you see extra enemies, you know that the first thing you need to do is kill them. It causes you to outright ignore the real boss for a couple seconds, and by the time you shift your focus back to the big guy, a lot of the wind has been taken out of the experience. But, okay, to it’s credit the vanguard actually tackles this in a very interesting way.
Firstly you cannot get rid of all of the enemies. Kill a rat and another one comes to take its place. You have to ignore them if you want to fight the boss. In that sense they become more like hazards than actual enemies. They affect the battle in the same way that a cloud of poisonous gas or a bottomless pit might. Those still aren’t great for boss fights, but I can forgive them every once in a while. Another thing it does surprisingly well is actually maintaining a sense of tension throughout the fight. When you’ve killed enough rats and decide to shift your focus to the real boss, well, you can’t. The real boss isn’t there. You thought you were just ignoring the boss, but no, he’s been actively hiding from you this whole time.
That’s the other part of this boss fight that I find super interesting. It’s a fight that’s really good at telling you its story during the fight. As with all Dark Souls bosses, the best way to learn more about the boss is to read the description of his soul. It describes how he was put in place by the rat king to judge who was worthy. He’s an observer that determines who gets an audience with the king. Notice that it mentions absolutely nothing about combat. He’s not a fierce rat warrior. He’s a middleman. And that’s exactly how the boss fight goes. He avoids you as much as possible, and watches you fight his underlings. Once he’s cornered and forced into actual battle, it’s pretty much over for him. That was clearly never his intention. Sure the game itself makes sure you kill him, but the story in world seems to be that he would have watched you fight for a while then dramatically come out of the shadows to reveal that he had deemed you worthy of having an audience with the king. Even simple giant rats get unfortunate and ironic deaths in the Dark Souls universe. The rat king then offers you a spot in his army, because he is in fact still a sneaky rat and sees an opportunity to fill the hole in his ranks that you just made.
Now, do I believe that everything I’ve talked about was intentionally done by the developers. Honestly, I don’t know. Clearly this isn’t a part of the game that plays into the bigger story of the game or the series overall, so I don’t think they really agonized over the details in the same way I just did. But at the same time, they’ve proven time and time again that this is a careful and deliberate company working on a handcrafted series that gets thought out into places we would never notice on a first time through. Regardless of whether or not it was intentional, I really like that even a boss that is so universally hated can pack so much detail in. It feels like a sort of swan song for all the time I’ve spent digging into the deep lore of the series. As we move onto newer things with Elder Rings… and older things with the Demons Souls remake, let us appreciate the Dark Souls series in its entirety. Not just the highlights but the not so great parts too. It only feels fair.
Well, this has become one of the largest pieces I’ve written, and I’ll bet it’s probably the most anyone has ever written about the Royal Rat Vanguard. Thanks for sticking it out with me to the end. Are there worse bosses I should have picked? Are there more overlooked bosses that people tend to ignore, Souls series or otherwise? Let me know. Thanks for reading.