Tuesday, April 19, 2016

My favorite Souls boss themes, in the form of a top ten list (spoilers)

I'm still working on my review for Dark Souls III (there's a lot to process and I want to make sure I get my analysis right), so in the meantime, here are what I consider to be the ten best boss themes across the entire series. Souls games don't tend to have a lot of music, which gives it that much more impact when the music actually does kick in.

Honorable Mention: Soul of Cinder (Dark Souls III)

Dark Souls boss themes like to go awfully high on wailing choirs, particularly in the first and third games of the Dark Souls series. This track seems to fit that descriptor until the 2:15 mark, when an unexpected shift suddenly turns this battle into a throwback to the Gwyn battle in the original Dark Souls, the theme of which will be referenced later in this list. This theme isn't altogether one of my favorites but that's a clever way of telling a story without words.

10. Ruin Sentinels (Dark Souls II)

Not a whole lot to say about this one - it's a rollicking theme that gives its brass section center stage to great effect. This is one of the first memorable encounters in Dark Souls II, because I don't believe From Software has thus far had the guts to pit you against three of the same boss at once. An intense track for an intense situation.

9. Maiden Astraea (Demon's Souls)

This won't be the last time I say this, but the Astraea theme is incongruously pretty. We've been battling pretty much nothing but scary monsters up until this point, and we certainly didn't expect the pattern to be broken at the end of the repulsive Valley of Defilement. But here we are, battling two polite, seemingly un-corrupted individuals who are begging to simply be left alone. As one of the series' first "puzzle" bosses, the discomfitingly beautiful music is your first indication that this battle will not play out like the others.

8. Bell Gargoyles (Dark Souls)

The Gargoyles are among the most notorious dick moves in Souls history, and the music that plays alongside them move the battle from intimidating to outright scary. Those spindly stairstep strings are just a masterclass in maintaining tension, as if a mortal battle is being fought while teetering over the edge of a cliff. Which, in a way, it kind of is.

7. Executioner's Chariot (Dark Souls II)

I actually don't like this boss at all ("puzzle bosses" in Souls games rarely go over well with me), but the setting and atmosphere are perfect. So much of this level is spent with the coliseum towering over you that when you finally get in, it's enthralling to be accompanied by a theme that wouldn't feel out of place in a historical epic. The bit at 1:30 in particular strongly reminds me of the horns being sounded at the beginning of a match in Gladiator.

6. Lady Maria of the Astral Clocktower (Bloodborne)

This theme has the dual task of preparing players for one of the toughest hand-to-hand battles in the series and reminding us that this is one of the few sympathetic figures in this universe, and that having to fight her is kind of a shame. The music gets to have its cake and eat it, opening with ominous bells and fluttering strings before moving to a gorgeous, melancholy single-violin piece at the twelve-second mark (by which point, let's face it, we're deep into the battle).

5. Abyss Watchers (Dark Souls III)

One of the flat-out saddest boss themes in Souls history. If you fought Artorias in the first game's DLC, you know what happens when the Abyss corrupts you. These guys are clearly modeled after that encounter, and they're so far lost that they're battling each other, cursed to rise, kill, die, and repeat perpetually. A vocal-heavy track that keeps the number of singers to a minimum, making this track intimate, poignant and tragic.

4. Ludwig, the Holy Blade (Bloodborne)

This one places so high on the list specifically for the transition that begins at 3:40 and unleashes an all-out assault at 4:18 as the boss, presumed to be just another tragic figure lost to the beast plague, suddenly begins speaking in a calm voice, picks up the Moonlight Greatsword, and carries out the remainder of the battle on two legs. It's an unforgettable transition made largely possible by this music.

3. King Vendrick (Dark Souls II)

To be honest, I kind of wish this wasn't a boss theme at all. It's such a powerful moment - King Vendrick has been hyped as some sort of otherworldly figure for the entire game, and when we finally see him, he's a broken man, wordlessly wandering his tomb in circles while you casually take what you need and buzz off without issue. Making Vendrick a secret boss, and in fact one of the most powerful in the game, spoils that a bit, but I'll never forget the chill that went down my back the first time I came across this scene and heard that piano sting.

2. Gehrman, the First Hunter (Bloodborne)

Probably the most singularly accomplished piece of music ever to come out of a Souls game, it's almost too good for the battle, which is (a) functionally not all that different from many other bosses you've fought until this point and (b) against a character I think I'm supposed to be sadder about fighting than I am. Whatever the case, this is one of the most stunning boss themes I've ever heard.

1. Gwyn, Lord of Cinder (Dark Souls)

I'd argue that this is the most iconic piece of music to come out of a Souls game, evident in the way both sequels' finales return to it like a motif. Most boss themes in Dark Souls are meant to get you riled up, on the edge of your seat, and there'd be no reason to think that the epic final encounter against the antagonist the entire campaign has been hyping up would follow suit. But then we hear this simple piano piece and see Gwyn instead as a tragic figure, one who brought about his own destruction to prolong the Age of Fire. Knowing that your character is likely to follow in his footsteps only makes it more poignant.