More than any game in FromSoftware's "Souls" series (including last year's "Bloodborne"), "Dark Souls III" defines its boss battles with gimmickry.
In those 19 battles, the Japanese studio's latest torture rack of an action RPG relies less on skill and planning, and more on perception and composure. The result is a game that can deliver the same pulse-pounding highs as its predecessors — especially twin classics "Dark Souls" and "Bloodborne" — but it cops out just as often.
My full review of "Dark Souls III" will run next week. For now, here's my breakdown of its boss battles, with the number of attempts it took me to win each one as a crude measure of its difficulty:
1. Index Gundyr
This tutorial boss isn't there to challenge you. Encountered just after the game annotates its controls for you, Gundyr is just there to make sure you have a good memory. So if you've played a "Souls" game before, it'll feel like a quick formality. (In fact, it's such a non-challenge that I forgot to press the "Share" button on my PlayStation 4 controller and save the video of my win afterward.)
2. Vordt of the Boreal Valley
I only lost to this imaginatively designed ice beast because I stumbled into the arena with an empty Estus Flask. Prepared for the fight the second time around, I could just stand there and hack away.
3. Curse-rotted Greatwood
A pattern is emerging. Running around this giant tree's trunk to slash at its vulnerable sac areas made this one of the longer and more tiresome fights in "Dark Souls III." But impatience will cost you — especially with all the Hollow Soldiers ambling around, ready to gank you between the tree's stomps and splashes.
4. Crystal Sage
There goes the pattern. This fight is all about rhythm, requiring you to only approach the boss with a full stamina bar so you can slash it into doing its disappearing act. Otherwise, it'll catch you with brutalizing magic attacks. That goes double for the Crystal Sage's second stage, when its clones can trap you in a crossfire of said magic attacks that's almost always deadly.
5. Deacons of the Deep
The gimmickry begins. The Deacons are a gang of red-robed ghouls who all go down easily enough — except the boss's health bar won't follow suit. It's when you realize the trick is attacking the Deacon with the red aura that you can win in short order, patiently darting in and out of the mob as the boss "shows" itself.
6. Abyss Watchers
This slasher is the beginning of a particular kind of boss gimmick in "Dark Souls III": two-parters. The first part is itself a gimmick, wherein a lone Abyss Watcher summons a clone, and then another. The key, however, is not engaging: The clones will fight each other, and inflict collateral damage. Killing the original isn't the end, though. After a cinematic, it resurrects with a flaming sword. But it's just one, which feels altogether manageable after the preceding melee.
7. High Lord Wolnir
It's quickly apparent that the way to beat this giant skeleton king is to break its three gold bracelets. Just watch out for the killer purple gas it emits as it crawls your way.
8. Pontiff Sulyvahn
A more conventional duelist enemy, Sulyvahn is a classic case of studying movements and internalizing the windows of safety they leave — also, not panicking when it summons a wraith friend as backup.
9. Aldrich, Devourer of Gods
A combination of things makes this an unnerving fight: The fact it takes place in the same room where you met "Dark Souls'" legendary Ornstein & Smough, the watery floor, the fleshy tail that protrudes from Aldrich's thicket of a skirt. The fight even removes your one source of succor against Ornstein & Smough: the pillars. No, they're useless against Aldrich's punishing magic attacks, which include a homing flurry, a concussive missile and a hail of arrows that'll end several of your attempts on its own. Stick close, dodge like hell and, when Aldrich teleports, sprint and repeat.
10. Yhorm the Giant
In this, the most gimmicky boss battle of "Dark Souls III's" 19, you'll inevitably ask yourself a question: Why is there an item in the middle of the arena? That item, the Storm Ruler, is what you need to take down this bruiser. But it's not as simple as wielding it: You have to perform its tempestuous weapon art, a new feature in "Dark Souls III," to do the kind of damage that'll kill him. Three or four of those amid frantic dodging will get it done.
11. Dancer of the Boreal Valley
No video for Yhorm, you ask? There's a reason for that: The giant being the third of four Lords of Cinder you have to kill in "Dark Souls III" (Abyss Watchers and Aldrich are the others), I was immediately warped to a battle with this graceful bastard afterward. Like Sulyvahn, the Dancer is a boss whose movements you should watch and memorize. Unlike Sulyvahn, the Dancer will still fool you into attacking at the wrong times with wind-ups and swings that are almost hypnotic in their fluidity.
12. Oceiros, the Consumed King
The most effective attack you'll field from this gray weirdo is its mid-fight dialogue.
13. Champion Gundyr
Index Gundyr on the Lothric equivalent of steroids, Champion delivers similar attacks — except for a high kick that'll repeatedly punish you for thinking it's safe to attack it from behind.
14. Dragonslayer Armour
Dragonslayer Armour is different from the game's other melee bosses only in that the fight takes place on a rather small bridge arena. It also becomes the site of a mid-fight meteor shower, one that killed me just seconds after finally beating this bruiser.
15. Old Demon King
I can't tell you much about this optional boss because I was so overleveled when I fought him that I just ran in and hacked away until it was gone. Sorry?
16. Lothric, Younger Prince
The fourth Lord of Cinder is technically the fourth and fifth: Avoiding the teleporting swings and crippling force attacks of the prone Lorian, Elder Prince leads to — you guessed it — a second stage. Unlike other two-parters in "Dark Souls III," however, Lothric's second half is decidedly harder, adding the Younger Prince's magic attacks to Lorian's frenzied sword. For me, it was a matter of memorizing Loran's swings and Lothric's wind-ups, maneuvering around the pillars, maintaining my lock-on — and chugging Estus.
17. Ancient Wyvern
If "Dark Souls III" is indeed the last game in the series, it's fitting that one of its final battles would echo its first. Unlike the Taurus Demon, however, this ashen dragon can be killed with just one dive bomb. The tricky part is figuring out how to weave through the arena's detail of Serpent-Men and deliver the fatal blow.
18. Nameless King
I guess the question mark gives it away: The Nameless King is the hardest boss in "Dark Souls III." A two-parter set in the game's most epic arena — storm clouds for curtains and carpet — it's a giant spear-wielder atop a fire-spewing dragon. Killing the dragon is fairly easy; lock onto its head and go to town during its abundantly dodgeable fire attack. But that leaves the spear-wielder. He hits harder and takes more damage than anyone else in the game, and I've only knocked his health down halfway so far.
19. Soul of Cinder
A final swordfight, the Soul of Cinder is also a final two-parter. It's just formidable enough that seeing the embered husk rise with a second health bar will inspire some panic. Gwyn's musically accompanied move set aside, though, the second stage is even easier than the first once you give this final boss's swings the appropriate berth.