Digital Media PhD Student
Kenneth is a doctoral student in the Digital Media PhD program. In his series “Kenneth on Games” he writes about his passion for games and game design.
The DLC’s final fight has now taken the spot of my favorite Soulsian boss battle in the series, topping the Abyss Watchers. Sister Friede feels as if she deserves to be in Bloodborne with her high mobility and fast attacks. However, in Dark Souls 3 you don’t have nearly as much speed as a Hunter. Instead, Friede’s boss fight is designed in such a way that still makes you feel overwhelmed by her onslaught while also giving opportunities for a slow measly Unkindled to fight back.
WARNING: Boss fight spoilers, and in a Soulsian game that inevitably means story spoilers as well.
The Invisible Jump Stab Attack
One of Friede’s most iconic moves is what I call the “invisible jump stab attack.” First, if she is fairly far away from you, she will jump back and slowly turn invisible. Next, while invisible, she jumps high into the air and lands somewhere in the arena. At this point, she will enter a stance for a long period of time, after which she dashes forward and stabs the player for tons of damage. Since it’s a grab-type attack, it can’t be blocked.
From a lore perspective, this move is an obvious callback to Priscilla, who could turn invisible as well. But Priscilla would leave footsteps as she moved, and she could be tracked quite easily. Moreover, she was rather docile while invisible. All of this represents how Friede mimics Priscilla while still maintaining a higher level of ferocity underneath the cold gentle surface.
But from a player perspective, this attack is total chaos. Friede disappears and comes back out of nowhere from a seemingly random direction, accompanied by a screeching noise that doesn’t actually let you know where she is or when she’s going to attack. It’s terrifying, and for my first dozen tries I just spammed rolls as soon as she disappeared. Sometimes it worked. Most of the time it didn’t.
As you die over and over, you start to learn how the attack works. Even though she doesn’t leave footsteps, she leaves other tells. When she jumps, she leaves behind a trail on the ground indicating the direction she went, which usually places her somewhere behind the player. Her landing will also raise a puff of dust from the ground, and if she jumps into any of the benches or chairs along the sides of the arena, it makes a loud noise as it breaks.
Most importantly, if you get close to her while she is invisible, she’ll be revealed. And somehow, she herself doesn’t seem to be aware that she was revealed. Friede will act the same way she would if she was invisible: she’ll still stalk around you and prepare her lunging stab attack. This takes time, which you can use to your advantage. Chug some Estus, refresh buffs, or just attack her.
This moment is especially important for the sake of build diversity. With most of Friede’s attacks, you need speed to keep up with her, which means rapiers, straight swords, curved swords, and the like. Heavier weapons struggle against her because she can dodge so easily and her attacks have so much range.
There are two main opportunities for heavy weapon users: either parry her, or punish her heavily when she tries her invisible jump stab. When she lands, she just stands there for a while to charge up her lunging stab. This is a perfect opportunity to use a weapon skill or a charged R2 because she won’t dodge or attack.
Even if someone knows all of Friede’s tells, it’s still possible to lose her if she jumps in an unexpected direction. If this happens, the player must decide whether to search for her and attack, or fall back to heal and give her the opportunity to use her lunging stab. These lulls allow the player to set their own pace in a battle that is so heavily dictated by Friede’s aggression.
Phase 2 with Ariandel
In phase 2, Friede fights alongside Father Ariandel, who is a huge slow monster that fits the traditional Soulsian boss rhythm. The arena breaks apart and becomes much larger. Friede will continue to use invisible jumps, but she will no longer use lunging stabs. With another boss enemy in the mix, From Software must have decided that it would be altogether too difficult for Friede to continue using her lunging stabs. It’s hard to search for an invisible person while there is another visible person distracting you.
Instead, her attacks from invisibility take on a supportive role, forming a backline while Ariandel takes the frontline or vice versa. Her direct threat potential is reduced, but she can channel a healing spell to restore their health, or send lines of frost along the ground that erupt into ice crystals after a short delay. It’s possible to actually ignore Friede when she moves into stealth, whereas it wasn’t before.
Both of Friede’s new abilities are much easier to deal with than her lunging stab, but throwing Father Ariandel in the mix keeps the overall difficulty high. Also, the arena’s new enlarged size makes it harder to corner Friede, not to mention that the chairs and benches that she could break to give away her position are now already broken.
This interestingly shifts Friede’s invisibility to be countered by light ranged attacks, the opposite of how they were countered by heavy weapons before. It’s still possible to punish her while she’s in stealth, but it’s also much more viable to simply poke her with a fast weapon to cancel her attack and then turn back onto Ariandel, who is now the prime target for heavy weapon users.
Friede and Ariandel are designed in such a way that the player only truly needs to focus on one at a time. Usually, this will be Ariandel, since Friede is harder to hit. Ariandel’s attacks are powerful, but they take a long time to finish so you can dodge them and not have to worry about any more attacks coming from him for a while. But when Friede goes invisible, players can turn onto Ariandel.
It’s important to note that the designers gave Friede and Ariandel a shared health bar, rather than separate ones (such as in the Gravetender/Greatwolf fight). This way, no matter who you are attacking, you are making progress. One cannot die without the other, because Friede and Ariandel are meant to work hand-in-hand. As soon as the shared health bar is depleted, both of them “die” and the phase is over.
Phase 3 with Blackflame
All of this enables a slower, more reactive playstyle even against a speedy Bloodborne-esque opponent. However, phase 3 is slightly more questionable. Ariandel dies and Friede is reawakened with a second scythe covered in dark flames. Her aggression is tuned up and she’s given several new attacks with very large threat ranges.
To me, phase 3 is the hardest part of the fight, and it’s because I don’t see many opportunities for heavy/slow weapon users to fight back. Phases 1 and 2 had plenty of those opportunities, but phase 3 just seems like it was designed for Bloodborne. She’ll never get close enough for players to attack because she can dash halfway across the arena. It’s more difficult to punish her invisibility jump because the arena is so much larger. The best bet is to use a light fast weapon and weave attacks in between her combos as she tries to hit you, which basically describes Bloodborne.
The best way to defeat Friede in phase 3 is to have another player cooperating with you. From Software seemed to have noticed this by adding an NPC summon, Slave Knight Gaul, who will only enter once phase 2 starts. This seems unintuitive and difficult (if I can summon him then why won’t he help me with phase 1?) but ultimately it’s necessary. He needs to stay as healthy as possible so he can live as long as he can during phase 3. But this is a band-aid solution. If phase 3 can’t be defeated without external help, isn’t that a problem?
Friede’s invisiblity jumps in the first and second phases are well designed with many tells and opportunities, but the third phase feels unfair. Dark Souls is all about feeling challenging but fair because the basic game mechanics can get players through any situation. But with Friede, it feels like I was given the wrong set of mechanics. It’s too much like Bloodborne.
From a lore perspective, there are probably dozens of reasons why the boss fight is designed the way it is. But from a game design perspective, I feel that it would be greatly improved if it was Ariandel and not Friede who moved onto the third phase. Ariandel could be given new, faster attacks to compensate without Friede, and he could be a slow lumbering large boss like Yhorm or Vordt.
Plus, there would be a sense of continuity: Friede is phase 1, Friede and Ariandel is phase 2, Ariandel is phase 3. Considering that the DLC is not named “Ashes of Friede,” I wonder why she is given so much more prominence over Ariandel (again, from a game design perspective, I’m sure that Ariandel has plenty of prominence in the lore).
I’m glad to see Bloodborne-esque design leaking into Dark Souls 3, and I love mobile humanoid bosses (the Abyss Watchers used to be my top favorite boss). But they has to be handled carefully. The mechanics of an Unkindled are inherently different from the mechanics of a Hunter. An Unkindled is weaker in almost every way, and the Dark Souls fantasy is about prevailing through perseverance rather than strength. In order for that to work, there has to actually be a way for perseverance to prevail.