Why Dark Souls 3’s Aldrich is 2016’s best boss

Before taking down Aldrich you have the option of joining his multiplayer Covenant, gathering human dregs from slain players to hoard against the Lord's return. You don't get to eat them though.

Warning! There are plentiful spoilers ahead for all Dark Souls games.]

You’ll meet his acolytes first – giggling ogresses in matted, sagging corsets, their belts jingling with torture implements, and red-cloaked porters who shoulder cages full of chopped-up bone and flesh. Deep in Undead Settlement – an area you’ll reach, in a portentous reversal of a key moment from the original Dark Souls, when two gargoyles carry you down the cliff from Lothric Castle – you’ll find rooms hung with carcasses, neatly bundled up in sackcloth for transportation.

Beyond that there’s the Road of Sacrifices, with its mutant carrion birds and its lone madwoman in rags armed with a butcher’s cleaver, a road that takes you via the Crucifixion Woods to the grounds of a befouled cathedral. And then there are his rings, obtained from the colossal fusions of wolf and spider which haunt that cathedral – magical artefacts that impart a little of the master’s terrible hunger to the wearer. Aldrich, Saint of the Deep. Aldrich the man-eater.

There are many wayward Lords in Lothric – the Princes sulking in their tower, the Abyss Watchers engaged in an orgy of self-destruction – and there are certainly more involved boss fights. If I had to pick a favourite, it would probably be the Dancer, a sinuous, silvery giant whose footsteps ring like the strokes of a clock. But it’s Aldrich who tantalises the most, Aldrich around whose unholy cravings so much of Dark Souls 3‘s society and geography is organised, and Aldrich who is the focus of the game’s shift, following PlayStation 4 exclusive Bloodborne, into the realm of the macabre.

Killscreen's Brent Ables has written at length about the symbolism of purple in the days of the Holy Roman Empire, whose architectural traditions inform the Souls series. Aldrich's desire to concentrate the dregs of corpses is redolent of how artisans would crush hundreds of molluscs to obtain minuscule quantities of purple dye.

You’ll spend much of the game working your way towards him – an increasing and unnerving closeness, whereas Yhorm and the Princes aren’t much of a presence till you actually enter their domains. You’ll glean bits and pieces from dialogue and item descriptions about the object of Aldrich’s faith – an oceanic metaphysical plane that may be no more than a reworking of the Abyss from Dark Souls, but which is possessed of life of sorts, festering and corrosive where the Abyss is airless and still. It’s suggested that Aldrich’s cannibalism has become a sort of parody of the Catholic Eucharist, an attempt to concentrate the “dregs” or heaviest elements of a human life in his own flesh, and so descend further into the belly of the Deep. But the key motivation is simply appetite, and the Church is to some degree just a mechanism of containment, regulating Aldrich’s diet at the command of the self-appointed Pontiff Sulyvahn.

That’s certainly the impression I got on making it through to Aldrich’s coffin, a building-sized cube of ribbed stone that is more of a nuclear waste disposal silo than a tomb. Aldrich no longer, it turns out, resides in the Cathedral – in a nicely judged thickening of the plot, he has departed for Irithyll in the Boreal Valley. Or at least most of him has. While fighting robed deacons and their servants you’ll encounter sloughed-off, animate gobbets of the Lord’s own flesh, left to wallow in pools of filth beneath the feet of imprisoned giants.

It’s important to see all this in the context of developer From Software’s and Hidetaki Miyazaki’s preoccupation with consumption more generally. Dark Souls, after all, is a series in which you ingest souls to enhance your abilities, and its key antagonists are essentially gluttons – creatures that have partaken to excess of various forbidden energies or bloated themselves on the misery of their subjects. Unwilling to embrace a long-overdue death, they must be forced to yield up all they have assimilated. And when the original game ends, your character is asked to do likewise – to sacrifice yourself and all your accumulated gains to the First Flame in order to prolong the world as is.

Pyromancy spells work wonders against Aldrich, though you'll still need to worry about homing projectiles and that magical arrow bombardment. Don't stay put.

This is a meditation on the costs of unnatural longevity that can’t help but extend to the act of sequel-making. Miyazaki never breaks the fourth wall as overtly or ornately as, say, Hideo Kojima, but his games are littered with uneasy references to the idea of building on a formula. One that occurs is the presence of an enemy from 2009’s Demon’s Souls in the Painted World area in Dark Souls – a nod to the game that started it all inside a representation, inside a representation. Cannibalism may be the developer’s most pointed exploration of the parallel yet. If the idea of giving to the flame represents a clean break, an act that transforms by destroying, to be a cannibal is to congest yourself with the grossest elements of the past. It’s the sickliest kind of iterative thinking, not just “milking” your inheritance but chewing it over in hopes of a fresh start, and those who are partial to it are, this game suggests, destined to a sticky end.

Confronting Aldrich means tackling these anxieties about the very concept of a “creative franchise” head-on. Having negotiated a catacomb’s worth of hyperactive skeletons and survived a brush with Sulyvahn, you eventually find the Lord at the summit of Anor Londo – the city of the gods from the original Dark Souls, now reduced to a dank and slimy shell. It’s here that you make the game’s nastiest discovery. In a ghastly spin on the Ancient Greek tale of Chronos swallowing his children, Aldrich has cornered and eaten Gwyndolin, last and frailest of the gods.

As sorry as we may feel for Gwyndolin, however, it’s possible to feel a certain amount of pity for his killer. Engorged with the dregs of hundreds of sacrifices, Aldrich has become formless – a rancid, room-filling swamp of rotted fibres and bone that wields the husk of Gwyndolin like a puppet. The Lord’s fate in seeking to digest the essence of others is to lose his own. His attacks are warped echoes of Gwyndolin’s spells and abilities, the battle’s very soundtrack a mash-up of Gwyndolin’s score and that of Nito, First of the Dead, another boss character from Dark Souls 1. His tactics are crude, sloppy, enveloping – a mystic arrow bombardment that chases you around the chamber, a defensive hail of homing Soul Masses vomited up whenever he takes damage, a sprawling cloak of fire when his health falls below a certain level.

Having gulped and guzzled his way to the summit of the Dark Souls universe, Aldrich has become the empty centre of his own mystery. If the fight can feel anti-climatic – it unfolds in the same area as the amazing Ornstein and Smough clash from the original game, and isn’t nearly as accomplished – that’s entirely in keeping with the theme.

After killing Aldrich, the helmet of Smough, executioner boss from Dark Souls 1, becomes available to buy from the merchant at Firelink Shrine. Smough was himself a cannibal, grinding the bones of his victims into his feed.

Whether you buy the little meta narrative I’ve put together or not, Aldrich’s story is gloriously ghoulish, the kind of steady playing-out of a revolting prospect I’d love the developer to try more often. There is a dreadful, enticing ambiguity hovering over the actual practice of his cannibalism, helped along by the deftness of Dark Souls’ English localisation. We are told that he “slowly devoured the God of the Darkmoon”, a process that sounds relatively painless, more absorption than consumption. But we are also told of other sacrifices that he rejoiced in “imbibing the final shudders of life while luxuriating in his victim’s screams”. Is this the activity of an amoeba, slowly disintegrating its subdued prey, or a work of Hammer horror – crunching, ripping, tearing?

I’m not sure I want to know. The elusiveness of From Software’s writing is integral to the success of its world, with so many possibilities left to skitter around the periphery of your vision, even as some frightening object veers into plain view. The only game that does this kind of devilish hinting better, for my money, is Failbetter’s Sunless Sea, with its “Unaccountably Peckish” trait and the toe-curling option to “feast!” when your supplies run low.

Once such a shot out of left field, the Souls series is at risk of becoming one of the industry’s gilded fixtures. The list of imitators runs long, and if Dark Souls 3 is a tremendous game it’s also one that extends and expands rather than transforms. Characters like Aldrich, however, suggest that not only is Miyazaki well aware of the perils of diminishing returns (he has suggested that this will be the last direct Souls sequel) but that Souls is still capable of meaningful growth – away from the stately and sorrowful abominations of the first Dark Souls, and deeper into the vein of body horror opened up by Bloodborne. 2016 has given us many monsters. Aldrich, at least, is a monster I can admire.

30 Comments

  1. Shakes999 says:

    Actually, if you want to go really morbid. The theory is he’s eating Gwyndolin alive during the fight.

    • Shakes999 says:

      I know I’m splitting hairs for the record.

    • Seafoam says:

      Eating alive and controlling them, or using their husk still somewhat resembling their old self to attack you. What’s really the difference?

      • Kolbex says:

        For them I’d imagine quite a bit.

        • Doomstar says:

          “It’s unpleasantly like being drunk.”
          “What’s so unpleasant about being drunk?”
          “You ask a glass of water.” – Douglas Adams

  2. Gryz says:

    Aldrich ?
    Fuck Aldrich.

    And his momma.
    And the donkey they rode in on.

  3. Setroc says:

    I love how disturbing Aldrich is, and how it is told throughout the environments of the game. His acolytes that you mention, the evangelists were ultra creepy. It’s referred to that Aldrich liked to share his cannibalistic dinners with his followers, so it doesn’t take much imagination to figure out what they got fat on. Then there’s their sporadic laughter. There’s a disease called Kuru that spread in papua new guinea from cannibalism, and sufferers experience bouts of uncontrolled laughter.

    All of this horrible stuff really built up a terrible image of this character without ever meeting him. The lore and characters of DS3 have to be the best in the series so far.

  4. GGiyo says:

    What disturbs me about Aldrich is that he may have eaten Nito as well. The mixture of Nito’s and Gwydolin’s soundtrack in the fight suggests that. And we all know From is always purposeful about the narrative significance of boss OSTs. It doesn’t help that Aldrich/Gwydolin’s weapon transforms into something resembling the Gravelord’s sword. And his title “Devourer of Gods” sort of meant that Gwyndolin is not his only victim. The Chosen Undead may have killed Nito in DS but what if it isn’t canon, seeing Ornstein is seemingly alive (but missing) in DS3. Dark Souls lore is always compelling but uneven and convoluted and the sequels messes it up even more.

    • Viroso says:

      I think Aldrich might actually be the player character from Dark Souls, or one of its NPCs in the same quest as the player. It would make sense given who he’s eaten. Only the chosen undead from Dark Souls 1 would have had the chance to consume the souls from Nito, Priscila and Gwyndolin.

      He could probably be one of the priests from the Way of the White sent to find the Rite of Kindling. That’s based on how the way of the white was corrupted. Maybe he’s our good friend Petrus Thoroland.

      • LTK says:

        Most theories with the gist of “What if character x was actually character y?” are undone by the fact that it is unprecedented that a previous character reoccurs in the series by a different name. Dark Souls takes names very, very seriously, and name changes aren’t made lightly.

        The only time it’s happened, to my knowledge, is when Elfriede of the Sable Church took on the name Sister Friede when she took up residence in the Painted World of Ariandel. Both those names are dripping with symbolism (Elfriede: elf strength, Friede: peace) and the change reveals a lot about the character. If this is how Dark Souls treats a name change, I doubt it would ever happen surreptitiously.

        • wackazoa says:

          Also the fact that Elfriede and Friede are two letters different. Possibly a born again type of symbolism there. Either or, I would say the idea of a former player character being a boss is intriguing. Factor that PC’s are never named, and really the only characters in the games lore that are capable of beating everything, hence the ultimate boss. But that might be thinking a bit too deeply on that.

    • LTK says:

      It’s entirely possible, but I think there’s a distinction between the gods he actually ate and the ones from whom he divinated the powers. You can make the Lifehunt Scythe miracle from his soul, the description of which implies he learned this spell when he dreamt about Priscilla. I suspect he learned to create a magical facsimile of Nito’s Gravelord sword through a similar process. If he had actually devoured Nito as well, he’d likely be wielding the actual sword.

      Besides, could you imagine eating Nito? He’s just bones and bones and bones. Dry, crunchy and tasteless. Wouldn’t make for a very satisfying meal if you ask me.

  5. April March says:

    The mention of Sunless Sea at the ending is fortuitous. I’ve been reading about the quest of Seeking Mr Eaten’s Name in Fallen London recently, and your description brought it to mind. It doesn’t have any of the meta, but I’d say that one is the undisputed champion of creepy tales about uncontrolled, supernatural hunger and consumption – made more so because as fucked-up as things are in Fallen London there are still bohemian parties and society balls and friendly brawls at the dockside, while from where I stand Dark Souls never seems to step away from “everyone died and it didn’t help, they’re still miserable”.

  6. dontnormally says:

    I wish the Dark Souls gang would make a similar game in any other setting. I’d like a spiritual successor to Oni.

  7. Tetrode says:

    This was a really great article, thanks Edwin! Aldrich is my favourite character in DS3. Yes – not the best boss battle from a gameplay perspective (although I still enjoyed it quite a bit) – but the way he was built up beforehand and the lore behind him was all really interesting.

  8. stringerdell says:

    Great article. Makes me want to play DS3 again but it hasnt been long enough yet so I guess its time for a second bloodborne run!

  9. LTK says:

    Or at least most of him has. While fighting robed deacons and their servants you’ll encounter sloughed-off, animate gobbets of the Lord’s own flesh, left to wallow in pools of filth beneath the feet of imprisoned giants.

    An interesting interpretation, but I don’t think it’s 100% accurate. They may very well be things that Aldrich devoured and then excreted, but they’re not a part of him. Remember that like most things in this world, Aldrich’s victims are Undead. And no matter what happens to an Undead, they always come back, even if they are chewed-up, half-digested and liquefied. Those piles of rotting flesh used to be actual people, and the undead curse is the only thing holding them together and (relatively) ambulatory. If there’s any fate more horrifying than being eaten alive, it’s probably surviving it.

    As for your premise, I heartily agree. The Church of the Deep is arguably the only entity in Dark Souls 3 with real ambition. The Abyss Watchers are just a bunch of hollows slavishly devoted to their futile duty, Yhorm is content to rule over a kingdom of burnt corpses, and Lothric wants nothing more to sit idly and wait for the world to end.

    Like the usurpation of fire to bring about the Age of Hollows, Aldrich’s Age of the Deep is an attempt at breaking the cycle, which explains why he got Sulyvahn on his side. But that revelation is DLC stuff I probably shouldn’t spoil. One far-fetched theory that was going around before the DLC came out was that Sulyvahn is actually responsible for all the shit that went down in DS3, that in addition to taking over the city of the gods and making it Aldrich’s personal buffet, he was a scholar of the Grand Archives who planted the seeds of rebellion in Lothric’s mind, and as a wielder of the Profaned Flame he burned away the Profaned Capital and caused Yhorm to abandon his duty.

    The DLC made all that even more far-fetched but there’s no denying Sulyvahn and Aldrich have had the most profound impact on the land of Lothric. It’s almost a shame that the Ashen One comes along and undoes all their hard work.

  10. Chaoslord AJ says:

    Yeah the surprise and the lore connection and so on. Still I’d rather have fought a giant blob. Also he’s much easier than say the pontiff. But goodness is a subjective verdict.
    The other bosses suffer from underwhelm too. The giant is smaller compared to his CGI show and the legion are like 2 or 3 dudes where frankly I imagined dozens coming.

  11. michelangelo says:

    My boss of the year is challenge level in The Witness. Just because I made it through! ))

  12. TΛPETRVE says:

    Nice summary. In a game that at times indulges in rather tenuous fanservice (Look, a greenly-lit dungeon with chains hanging from the ceiling! Look, a sword named Stormruler that is conveniently used to fell an otherwise unreasonably tough boss!), this part delivers a nicely coherent piece of meta-narrative that feels like it actually, meaningfully connects to all of its source material, rather than just lazily quoting from it. Sure, there are quite a few forced bits, too (Look, people turn into beasts! Look, the word “imbibe”!), but otherwise it does a very solid job even with the Bloodborne references.

  13. SalmonRa says:

    Yes! I when you look at the idea of relinking the fire, your attempt being the 5th time (and your ability to respect up to 5 times before becoming formless) works within that meta narrative. Dark souls is coincidentally the 5th of the souls style games. Your attempt is frequently regarded as a pointless exercise and that the world should be left to its fate.

    Basically Miyazaki’s had enough.

  14. fish99 says:

    I dunno, I care more for how satisfying a boss fight is than the lore surrounding it. Aldrich was largely forgettable for me, sat at the end of a reused level, even including the annoying archers again. People look for meaning when they see something from a previous game recurring, when the reality is it was done to save money – Dark Souls 3 came very quickly after Bloodborne/Dark Souls 2, and is sprinkled with reused enemies/areas, and some areas that were clearly rushed. The lore also feels like a cobbled-together mess of previous games too.

    For me the best bosses in the game are the fair but challenging fights, like Lothric, Dragonslayer Armour, the Pontiff, Dancer, or Champion Gundyr. A good boss is one you’d like to keep fighting even after killing it, because the fight is fun. I got the biggest rush from killing Friede, but there’s elements of BS to that fight, not least the time you’re forced to waste on phase 1&2.

    • michelangelo says:

      If (by B team created) Dark Souls 2 generated resources, that allowed A team to make Bloodborne, then its existence is justified in my eyes. And if this circle is real (not just something, that makes sense to me only), then there is A team working on something new for a while already. Let the B team feed consumers, generate big profit and by doing so, support A team’s creativity )) I’ll just happily leave B team’s production to its audience.

    • kyrieee says:

      Dark Souls 3 was developed in parallel with Bloodborne, and From started working on it before Dark Souls 2 came out.

      • fish99 says:

        The actual timeline doesn’t really matter. It has stuff borrowed from Bloodborne, areas lifted from the first Dark Souls, and bits that don’t look finished. I’m just saying this was done to save time/money, not for obscure lore reasons.

  15. Chillicothe says:

    DS3 retraced some of the dances of Souls games gone-by, step by step, a bit too much, betraying that shocking newness or return to form of a series both out of time and a herald to a new age born from itself. This created a problem with deja vu, much worse than in 2, as if they had avoided going down the route of reinventing the wheel inelegantly in places as the latter did but created something less perplexing and more unperplexing.

    Still, Aldrich was a bright star in the occasionally workmanlike 3, and like you say, Miyazaki or someone on the staff may have understood this from within (much like another lore-heavy 2016 beyond the perview of this site).

  16. jackanape says:

    Lovely write up. Few spoilers here for people that may not have followed certain paths:

    You can also find out more about Aldrich if you follow a plot with the NPC’s Anri and Horace. It seems he also liked to kidnap young children and torture/devour them too. Anri and Horace are the only two youngsters to escape, and Horace is still mute as a result of what he suffered, and are on a quest to destroy Aldrich. They turn up at the Cathedral looking for him, just as you do.

    If you follow the story you can actually help Anri defeat Aldrich before you do – by joining her world as a summon – and she calls out to Horace that they were finally successful. Claiming their gear also reveals a few more tidbits about Aldrich and their story too.

    It’s a nice tale within a tale.