Ornstein & Smough: Twin Coaches

~ an essay on Ornstein & Smough, a twin boss from Dark Souls.

In Dark Souls, the “twin” boss characters Ornstein & Smough symbolize the diabolical duality of their world; they are also the first true test for many players.

One is a thin, regal spear-lunger donning a spiked lion helm and armor made to shred the necks of dragons. The other is a rotund monstrosity in a chilling mask swinging a hammer even larger than his massive gut. You face them both inside the heart of the ruined cathedral of Anor Londo, still bathed outside in a honeyglow sunset in stasis. They attack you full force, at the same time, using distinct strategies befitting their skill sets. One is fast and the other slow; one closes distances and the other smashes area-of-effect blows. Impalings and flattenings alike lay in store for your Chosen Undead.

When one finally dies, the other viciously imbues their power and the fight shifts into Phase Two, with either Dragon Slayer Ornstein or Executioner Smough growing gargantuan and sown with flowing electricity. Choose who you kill first wisely, because you’re about to face their counterpart doubled.

Midway through the game, this is the moment when the Souls player really gets to see if they have what it takes. How you respond to that first death, and then the others to come, will herald your fate with these games.

I began my Soulsborne(Ring) journey in February 2022, when Elden Ring released and I relented to the hype. It was my first experience in any of Hidetaka Miyazaki’s dark worlds of violent recursion, fallen kingdoms, and gloaming lords and ladies hellbent on ending you. Naturally, I fell in love with the action RPGs for their mesmerizing visuals, challenging combat, and deep, dark lore. Through the remainder of the year, I played them all (save for Demon Souls), in an order of my choosing:

Elden Ring > Bloodborne > Sekiro > Dark Souls > Dark Souls II > Dark Souls III

Having done this all in one year, I am here to say that FromSoftware’s endlessly intriguing bosses didn’t just train me to defeat them (…paid in many merciless deaths dealt). They also coached me into being a more diligent person.

Patience is a virtue and oh-boy these games hammer that fact into your being. Be patient with that dragon, wait for the giant sword to fully swing. Do so, again and again — or meet with a terrible fate. Timing is everything. And eventually, everything can be figured out given two things: time and determination. Every death stacks the former; it’s up to you to deliver the latter.

Stick on the path and the Souls loop builds resilience, sharpens focus, develops precision. On and off the screen. No lie, I am convinced these games have turned me into a more precise thinker, learner, writer, athlete, friend, and enemy (in my ttrpg games, as GM).

Think of Ornstein & Smough as a pivotal pair of teachers, even life coaches. Their lessons land auspiciously, challenging your skills into necessary ascension.

Together, the chubby killing machine and the leader of Gwyn’s four knights truly teach you a new language. With commitment and an adaptable mind, the flow of the brutal 3D combat becomes like a dance. And every dance must escalate. Rolling underneath ONE solo boss’ strangely-paced strikes is a challenging feat — now try TWO. Every combat idiosyncrasy compounds when two foes are rushing you, a pair of violent patterns to learn at once. Ornstein and Smough rarely relent. Even if you summoned the lovely Solaire to battle alongside you, you will constantly be hard-pressed, learning in real-time and scrambling to formulate new strategies for victory.

Trade blows, develop your “Goldilocks” dodge techs (not too soon or too late), take what they give you, action-cancel a second strike because here comes that lightning spear from across the room. And so on. A desperate, scrappy melee ensues in the sun-dappled chapel of Anor Londo, under the stony eyes of King Gwyn and Queen Gwynevere’s statues. The absentee lords watch as the great halls’ columns come crashing down from Smough’s wildly immense strength. These two supernatural weapon masters teaming up results in one of the longest and most visceral fights in the entire saga.

In the lore, the noble “Dragon Slayer” Ornstein acts as captain of Gwyn’s knights but truly serves the Nameless King. The faded champion now guards an illusion with no relation to him; some speculate Ornstein may merely be a shadow himself. Smough, on the other hand, is a base savage. The kingdom’s executioner, he is both there in that venerable room, forever loyal to the Gwynevere, and a proven cannibal upon the very bodies he was charged with disposing of.

And yet, Ornstein & Smough are both adorned in gold, dueling you to godly music, and defending the honor of their royal lady, if only as an icon.

The electrifying duality of the Dark Souls experience is encapsulated here in this duo: angels and demons, speed and power, the high and the low joined together in the afterscape of a long-ruined world yet still ruining.

I’m not saying the Ornstein & Smough fight is the very best in the series. But learning how to effectively fight Ornstein & Smough promises the rest of the Souls horizon to you. Overcome them and you’ll be set, ready for every challenge that will come your way, through the remainder of the Soulsborne games — and the rest of your life.

Yes. Defeat every Souls boss and feel your mental and physical precision level up IRL — that is, in real life. I guarantee it.

Pick your mountain, struggler. Against Malenia, Orphan, or Owl — or your next big life task — the same truth will remain germane:

Wait for your opportunity. And then seize it! ~