Few boss fights make you feel as conflicted and guilty as the Maiden Astraea fight in Demon’s Souls
Great Moments in Gaming is a column wherein we look back at some of the great gaming moments that have made a significant impact on our view of this medium and how we have come to understand it. This week we’re looking back at the harrowing battle with Maiden Astraea and Garl Vinland in Demon’s Souls.
The Dark Souls series has a long history of morally conflicted boss fights. From loyal wolf companion Sif to fallen knight Artorias, there are plenty of bosses we’ve felt bad about having to kill in this series. This trend all began in Demon’s Souls, though, with the tragic tale of Maiden Astraea.
Astraea, a Saint of the Church, originally set out on a pilgrimage to the Valley of Defilement in hopes of alleviating the suffering of the many poor souls who reside there. A destitute swamp of rickety bridges and slapped together structures, few areas could deign to encapsulate the destitute and depressing nature of such a miserable place.
Yet, Astraea makes it her destination. Accompanied by her trusted knight, Garl Vinland, Astraea makes it her mission to help the diseased, suffering creatures of the Valley. Unfortunately for her, they begin to worship her like a god, bringing all of the souls they find in the swamp to her in veneration. This is where the trouble starts in Demon’s Souls.
The Arch Demon of each area, the creatures that must be felled so that the player can confront King Allant and stop the spread of the devastating Deep Fog, is the person or monster which possesses the most souls. Thus, in a bit of cruel irony, Maiden Astraea unwittingly becomes an Arch Demon. What this means is that the player must kill her in order to save Boleteria, and the world, from the spread of the Deep Fog.
Entering the Valley of Defilement, you truly see the utter misery and squalor that the denizens of the area have suffered through in order to survive. A poisonous miasma permeates the air and even the water is toxic to step in. Rats spread a devastating plague, and the emaciated visages of what were once people attack with only feeble traps and primitive weapons.
Maiden Astraea is a genuinely good person, and maybe the only selfless character in all of Demon’s Souls. That’s what makes this mission so difficult to accomplish: Astraea is the only source of hope for the people that Boletaria cast aside and forgot about. The poor, the sick, and the weak–they are who you’re fighting on your path to killing salvation for all who dwell in the Valley of Defilement.
When the player does finally reach Astraea, they find her perched atop a tiny outcropping, the blood and sewage of the area staining the fringes of her dress. Even the aborted fetuses of the upper classes of Boletaria have seeped down into the valley, and filled with demon magic, they too spring up to defend her here. But they are just a minor threat.
Your true challenge is Garl Vinland, loyal and stalwart defender of the Maiden. Vinland is a strong and challenging foe, attacking at close range with his massive Bramd, and at a distance with his God’s Wrath miracle. Through whatever strategy the player employs though, Vinland will finally be brought low, leaving only the dirty work to complete.
Twisting the knife, Astraea doesn’t even attempt to defend herself. All through the fight she only begs to be left alone, and when the battle is complete, it takes only a single strike, a single push of a button, to finish her off. Like in Metal Gear Solid 3, however, a single push of a button has rarely felt as sad and palpable as it does here.
A character whose journey is layered with a Shakespearean level of tragedy, Maiden Astraea remains one of the most devastating characters in Demon’s Souls, and the moment when the player must inevitably strike her down is the most emotional moment in the game. It is a sad end to a woman who only tried to do good for those who the rest of Boletaria had cast aside and forgotten.