Dark Souls III was announced as being the final chapter in a critically acclaimed and massively successful franchise. While my own history with the series began little over a year ago and while I intend to keep on playing it for years to come (I am just now playing through Bloodborne a second time), I’m going to be sad to see it go.
Dark Souls was, overall, a perfect storm of gameplay design and variety that allowed for player exploration and experimentation and offering as little or as much challenge as one desired. This feeling of melancholy was amplified and played up by this final installment by tackling themes of age, convergence, decay and cycles coming to a close.
While I’m always up for Dark Souls content, the DLCs have a reputation as being the most polished bits of each game in the series, and while Ashes of Ariandel, the previous piece of content, was serviceable enough I felt it fell short of the level of quality that the community was expecting. It remains to be seen if The Ringed City will live up to our desires and offer a fine send-off to the series we all love. Let’s take the plunge.
The Ringed City (Dark Souls III DLC): Windows PC [Reviewed], Xbox One, PlayStation 4
Developer: From Software, Inc.
Publisher: From Software, Inc, BANDAI NAMCO Entertainment
Release Date: 28 March 2017
Price: 14,99€ [Disclosure: Game Copy Provided by Publisher]
Into The Ringed City
Ok, literal plunges were taken. While the previous DLC is not needed to make sense of the story at hand, its arc is closely tied to that of Ashes of Ariandel. Therefore, the entrance to the DLC areas will either be next to the final boss of the base game (mild spoilers incoming for it) or in the boss arena of Ashes‘ final boss, after the fight.
It’s a bit strange since the landscape and timeline place The Ringed City square at the End of the World both temporally, and geographically. You see the same red eclipsed sun in the sky, casting down its rather generous glow upon the crumbled ruins of Lothric as they tumble and topple and converge with other similarly upturned areas from both Dark Souls 1 and 2. This is the Dreg Heap, where Dark Souls III ended and it’s where your journey begins.
The first part consists of an aggressive descent through the aforementioned crumbled environments as you try to make your way toward the deepest depths of the amalgamated worlds. There are quite a few leaps of fate to be taken, to such an extent that the developers have placed soapstone messages to signal that yes, it is safe to jump and yes, they did script it in such a way that you won’t die.
It’s very counter-intuitive for a Souls game to signal by way of text that you need not worry about the game mechanics. This repeats throughout most of the first zone, as the game is in a hurry to get you down below to the main and titular area.
Another element that is very unsouls like (what the fuck is up with my generation and making up words?) are several stretches where untouchable enemies will fire a barrage of projectiles, forcing you to either tank the damage or run from cover to cover, like this is Call of Duty or some shit. These sequences, while frustrating are mercifully short and they do have definitive solutions, even if they forced me to do a few more suicide runs than I’m comfortable doing.
The Ringed City comes with two decently-sized areas loads of new gear and weapons, new enemies, an extra covenant and four bosses, one of which is optional and one ties in heavily with the new covenant. The gear variety is on par with other Souls games and we’ll come back to the areas. For now, let’s talk a bit about the bosses and their design.
Two of the bosses in this DLC are large creatures and they suffer from the same problem that Dark Souls seems to have had with large enemies since its inception. Not being a spectacle action game the likes of Darksiders or God of War, it vehemently refuses to allow the camera to ever stop clinging to your immediate vicinity, making these fights a matter of either staring awkwardly at the enemy model while you look for its legs, trying to whack at the hitbox or locking on, remaining at the mercy of a haphazard camera.
The first boss fight of this type was absolutely trivial, making me scowl in disgust…until I thought it was over and phase 2 began, at which point I sighed in relief. The second one is the DLC’s optional boss and is, as of this writing, undefeated.
It’s by no means difficult, or hard to read and engage, but there are about 3 points on its body where you can actually strike to damage it, they’re each 100 miles from one another and tend to move before you manage to reach them. And when you DO manage to reach them, you can hit for probably 1/16 health while the boss itself hits for half your health bar at a time. It’s a frustrating battle of attrition which I probably need to approach with an afternoon of time and a playlist full of podcasts.
The other two bosses, however, I was pleasantly surprised with. I don’t consider it a spoiler to say that one of them is a full-on PVP duel involving members of the newly-introduced Spears of the Church covenant. I’ve always been torn on the matter of PVP invaders in mandatory boss fights. Dark Souls II did it with the Looking Glass Knight as well and I consider it to be a bit unfair.
I, for one, enjoy the PVP in Souls games, but I don’t think they should be part of the game progression. NPC invaders are fine, but there’s a wildly varying skill gap between normal players that just do PVE and occasionally fight other players and insane min maxing dueling gods that use some weird weapon you’ve never even seen to stunlock you, then buff and backstab you for your entire health bar in one blow before you even begin to comprehend what’s happening.
That, but in a boss fight.
Of course, you can always go offline and fight a well-balanced NPC instead, which is why it doesn’t bother me as much as it might otherwise.
The final boss of The Ringed City and indeed Dark Souls as we know it, however, is one of the best-designed bosses in the entire series if I may be so bold as to suggest. Its boss arena is absolutely massive and varied in terms of terrain, allowing you to fight in vast stretches of open ground or ruins that you can use for cover if you so desire.
Its move set is expansive, its attacks are well-telegraphed in correlation to how damaging they are and every dodge I performed felt perfectly timed because of this. It allows for either melee or ranged strategies, being just the right amount of aggressive and will occasionally allow you just barely enough time to heal or get your bearings. Finely crafted and thoroughly enjoyable, to the point that after defeating it I started helping other players in co-op, just to see the fight again.
In terms of level design, the two areas are, aside from the odd shortcut, fairly linear. It’s on par with the rest of Dark Souls III, I suppose, which didn’t have the same degree of verticality as the first game did but I would have appreciated a bit of a send-off to one of the defining aspects of the first game and what made the series great in the first place. Instead, The Ringed City seems to aggressively push you towards the conclusion, almost as if it can’t wait for it all to be over with. And over, indeed, it is. The landscapes are gorgeously designed, really driving home that “end of time” feeling.
Crumbled castles on mountains so high in the sky that you can’t see anything in the distance aside from clouds and an eclipsed dying sun. A city, ancient and forgotten by time, where the Dark Soul seems to have thrived over the ages. It’s still ruined and abandoned, forgotten at the edge of the world, but where most ruins in the series have been barren, grey or brown, or at the most overgrown with dead trees, the eponymous Ringed City is host to the occasional lush vegetation or fields of flowers, reminding one that the end of civilization doesn’t necessarily mean the end of life itself.
What a ride, what a send-off, what a missed opportunity!
I’m being a bit unfair. The Ringed City is perfectly good content, with a lot of play time, a lot of new weapons, armor and enemies. Some bosses suffer from hallmarks of the series so far, while one is almost exemplary in its design. It’s a linear experience but enjoyable to go through.
The environments are among the most impressively looking in the series but the overall level of quality and polish fall short of previous DLC’s by From such as Artorias of the Abyss or The Old Hunters. In terms of lore and environmental storytelling, The Ringed City seems like a fair send-off for the series, even if it seems like it could have used (and deserved) more attention. Other aspects seem like placeholder ideas, such as the sections in which you’re forced to run from cover to cover which felt alien considering the series I was playing. I would call it “phoned in”, but even “phoned in” by From Software is still leaps and bounds ahead of what some AAA developers consider well-rounded and finished. Either way, it’s over at least for the time being and it’s been a privilege. Praise the Sun.