Dark Souls 3: The Ringed City DLC Review

If we are to believe the developer Miyazaki , The Ringed City is not only the final DLC and chapter of Dark Souls 3, but the the period at the end of the sentence that is the Dark Souls franchise. Following the brief and relatively disappointing Ashes of Ariandel DLC, The Ringed City is a substantial piece of content, spanning sprawling, labyrinthine new areas chock-full of monstrosities determined to bring the players' demise. A skilled, determined Souls veteran could probably reach the end in eight or nine hours, but there are hidden pathways and secret treasures enough that most players will take several hours more than that to see the end.

The Ringed City is unflinchingly difficult, perhaps the most challenging extended stretch of gameplay in the entire franchise. By now it is a cliche to discuss the Souls games' unforgiving nature, but of course the reality is that given patience, thoughtfulness, skill, and familiarity, From's games reveal their built-in difficulty curve. Play an area enough, memorize the locations and abilities of enemies, level the character's weapons, and "impossible" will gradually give way to "manageable." To an outside observer or casual gamer, Dark Souls often defies what is "fun" about the hobby; these are not lightweight escapist fantasies or benign and mindless entertainments filled with beloved cartoon characters, but relentless tests of focus and skill.

After three Dark Souls games and Bloodborne, veteran players have become accustomed to From's tricks and techniques, challenging the creators to raise the overall difficulty of their games and/or finding new ways to confound the players' skills. Giants able to raise an army of archers fits the bill, or headless hulks spun out of thorny brambles wielding mammoth scimitars will also do nicely. Unfortunately, one of the ways recent Souls products have accomplished this is by simply multiplying the sheer number of enemies in any given area. The Ringed City is too often full of frustrating gauntlets to run, where powerful foes overlap and the only two choices are to either slowly and tediously clear the area, or sprint through and hope for survival. Traditionally in Souls games, these seemingly impossible sections are clear indicators that there is a hidden shortcut or way around, and that's mostly true in The Ringed City. But even in the non-gauntlet sections, enemy density is much higher than in the earlier games and there is almost no time to stop and take in the view. Or heal. Or relax. 

The Ashes of Ariandel was set mostly in a snowy, almost featureless landscape and a decrepit village, but The Ringed City moves from a virtiginous ruined cityscape that conflates previous landmarks to the lush, vaguely Mediterranean architecture of the titular area, where green grass and flowers provide a welcome respite from the usual browns and grays. In some ways it is a Dark Souls greatest hits package, with familiar characters and twisted versions of iconic locations reappearing one last time. Players deeply invested in the by-now rich and convoluted (and often ambiguous and contradictory) series lore will find answers, questions, and much to discuss and argue about as the DLC comes to a close. Dark Souls' lore is a unique mix of Japanese spiritual mythology and Arthurian legend, rarely explicit and unexpectedly poignant.

Those same players will also wonder why, after three games in which fall damage is often and hilariously lethal, that the laws of gravity seem to have been forgiven and players are exhorted to take a leap of faith over and over with no consequence. In most other respects, the game hews closely to familiar mechanics and items, but of course introduces a good selection of new weapons and spells. Likewise, new enemies are, by and large, variants on Souls archetypes--powerful knights, skittering insects, giants, surreal monsters cobbled together from random parts and, of course, dragons and their kin. While the bosses are generally better than those of Ashes of Ariandel, there is at least one, too-easy dud and another that is simply an endless rinse-and-repeat slog. There are a couple of dread (or rage)-inducing surprises along the way, and some deaths that are attributable to an uncooperative camera, or weapons clipping through geometry, or stuttering framerate. While I experienced few unwelcome player invasions, I also had a difficult time summoning players for co-op.

Because the only way to access the new DLC is to have finished the main game and/or its first expansion, From Software is obviously counting on players to be high level, committed fans, and ready for a final, "ultimate challenge." The Ringed City is exultantly that but at times -- especially in the longer, gauntlet sections -- the game's unrelenting parade of enemies and ways to die becomes unpleasantly fatiguing and a decidedly chore-like experience. Fans of Dark Souls who have come to love the series will appreciate most everything about The Ringed City and the ways in which it represents both the evolution and end of a very important franchise.