Dark Souls III’s newest (and final) piece of downloadable content marks the end of an era; it manifests as not just the end of Dark Souls III, but the purported – though unlikely – end of the Souls franchise altogether. Luckily, The Ringed City is likely to please even the franchise’s most dedicated fans, offering hours of content. Some of what The Ringed City has to offer, in fact, stands out as series-highlights, even if other segments are hampered by some of the franchise’s more tired mechanics.
Convergence – a key theme of Dark Souls III – is utilized to great effect in The Ringed City. So much attention is paid to the Souls series’ mechanics, be that emphasis placed on its sheer difficulty or praise for its weighty combat, that the vital elements of intrigue and exploration often go underappreciated. Dark Souls has always been interested in making the player question the purpose of their character within the world. Chosen Undead; Bearer of the Curse; Ashen One; the title is of little consequence: each becomes a vehicle for the player as they venture to find a role to fit into within the twisted reality of the Souls universe. It’s a theme that players won’t be able to shake as they explore The Ringed City’s painting-esque locales. That which appears to be new might invoke a long-since-forgotten name or piece of imagery, calling to mind the hellish adventures that players have embarked upon throughout the last several years. It provides a fitting sense of finality for what is ostensibly the last voyage. This is the amalgamation of Dark Souls – though it is able to dirge up some worthwhile answers from the muck, it is just as content to become a spectacle, folding inward and consuming itself.
Challenge is at the immediate forefront of this piece of downloadable content. Enemies show up in mobs more often than they did in the base game, and in much greater numbers. The larger enemies, be they knights with flaming swords or veritable human-tanks formed of twisted knots and thorns, come equipped with large health-pools and savage, unrelenting attack patterns. The Ringed City also offers a handful of unique environmental puzzles. From avoiding laser-spewing flying angels to figuring out how to navigate through a legion of spectral archers, The Ringed City keeps players on their toes with some unique ideas relative to the rest of the Souls games – even if those sections tend to be more frustrating and tedious than the standard gameplay. The boss fights of The Ringed City are characteristically standout. The content brings four brand new fights, three of which are absolute spectacles, potentially ranking amongst the series’ best. The other of which, while a bit-hum-drum, does at least offer a unique mechanic to the mix. To give anything else away regarding these battles, really, would be to betray their intent and, very likely, many a fan’s reasoning for playing the content in the first place. Those players should rest assured, however, that the boss fights are there, and they perfectly characterize the end-goals of The Ringed City: to be challenging – to be the final gauntlet that stand between the player and the conclusion of a saga.
For all of the entertainment and grueling challenge that The Ringed City offers, however, it is hard to shake the feeling that the conclusion of Souls is arriving at precisely the right time. While all of the new baubles and spells that the content provides to the player may make for another entertaining run through Dark Souls III, there is an overwhelming sense of familiarity hanging over it, weighing it down. Another intricate cityscape to explore might fill the stomach with a sense of longing and excitement, but a traipse through yet another poison-filled swamp is just as likely to induce groans and gratuitous eye-rolling. Technical problems (another series trademark) also persist, and the horrendous frame-pacing issues that found their way into the console version of Dark Souls III (particularly in the Xbox One version) are once again present in The Ringed City, making for an experience that often feels sluggish and choppy.
Nevertheless, The Ringed City is one of the single best slices of Dark Souls that FromSoftware has ever presented, and for every element that could have stood to be left well-alone, there is a series highlight to be found. The Ringed City is simultaneously Dark Souls at its best and its most tired. The series may or may not be coming to an end, but this final piece of content, due just as much to its faults as its successes, feels conclusive regardless of what happens to the franchise in the immediate future. It is fitting, then, that the impending hiatus feels earned.