Well, I had thought that Dark Souls 3 had fared us all well with its previous DLC installment, Ashes of Ariandel, but apparently I was entirely incorrect. The true swan song to From Software’s flagship franchise is, in fact, The Ringed City. And having played through the whole shebang recently, I can tell you that it sure is more Dark Souls.
Yeah slightly underwhelming, but there it is. Of course, that’s not so much a complaint as it is a statement. More often than not, more Dark Souls is never a bad thing, at least for me, although in this case as with my previous Dark Souls DLC, that statement comes with something of a qualifier. In my review of Ashes of Ariandel, I likened it to a really nice, yet small, slice of cake. Well, The Ringed City is essentially that same cake, except the slice is a little bigger and its been sitting out for while its started get a little not-so-fresh. In other words, still pretty good…but not quite what it used to be.
Of course, with that said, there are still plenty of upsides to Ringed City. As is the series’ want, this new DLC installment provides some interesting environments, a mixture of familiar and fresh with some nice nods to the previous Dark Souls games. In fact, much of the first half of the DLC or so plays out like a bit of a tour back through time past each game, which feels like a nice little thematic thread to tie through what is very likely the absolute last piece of Dark Souls we’ll get for the foreseeable future. The higher degree of environmental variance is a nice change of pace from the previous DLC, which at times often felt a little repetitive in its judicious application of snow, snow, and more snow.
With that said, The Ringed City’s environmental and level design does prove perhaps its biggest stumbling block, as least as far as my enjoyment went. I’m all for switching things up and trying something fresh with a formula that’s become a little too tried-and-true, but Ringed City often goes very overboard with some particularly frustrating level design decisions…namely that pretty much every area of the game is often forcing to rush through areas under a constant barrage of fire from enemies. While some of these earlier “trench run”-esque sequences are a fun change of pace from the usual methodical pace of Dark Souls, after about the third area in a row where you’re forced to frantically dash through blindly and recklessly it becomes very tiring and more than a little frustrating. It doesn’t help that so often these sequences tend to feel like success or failure is predicated more on 50/50 dumb luck than it is on shrewd tactics on the player’s part, which especially frustrates me because it’s Dark Souls normal penchant for fair-but-punishing gameplay that makes it so compelling. By contrast, The Ringed City often just feels punishing. This is particularly baffling in one section where you can agro an enemy while talking to an NPC. I’m still not sure if that was just something of a design fault or a knowing and deliberate act of sadism, but the sheer pointless cruelty of that design choice does serve, if nothing else, as a nice little metaphor for much of the nature of Ringed City’s gameplay.
With that said, what Ringed City does far better than the last DLC is variety and excitement in the boss battle department. Given that the boss battles are pretty much the main event where Dark Souls is concerned, it was incredibly disappointing that Ashes of Ariandel only really had two bosses. So it is was good then to see that Ringed City didn’t skimp on boss battles. Each fight provides a tremendous amount of variety and each carries with it very different dynamics, resulting in each boss feeling unique not just in their spectacular visual design, but also in the way you approach them. And if even if it didn’t exactly set my world on fire, there’s one particular boss battle I have to applaud for novelty and creativity alone.
And its not often that I comment on Dark Souls’ story and lore (not because it isn’t interesting, mainly just because I rarely have any idea what’s going on), but I was actually pleasantly surprised with the way in which Ringed City ties itself into the seemingly non-sequiter Ashes of Ariandel to bring together what was a refreshingly straight-forward narrative arc for the franchise. While it may not do much for anyone hoping for a capstone on the rest of the game’s previously established narrative, it does make for a nice little contained story in its own right which is actually surprisingly uplifting and hopeful…by Souls standards of “hopeful and uplifting” anyway. In fact, it’s strangely beautiful all taken in its context with the end of the Dark Souls franchise.