Dark Souls 3 - The Ringed City Review
We've come a long way, haven't we? Demon Souls, first released in 2009 for the Playstation 3, became an instant classic by blending together a deep combat system with a punishing difficult exploration aspect. You were punished for being stupid, rewarded for being cautious, and all the while you were invited to perfect your technique with sword, shield, bow, and spear. Whatever you chose for your builds, and whatever friends you made along the way, didn't matter much as you descended deeper into Boletaria and faced stronger and tougher foes.
The spiritual sequel to Demon's Souls, Dark Souls, continued this approach and tightened up level and enemy designs. Things felt more focused, while at the same time giving the player a more open-world style of topography. With a deep, disjointed way of story telling, it fostered a loving community of gamers and Youtubers who swallowed any morsel of lore they could get their hands on. Anything new that could be applied to what these groups understood about the overall story was taken and run with like gospel, with multiple people have differentiating opinions where no one was necessarily wrong, but no one was summarily right.
They are intriguing games, for sure, and while each base game in the Dark Souls series has been considered pretty good, it's been the DLC packs that have been the true highlight. Personally, I loved every DLC zone from the previous games. Artorias of the Abyss is a masterclass in how to craft additional content for a game. Make it big, sprawling, and rife with treasure. Include some series staples - tough bosses, interesting enemy designs and tight environments - but do enough to vary it up that it feels fresh and new. The Crowns DLC packs from Dark Souls 2 are all excellent in their own right, offering a new perspective on the main story while also being entirely self contained. You could, ostensibly, start each one of these DLC's and complete them and have a complete narrative from the first bonfire to the last. They were challenging, fun to explore, and feature some of my favorite boss battles of all time.
And then, of course, we come to Dark Souls 3.
Ashes of Ariandel was just kind of okay. It was neat, from a nostalgia perspective, to return to a motif that was beloved in Dark Souls 1. The updated engine and graphical fidelity brought a lot of life to the wintry landscape and the one and only true Boss battle from that zone was a tremendous effort. I've never had that much fun, nor that much difficulty, in trying to fell a foe. The rest of the DLC was largely forgettable. There were some great ideas being passed around, but they were all too short lived to have any lasting impact. Traversing the snow was neat the first five minutes, but once you learn the layout of where to go you realize just how small everything actually is.
Except for those wolves. That's the best AI written for wolves ever.
Prepare to die.
Leading up to the third piece of DLC, The Ringed City, we were given a lot of different previews. Some showed off this weird demon bat boss, others a dragon, while all circulating around the idea that we are at the true end of the world. Dark Souls 3 toys with the idea of just letting the flame die out, with no one to kindle it or take it away, but what does that actually mean? The Ringed City largely delivers on this promise, but it takes a few missteps along the way.
Your first foray into the DLC drops you in an area reminiscent of the final area of the base game. The world is turned on its side, all structures are converging. It's a great looking atmosphere, and it gives the player a lot of different perspectives on some vaguely familiar areas. Walking through one area, I instantly recognized it as one chapel from Lothric but all tipped over and full of ash. The enemies here are generally weak, but there are a lot of them. In one ambush point, I counted off hand close to 20 individual enemies. I don't think any souls game has attempted so many. It was genuinely thrilling.
The boss of this area is the real highlight. It is the most fun I've had with a boss since Artorias. It'd be hard to describe this boss without spoiling much of what makes it special, but this creature requires you to be flexible in how to attack it. I've never really felt like there was a need to summon NPC's into a boss fight in all of Dark Souls 3 but for this one it is almost required.
Once you get into the titular Ringed City, things take a turn. The level is dense enough, for sure, but it relies on too many series staples to give the player a challenge. What is Dark Soul 3's answer to a large, expansive area? Put in a swamp that slows your movement speed. Do you want a tough enemy encounter? Let's just bump up the max health on this enemy. I was banging my head far too many times on similar encounters not because their move sets were that tough to read but because it took a lot of time to defeat a single enemy. There is one enemy type that looks like bloated up butchers from the Undead Settlement, with a similar attack pattern. They are not all that tough to dodge or block against, but because their HP is close to some of the bosses from the base game, it takes a lot of time to whittle them down. Combine that with one area where there are 6 of these guys coming at you, usually in pairs, and you can spend upwards of 20-30 minutes just trying to get past these enemies.
That being said, there are some smart decisions with enemy placements. One type of monster will constantly cast a miracle that places a damaging aura on the ground you're standing on. You can avoid it, sure, but when you have one of them casting their magic while you're dealing with a Ring Knight and it turns the arena into a real fun challenge.
Pyromancers get some seriously cool stuff this time around.
There are also a lot of callback NPC invaders in this area. Wander far enough into a remote corridor of the city and surely you'll find them. They have received a serious HP buff from their base game counterparts, some even with different weapons, but they are awfully fun to fight. Their AI seems have gotten an upgrade. My Dex/Pyromancer character had a lot of trouble landing fire orbs on them because of their dodge rolls and careful evading. Their loot is far more worth it, as well. Did you know you can get a Wolf Ring +3? It's worth it.
The remainder of the bosses are really hit or miss, unfortunately. There are 4 total, one of them optional, and I can only say that 2 of them are worth it including my recommendation above. There is a fight in a chapel against a human-sized boss that has a lot of cool attack patterns, but like the Champion Gravetender in Ariandel, it serves as little more than an introduction to a new covenant. The optional boss is a real challenge, but doesn't feel fair in many regards. With so much health and so much damage output, it feels like the designers of this particular fight didn't quite know how to make an enemy that was interesting to fight and so just went into post to increase the necessary stats to make the fight last longer.
The final boss, in particular, spams attacks at such a frequent clip that I found myself only able to take a stab or two every once in awhile. Openings are few and far between and so you have to use the varied terrain and obstacles to try and give yourself a moment to breathe, drink an estus, and go back into the fray. Once again we have a similar problem where, sure, the boss is difficult but it comes across as artificial more than intentional. My one stab would take a sliver off of his health, leaving me to dodge and block my way to safety only to repeat the process again. It's doable, but not fun.
The real fun to be had in The Ringed City is with its revisionist history of Dark Souls 1. There is a lot here, and I won't spoil some of the story ramifications of some items, statues and locations, but I can see the gears of the active Youtube community working overtime to decipher what this means for the overall story of the series. If you are one of these folks, it is recommended to go out of your way to find every item in each zone. Some of them may just be throw away weapons that are inappropriate for your build, but the lore accompanying each one brings a new insight into the establishment of the City and who were the big players involved.
Don't get complacent. It takes a long time to defeat bosses here. It is recommended to be Level 120+ but this is definitely NG+ territory.
This is the last piece of DLC for the Dark Souls series and, apparently, all Soulsborne games. With no future plans to continue any of these fantastic games we need to assess this piece of DLC not only as a summation of Dark Souls 3 wider mechanics, but on these styles of games as a whole. They have been aped, copied, and sequeled to death in various states and forms. FromSoftware created a truly winning formula that is tough as nails, but more rewarding than most games you might play. How does the The Ringed City sum all of this up, then? How does it wrap up an entire era of gaming history?
The short answer, disappointingly, is that it doesn't. Some of the hallmarks I remarked on earlier - tight level design, smart enemies, and deep combat - aren't in full force here. I found myself using cheap or cheesy tactics more often than not to get through many of the zones present here. Where , in other games, I felt capable enough to figure out how to get around one type of enemy, in this DLC I couldn't just work it out the same way. I had to take pot shots, dodge roll out of the aggro zone, and then come back when they had reset their animations.
The level design does loop back on itself like it does in Dark Souls 1, but it is more rote than fun. Where in Dark Souls 1 the revelation that the church elevator brings you back to Firelink and you had this moment of awe of how these two far off levels complemented each other, here a similar elevator from one bonfire to the next comes across as an unnecessary callback. I could just warp instead of taking that ladder, I could just drop the ledge instead of taking the elevator. It's deceptive. It implies that the level is circular when it's mostly linear, with a clear cut path once you find your way through the multitude of high HP enemies.
And as for the smart enemies, there are plenty. But they are grouped in ways that make it unfair for the player. Their attacks might be interesting if they weren't grouped 5 or 6 at at time. The bosses might have been more fun to fight if their HP didn't augment just the time it takes to beat them. It became apparent sometime around the middle of Dark Souls 3 that FromSoftware ran out of ideas on how to make their combat interesting. Once you reach the higher ends of Lothric Castle, you encounter a lot more recycled enemy types than new ones and the latter half suffers for it. The same can be said here for The Ringed City, which doubles down on using similar playing foes to make you agonize over the decision to combat them.
As a personal aside, I'm reading back through my review and score and seeing how badly I've torn apart the DLC. I say all of this out of love. Dark Souls, and Demon's and Bloodborne along with it, even when they are at the worst are still some of the best games you will ever play. It's rare in this day and age to find a game that feels truly unique. There's a reason we have seen other games, like Salt and Sanctuary and Lords of the Falllen, try and copy the visual and mechanical style of Soulsborne games. Even if one piece is bad in these games, it is still worth playing just to dive deep into an experience that is more fun and challenging than any game that comes out around it. If you're a fan of Dark Souls, this DLC is a must buy. If you're just a passing fan, maybe you should skip this one. Either way, Dark Souls 3 and the games before it are all worth the purchase price if you have the mettle to face it.