One day the flames will fade and only darkness will remain.
The Ringed City is the final piece of Dark Souls, a series so well received that it has spurned its own genre within games. As such, it had a lot of anticipation behind it. The prior DLC, Ashes of Ariandel, was a complete mess. Far too short, only 2 bosses if you’re being generous enough to call the grave tenders an actual boss. Throw a bland story-line, lack of connections to the core game and a boss that was way too easy (A lot of people struggle against Friede, but she’s really nothing compared to every DLC boss in the prior games) and you have a 2 hour heap of mediocrity on your hands. The Ringed City was From Software’s chance to end the once cult-hit, now chart-topper series in glorious fashion. Did they achieve that? Well, kind of.
To begin with, the DLC is split into 3 locations, starting with a re-imagining of Dark Souls 2’s Earthern Peak, an area which is fan favorite to literally nobody. Waking in a small room overlooking a sunken city you walk out to a sight very similar to the kiln of the first flame from the core game. A good start lore wise. Anyone familiar with DS3 will know that the world is coming to an end in the coolest way possible. Every land from all over the world is crushing together upon a single location, causing all manners of beasts to be in close proximity. You make your way through the area falling great heights upon the advice of Gael (who we met in the Ariandel DLC). The fall is broken by the iconic ring from DS1, clearly From Software are trying to bring the story full circle.
That’s about as far as I can go with complimenting the first area. From here the player is bombarded by annoying spam attacks from three angel creatures who patrol the area. It makes exploration a chore and actively encourages you to just run through the zones, something that goes against the very heart of the Souls series. Eventually you can kill these pests by finding their hosts but by then the area has an ill taste to it.
The second area, the Ringed City itself, is a step closer to a decent area. Immediately the art style improves with very striking yellows of a setting sun on white brick. The textures are reminiscent of From Software’s other masterpiece, Bloodborne but with the beauty of DS1’s Anor Londo. Good start. But that ends quickly as the moment you step into the area you are treated to three volleys of arrows from countless phantom archers. Yet again the areas rely upon the worst kind of difficulty, a very artificial Mario-esqe “stand here, wait 3 seconds, move up to the next area” kind of difficulty. It’s not until the final stretches of the Ringed City that you are treated to some fantastic enemies who pose a challenge. The dual greatsword wielding darkwraith is an ultimate badass and the highlights of the area.
The final area is entirely a boss fight zone with the most open arena ever included in a Souls game. Stretches of sickly sand in a darkened landscape go on for miles with fallen monasteries punctuating the zone. Five seats sit in the fashion of the Lords with the boss collapsed before them. This is what Dark Souls is all about, beauty in despair.
NPCs in the DLC are thankfully all well voiced and interesting. Patches makes a return with a rather fitting storyline which I won’t spoil here. Minor NPCs have some superbly depressing lines and sound broken and defeated. Nothing that quite reaches the heights of Mikolash, Father Ariandel or Hawkeye Gough, but all enjoyable none-the-less. Where in prior games the dialogue had all been a battle between fighting back the end and letting it happen, everybody agrees that the end is here. There’s no fighting it so now all we can do is damage control. Shira asks you to kill Darkeater Midir so that he may finally rest. Gael clearly appears broken and tired from his quest to find the Dark Soul. You don’t enter the city to save anyone. You come in to euthanise the inhabitants before it’s too late.
Finally, in Dark Souls fashion, I have saved the best for the end. The bosses, the staple of the Souls series are where the DLC redeems itself. Unlike the Ashes of Ariandel DLC with its one real and one fake boss, the Ringed City treats the player to three masterclasses in how to make bosses and a great idea poorly executed.
Going in order of when you meet the bosses, you find the two demons (Demon in pain and Demon from below) in a pit after jumping from the edge of Earthern Peak. To begin with the player fights the bosses in what is clearly the ruins of Firelink Shrine from DS1, yet again bringing everything full circle in subtle ways. The bosses are aggressive, very aggressive. At first, they look more like Bloodborne bosses than souls bosses. They attack quickly and don’t give you much time to heal. The best tactic, unlike in the twin Lothric Prince fight earlier in the game, is to kill one as soon as possible. The moment you spawn run up to one and go crazy. They can be criticaled if you do enough damage so a hornet ring is a boon. After this the fight calms down. With just one hulking Goliath against you it’s easy to anticipate attacks and get hits in from behind. But once the second falls and you dance around the room in your underwear like the warrior you clearly are, the bosses converge to create the Demon Prince, Goliath’s big brother as it were. He’s stronger, flies out of view and has a lot of AoE and ranged attacks. Keep close and stay aggressive. He can be criticaled and the sooner you kill him the less you need to worry about running out of Estus flasks. It’s a great fight which feels a lot like the blood-starved beast from Bloodborne, but there’s 2 of them, and they’re on fire.
The second boss is a shame. You enter a church to be faced by the largest enemy in the series. Whilst the wrinkly bastard is gobbing off about how you’re a prick for letting the cold in or something, you can kill him. He dies and spawns in an NPC who spams soul-masses, arrows and thrusting attacks (you know, the worst parts of the game). He’s a pushover and if you favor greatswords like me, a single R2 charge will knock him to his feet. Just rinse and repeat. The real shame about the fight is the extra mechanic. If online at the time, the boss will call in another player to help the boss slaughter you. This isn’t the first time this has happened in the series. Demon’s Souls had players play as the boss themselves in the Xanathos fight and Dark Souls 2’s best fight against the mirror knight had players invade through the boss’ shield. However Dark Souls 2, for all its failures had perfect PVP . Every weapon was viable and invaders didn’t have the advantage. In Dark Souls 3 invaders have the advantage in normal cases, throw a spell casting boss in there and it’s a recipe for ganking. Want to make the fight bearable? Unplug that Ethernet cable.
The third boss, which is entirely optional is the Dragon Darkeater Midir. Dragons are like Myazaki’s love child. Every Souls game has a dragon on a bridge moment and a dragon boss fight. This is the best one. Midir is well designed, all his moves are devastating so best dodged not blocked and the fight as a whole is amazingly fair. I died about thirty times to this boss (I only died once to any other boss in the DLC). Yet I wasn’t angry at dying because it was always my fault. With each death I learnt how to deal with his various attacks and eventually felled the beast. Not only is the boss one of the hardest in the series, Orphan of Kos remaining the undefeated champion, but it’s highly enjoyable.
Finally, we reach the end, of the series, the world and the review. The fight against Gael is easily one of my favorites in the series, certainly my favorite in Dark Souls 3. He’s reminiscent of Artorias (another amazing fight) mixed with even more berserk references than ever before. He begins the fight on the huge sandy plain with a jumping lunge attack trailed by red mist. Sand pours down around his body as he faces you with his chipped and bloodstained greatsword. Go in for a hit and you’ll see his health bar drop such an insignificant amount that you’ll think your greatsword is made of rubber. This is a long fight. Eventually whittling him down to half health will trigger his transformation stage. The sky turns dark and he becomes imbued with the darkness he swore he’d conquer. The fight becomes a dance with both the boss and player dodging under attacks and following them up with counters. Lighting rains from the sky causing huge damage and some of the most beautiful screenshots you’ll ever see in a game. Berserk fans like myself can have a quick mid-battle orgasm as the already Guts-like boss whips out a repeating crossbow and sends volleys of bolts flying across the battlefield tracing the sky through the bolts of lightning. The grace of the bosses moves and the dodging that is required truly makes the fight a beautiful ordeal. I beat the boss on my second attempt and almost felt sad that I had done so without soaking in all of his majesty.
Overall the DLC satisfies its goals. It’s far from perfect. From Software seem to have lost focus on the difficulty of the series, sending waves of enemies and projectiles to kill the player rather than meticulously designed combat situations against tough enemies. The areas lack the well placed enemies of Lothric castle, Anor Londo or the Old hunters DLC. But the attention to lore and three amazing bosses make the DLC a fitting end for a wonderful series. I’m sad to say goodbye to Dark Souls but with cracks beginning to appear in the formula, it’s best that the series is given a graceful end before it falls into mediocrity. If nothing else, the final fight punctuates the closing of the series with a love letter to what the series does best, depression, difficulty, sadness and through it all beauty.