Written and uploaded by Drew Beyer // Edited by Andrew Busch // Feature fan art by the incomparable Nate Bentley
I blame Hidetaka Miyazaki for the countless hours of my life I’ve spent seething in anger, awash in the dull light of a tv, equal parts spellbound and infuriated by his incredible Dark Souls series. This trilogy captures my imagination as few other games have, through enigmatic storytelling, gorgeous gothic graphics, and brutally difficult gameplay.
But all good things must end (preferably before they become bad things) and according to Miyazaki, Dark Souls III concludes with the recently release of The Ringed City DLC. As the final piece of content for the final game in one of my favorite series, does The Ringed City usher the series out with a bang or a whimper?
I’m happy to say it’s closer to bang, and a significant improvement over its slightly disappointing predecessor, Ashes of Ariandel. Although The Ringed City never quite reaches the heights of Bloodborne’s Old Hunters—which is by far the best piece of DLC From Software has ever produced and one of the best pieces of DLC period—it offers maybe not quite the perfect conclusion to this series I love to hate, but a damned good one. Plus it’s more Dark Souls, which is always welcome.
Like most From Software DLC, The Ringed City takes the player to a brave new world that actively conspires to murder you at every turn. The eponymous location feels like a “greatest hits” of Dark Souls geography, a Frankenstein’s monster stitched from sections that evoke memorable parts of the previous three games. The rich aesthetic of the city reflects what Dark Souls does best, gothic spires, poison swamps, gargantuan gnarled roots, and the occasional field of beautiful flowers. There’s a bleak beauty to the entire DLC, and that’s a welcome improvement over the bland snowy expanse of Ashes.
The mechanical design of the city is just as praiseworthy. From Software strikes a careful balance between making the city labyrinthine and making it comprehensible. The city dwarfs you but doesn’t overwhelm you, mostly due to the careful placement of items and bonfires. If you feel like there’s probably something around that corner, there probably is. And as soon as you feel you’ve stretched the limit of how far you can roam from your current checkpoint, you’re likely to stumble into the next bonfire or shortcut. It’s a distillation of what From Software has learned over the past decade, rewarding exploration by always keeping things just out of reach. The Ringed City revels in this adventurous spirit, encouraging the player to take the mantle of compulsive cartographer, searching every nook and cranny for loot and mapping the best routes through this treacherous city through trial and so much error.
Because make no mistake, as beautiful and elegantly designed as the city is, it’s apathetic to your plight at best and outright hates you at worst. The DLC is the trademark “fun-strating” gameplay of Souls taken up to twelve, as The Ringed City is by far the greatest challenge offered by Dark Souls III. While I appreciate true postgame content, I think the mechanical design of the enemies often leans a little too much into “frustrating” and forgets that “fun” is a crucial part of the gameplay equation.
Take, for instance, the angels. Aesthetically, I’m completely onboard with the angels, as they’re the creepiest rendition of heavenly emissaries this side of Evangelion. But the execution in terms of game mechanics renders them infuriating in the worst way. They watch over parts of the entrance to the city, raining divine laser beams (laser beams are a recurring theme of the DLC enemies, and I’m totally okay with that) down upon any who would dare to seek the dark soul. Cool visual and lore, but it turns lengthly portions of the first segment of the DLC into a ersatz stealth game with a heavy element of random chance, which I found an unwelcome twist on the Souls formula.
Running from the angels takes away one of the quintessential aspects of Souls, which is the correlation between player action and player success. When I fail in these games, it should be my fault— I get greedy, I don’t check my surroundings, or I mistime a roll. At the risk of sounding narcissistic, the keyword of Souls is “I,” and occasionally “we.” Everything revolves around the skill of the player— it’s why “git gud” is simultaneously the most and least helpful advice experienced players can give to novices. The angels subvert this critical dynamic. Dying because of the angels feels too much like bad luck. Too often, the same actions taken in response to the angels lead to different results, breaking both the Souls formula and the definition of insanity.
In addition, the angels aren’t satisfying to kill, a cardinal sin when it comes to Souls enemies. Assuming RNGesus blesses you enough to survive the lasers, you find their fleshy anchors on the ground, incapable of fighting back. It’s disappointing that these monsters which terrorize you with such ruthless effectiveness ultimately go down without a fight.
Luckily, the rest of the enemies more than make up for the angel annoyances. The hyper-aggressive knights of various sizes lead to tense and engaging encounters, highlighting the rhythmic, balletic nature of Dark Souls combat. You’ll be constantly dancing a dance of death, frequently with far too many partners, weaving your way through spells and steel, triumphing despite always being at a disadvantage. It seems artistically limited that most of the enemies are just variations on “dudes in armor,” but the non-angelic enemies in this DLC are awesome to fight. Anything they can do you can do too once you find their weapons, so you get to engage in some sweet revenge.
Like the enemies, the bosses are a bit of a mixed bag. There’s one fight with an aesthetically incredible foe that would be mechanically awesome, too, if you were just fighting the boss and not the camera. Another boss rehashes an idea from Dark Souls II that’s still much better in theory than in practice. The other bosses, however, are some of the best to date, channeling Ludwig and the Orphan of Kos from Old Hunters. Like the knights, the good bosses of the Ringed City challenge you to demonstrate your mastery of the game by being unrelenting yet understandable. These bosses deliver a spot of the old hyper-violence in the best way, forcing the player to rise to the occasion. Special note goes to the secret boss, which I highly recommend you seek out since it’s one of the top five of the entire series. Befitting a climactic, epic duel, the difficulty is insane to the point that any doctor would recommend institutionalization. The only critique of the secret boss I can think of is that it makes the final boss a little disappointing by comparison, even though that’s also one hell of a good fight.
From the lore-hunting perspective, The Ringed City continues the Dark Souls tradition of raising questions it has no interest in answering, and I respect that. Rather than attempt a coherent weaving together of the dangling threads lingering from three games and multiple DLCs, the final piece of the puzzle opts to introduce even more loose ends. This ambiguity works. Dark Souls is playable poetry, where the lore is told through snippets of dense, evocative text, encouraging interpretation and analysis. Like a good poem, Dark Souls tells a deep story through suggestion and allusion rather than conventional narration. This isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but the lore in these games is completely optional, so it’s not actively detrimental to anyone’s experience. The narrative of Dark Souls revolves without trying to resolve things- it’s a world of cycles, not linear beginnings and ends.
Writing this review, I realize that as much as I love Dark Souls, I have a sneaking suspicion it doesn’t love me, which makes my zeal for the series very difficult to articulate if you’re not already onboard with Miyazaki’s particular brand of game design. There’s a very good reason that the series tagline is “prepare to die,” because that’s what you’ll be doing over and over again. While I adore Dark Souls, I’d never describe it as “fun” in the traditional sense. It’s a game you play to experience tangible progression as a player, constantly rising to the challenge of whatever fresh hell From Software throws at you. Winning a boss fight feels like a herculean achievement, because Dark Souls loves reminding you that all you have is your best, and frequently your best just isn’t good enough. Which means you’ve got to make your best better. These games are fundamentally about failure, accepting the inevitability of failure, learning how to grow from your own failures, rather than just yelling at pixels on a screen. If that description piques your interest but you’ve yet to take the plunge, they’re releasing a complete edition of Dark Souls III very soon, and I highly recommend you check it out.
So goodnight, you frustrating bastard prince, and may a flight of creepy bat gargoyle demon things (you know the ones) fly you to your rest. I hate you because you hate me, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. The Ringed City might not be exactly how I wanted this story to end, but it’s a satisfying conclusion to an exemplary series, which is a minor miracle in and of itself. We’ve gotten hundreds of hours of quality entertainment and quality art from From Software over the past decade, so let’s celebrate the series instead of mourning it. Dark Souls might be over, but we’ve certainly not heard the last from Miyazaki.
….Speaking of, any bets on a Bloodbourne II reveal?