Dark Souls III The Ringed City Review
In my review for the base game of Dark Souls III, I mentioned that the game was like a celebration of all of the titles that preceded it. From Software left an indelible mark on the gaming industry when they released Demon’s Souls all the way back in 2009, with Dark Souls III feeling like a culmination of all the lessons the studio had learned perfecting the formula over the years. I was pretty satisfied with how the base game wrapped itself up, and I would have been perfectly content if that the last piece of Dark Souls related content. The first DLC expansion Ashes of Ariandel was a fun addition to the game, but I really could leave it or take it. So the question now is if The Ringed City makes Dark Souls 3 a better game, or if it’s just more content for the sake of having more content.
It should be noted up front that The Ringed City is designed for end game characters and players who have spent a lot of time in Dark Souls III already. This DLC is designed to really test your mettle as a Dark Souls player moreso than anything else in the game. So be advised, try to avoid this content until you’ve finished the base game and Ashes of Ariandel in their entirety. Jumping into it beforehand would probably just be headache inducing otherwise.
The Ringed City is perhaps one of the most experimental areas From Software has created in the Souls series in quite some time. There’s a heavy emphasis on verticality and forcing the player to make quick decisions lest they want to meet an untimely demise. This is both good and bad for several reasons. The good is Ringed City feels distinct from previous environments in Dark Souls III. There are a lot of huge plunges and jumps you need to do in this DLC, and if you’re like me it’s the sort of thing where your heart will be in your throat. Taking big leaps of faith isn’t exactly a new concept, but it happens so frequently in Ringed City that the tone takes on a descent into the deepest and most dangerous place in the world of Dark Souls.
Unfortunately I don’t think From Software were entirely confident in their work here. There are developer messages all over the environments in this DLC which really take the tension out of exploration. There will be a massive fall you need to take, with a developer message placed right in front of it that says “you can fall here without taking damage”, dissolving much of the tension that may build up in those moments before a jump. I get that From Software were probably worried players might get stuck from not trying to jump at all, but there surely could've been a better way to communicate to the player that they won't die from a particular fall. Developer messages have always been used very sparingly in these games as unlike the emergent gameplay that comes from a note another player might leave, we know the developers are only going to give us the best advice possible. It's a big con for me because the verticality of Ringed City suddenly feels like artifice when you know exactly where to jump and where not to.
Which brings me to my biggest gripe with The Ringed City: the abundance of incredibly irritating enemy combatants. Early on you come face to face with this new enemy type that looks like an angel. Basically what this foe does is rain down a massive storm of projectiles onto you, forcing you to dodge and run away from the projectiles as best you can. You can take shelter behind rocks or rubble from these attacks, but in response this new enemy type will cast an area of effect curse spell in your shelter if you stand there too long, killing you if you stay there. The only way to do away with this enemy is to kill a separate stationary target that’s symbiotically tied to it, once the stationary enemy dies, so will the flying angel. It’s a cool concept in theory, and I think the intent of this enemy was to make the player think fast on their feet. Couple that with the big jumps you need to take that I mentioned earlier and it could’ve been a really frantic experience bolting from cover to cover then making a quick plunge into the vast deep unknown below you. In the actual game though it’s so clunky and will probably just lead to a bunch of trial and error runs on the player’s part.
That’s not the only irritating enemy type either just one of several. Annoying enemy types are in abundance in this DLC. When I said at the top of this review that Ringed City is meant for endgame characters and players that have invested a lot of time into Dark Souls III already, I meant that for several reasons. Quite frankly I feel like this DLC was designed to purposely grind away at the patience of the most seasoned Dark Souls player. I’m all for very tough content, so long as the content is interesting to engage in. The opening of Ringed City forces you into trial and error until you get down exactly how the developers want you to play. Which means a lot of mad dashing and taking cover. It’s quite trying after a while to be perfectly honest, and it’s more artificially difficult than something that’ll test your skills.
In my review of Ashes of Ariandel I mentioned that it was a little light on content, and this is one thing that The Ringed City corrects. In my time with it I found at least three bosses, two of which featured some of the most interesting boss fights seen in Dark Souls III. There’s a lot more here in terms of weapons, hidden secrets, interesting level design, and new enemy encounters than in Ariandel. Not all of it works as I mentioned earlier, but I admire the developer's aspiration to create a bunch of content unique content all the same.
The best thing about The Ringed City is without a doubt the art direction. This is a massive, gnarled landscape where seemingly everything binds together. Expansive tree roots twist in with stone structures while dangling on a precipice. This is supposed to be the land where kingdoms come to an end, and there’s an ever lingering sense of melancholy to it all. At one moment I saw a great cathedral from and approached expecting to see something grand inside, only so see that the other side of it had fallen off into nothingness. It’s what From Software does best with their worldbuilding; tell a story without saying a word.
My overall feelings on The Ringed City are quite mixed. While I admire the new ideas in it, a lot of those ideas just don’t pan out well. The abundance of developer messages being the biggest sore spot for me because it feels like the From Software just weren't as confident in their work as they usually are. Experimentation is fine, and I encourage it; but if the end result is a half baked product then maybe it should have spent more time in the cooker. Ashes of Ariandel felt a little too safe in the respective Dark Souls formula but it all worked well while The Ringed City experiments a lot and flounders more because of it.
In all honesty though, I think The Ringed City is ultimately the more worthwhile of the two because of how willing it is to try something new. While some of the new enemy types are irritating to deal with, they’re mostly compounded to the first half of the DLC. There’s a difficulty hump you have to overcome, and combat feels less artificially difficult and more fair the farther into the DLC you go. Keep your chin up during some of the more trying moments and you’ll be knee deep in some of the most interesting landscapes in Dark Souls history.
Dark Souls III is supposed to be the last game in the series for quite some time, and it had an ending that left me very satisfied. So much so that I was apprehensive to play any DLC for fear it might leave an undesirable taste in my mouth. Thanks to The Ringed City that was not the case though. While it is less polished than its counterpart Ashes of Ariandel, it shows a willingness on From Software’s part to innovate until the very end. If you’re the sort of fan that gets lost in item descriptions trying to learn more about the world, then The Ringed City is something you can’t miss.