The Souls series began with specific design principles and, as it achieved success, these have been sorely tested. The Ringed City is something that would once have seemed unimaginable to a player of Dark Souls. Here is a world whose brilliance resides, on every level, in being both a puzzle and a self-contained whole. This DLC arrives many years later to cap off the subsequent sequels that the market demanded – and give answers.
Be warned, this piece includes a nice dose of spoilers
Perhaps you want that. Some players want explicit answers, they want mysteries to be cleared up by an adventure’s close and, indeed, feel somehow slighted when this isn’t the case. As if a creator’s role is to provide a world and then explain their reasoning. The Souls series is more narratively sophisticated than any other games out there, one of the few capable of weaving its game mechanics, environmental design and what has come to be termed ‘lore’ together at the foundation. One of the great beauties of games directed by Hidetaka Miyazaki is going down the rabbit-hole, and always finding that it leads somewhere, that there’s a reason for things being like they are.
This is not a minor achievement: the fact so few other developers even attempt something like Fromsoft speaks to the gargantuan effort required to build virtual worlds on these principles. There’s one other important fact about Miyazaki’s games, which is that the self-contained ones are the best. Demon’s Souls is its own world, as is Dark Souls, as is Bloodborne. The enormous success of Dark Souls led to that being the one to become that dreaded thing – a franchise. One need only look at Bandai Namco’s appalling marketing of the series, an ongoing and tone-deaf act of violence, to see the external pressures this brings.
To its credit, Fromsoft managed to rather upset expectations with Dark Souls 2, through the blindingly simple tactic of making it yet another distinct world. But at the edges, and especially when players reached NG+, the references back started and arguably made that game’s world weaker rather than stronger. But it’s Dark Souls 3 that is the real paradox. An absolutely superb game to play, and the one where the pressure became too much – so Fromsoft went back to Lordran.
The Ringed City is the final DLC for the Dark Souls games, the importance of this being that (wherever the ‘brand’ may go) this is also the curtain call for Miyazaki and the Fromsoft talent behind the greatest games of the modern age. You will not be surprised to hear that there are more than a few callbacks to classic series moments, nor that there’s an optional dragon battle (which is great), nor that it ends with one of the best boss fights ever made – a truly special climax. But you might be surprised at how much has been lost and, the high points aside, how tired and played-out the whole thing feels. The same could be said of Lothric, of course, but no-one under-delivers for the sake of a brilliant meta-commentary.
The environments themselves are spectacular, and the Ringed City itself is a marvel — where Anor Londo's high gothic style shone with glory, albeit the illusion of such, this Ottoman-inspired enclave bakes under a more sinister glow. Sadly the level architecture isn't quite up to the standards set by the artists, and this is compounded by a mixed bag of new enemy types. Among the worst are gimmicky beam-shooting angels who dominate the opening area of the Dreg Heap, until the player can find each one's 'source' and kill it. After that they, thankfully, don't respawn. The Souls series has always had gimmick enemy types, but generally gets away with them as one-off situational challenges or even boss fights. These angels are oppressive and annoying. As soon as the player enters their sight—which can be avoided by hiding behind objects—a cavalcade of laser beams flies in and chips away at your health. If you're not sprinting, or near cover, you're dead.
This is about as far away from the Souls' series strengths as you can get. There's no room here for the exquisite combat system, or the quiet and cautious exploration of a new area. You have to barrel through to where you think the angel's channelling flesh might be (some vaguely humanoid lump that can be killed in a few swings), and basically trial-and-error it. I always defend the games against this specific accusation, because it's often not true — the very genius of Souls is that it is a difficult game for unthinking players, but cool and experienced heads can mitigate whatever they're facing. This whole section was a misery, and put in place a very bad habit that ran over into the rest of the DLC's length.
Let's get down to brass tacks. When you know an area in a Souls game, and want to get somewhere fast, you can usually just sprint by the familiar enemy layouts and, barring mishap, reach your destination without a scratch. By definition you can't really do this until you know an area well, but the overwhelmingly linear construction of the Ringed City (the RINGED CITY!!!) and this early experience with the angels encourages a more maverick approach. Soon enough you're facing corridors, basically, with long lines of enemies that take a while to put down — or you can just run past them. And so I ended up half-exploring this new area and, on realising just how narrow the path was, progressing through it at speed.
It’s not about linearity, but about how you make an environment interesting to explore and memorable for a player. The original game’s Anor Londo isn't actually that huge a place: nothing like as big as the Ringed City. But before you get into Anor Londo's main cathedral you climb up a strut to the left, make your way through an annex's rafters, climb down to an elevator which you raise, then work around the outskirts and run up the struts on the right side (while knights fire dragonslayer arrows at you, one of the series' most infamous moments) before eventually entering the cathedral by a side door. Even here there's a great deal of interior exploration to be done over three floors, gradually unlocking doors, before entering the main hall from above and finally, finally, working your way down and opening the front door. The actual progression is linear — you have to take this route — but in the twists and turns the player has to take along the way, Anor Londo becomes a much more fascinating environment. You see the cathedral from countless angles before ever getting inside, and your eventual reward is a glorious view of the sun as you push its ancient doors open.
In the Ringed City you go across a battlement, go downstairs, keep going downstairs for a bit, run across a swamp at the bottom, and then make your way up a dragon-guarded cliff (a Demon's Souls homage). When you get to the ‘end’ of the area there’s a lift back to an early bonfire, which is neat, but there’s no real spatial complexity here. Within this area there are lots of hidden items and cool details like invading NPCs, but it never threatens to become half as interesting a space as something like Anor Londo or countless other of the series' best environments.
The Ringed Knights, easily the best common enemy the DLC introduces, are used far too sparingly, and often placed in positions where they're easy to bypass. I expected Dark Souls 3 to end by showcasing why this series deserves to be respected for so much more than the challenge — environments that take your breath away, that unfold gradually as you explore or twist into unexpected configurations, places crammed with surprises and brilliantly-conceived shortcuts that bring it all together.
The Ringed City has visual grandeur, and some great enemy types among the chaff (the giant monks that summon ghost archers/knights are an example of a gimmick enemy done very well indeed). But ultimately it feels like Fromsoft is out of ideas for Souls, and who could blame them. The Old Monk boss from Demon’s Souls, an amazing idea whereby other players could be summoned as an area’s final challenge, returns here in another form with a dedicated covenant. The Demon boss echoes the Manhunters and Gargoyles. The dragon boss is great, but there’s been a great dragon boss in every Dark Souls game and so this can’t help but feel a little like box-ticking.
And then there’s the final boss, Slave Knight Gael. This fight is an obvious amalgam of Gwyn, the Nameless King, and Artorias, and in this is utterly fabulous. Whatever else the Ringed City does, the final boss it provides for the series is among the finest the company has made – and Fromsoft do better bosses than anyone. Gael’s powers and appearance strongly suggest he has some direct link to Gwyn and, in the realisation of this fight, you see Fromsoft wanting to give players something they’ve always desired – the chance to face Gwyn at the height of his powers, rather than as a worn-out husk. It makes for one hell of a battle, and Gael’s relentless pace and power make it exhilarating.
This fight is easily the highlight of the Ringed City for me, and so it is slightly disappointing that it’s a better version of fights we’ve already had. But this goes for the DLC and indeed Dark Souls 3 as a whole. As a game considered purely on its elements, the combat system and enemy design and bosses and all of that, Dark Souls 3 hits an incredible quality bar. The multiplayer is, for me, as good as it gets. But as an overall experience, following Dark Souls, my feelings are much more ambiguous.
One of Dark Souls’ great themes was the futility of repetition, about how trying to keep something alive beyond its natural course could never end well. Each repetition grows fainter until, when we enter these worlds, scarcely anyone remembers where they began or why it matters. How ironic that, in finding mainstream success, Dark Souls proved its own point.