The Ringed City continues Dark Souls III’s operating thesis; creativity isn’t climb to the tallest peak, but rather a journey with no particular destination on the horizon. Eight years has delivered five Souls-style games and eight unique pieces of downloadable content. Whether The Ringed City really is Dark Souls’ final installment or the beginning of a well-deserved sabbatical, it’s not left wanting for quality or creativity.
Historically, Dark Souls’ downloadable content leaves its own signature on a venerated contract. Dark Souls II’s Crown of the Old Iron King experimented with verticality while Crown of the Sunken King drastically disrupted its own geography. Ashes of Ariandel—Dark Souls III’s first addition, last October—leveraged the series’ latent sense of humor against ingrained expectations. Trees coming out of nowhere to eat you was both hilarious and terrifying.
The Ringed City begins by breaking two of Dark Souls’ long standing rules; the effects of gravity and the promise of permanence. Starting in The Dreg Heap, a literal pile of ash at the end of the world, you’re encouraged to leap off cliffs and fall great distances. Fall damage, typically ruinous from heights of more than fifteen feet, is suddenly non-existent. As the name implies, (most) falls are cushioned by soft, omnipresent ash. Cliffs where this is possible are marked by developer-planted messages, likely a product of rigorous quality assurance, and this gives away some of the surprise, but a spiraling descent without the aid of stairs or elevators is fairly new to the series.
The next rule breaks after you encounter one of The Ringed City’s new enemies, an angel. As The Dreg Heap twists down to its core, you’ll notice giant zombified angels hovering in the central locations. If they see you, they will fire white lasers at your person indefinitely, providing a significant impediment to forward progress. Naturally I decided to cheese one out of existence by unloading a volley of arrows from a safe distance, and (naturally) Dark Souls rejected this pitch by immediately respawning the angel. Things you kill in aren’t supposed to come back, but here we were. It came back, and I had to think of something new (it’s worth noting that is a way to permanently dispose of angels – eventually).
The Ringed City also plays with quantity in a fairly unique way. I’ve spoiled enough of the first hour, but The Ringed City soon comes to a point where it’s effectively pretending to be a cover shooter. You’re not peeking out from low walls and firing off blind shots, but you are rapidly seeking physical reprieve from a seemingly indestructible army of aggressors and hails of projectiles. A solution exists—it’s Dark Souls, if you look hard enough there’s a way out of anything—but not one that arrives without requisite trial and error. You have to poke and prod until you can find a weak spot.
When The Dreg Heap gives way to the titular Ringed City is when the experience turns a corner. What starts with standard castle walls and tight corridors eventually gives way to wide expanses of space, both empty and hostile. The Ringed City doesn’t like to waste time or real estate, there’s plenty there if you can find a way to live through it, but its swamps and barren deserts are as large as any other environment in the series. Scale isn’t a card Dark Souls plays very often, but it’s nevertheless effective in impressing a sense of wonder upon the player.
If The Legend of Zelda is measured by the power and ingenuity of its dungeons, Dark Souls is often appraised by the quality and versatility of its boss fights. The Ringed City delivers three along its narrative along with another optional fight. All, in some measure, contain an element of surprise. The nature of these revelations isn’t terribly inventive—we’ve encountered unexpected revivals and surprise phase shifting before—but the execution, in Dark Souls fashion, is unrivaled (and only recently challenged) by modern peers. Boss fights in Dark Souls continue to eviscerate any form of critical evaluation and raise my heart rate to dangerous levels, all in the name of the sweet, sweet payoff when I finally stand victorious at the end.
The Ringed City also includes the odds and ends expected of its content package. Over a dozen new weapons are available, including a tiny hand scythe and a literal arm. The Giant Door Shield, which as the name implies is two huge doors, demonstrates that Dark Souls still has an active sense of humor (I can’t wait for the inevitable Giant Door Shield-only runs, or squads of PvP maniacs rolling up with huge shields and nothing else). There’s also a suitable (but personally incomprehensible injection) of lore to Dark Souls III’s epilogue, the likes of which I can only appreciate with supplemental clarification.
I don’t think The Ringed City is it for Dark Souls. FromSoftware has demonstrated a capability to twist and contort Dark Souls’ visage to suit minor deviations, and quality hasn’t suffered with its proliferation. The penultimate boss, in particular, sparks with mechanical cruelty and a dramatic performance. It’s awesome to look at and a formidable challenge, which neatly encapsulates Dark Souls’ mission. I believe FromSoftware could do this forever, and I doubt I would ever get tired of it. If Dark Souls is my Madden or Call of Duty, so be it. It would make me happy. As a tidy finale or a signal marking a hiatus, The Ringed City is pure Dark Souls. I will always want more, but this is satisfying.