Game Reviewby Dave Riley,
The Ringed City
The Ringed City promises to close the book on the Dark Souls universe, but it resolves few affairs outside its own.
The Ringed City opens on a vertiginous sight: a sheer cliffside overlooking a bristling conglomeration of towers and mountain peaks spiraling down as far as the eye can see. Shattered chapels jut horizontally from ruined ground and terrible tree roots pierce the earth at odd angles. This pile of uncanny geometry is The Dreg Heap, a place where, when the time is right, all the places of the world coalesce and become one. Descending the Dreg Heap, you plummet more than you climb, falling from dizzying height to dizzying height, and tracing a line through a tasting menu of architecture from Dark Souls 3, then 2, then 1. Emerging onto that precipice and looking down, it finally feels as if Dark Souls 3 has made good on its suggestion that all worlds are colliding, and this is what comes from the inevitable end of the world: a gradually compressing mishmash of stone, ash, and souls of no use to anyone. Ashes of Ariandel, the previous expansion, was a largely insular story, but this promises the climactic end of not just the world, but all worlds. It doesn't get any less insular than that!
If only the execution matched the theme.
Claiming to reconcile all worlds, the Dreg Heap is more look than feel. It's aesthetic garnish. So here's some windmills, which really could've been any group of windmills, except the checkpoint's name is "Earthen Peak Ruins" so this stretch of white rock is meant to represent Dark Souls 2. But Dark Souls 2's Earthen Peak was one an intricate dungeon, which forced you to scan the rafters for acrobatic mannequins and watch your spacing while fighting near toxic urns. Earthen Peak's windmills offered a sublime moment of discovery: burning one with your torch drained a far-away poison trap, converting a seemingly unfair boss fight into a completely manageable one. This "Earthen Peak" is none of that, just the barest visual suggestion of those things. Really, this seems more like an excuse to throw you into another icky swamp. The idea that worlds are colliding carries little weight because it's something the game says more than its does; it's a fine idea wasted as an excuse to make a Greatest Hits expansion to what was already the Greatest Hits game.
Like the prowling wolf packs and stealth-lite sequences of Ashes of Ariandel, The Ringed City weaves new encounters out of the old cloth of its engine. At points, it's is a cover-based shooter, throwing you from trench to trench dodging the laser beams of a twisted, invincible angel controlled by a vulnerable-but-hidden larval thing. Bosses are referential to a fault, as has become the norm, but at least they're chasing the creative highs of the series: a duo fight with moveset changes depending on who you kill first, reminiscent of Ornstein and Smough, a compulsory PvP battle in the style of Demon Souls's Old Monk, and a duel trumping even fan-favorite Artorias in unabashed Berserk references.
But in each case, the ruthlessness of these encounters blots out their appeal. Everything exists to harry you. Evade the legion of spectral archers and get close enough to their summoner to take him down? Well now he's summoned a ghostly dragon head, and you're dead. Figure out how to dodge the dragon head? Well now he's summoned a giant club knight, and you're dead. Learn the patterns of a high-HP bruiser enemy? Well how about three at a time? Discover that plunging attacks make short work of them? Well you'll have to deal with the scuttling lightning-throwers harassing you from the catwalks if you want to get into position to actually do it. The greatest disservice to these encounter's novelty is themselves. They revolve around "gotcha!" moments that force fatal mistakes as price for progress.
Trial and error isn't new to the series. Undead Burg, the first area in Dark Souls, trolls you by rolling a flaming barrel down the last staircase before the boss. But these moments were spaced out, like they were only supposed to exist in places where you'd be the most cocky: a little sting at the end of a long area to remind you to keep your head on a swivel. As a rare flavor, even unfairness can be fun, and that flaming barrel was like a good-natured joke between player and game, "you're right," as YOU DIED fades across the screen, "I was getting a little too comfortable." Here, tricks and traps are omnipresent to the point of parody. It's as if a flaming barrel waits at the top of every stair, only it's invisible so you can't know it's coming and rolling out of the way catapults you into a pit of explosive demons. The only way to surmount these new challenges is by throwing yourself into the meat grinder until it runs out of tricks.
As has been the case throughout Dark Souls 3, it feels like the designer's only answer to their player's all-encompassing mastery is inflating the numbers. Higher damage, tougher enemies, and lots more of them. Bosses follow the model of The Nameless King. They're endurance drills whose initial phases, over the course of successive runs, quickly become a mundane resource tax you're forced to slog through on your way to the part of the fight you're actually trying to learn. Internalizing every pattern of the final boss's first and second phase flawlessly while his third-phase attacks obliterate you right out of the gate creates an enormous time lag between revelation and victory, and each fight feels like it would flow if not well then at least acceptably if one thing were different. If the final boss didn't have such a ludicrous amount of health, if the PvP encounter didn't come with adds able to heal the enemy player at any moment, or if their 3rd phase attacks weren't upgraded specifically to punish you for learning their 2nd phase attacks.
Iteration has always been the name of game. Dark Souls is a series about learning from your mistakes, but most of the mistakes you make here are fatal. Step out from behind a tree or column, get nailed by the fusillade, die, and come back knowing nothing more than "well, not that way, I guess." The rhythm of these encounters is not absent, but off, and it begins to feel like the only currency Souls has left is meanness, almost a confirmation that Dark Souls has officially became what detractors always said it was: an exercise in masochism, first and foremost. Struggling against a difficult boss is the hallmark of these games' appeal. It's not that they were never frustrating, or even unfair, but that their frustration was counterbalanced by triumph. These fights aren't bad, they're out of alignment. They're either too long to be this hard or too hard to be this long. My tenth or twelfth or twentieth attempt on the final boss spilled over into victory not because I'd sussed some sure-shot trick, but because it was the time I kept my attention focused on a half-dozen factors long enough to get my forty-third hit in and finally deplete his enormous health bar. At the end, there was still that nervous release of tension that I crave from Dark Souls, but beneath it was less that bridling, explosive triumph than a relieved resignation. Not "I did it!" but "Thank god that's over."
Well, I kept coming back until I won, though.
As a self-contained narrative, The Ringed City has its share of evocative imagery, especially in its finale. Souls games were inspired by dark fantasy fiction, so you can imagine a future that builds on that past, with regular expansions playing out as short stories in a shared universe. But this is not that. It plays at greater aspirations, suggesting it's going to answer the biggest questions of the series, but all it really does is close the loop Ashes of Ariandel opened. With covetous murmurs of "The Dark Soul..." scattered all over its landscape, The Ringed City self-imposes its task of closing the book on Dark Souls, then immediately sets out creating an epilogue only for itself.
Dark Souls doesn't need a conclusion, not really. Like most things built more on lore than plot, the weight of these games is in their mystique, not their story beats. As you push through claustrophobic catacombs with your shield up or your torch out, wary of what lurks around every bend, you don't see the issue. Dark Souls, even in these diluted, mean-spirited iterations, still feeds you that essential qualia of anticipation and dread, the tremor over your skin and the butterflies in your stomach, and, through this, its micro-worlds, even the worst of them, are worth exploring. For the first time, anyway. The question is: how far out is the event horizon? Is it your tenth summary murder when an area stops being new? Is it your twentieth?
That's been the ongoing tension of Dark Souls 3: it's never as good as your favorite parts, but there's always just enough glint in the rough to keep you interested. And this expansion is, in all these many ways, a microcosm of its base game. The quirks of its encounter design are outweighed by sheer punitiveness. The intrigue of its setting is neutered by a dogged urge to reference and rehash. Cloistered off in the corner of another icky swamp, different than the Earthen Peak one from earlier, just before you reach a treacherous bridge guarded by a fiery dragon, is a 1:1 clone of a boss from the main game. It's the Dragonslayer Armor, again, only this time it's made of iron instead of gold. It was a fine fight the first time; it's fine this time too. But an animated suit with no character at all outside its reference to an earlier game? It's hard to think anyone cared enough about that boss in the first place to be excited by its no-fanfare return. This is the emblem of Dark Souls 3. A palette-swapped reproduction of something known. A fine facsimile of something treasured, hollow inside.
Overall : B-
Graphics : B+
Sound/Music : B
Gameplay : C
Presentation : B-
+ Functions nicely as a short story in the Souls world.