If this is the end, as we believe it is, then Dark Souls has at least been given a proper goodbye. The Ringed City is a welcome improvement on Ashes of Ariandel, offering two new self-contained worlds, fresh gear and some of the toughest boss fights ever, including a memorable encounter that harks back to Demon’s Souls in 2009.
Truly, we’ve come full circle.
More than anything, Dark Souls has never looked better. I don’t know whether it’s a result of the eighty hours I plunged into Nioh, the Souls-inspired slasher with form and function in spades but rather less beauty, but Dark Souls suddenly looks beautiful. Its opening level stamps that message loud and clear, taking you to a crumbling post-apocalyptic world where ash as fine as snow spits plumes of powder beneath your feet and a bright red sun shaped like a moon hovers ominously in the sky.
The Souls games have always, broadly, taken well-known fantasy tropes and given them a twist, but some of the set design here is inspired, and the titular Ringed City gives you a breathing view of the world at your feet, its ornate walkway festooned in vines wrapped around tombstones like veins, flowers growing wild like garlands, and a sentry of armed soldiers in wait. Before long, you’re plunged into the depths of this new world where a swamp crawls with flying insects, nasal hiccoughing sounds coming from their swollen abdomens.
The Ringed City is, like the best the series has had to offer, visceral, full of character and, at times, downright gross. In retrospect, why am I surprised? The series has always been remarkably good at creating new looks for itself and carving out something carnal, and while the gallery of new rogues and the arenas are retreads, they’re done with style (and unlike the last DLC, passion).
The same goes for the boss fights. In most games, these level-ending encounters are an afterthought. Here, they’re the reason for the very level existing. Ashes of Ariandel was criticized for being stingy with its setpiece fights, something The Ringed City readdresses with aplomb, heaping challenges on your plate and then shoving them in your face. I’ll admit, I didn’t have the skill or the patience (but mostly the skill) to get through these encounters alone, and resorted to summoning an army of online players to make the going easier. That’s partly because I didn’t have time to burn, but it’s also because I’m a wuss. And if you’re attempting this level 100 and below, you’re a bigger masochist than me.
What can I say about the fights? If you’re a Dark Souls diehard (and you probably are, given you’re reading this review) you’ll broadly know what to expect: kinetic duels where the odds are stacked against you like the chips at a Vegas poker tournament, and a myriad ways to die. There’s even a hidden encounter accessible via a lift and a secret passage. Classic Dark Souls. Until you come to one fight that isn’t; one that bears more in common with Demon’s Souls and will take you so completely by surprise that I won’t say any more – on the slim chance you haven’t read a spoiler online already.
All things considered, I’m happy this is the end because Ashes of Ariandel was an imperfect send-off and From Software have burned the midnight oil and cranked the heaters up to produce something close to their very best here. Not the very best, of course. Even after six hours of being stabbed and hammered to death, lulled to the soothing lullaby of “YOU DIED,” I still think Dark Souls III and its DLCs are nowhere near as brilliant as the first one. Nor am I ever going to be satisfied with the level design until it betters the blueprint Miyazaki laid down at the first going.
I mentioned Nioh earlier, and I’ll mention it again for the last time. Having noticed how much prettier Dark Souls is, I can’t help but feel the reverse applies to gameplay. Nioh feels like the more-forward thinking game, the obvious evolution of the formula in the way it distills combat to its purest form. Souls feels slow by comparison, almost clunky, and it’s jarring at first. The framerate can also add to the problems, never hitting a stable 30 FPS and chugging along like a creaking, wheezing old timer.
But this is good enough, and perhaps it’s the perfect time to say bon voyage. While Miyazaki and his devotees work on new things, fans can enjoy Dark Souls for another month at least, taking stock of PVP opportunities and pouring over new breadcrumbs in a story that no one truly understands. With time, we’ll look back on these games as true greats – maybe the greatest franchise ever – and The Ringed City is a fitting end note: slick, self-knowing, and, unlike Ashes of Ariandel, generously packed with content.
This review is based on the PS4 version of the game, which we were provided with.
A greatest hits package of delights, The Ringed City gets just about everything right. If this is the end, as we believe it is, Dark Souls is going out on a high note.