Perhaps it was always an impossible feat to truly do justice to Dark Souls; to send it off in a fitting fashion. 6 years since its inaugural release, the franchise has taken the world by storm and not looked back since. It was always a punishing experience that rewarded stoicism and willpower, and The Ringed City certainly hasn’t changed that. But it has changed what made the series great, besides the challenge.
At the end of the base game, the Ashen One is transported to the Dreg Heap; an amalgamated mass of eras gone by, consumed by darkness and smashed violently together into a cocktail of forgotten kingdoms and ancient cultures – the literal and figurative end of the world. In the distance, perceptive players can spot the ruins of the Undead Settlement and Lothric Castle. That isn’t where the nostalgia stops.
The Ringed City ends up feeling like a greatest hits highlight reel rather than a fresh adventure. Every NPC encountered feels like an inside nod, boss gimmicks are re-used from Demon Souls (in what is, in fairness, a very interesting fight), old enemies are recycled – as are areas from previous games, such as the Earthen Peak – a place nobody ever wanted to return. The less Dark Souls 2 the better. There is little which feels new or retrospectively stood out to me after completing the DLC.
Fromsoft did try to inject some new life into the game by remixing the tried and tested formula that has made the series so lovable. Rather than encouraging a slow, methodical approach to the horrors that lurk around every corner and behind each fog gate, the pace of The Ringed City is blisteringly high, pushing you through its linear pathways at top speed. Players are forced to sneak and run from angels with devastating turret beams, escape tedious encounters with legions of crawling undead and hide from the arrow fire of spectral armies. All sounds fun in theory, but the AI’s ploys soon wear thin and become nothing more than tedium. On subsequent revisits they’ll provide no enjoyment and will hurt its longevity.
Upon arriving at the Dreg Heap, the scenery is rather amazing – you stand in the chaotic backdrop of the fight with the Soul of Cinder. The Heap itself though is a vertical world made of ash. It’s jarringly beautiful at first but the similarity of each area does detriment to the stunning visuals. The Ringed City itself, however, is classic Souls: sprawling cathedrals, ancient ruins and abyssal swamps. This place is also home to unique and engaging encounters, quality loot and some of the best puzzles the series has yet to offer.
Perhaps the highlight of the DLC is its bosses. Each one is challenging and demanding in its own way and requires a different strategy. The final boss, whilst not as fitting as the Soul of Cinder, is a fun fight which is reminiscent of Knight Artorias. And, last but not least, is its optional boss. It’s arguably the hardest Dark Souls encounter ever and is a must for long-time fans.
The Ringed City isn’t bad, but it isn’t great either. It definitely lacks the clout and all-round brilliance of DLC like The Old Hunters and Artortias of the Abyss. Towards the end, I was playing it just to be done with it, although it was immensely saddening to conclusively finish every trial From had to offer. Somewhat ironically, it’s a hollow adventure that breaks the perpetual Souls cycle and sees its once roaring flame splutter and wheeze into obscurity.