The Ringed City: A Hollow End

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.

6/10

Mass Effect: Andromeda – Beautifully Empty

Wanderlust. That’s the defining characteristic of Mass Effect: Andromeda. 600 years and 2.537 million light years from the Milky Way, humanity (and company) arrives in our neighbouring galaxy to explore bold new horizons and find a home in a strange but beautiful heaven teeming with possibility and novel alien species to inevitably bang.

Or at least that was the idea. The Andromeda Initiative found seven “golden worlds” which were ideal for colonisation, though upon arrival in Andromeda we find that things haven’t gone to plan. The Scourge, a mysterious and unnatural celestial object, has materialised and seemingly terraformed these golden worlds into inhospitable wildlands. Things may look bleak, but at least there aren’t any Reapers.

As Ryder, a likeable protagonist with the ability to carry the plot, your task is to make these worlds viable once more. Each world is expansive and carries its own unique threats and mysteries for you to tackle, and as you progress and the world becomes more viable, your progress becomes tangible – skies clear, outposts are constructed, and new beginnings are founded – which gives a real sense of satisfaction and achievement.

The worlds, however, once explored for a while become somewhat tired. There’s an apparent lack of flora and fauna, and there are only so many times you can view a breathtaking vista before it makes you sigh instead each time a side quest drags you back. The same can be said of new species. Mass Effect excelled in its diversity: from monstrous krogans to the ethereal asari. Andromeda does precious little in expanding this collection of aliens; 25 hours in and I’ve only met two new species, one of which resemble humans a little too closely in terms of their world and personalities.

The plot and gameplay resembles the original Mass Effect greatly. Players use a cornucopia of fun skills and weaponry to help unravel the ancient and advanced technology of an unknown race in a story peppered with twists and challenges in an endeavour that should take over 40 hours. Yet, perhaps most saliently in a Bioware title, it forces you to make hard choices in moral grey areas which may come back to haunt you.

Now for the bugbear: faces. The internet reacted in apoplectic rage (as it so often does) to early footage of awkward and sometimes genuinely terrifying facial animations, although it seems to have been an overreaction. There are uncomfortable and immersion-breaking moments like Addison’s cement block of a face or Cora’s wild, unblinking eyes, but they aren’t frequent. The voice acting is acceptable in swathes but some conversations can feel a tad unnatural; like two recordings slapped hastily together rather than two people actually conversing in a booth. Characters, though, mostly come across as natural and well-developed – the same of which can be said for your crew. It’s an amicable and deep cast worth investing your time and emotion into.

On a technical note, Andromeda is far from perfect. The game is laden with bugs and glitches which can be detrimental, especially in the mostly encapsulating multiplayer, but Bioware have stated that they will be “aggressively patching” to resolve these issues. The savvy consumer might wait a few weeks before diving into the action.

Despite its drawbacks, shortcomings and beautiful emptiness, Andromeda is a pleasing but exacting RPG fused together with a strong storyline and enough avenues to explore. Perfect for anyone feeling a sense of wanderlust.

8/10

Nioh: A Dream for Masochists

Team Ninja’s latest effort, Nioh, is an experience that manages to be rewarding and punishing all at the same time – which is unsurprising when you consider the same company are responsible for Ninja Gaiden.

 

Nioh has much in common with Gaiden; a fast-paced, story-driven action-adventure that thrives on its challenging combat, making players think tactically about their approach, item usage, and fighting style.

 

This emphasis on tactics can make all the difference in a life-or-death battle. Some foes may struggle against the range of spears, whilst some may be punished by the speed of dual swords. A mastery of two weapons and fighting styles is advised by the game from the outset.

 

There are only 5 kinds of melee weapon: sword, dual sword, kusarigama, spear and axe. Whilst there is little in terms of variety, each weapon has a large skill tree with myriad abilities that make each unique and entirely viable.

 

The reliance on using items effectively is a double-edged sword. Whilst it provides an alternative solution to issues, the rarity of certain items can lead to dull farming or reluctance to use them, even when essential.

 

Nioh will inevitably be compared to FromSoftware’s critically acclaimed Souls series, and for good reason. Those familiar with Dark Souls or Bloodborne will feel right at home.

 

The importance of evasion, learning enemy attack patterns, and patience are key – critical elements shared by Souls. But Nioh has enough substance of its own to stand out and not be a clone of the former.

 

Its online co-op mode is much the same. Players can use ochokos – small cups that are offered by the host. These work the same way as Humanity. However, it doesn’t feature the same invasion system that Souls players are familiar with.

 

Rather than being invaded by hostile phantoms when human, players can find Bloody Graves throughout missions. Bloody Graves are the death sites of other players and sometimes NPCs from which you can summon an AI enemy which fights with the same weapons and style as the actual player who died. They vary in difficulty depending on the dead user’s skill.

 

Summoning and killing the phantoms of Bloody Graves is an interesting mechanic, and the glory points you receive can later be used to acquire rare items, but overall it creates a lack of the controller-gripping tension that Souls offers.

 

These battles also become entirely predictable. The AI can only replicate a player character to a certain degree, so once you learn a strategy that works well for one phantom, it will work well for them all. For example, sword wielders can spam a pulse attack which depletes enemy stamina and then perform a special attack for massive damage.

 

Don’t expect to be hand held and given access to all the information you need. After giving you the basics to survive, Nioh initially becomes confusing – especially for the uninitiated.

 

There are plenty of stats and abilities to explore but to do so you’ll need to put the time and effort in to discover them on your own, or look for guides on the internet. Spirit, onmyo, and ninjutsu skill paths should not be ignored early on although it is easy to do so.

 

Nioh is diverse in its range of enemies. From gelatinous umibozu to towering fiends, there is plenty waiting out there to brutally murder you again and again. But certain enemies appear all too often, and once their attack patterns are sussed and strategies solidified, they become lacklustre encounters – which becomes problematic in such a long game.

 

Personally, I feel that the game struggles when it comes to its bosses. Often the bread and butter of a game like this, these challenging fights certainly provide difficulty, but occasionally due to poor design. Especially the Ogress – the boss of the beta – who can jump seemingly thousands of feet through the air, tracking you relentlessly, before plummeting down to earth and taking all of your hit points with her.

 

Or maybe Hino-enma, who loves to spam a single move which paralyses you if it connects, allowing her to swoop in for an easy kill. Unless you’re carrying anti-paralytic needles with you, which instantly cure the status effect. If you don’t have any, or have wasted them in previous failed attempts, you’re going to be in for some pain.

 

An area where Nioh excels is its setting. Taking place in a reimagined 1600 Japan, at the end of the Azuchi-Momoyama period, the country is embroiled in a fierce war, featuring genuine characters from history such as Tokugawa Ieyasu and Hattori Hanzo.

 

A manifestation of the horrors of this conflict are the Yokai – twisted, terrifying demons. Each one faced in Nioh is derived from actual Japanese folklore. The knowledge and attention to detail from Team Ninja is staggering. It’s not just a game, but a learning experience centred on Japanese culture and history.

 

Overall, Nioh is an excellently layered game which offers depth and challenge, which is something which many modern titles cannot boast. It does, however, suffer from several issues regarding its difficulty and perhaps even replayability – though this shouldn’t be an issue as it promises a runthrough time of 40-70 hours.

 

Nioh has flaws, but they aren’t fatal (unlike everything else in the game), and they don’t take away from the fact that it’s an exigent adventure that every masochist should own.

 

8/10