Game reviewers and casual gamers everywhere have all viewed playing Dark Souls as something of a tall order. As a game legendary for its difficulty (even though it can be easily exploited by shield-heavy strategies and summon signs), Dark Souls III doesn't always inspire excitement outside of its dedicated following.
Not this time, though. From Software turned the tables on itself after releasing the disappointing Ashes of Ariandel. Impressing me, the filthy casual, is now the tall order. Finding myself in a rare position of power over the Souls series (what's that saying about shoes and feet?), I still have to admit: The Ringed City had me from the first level.
Among the Dregs
If you've played the base game of Dark Souls III, you'll recognize the setting for the first part of The Ringed City immediately—it's the background area just before the final boss fight. Collapsed buildings and fallen castles were far too cool to be kept as a setting, so you're immediately tasked with traversing this area once relegated to background decoration.
And this is just the tip of the iceberg for The Ringed City's creatively-designed set pieces. You'll fight enemies that scale in ways you haven't seen before on landscapes you couldn't imagine. It's a testament to the minds at FromSoftware, who seem to be on a never ending quest to dazzle with both style and substance.
Take this example from the first area (The Dreg Heap) as a taste of The Ringed City's more outside-the-box nature: you have to use fallen castles as cover while you navigate several Demon-Angels who shoot deadly beams of light at you whenever you cross their eyesight. All the while, there are things trying to kill you, of course.
Making You Care
One of the major failings of Ashes of Ariandel was its weak connection to Dark Souls lore, even to the installment on which it was expanding. The Ringed City doesn't suffer from this and draws its connections as far back as the first game.
More than just that, The Ringed City tied into Ashes of Ariandel, swooping in to save the story of an otherwise forgettable installment. It made you care about something you would have rather forgotten. And all of this only from the more obvious plot encounters. Considering that From Software is notoriously talented at obscuring story details, I imagine The Ringed City is far more rich than I discovered.
But, like any Souls game, you can certainly play The Ringed City and not know what is going on. You progress merely because you want to continue enjoying the incredible set pieces and engaging boss fights. The Ringed City certainly has those.
Like any expansion to any game, though, it's still not meant to be played and experienced by a newcomer. It's only accessible at the final stage of Dark Souls III, and the difficulty is something of a new-game plus, where the enemies challenge level starts at the highest level from the base game. This will have its appeal for Dark Souls fans, but new players may not even make it to the end of the base game to access the DLC. As a result, this package won't be attracting anyone who was on the fence about playing in the first place.
The Boss Of Me Now
Speaking of improving upon Ashes of Ariandel, which had essentially two horrible bosses, The Ringed City has imaginative bosses oozing out its pores. Even bosses that are normally deemed as no-nos (ones with multiple foes) are pulled off in such a way that inspires both awe and ire, the latter being achieved mostly because I'm not particularly talented at Dark Souls.
Not only that, but you'll also face a variety of larger enemies that have the scale and feeling of boss fights but aren't, and even a larger enemy that will become a boss fight at a later time, a concept that feels straight out of Demon Souls—the OG, as it were.
The one thing I could say that's bad about this is that the technical, grindy nature of boss fights may shift my focus away from what's most visually interesting about the game. Just like someone who's really good at Arkham City, for example, won't have time to appreciate the well-implemented and visceral combat animations because their eyes are already focusing on their next target. The constant rolling and slashing at the legs of bosses make it difficult to appreciate the splendor.
While Ashes of Ariandel created skepticism where there otherwise wouldn't have been, rest assured that The Ringed City is the genuine article and gives Dark Souls III the send-off it deserves.