“Hollowing” is an important concept in the Dark Souls games, a wasting curse that feeds on memories, devours minds, and can only be staved off by the resolute purpose of the afflicted. The cursed “go hollow” when they lose sight of their reasons for existing, turning into murderous zombies at worst, mindless slaves to routine at best. So when we describe The Ringed City, the final expansion for last year’s Dark Souls III—and the final piece of playable Dark Souls content, period—as a hollow experience, it’s with an eye toward more than just a surface dissatisfaction. It’s an expression of the idea that, here at the end, Dark Souls can no longer remember those things that once made it great.
As it has for so many players before it, FromSoftware has set itself an impossible task here: deliver a block of maps, enemies, and bosses that can simultaneously pay tribute to Souls’ eight-year history, provide a fitting grand finale for every portion of its disparate fanbase, and give players a fun, accessible challenge capable of standing on its own merits. Instead, it suggests that, like so many raging undead, Dark Souls has lost touch with its purpose, the melancholy struggle that defined its success.
Designed for characters who have already suffered and scraped their way through every other corner of Lothric, the DLC starts by placing players in The Dreg Heap, the startling, Inception-esque panorama that hung fascinatingly over the base game’s final-boss encounter. Unfortunately, the Heap quickly proves itself more interesting to look at than to play through. Despite the frequent drops into fall-breaking piles of ash, traversing its terrain is less about navigating the jumbled labyrinth of a sideways city, and more about never, ever slowing down.
“Run” is the watchword of The Ringed City, where infinitely spawning waves of ashen zombies, legions of spectral archers, and menacing, watchful angels all harry the player forward at a constant pace. The goal seems to be to short-circuit the instincts FromSoftware has spent an entire series instilling in players, trashing caution in favor of a series of hectic dashes. It’s not that these chases are thrill-less—or that Dark Souls, a series that never met a teetering bridge that couldn’t be accentuated with a little dragon fire—has never chased these kinds of pursuits before. But the drive to run from threat to threat is relentless, pounding feet wearing away the sense of exploratory caution that has underpinned so many of the series’ finest moments.
To ensure these perils carry their proper goading weight, meanwhile, enemy damage has been scaled up to what feels like punishing rates. Since as far back as Demon’s Souls, a debate has raged over whether “being hard” was the whole point of the Souls series, whether its success was being counted in the number of expletives extracted from players’ lips, another batch of precious souls slipping away under the words “You Died.” The Ringed City suggests From has been seduced, to some degree, by its own hype, filling deadly arenas with enemies capable of killing even a properly statted and equipped character in three or four hits. Instead of an oscillating curve, alternating stiff resistance with gradual success, it feels more like slamming into a series of brick walls. (To its credit, From has worked to dial back some of the most painful moments, releasing a patch this week that, among other things, tones down the damage from the light-hurling turret-like angels.)
Meanwhile, that sense of purposelessness seeps into what should be the DLC’s highlight: its bosses. The four on offer are not so much bad as they are aggressively unoriginal; at this point, every major fight feels like a remix of one or two that came before. (Even The Ringed City’s most interesting offer, the multiplayer-focused Spear Of The Church, is a riff on a concept from Demon’s Souls.) The actual fights carry their own merits—including the pleasures of dodging the final boss’ acrobatic, sword-swinging flips—but it feels like the only way the designers know how to make something epic at this point is to pile up its HP. There’s nothing quite as excessive here as the three-stage final boss fight from Ashes Of Ariandel, the previous DLC, but these are still long battles whose flashy pyrotechnics can’t stop a certain sense of boredom from settling in while the player whittles away at their enemy’s health. (Or repeats the whole thing, when some final phase power-up kills them and sends them all the way back to the battle’s start.)
The expansion’s story suffers from a similar sense of being trapped in the series’ endlessly repeating loops. Minimal and backward-looking, it centers on the player (and others’) quest for the fabled “Dark Soul Of Man,” the shadowy MacGuffin that’s been cropping up in the plot since the first game it lent its name to. Meanwhile, the few non-hostile characters are mostly storytellers, weaving tales of past Dark Souls characters that they claim have been well-served by embracing the power of the Dark. Again, none of it is explicitly bad—very little in The Ringed City is actually bad—but it’s a story that’s ceased to be about anything except a reflection of itself, a hall of mirrors that no fresh light can enter. With its constant explorations of ruined cities and plague-ravaged forests, Dark Souls has always been about the past, not the future. But by this point, every single character you meet is less a person and more of a coded inside joke, a collection of references to a fan favorite from a past game, a mindless repetition that cycles in upon itself. It’s a world gone hollow, in every sense of the word.
Dark Souls was never special because it was hard. If it were, the imitators who’ve followed in its footsteps would have easily succeeded by piling on the pain. No, Dark Souls was special because it was deliberate: Every item description, every shred of dialogue, every enemy encounter and boss arena felt like it was placed with care in order to provoke a thoughtful response from the player and lead them into its subtle pleasures. By eschewing that careful consideration in favor of speed, by burying its plot in a mountain of old references, by turning every boss fight into a wink and a nod at its own long history instead of an original challenge, the series has lost track of those things, transforming at last into a zombie of its former self.
The Ringed City still tolls the Pavlovian bell that peals out “more Dark Souls” in the player’s brain. Exploring ruins has gotten no less satisfying. Risking it all to secure a glowing item or a stash of souls still provokes baseline thrills. The basic back-and-forth of combat maintains its addictive rhythm. And the whole world is incredibly beautiful, especially the lush panoramas of the Ringed City itself. Nevertheless, it’s probably for the best that the series is heading for its final, peaceful rest. Better to break the cycle before it can degenerate any more.
Dark Souls III: The Ringed City
Publisher: Bandai Namco Entertainment
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Reviewed on: PC