Dark Souls 3: The Ringed City is meant to be a long, exhaustive descent. It's the journey upriver in Apocalypse Now, the tumble through chaos in Paradise Lost, the descent in, uh, The Descent. The looming sense that you’re approaching a terrible truth and the impression of a long distance traveled are central to The Ringed City, where you quite literally fall deeper and deeper into an abyss, punching through layers of history before reaching the titular Ringed City at the bottom—and as a bizarre first for the series, fall damage is turned off to compensate.
After Ashes of Ariandel, a fun but all too familiar detour through A Videogame Snow Level™, The Ringed City has a lot to prove. As the final DLC release for Dark Souls 3, it needs to be stranger and more creative than ever. And as the capstone to the Dark Souls series as a whole, it needs to put as neat a bow as possible on a widely beloved series. While I only got to play the DLC’s opening minutes at an event put on by Bandai-Namco, The Ringed City feels much more surprising and original than Ashes of Ariandel, but also proves that it’s finally time to give the series some much deserved rest.
Sugar, we’re going down
The Ringed City opens up on a confusing mess of upturned buildings and jagged grey terrain, where civilizations from all of time and space are converging on a single point far below the surface—what I imagine as a kind of fourth dimensional toilet flush. I start on the rim of the twisted scene. A pilgrim sits near the edge, looking down, muttering on about the abyss and a beast and Prince Lorian. It’s hitting all the Dark Souls lore notes: darkness, royalty, and monsters.
The only way I can go is down, so I slide and drop to an outcropping below. I make my way across a bridge towards the shelled remains of a keep, but before I can make it to safety, around half-a-dozen purple portals open up right on the other side. Crippled knights crawl out of them and towards me, skinny and glistening and probably pissed off. It’s hard to make out whether they’re undead or comprised entirely of skeletal armor.
They’re not difficult to take out on the bridge, which feels like a chokepoint designed to (somewhat) safely introduce me to these new enemies. But because it’s Dark Souls, I’m also harassed by a few upright spellcaster variations of the same enemy type tossing evil magic missiles my way. I get too distracted and the crawlies quickly dogpile, pulling me back down into the purple portals they arrived in. Let’s try again.
Another go and I clean up the area, taking in my surroundings. Nothing but upturned medieval architecture and terrain in a catastrophic crawl towards the massive hole below. The Ringed City is somewhere down there. I head up some stairs to look for items, and a towering, rotund humanoid encased in roots (maybe dry guts) with a swirling black void for a head jumps down in front of me.
It wields a scimitar as tall as my knight, which I figure must be slow to swing, even for a big guy. That’s not the case—hell, this dude can jump twice his height in the air and come down swinging. He’s quick, but has clear tells and limited stamina, a nice break from the exhausting, perpetually-swinging Mirkwood Knights in the Ashes of Ariandel DLC. With a bit of patience, I poke the guy enough to take him out and carry on.
Further on, an item hangs precariously on a narrow ledge jutting out over a sheer drop. From Software knows I want the shiny, and as soon as I grab it, the ground crumbles beneath me and I fall hundreds of feet through the stained glass window of a toppled library below. I hit the ground hard, but my health doesn’t move an inch. Gravity and pain work differently here.
Before I can get my bearings, a few crawlies pop out of their portals, flanked by casters again, but this time I’m in the center of the mess and have to watch my back. Still, it’s not a significant challenge. The little guys are easy to stunlock and the casters aren’t a problem if I listen to the sound cues and roll at the right time.
But then one bubbles up and lurches toward me, expanding into a large in midair. Cue the frantic scribbling of lore fanatics. I roll out of the way at the last second and the phantom hits the ground, disappearing in a ghastly explosion. I pray to whatever god still exists in Dark Souls’ world that it only gets weirder from here.
And it does, even if I don’t have the time to progress much further. In a callback to Bloodborne’s in Old Yharnam, I run into an angelic butterfly creature outside the cathedral as it rains down rapidfire light rays on some abyssal monsters. Once they’re gone, it spots me, and sends the same rays my way, killing me in a few dumbfounded seconds. Dead and ashamed, I pass the controller to my colleague Lucas at GamesRadar who learns from my mistakes and books it when he reaches the butterfly, darting between cover whenever it stops to recharge.
Soon enough, he finds a rooted humanoid creature somehow connected to the butterfly hiding behind a boulder. Killing it makes the butterfly dissolve (for now).
In our remaining time, Lucas dives around a room with infinitely respawning crawlies guarding some items and dies to one of those big void-headed scimitar men from earlier accompanied by some suicidal crawlies (they take Lucas to school, as the kids say). We both watch one player make it further into a vast caldera where the butterfly makes another appearance, along with pools of poisonous sludge, curse-weapon wielding , and more of the big scimitar void-heads, angry as ever.
There’s still no boss in sight, and if The Ringed City is truly bigger in every way than Ashes of Ariandel—more bosses, more weapons, more areas, and more everything, as I’m told by the Bandai Namco rep on hand—then this descent might be a long one. ‘More’ sounds great, but I just hope it’s a fitting journey down.
The Ringed City is a perfect opportunity to wrap the series up in whatever way From Software sees fit. The descent through actual layers of the Dark Souls timeline—settings and creatures previously seen and unseen—means the team has a final shot to do whatever the hell they want. So far, The Ringed City is showing promising signs. By turning off such important systems like fall damage, designing levels around long vertical drops, and featuring eerie abyssal enemies that can attack in hordes without warning, it feels like From Software is revisiting their own design bible and skipping every fifth rule.
Note: The video above contains some new footage from The Ringed City, but it also contains spoilers. Watch at your own risk!
As long as the trend continues and similarly drastic changes show up throughout The Ringed City, I’m in. If gravity doesn't kill you, then what else behaves differently in the converging crater? Is time linear? Space? Will up always be up and down, down? Will the enemies and characters all assume a solid form, or will we be fighting properly messed up monsters? Can we trust our eyes? In the opening moments of Dark Souls 3, an abyssal snake bursts from an undead, but the rest of the game doesn’t do much else with viscous otherworldly body horror. Maybe The Ringed City is where the culmination of From Software's wildest ideas are waiting for us.
But even if the level design isn’t some magical evolution and enemies test the same tactics with a new void-centric wardrobe and the mythology is just made more confusing than whole, I’m OK with Dark Souls feeling like plain old Dark Souls one last time.
We'll have our final verdict on The Ringed City when it releases on March 28.