The opening area to The Ringed City, the latest downloadable content for Dark Souls 3 and possibly the final expansion of the Dark Souls universe, is a brutal slog, even by Souls standards. Angelic creatures hover, capable of firing laser-like barrages every few seconds. It means instant death. If you spend 10 minutes trying to meticulously take one down with arrows, they wither away—only to reappear seconds later. Your best option is to run like hell, pray that enough arrows manage to sail past your face, and hide. It feels a lot like trying to survive 2017.
I've been dreading the release of The Ringed City for a little while now. Though I'm almost always down for more Souls, it's bittersweet knowing that The Ringed City might signal a curtain call for a series that's transformed my gaming worldview. Even if it's time to say goodbye, a notion I'd settled on after the uninspiring Ashes of Ariandel, I prefer staving off the inevitable. It's why I laughed when the unlocking mechanism Bandai Namco sent me to play The Ringed City early didn't work. It meant I could put off the final ascent for a few days.
But the ascent means nothing if the journey isn't worth it, and like Ashes of Ariandel, The Ringed City continues to suggest FromSoftware is right to move on from Dark Souls. I'm usually beaming with pride when I've scaled the latest mountain FromSoftware has put in front of me, but by the end of The Ringed City, I was left empty, bored, and ready for change.
Playing a Souls game is asking to be kicked in the gut, but as far as gut punches go, they feel pretty fair. But little felt fair about the way The Ringed City introduced itself, as I ran in circles, hoping to avoid the angels' glare. Spawn, run, die. Repeat. Invincible enemies aren't the Souls way; the game is usually happy to let you cowardly pelt even the toughest enemies with arrows. There's nothing inherently wrong with subverting expectations, but in this case, it mostly induced frustration. Though you eventually discover a way to dispatch the angels, it came after I spent too much time wondering why I wasn't playing Breath of the Wild instead.
The Ringed City punctuates this intro with a two-on-one boss fight, complete with a last-minute transformation. After banging my head against the boss for a few hours, I succumbed to summoning a friend for jolly cooperation, and we took them down together. I'm normally against summoning, except in the most extreme of circumstances, but it was deeply satisfying to split our efforts, before coming together for the main event. It made me retroactively wonder if my desire to beat everything on my own in a Souls game had done more harm than good. Given how much time you spend alone, having a buddy during the farewell tour felt appropriate.
"Saying farewell to Dark Souls is turning the last page on one of my favorite books."
Before moving on, I spent time summoning into other worlds, helping people take down the same boss. I didn't always survive, but I hoped to give them a fighting chance. (There is nothing more embarrassing, however, than heading into battle with a stranger, trying to show off, and dying within the first few seconds. When this happened to me, I sunk deep into my chair, happy that no one could see me.
This olive branch was extended to me, too. Entering a new area, you often spend the next 30 minutes poking, prodding, and dying, as you grapple with the world around you. But as I approached the literal Ringed City, someone invaded my game. Rather than trying to fight me, though, they guided me through thorny section ahead of me. They didn't have a weapon equipped, leaving the scrums to my icy sword, but they would point in the direction of where to move forward, and corners that might hide treasures. We parted ways when an enemy surprised me, but as the screen turned to black, he waved goodbye. It put a smile on my face.
The rest of The Ringed City was more in line with what I was expecting, for better or worse. There are, at least, some genuine surprises along the way, and a welcomed nod to an especially memorable encounter in Demon's Souls. (It's not a narrative connection, but a design one.)
What works against The Ringed City is what it represents: the end of the line, the final Dark Souls. I'm not sure what I expected from the last moments, but it wasn't this. Whatever my reservations with Dark Souls 3, its climactic battle was a spectacular, fitting conclusion to the saga. The Ringed City, possibly the last time you'll participate in the Age of Fire, ends with a whimper, an encounter that, until learning otherwise, I figured was a prelude to the final act. I wandered around a bit, consulted a walkthrough for definitive proof, and let out a sigh.
The Ringed City isn't necessarily bad, it's just... there.
Dark Souls 3 players who are starting now, with all the DLC available, may have a different experience, with Ashes of Ariandel and The Ringed City merely a set of new areas to conquer. But I came to The Ringed City after months away, hyped for a final jaunt into the abyss. I wanted closure for my hundreds of hours.
Maybe I was hoping for a deeper trip down nostalgia lane, after Dark Souls 3 brought you back to one of the series' most iconic locations, Anor Londo. (It'd be tough to top that.) And though The Ringed City is partially set in a ruined version of Earthen Peak, a location from Dark Souls 2, that's not what I had in mind. Then again, I couldn't tell you what I had in mind, which is often the case when we're confronted with conclusions to moment's we're emotionally attached to. Saying farewell to Dark Souls is turning the last page on one of my favorite books, and nothing can live up to what I've built up in my mind.
It's possible the lore experts will feel differently. Maybe The Ringed City brings about sweeping changes to our understanding of Dark Souls! But I don't read the item descriptions in these games, and only have a passing understanding the intricate storytelling. The experience that matters to me is the story of the hardships along the way. Dark Souls 3 ends with players huddling up next to a bonfire, a bleeding sun hanging overhead. Whatever ending you get in Dark Souls 3, it means change is coming.
The Age of Fire is over, and so is Dark Souls.