Saturday, April 1, 2017

Dark Souls 3: The Ringed City - DLC Review

The Ringed City is the second and final DLC for Dark Souls 3, and supposedly the final piece of content that will ever be produced in the Dark Souls series. Its story continues where Ashes of Ariandel left off; after defeating the final boss of the Painted World of Ariandel, you gain access to a bonfire that warps you to a new area, the Dreg Heap, where you go on a brief journey through the dilapidated ruins of past Dark Souls environments en route to the Ringed City, where Slave Knight Gael (who beckoned you into Ariandel) hopes to find the Dark Soul of Man so that his niece, the painter from Ashes of Ariandel, can use it to create a new world.

This DLC introduces two new areas (the Dreg Heap and the Ringed City itself), four new bosses (one of which is optional), a new covenant, all new enemies, plus a bunch of new weapons, armor sets, and spells. As part of the release, FromSoft also released a patch for the base game which tweaks some balance issues (mainly buffing strength weapons and heavy armor) and which also adds two new maps to the PVP arena, which is only accessible if you've purchased either of the two DLCs. The first DLC, Ashes of Ariandel, felt a little too short and underwhelming to recommend to anyone but die-hard fans; for the same price, The Ringed City offers over twice as much content, a lot of which is pretty unique stuff that's never really been seen or done before in a Souls game, so it's pretty easy to recommend.

Facing off with a ringwraith in the Ringed City. 

Unfortunately, The Ringed City basically requires Ashes of Ariandel to make sense, since it's a continuation of that DLC's story. Not that there's a lot of prominent storytelling in this DLC (or any Souls games, for that matter), but the whole point of Gael being in the Ringed City is established in Ashes of Ariandel -- if you haven't met him in the previous DLC, then he's just some random guy who shows up at the end, and the ending is almost completely meaningless to you. In fact, you can't even trigger the DLC's proper ending without owning Ashes of Ariandel, because it requires you to go back there to talk to the painter with the item you obtain from the final boss. So really, if you want to play The Ringed City (which I'd definitely recommend) then you need to shell out the extra money for Ashes of Ariandel (or rather, the season pass, since it's $5 cheaper to buy them bundled together).

Per usual, the story is so incredibly vague this time around, with no clear explanation for what's going on. As the final bit of DLC for the entire series, I'm sure a lot of people were hoping for some answers to some of the nagging lore questions that have been around since the first Dark Souls, but this DLC may actually pose more questions than it answers. It does shed some new light on Gwyn, the Furtive Pygmy, what was going on before the first Dark Souls, what goes into creating a world, and perhaps most ultimately, what the titular "Dark Soul" actually is, but it does so in typical Souls fashion where everything is so intentionally vague and cryptic that it feels like anything you could gleam from this DLC would be just speculation and fan fiction. Still, this is the first time in any Souls game, I think, that I found myself actually caring about the lore and story enough to study item descriptions and actually think about what it all means, and that's probably because it tries to go full circle by relating back to the first Dark Souls, as opposed to just adding yet more lore on top of an already convoluted mythology.

Talking to an NPC at the top of the Dreg Heap.

I really like what they did with the Dreg Heap, for instance -- environments from previous games are built on top of each other, seemingly symbolizing that each new Age of Fire creates a new world over-top of the previous one. So in order to get to the Ringed City (which presumably predates Dark Souls 1), you have to basically go back in time through the series, starting with the High Wall of Lothric from Dark Souls 3, then descending to the Earthen Peak from Dark Souls 2, and finally descending to the Firelink Shrine from Dark Souls 1. All of these are portrayed as dilapidated, crumbling ruins that have endured thousands of years of erosion, and they get progressively more dilapidated and unrecognizable the deeper you go. Some parts look like they're just barely hanging on from falling into the abyss, and it serves as a really cool visual symbol for how time progresses in this universe.

The level design in this DLC has some interesting things going on, too, with a lot of hidden areas that really test your observation skills and willingness to risk your death in dangerous scenarios. A lot of routes branch into one-way paths so you have to really think about where you want to go, and it encourages you to go through some areas multiple times to get and see everything. I consider myself a pretty thorough explorer, and I was surprised at how many things I missed in my playthrough, after going online to look things up.

Having now made four Souls games and six DLC packs, a lot of stuff has gotten to feel incredibly similar, with large chunks of each game essentially feeling like a rehash of something from a previous game -- some things are straight up copy-and-pasted from game to game. The Ringed City, somehow, manages to feel fresh and interesting for at least half of it, even though the other half implements yet another iteration of a poison swamp, Ornstein, Patches, a fire-breathing dragon guarding a bridge, the Old Monk boss fight from Demon's Souls, and so on. I was pleasantly surprised, therefore, to encounter so many things that I hadn't seen before, like the angels that hover above certain areas like sentry turrets raining constant laser beams from above, who can't be killed unless you find a hidden controller/host-thing somewhere in the level, or the giant summoner dudes who summon hordes of orange phantom archers and black knights who can't be touched, requiring you to navigate your way to the summoner and kill him while dodging the phantoms.

"Hmmm, what's going on here? Aaaaand I'm dead."

This new stuff, unfortunately, is incredibly tedious and frustrating. The laser angels and phantom summoners are basically instant death machines that require you to die repeatedly just to figure out the solution of how to beat them. That's true of many Souls enemies, particularly bosses, and these enemies function a lot like mini-bosses in the form of environmental hazards, but unlike a well-designed boss, you don't usually learn anything helpful about how they function or what you're supposed to do when you die to them. Against one of the angels, I died 3-4 times just trying to explore the area to see if I could find the controller, another 3-4 times trying unconventional stuff that I figured probably wouldn't work, and another 2-3 times trying to get an item. Once I finally figured out where I had to go, I died 3-4 times trying to drop down from the right, which it turns out you can't do, and then another two times trying to drop down from the left before finally getting there.

That was about 30 minutes of constant dying against an enemy that I couldn't even fight back against, very early in the DLC, and it's immediately followed by another angel in the poison swamp. The first one you encounter is at least fair about showing you where the controller is so that you have an idea of where to go; the second and third ones are so well-hidden that you have to scour the entire map top to bottom, checking all kinds of unconventional areas while getting hammered by undodgeable, hyper-accurate, rapid-fire laser beams. Once you make it out of the Dreg Heap and into the Ringed City, you're presented with yet another one of these scenarios, this time with the giant summoner dude whose archers are completely invulnerable and one-shot you if they catch you in the open. Then, you have two encounters with a fire-breathing dragon who, if he doesn't kill you with the fire, will likely knock you off the bridge and into a pit of death.

Going Sunbro to help people with the angel in the poison swamp.

Each one of those scenarios takes you out of the usual Dark Souls gameplay of exploring an area and fighting enemies to put you into a cover-based puzzle-platformer scenario where any little mistake leads to an instant death. And that's not always very fun, especially since there's no real challenge in the actual gameplay. Take the angels, for instance -- they basically just kill you automatically if you walk out from cover, and the whole gameplay premise is moving from cover to cover while trying to find the hidden controller. There are hardly any enemies around them; they're very nearly the only threat in the area. So imagine if the angels didn't do that constant, lethal barrage of lasers and instead shot more sporadically while you had to fight enemies; that would involve spatial awareness, watching the angel out of the corner of your eye or listening for attack sounds, and then timing your dodges properly. That would be challenging while allowing you to avoid death through skill, while also allowing you to actually explore the area.

I like to take these games slowly and explore everywhere possible, but the angels don't allow you to do that all. They basically force you to run straight through an area, running from cover to cover, never giving you time to stop and look around, while also forcing to stop playing the game for 30 seconds at a time while you wait for it to stop its barrage and turn around so that you can get a head start on the next run. And the whole thing is pure trial-and-error, dying to figure out what their range is, dying to figure out if you can dodge or outrun their attacks, dying to figure out what gives you sufficient cover, and dying to figure out the correct route to the controller. They're just not fun to deal with, and I wish they'd been designed better. At least they stay permanently dead once you kill the controller, even if you reset the area by resting at a bonfire, so each one is only a pain in your ass once.

Fighting Darkeater Midir. What a great boss fight. 

The four bosses, on the other hand, are all pretty good, and may be reason enough to buy the DLC all on their own. The first one may be the only two-enemy boss in the entire series that didn't give me fits, and it reuses the Ornstein and Smough mechanic where the order in which you kill them determines the type of enemy you'll be facing in the second phase. The second boss is basically the Old Monk boss fight from Demon's Souls, where the boss is another player summoned into the arena with buffed defenses and unique abilities. The third boss is optional and involves yet another dragon fight, but this one is easily the best in the entire series, basically what the Ancient Dragon from Dark Souls 2 should've been. The final boss is like a supercharged version of Artorias and may be my new favorite boss just because of how fun he is to fight and how epic the fight feels. He and the dragon are some of the hardest bosses of the entire series, but unlike most of the other "tough" bosses they feel totally fair, and so it felt incredibly satisfying once I mastered their movesets and was able to take them down.

There's a lot of content in this DLC (over twice as much as in Ashes of Ariandel) but the pacing is still a little weird, with three of the four bosses kind of clumped together near the very end of the DLC. After the "Old Monk" boss it basically goes right into the final boss; it warps you into this huge desert wasteland with a few crumbling ruins nearby and a giant castle in the distance, and so I was thinking I still had an entire third act to complete which would involve making my way to the castle and then exploring it. And then I wandered a short distance and stumbled into a boss whom I didn't even realize was the final boss at that moment. There's really no buildup to the final boss, which makes him seem to come out of left field. You really should've had some kind of brief encounter with him somewhere earlier in the DLC, or else there should've been more NPCs talking about him to set the stage for you when the fight finally occurs. 

Welcome to the wasteland.

Continuing Dark Souls' tradition of being deliberately vague and obscure, there's a riddle that you need to solve to complete an NPC's quest line, which is a message carved into a random hallway that reads: "Show your humanity." And the solution, of course, is something you'd never be able to figure out short of consulting a guide or doing a bunch of trial-and-error trying every conceivable thing possible. I'm just going to go ahead and spoil it: you need to use a chameleon spell or white tree branch while standing in the swamp to camouflage yourself as a humanity phantom -- a thing that hasn't been in the series since Dark Souls 1. Maybe if they'd let you see a humanity phantom somewhere in the swamp then you'd have some kind of clue that turning into one was even possible; otherwise there's no logical correlation that would lead you to that solution. 

The ending is ... anticlimactic. The final boss is a random side-character with no buildup whatsoever, and there's not even a final cutscene -- it's just a few lines of dialogue. It might've been nice to have a more concrete resolution for the series, but this simple ending works by being completely true to the Dark Souls way of storytelling. Still, the process of getting there is pretty fun and satisfying, with some of the best bosses of Dark Souls 3 (or even the entire series) and some truly challenging scenarios -- even if you have to contend with occasionally bullshit level/enemy design -- that I think The Ringed City is definitely worth playing.

Since the publication of this review, FromSoft have released a patch for Dark Souls 3, and one of the things it does is balance those obnoxious angels in the Dreg Heap by reducing the amount of damage they do. I ran through the DLC on another character and can confirm that they're now a little more forgiving -- it seems like it's actually possible to outrun some of their attacks, which means that they're no longer simply "instant death machines" if they catch you out in the open, while still requiring you to move quickly and seek cover intelligently. 

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