'The Ringed City' Brings 'Dark Souls' to an Epic End

'The Ringed City' Brings 'Dark Souls' to an Epic End

'The Ringed City' brings the 'Dark Souls' series to a grueling conclusion From Software

The second and final expansion for 'Dark Souls 3' blows out the embers with grace

The second and final expansion for 'Dark Souls 3' blows out the embers with grace

As you finally triumph over the immense sword-duel that awaits you at the end of The Ringed City, the last part of the very last game in From Software's positively Homeric Dark Souls trilogy, a complex cocktail of emotions bubbles forth. The proportions may vary from player to player, but the constituents remain consistent: pride from defeating such a ferocious foe; relief that the brazenly unfair onslaught has concluded; and perhaps disappointment, for now you know that you have truly seen all that the murky lands that define Hidetaka Miyazaki's lauded franchise have to offer.

The Souls games have never saw fit to play fair – after all, many still regard the baroque, brazenly-unfair two-on-one duel with spritely knight Ornstein and stout executioner Smough in the first Dark as the series' most memorable moment – but the challenges that await you in The Ringed City are apt to stagger even the diehards. Those who accuse FromSoft of buying in a little too readily to the "prepare to die" rhetoric that surrounds their most famous series will find a wealth of supporting evidence here. While few would ever dare to call the franchise accommodating to newcomers, this expansion brings the pain early and often, to a degree that even hardened veterans might find obnoxious.

Screaming angels dot the sky, raining heavenly fury upon you as you enter their view. Arrows and spells falter against them – they simply rise again, screeching and flapping their decayed wings. You sprint from hutch to hutch to dodge their bolts, searching for the prone, egglike larvae that controls them, all the while fencing and feinting with a barrage of angry swampdwellers. This sequence might work well in another game, but in Souls, it's unbearably grueling, turning your series of expert sword fights into a scavenger hunt with no end in sight.

Dirty tricks abound; as you begin to square off against the first of the city's deadly knights – who slice, stab, and shield-bash nearly as smartly as a human opponent – you'll find yourself victim to a hex that guzzles your vitality, necessitating yet another game of "find the asshole." The conceit itself is fine enough, but it quickly wears thin. The distance between the nearest life-restoring bonfire and the next is one of the series' most trying, featuring no less than two considerable minibosses, a cavalcade of massive soldiers, and several mobs of lightning-eaters. After falling to the same crowd of spectral, invulnerable archers for the dozenth time, you get the sense that The Ringed City seeks to test your patience more than your reflexes.

But in some strange way, the unrelenting difficulty seems appropriate – even thematic. Dark Souls revolves around fatalism, fire, and failure, after all. Weathered brigands in tattered cloaks seek penance for crimes they didn't commit; undead knights with dessicated faces roam the land, serving vows to kingdoms that died out centuries ago. As almost anyone who gives the games a chance knows, a very real affliction works its way into your heart after a few sessions of slaying and being slayed alike. Before long, you find yourself an honest-to-goodness Souls devotee. You are now branded. Welcome to the club. Please check your broadsword at the door.

But, as is always the case with Souls, those who persist will be rewarded. As with the rest of Dark Souls 3Ashes of Ariandel included – from a narrative perspective, The Ringed City can sometimes feel like a thread-tying expedition helmed by Miyazaki himself, rather than a self-contained story. Despite the name, the history of the Ringed City itself doesn't actually figure much into the equation. No, we are after bigger fish here, with some of the deepest mysteries of the series unpeeling themselves before our very eyes – or, at least as far as FromSoft will ever allow. Though it would be quite unbecoming to resort to spoilers at this point, let's just say that fans of a certain mysterious figure from the first game will have their appetites whetted by the end.

The sense of carefully-considered redundancy extends to the famously-punishing boss encounters; while each has a clear antecedent – a doomed knight here, a slumbering dragon there – they still manage to surprise in their own ways. For me, there was nothing quite as thumb-shatteringly devious as Sister Friede or Fume Knight in The Ringed City, though both the last foe and an optional megaboss offer stout-enough resistance to earn the title of the franchise's final challenges.

Yet, even now, the die-forever formula that upended a thousand tenets of game design continues to resonate. For all the series' purposeful repetition, for all its talk of cycles that begin and end and begin again, for all the ceaseless echoes that come with but a fraction of the original note's power, the awe still somehow remains. And now it ends. As I strike the death blow on Souls series' final foe, it all ceases to be. The lightning drains from the sky; his fateful blood evaporates; his skin melts away; and here I am again, another Ashen One consigned to a world of ash and ruin. I feel a sharp shock – the unmistakable urge to do it all over again, from the beginning, but different this time. There is no hope for me, or you, or any of us. As Prince Lothric – last of his line, the wasted hope of the realm – remarks upon his untimely demise, we truly remain among the accursed.