Dark Souls is over. Sort of. Creator Hidetaka Miyazaki has previously said that while Dark Souls 3 may not officially close out the series that made him a star, it will provide a "turning point" for the franchise and developer From Software alike. Basically, it sounds like it's going to be a long while until we get the inevitable Dark Souls sequel, prequel, reboot, or spin-off. (Dark Souls: Andromeda perhaps?)
This is a bittersweet transition. Dark Souls - along with its sister properties Demon's Souls and Bloodborne - are much-loved games. From Software has excelled at painting haunting, evocative vistas and filling them with rich challenges and cryptic characters. Yet after several entries, it's hard to shake the fact that the series isn't as fresh as it once was. The trademark motifs of castles, demons, zombies, statues, forests, and catacombs simply aren't as surprising in 2017, nearly a decade after Demon's Souls. You can't blame Miyazaki and company for wanting to take a break.
The question then, is how do you bring a series like this to an end, one about perpetual death that's constantly reimagining mankind dwindling away like the embers of a flame?
The answer, as revealed in the second and final Dark Souls 3 expansion The Ringed City, is to provide something of a greatest hits highlight.
In terms of general themes, there's little in The Ringed City that's new. Expect more castles, caverns, cathedrals, knights and dragons. But what a sight they all are.
It's a testament to From's art direction that such familiar fare can still feel bold and new all these years later. To wit: the big baddie of this expansion offers a twist on the conclusion to both Dark Souls and Dark Souls 3. Here we face another humanoid adversary in an ashen ruin, but the scale has been expanded tremendously. It's the end of the world, after all, and From has decided that if there was ever a time to go big, this is it.
Yet it's not the geographic scope that's made the Dark Souls series such a treat, but rather the franchise's rich combat systems that house the greatest room for exploration. While the level layouts have always been rather restrictive in nature compared to most "open-world" affairs, the free-flowing nature of battle rivals Bayonetta and Monster Hunter for the depth and breadth. Dark Souls 3 already housed From's most expansive toolkit with dozens of melee combat options, offensive spells, defensive miracles, and an armour system that drastically changes such fundamentals as movement. You could play through Dark Souls 3 dozens of times with different builds and weapon combos and never have the same experience twice. The Ringed City only adds further possibilities to these dizzyingly customisable challenges.
Sound bloated? Maybe, but the genius of Dark Souls is that it's only as complex as you want it to be. The most dedicated fans will no doubt get a kick out of The Ringed City's new armaments - which include shields so large they resemble doorways, a magical lightning arrow, and an intimidating pair of dual greatswords, to name a few - but you can just as easily stick with what you know and brave this conclusion's depth with your creature comforts. But if you want to get the most out of the new gear, From generously offers many crafting materials in this finale should you not want to bring a knife to a sorcery fight.
It's in these boss fights that The Ringed City offers its biggest boon over Dark Souls 3's first expansion, Ashes of Ariandel. Many criticised this add-on for only including two boss fights, but The Ringed City really doubles down on these. This time out we get four big bads, and each one is a winner, if not entirely original. An ultra-hard optional face-off with an enormous dragon offers what may be the series' stiffest challenge yet (though it's hard for me to gauge, as I entered The Ringed City on an especially challenging New Game+3 file), while another more gimmicky boss offers a twist on Demon's Souls most novel major enemy. In fact, this retread of From's masterpiece is so memorable that the developer even included a way to resurrect them so you can have a go at it again without replaying the entire campaign (thanks for the heads up, VaatiVidya).
While The Ringed City's boss fights are the highlight, the new areas themselves are no slouch, even if an overly linear design hold them back from being From's best. The Ringed City only contains two new areas and one of them feels like a retread of the scenery providing the backdrop to the parent game's finale. It's only in the Ringed City itself that From offers a new aesthetic. A derelict holy land of crumbling cathedrals and rotten bogs, this ostentatious ruin feels like an appropriately melancholy place for Dark Souls' funeral dirge.
The Ringed City was always going to be a solemn affair as there's no telling when From is going to wow us again with something as boldly innovative as the Souls series. Yet it also feels like it's time for a change. Just earlier this year we had successful Souls imitator Nioh arguably improve on the Souls formula - or at least drastically improve upon its languid load times, while the Souls series' biggest obvious inspiration, The Legend of Zelda, massively recalibrated its formula earlier this month with Breath of the Wild. In other words, Dark Souls is due for a shakeup. But if it's gotta go, at least it's going out with a bang.