I want to start by saying that my feelings about The Ringed City are definitely more positive than negative. While I do believe that this is a flawed DLC, its gameplay elements, particularly its bosses and weaponry, are very strong in my opinion. Where the Ringed City leaves me extremely cold is with regards to its storytelling, which I will elaborate on shortly. I think a good place to start when discussing this DLC, though, is its difficulty, which has become a huge talking point.
Difficulty is a tricky thing to discuss when evaluating games because it is obviously incredibly subjective. I can only speak to my experience with this DLC, which is that I died enough to rethink my strategy for certain encounters but not enough to become genuinely frustrated. I did not find The Ringed City to be unfairly challenging, though I respect the fact that others did and had a less fun time because of it. What I will say is that I agree with those who say that the bosses have too much HP. I would prefer a boss that challenges skill rather than endurance, and I can see why some feel that these bosses, particularly Darkeater Midir, cross that line.
While we're on the subject of bosses, I feel strongly that Slave Knight Gael is one of the finest fights in Dark Souls 3, if not the entire series. He has a frenetic yet smooth style that takes inspiration from the best elements from Artorias without feeling like a retread. This is a grand, visually stunning fight that ends the series on a high note. Taking him down with no remaining estus while the music blared and lightning struck around me was the unquestionable highlight of The Ringed City. When I beat him, I was glad I had other characters ready to enter the DLC just so I could fight him again.
This seems to be a minority opinion, but I appreciate the unique enemy mechanics in this DLC. Stealth isn't something the series has done a whole lot of, but I like the way it's implemented here. The angels, while punishing, make the Earthen Peak Ruins a tense gauntlet where safe cover must be in sight at all times. Sneaking around this area, dreading the sound of their "I found you" cries, was an unnerving but rewarding experience. Finding and killing their fleshy counterparts brought about a great sense of relief, as I was finally able to explore and retrieve loot in the area without the threat of being laser beamed. If these guys were to respawn, I might see them as overkill, but as they are I enjoy the variety they bring to Dark Souls 3.
When it comes to the enemy encounters in The Ringed City proper, I enjoy the fact that many of them present a challenge different from the ones we've previously faced in Dark Souls. One of my criticisms of the otherwise fantastic Dark Souls 2 DLC's is that they leaned too heavily on standard-issue "guys with swords" enemy types, which I found to be a largely uninspired choice. The enemies in The Ringed City have diverse abilities that keep me on my toes, such as the scurrying guys in cleric armor who summon AoE magic and zoom towards you like a magic hockey puck.
That said, I do agree with the common criticism that the enemy population here is a bit too dense. I could have done with about 30% fewer enemies and been fine. The big staircase with all the Harald Knights comes to mind, though I do get a huge kick out of insta-killing them with a plunge attack. The unique animation for that attack is brutal and great.
The Ringed City is an absolutely gorgeous area. For my money, it is among the most striking in all of Souls. The initial reveal ranks up there with Irithyll of the Boreal Valley for sheer "wow" factor. That said, I wish we had a bit more freedom to explore. For all its classic Dark Souls trappings (elevators, shortcuts, etc.), the journey through this DLC is disappointingly linear. We follow a mostly straight trajectory until we get to the giant swamp area, which I found to be quite lazy in terms of its design. The "big gross swamp" areas are almost comically overused in the Souls series at this point. If memory serves, this is at least the sixth time we've been subjected to such an area, and this one doesn't do much to distinguish itself. As was the case with Ashes of Ariandel's snowfields, this wide open design reeks of "we're under a deadline."
I would be remiss if I did not briefly touch on weaponry, which is where every Souls DLC excels without exception. The new weapons are arguably the greatest strength of The Ringed City. There's something useful for just about every build here, from offensive miracles like the Lighting Arrow to crushing strength weapons like the Crucifix of the Mad King. I'm extremely excited to enter New Game + with fully-upgraded Ringed Knight Paired Greatswords, which have one of the most impressive move sets in the game. We also get some fun new fashion, including the coveted Iron Dragonslayer Armor and a few fan favorites from Dark Souls 2.
It's time to talk about lore. As much as I enjoyed The Ringed City from a gameplay standpoint, this is where the DLC fails unequivocally for me. While Gael, Filianore, the Spears of the Church, etc. are intriguing in a vacuum, they are woefully underdeveloped and essentially irrelevant to the main story of Dark Souls 3. Remember when we were all 100% sure we were going to Londor for the DLC? Remember the Sable Church? Liliane? Gertrude? Ocelotte? FromSoft certainly doesn't seem to. It's disappointing that they bailed on answering the most pressing questions of Dark Souls 3 in favor of new ones that no was asking, such as "did Gwyn have any more kids?"
The final moments of The Ringed City should have felt wrought with significance but instead elicited head scratching, accompanied by questions like "how can a soul have blood?" The fact that FromSoft decided that Gael should be the lynchpin for the conclusion of the Dark Souls saga is somewhat baffling. They seem to be operating under the false assumption that Souls fans care deeply about an underwritten character who was only recently brought into the lore in the last DLC. Don't even get me started on the anticlimax of actually delivering the Blood of the Dark Soul to the painter. The fact that we don't get even get a Three Crowns Trilogy-style mechanical reward for completing both DLC's is a massive letdown.
I'll end this by stating once again that I very much enjoyed my time with The Ringed City. Although I have my disappointments with its story, I found the gameplay of The Ringed City quite satisfying. The combat is what keeps me coming back to these games, and this DLC is still doing right by me in that regard. If I'm ranking the DLC's, I would put this one above Ashes of Ariandel but below the DLC's from the previous games. Still, given the consistently high quality of bonus content that FromSoft has given us, that's far from an indictment.
Written by Nicholas, who is @strenuousorb on Twitter. Learn more about Nicholas and his love for the Souls series by listening to his episode of Don't Give Up, Skeleton, which you can find here.