Saturday, April 1, 2017

Dark Souls III The Ringed City Part 2 Review


*SPOILERS FOR THE RINGED CITY AND DARK SOULS III*

The Dreg Heap was, essentially, one big roller coaster in reverse. Normally, you get the really exciting part at the front end and then the rest of the ride tries to carry that momentum until you come back in the station and tell everyone how awesome the ride is based on the first drop. With the Dreg Heap, the best part is at the end: the twin Demon fight. The beginning is decent, the middle is harrowing, and then the run to the boss bonfire is nightmarish. Is the second half of the DLC any different?

            This area certainly opens better than the Dreg Heap does. It’s one of the more beautiful cutscenes in the series, and certainly the entire game. It’s well-directed, which is a weird thing to say about a Dark Souls series cutscene. Well, that’s not entirely true. Dark Souls III has had its fair share of awesome cutscenes: The Dancer’s arrival is haunting, the Nameless King slaying the King of the Storms and then turning to face the Player is rad, Friede and Ariandel becoming consumed by the vestiges of the painting’s flame is super cool.

            So this, with the Anor Londo/ High Wall of Lothric batmen coming and swiping the Player up and then taking them over the golden view of the Ringed City, contrasting the dreary view we’ve been staring at for so long, is great. What’s really great about it is the build-up. They carry the Player through thick clouds before dipping down and showing off the trueness of the Ringed City and all of it’s splendor.

            From a lore perspective, this is a clear nod that we’re going to be seeing things related to the first royal family of Gods, but from a gameplay perspective this is clearly meant to ape the same imagery as when the Player arrives in Anor Londo in Dark Soulsafter clearing Sen’s Fortress. One of the things that this part of the DLC does, for me, is rip a lot of imagery straight out of Dark Souls to the point where I wonder if they just layered these images over the same models from before. Not that the Ringed City shares design similarities to Anor Londo, but the splendor and initial arrival is the same.

            I’m sure the developers did all of this as a nod to Dark Souls, trying to bring things around to show how similar the cycle is to how things were. There are several gameplay and story beats that are similar to what things were like back in the original game: a princess holed up in a castle, guarded by warriors in a cathedral corridor. A noble warrior hunting the Dark (Soul) having become twisted by it and turned into, essentially, a beast. The moments that we come upon them are so obviously near-mirror moments to when the Player first sees Gwynevere and Artorias that it’s almost painful. But, in a strange way, it does work.

            It works in the same way it did in the original game. Even if you know about it, it still affects you. Gael has been this valiant figure, hunting the Dark Soul, or a pigment of it, for the Painting Girl in the Painted World of Ariandel. To see him turn into this maddened beast, helped by the awesome landscape he’s on, was like watching the last glimmer of hope fade from the game. If you’ve already played through the game, then Gael was, basically, the last person you could rely on for fights. He’s gone, and you’re the only one left. Even Shira, who guards Princess Filianore, turns on the Player.

            We’ll get to Princess Filianore a bit later, but I do like the way that we come upon her. Unlike Gwynevere, this princess is completely asleep. She’s breathing, but faintly. She’s also holding the egg. I do like the cutscene that follows the Player’s interaction and the ultimate doom that it spells for the world, particularly if they’ve beaten the Soul of Cinder and this is the end of the series for them. It’s haunting, and, again, we’ll get to that soon.

            Anyway, there’s still a whole lot of area to get through, and many more interesting trinkets to discuss.

            Right away you’re put to the test in the final stretch of stealth for the DLC. The Judicator launches ghostly Ruin Knights at the Player, who can let them up with arrows in like ten seconds. Unlike the angel, though, there are a couple of paths that the Player can run around to find the way out, and the game does  a good job of indicating where they are. Thankfully, the run after that to the next bonfire isn’t too hard.

            Plus, you get a spooky little conversation that foreshadows why the Ringed City is so off the beaten path, though in the long run might be something that the developers forgot about with regards to the story. This strange bug-man-thing—possibly a Corvian?—tells the Player that everyone keeps Princess Filianore in the castle to keep her from the creeping presence of the Abyss. Now, this is an interesting concept, and could mean some things with regards to the egg she holds…but we never see the presence of the Abyss at all, or anything really related to the Dark. We see warriors who are meant to ward off the presence of the Dark, but nothing more from that. The Ringed City, with how great it is, is clearly not Abyss-touched.

            Judicator Argo, in the Halflight/ Spear of the Church Invader bossfight, implies that the Abyss isn’t just here but that it runs deep in the Ringed City. Where? Literally everyone, save for maybe the Pilgrim at the start of the entire DLC and the single Corvian, is fighting off the Abyss. If there were hints that they’d all become Abyss-touched that’d be fine, but the only actual indication that things are amuck are in the swamp down below before you first encounter Darkeater Midir.

            The presence of the swamp is one of the few major areas that doesn’t initially stand out as anything major, it’s just another patented Dark Souls III poison lake (that makes…three?). the enemies here are vile and treacherous, but perhaps most curious of all, even more than the Judicator that stalks around, is the presence of the Dragonslayer Armor.

            Um.

            The armor gives the best indication of where the Player is in time. Given the overall look of the Dreg Heap it could probably be surmised that we were somewhere in the distant future, but that was also the world colliding in on itself. The Dreg Heap could also be the entire dimension colliding in on itself, but I don’t see that as the case. Still, there was an apocalyptic feel to it. Thus, as the Armor set suggests, this armor was slain by the Player in Lothric Castle ages ago and has only now reformed itself off the power of the swamp.

            That factoid paired with the fact that the Player’s Chameleon/ White Branch stealth sprite is a Humanity sprite, could indicate that this is where the Abyss lay in the Ringed City. The presence of the multiple Ringed Knights, who were cursed by Gwyn to carry the flame on their chest in the form of the Darksign, possibly indicates this as well. Midir being so close, and being seemingly against the Abyss, possibly leans toward this as well?

            The overall story is a bit clunky here in terms of lore, but the strangest part is just how the Abyss factors in. It’s the same issues I have with the main game: we still don’t know what power the Abyss holds and just what tips us off to it. The best indication, it seems, we’ll ever get is the overload that Oolacile got in Artorias of the Abyss.

            Another issue that this DLC has that the main game also had is the reuse of enemies. Where that sometimes worked in the main game, like the Crystal Sage brother appearing in the Grand Archives, there was an issue with too many Outrider Knights appearing in random places. The Dragonslayer Armor’s presence here comes completely out of nowhere and only maybe serves to tell us why the swamp is the way it is. But how did it get here? How did it get all the way to the Ringed City from Lothric, where, in the description, it is clearly stated that the soul in the armor came to its doom?
            Then there’s the invasion from what appears to be Eygon of Carim? I think it’s Eygon. The Moaning Knight, who invades in the spiral prison, resembles him almost completely. I suppose it’s a neat fight if you never got to combat him in the main game, but why is it here? I don’t mind the Seeker of the Spurred invasion as it’s just another From Software “I’m running from danger and maybe I’m safe—OH GOD NO!” moment. Shira’s invasion can be misplaced if done after fighting Gael.

            Eygon and the Armor just frustrated me. There’s no reason for those two characters to be here. Where we could have gotten two new enemies that indicate something going on with the world, this all instead comes off as a bit lazy as they just replaced old models and fighting patterns to place in a unique area, as if to make that a unique fight. I never cared to fight the Dragonslayer Armor outside of Lothric Castle. I like that fight plenty enough but would rather have maybe a Ringed Knight captain, or someone close to Princess Filianore that’s been touched by the Abyss, to fight instead. And there could be some other invader there, maybe someone out to kill Princess Filianore like an assassin or a Lothric Hunter (though that would obscure the timeline, but it’d be fun to finally fight one).

            There is one cameo, though, that is masterfully played. If you follow Lapp’s questline, which is a little difficult, you eventually come upon that prison, where he’s back in good spirits and seems to remember things. He even tells you he’ll give you the spoils of some treasure he’s found down below…if you’d just look over that cliff.

            Yup, it’s the Unbreakable Patches. He survived all the way to the end of the world. I like his dialogue at the end, though. It’s condescending, sure, but the “A nice Dark Soul, to you,” is almost like the developers saying, “Eh. We had to.” Because, really, Patches is a personification of what the game feels like to the Players. Want that treasure? WHAM. There’s a trap, good luck! J His presence here simply feels like the developers way of saying goodbye to the Player, and I’m very okay with that.

            Let’s talk about level design for a second. This area is beautifully laid out and is designed in a fairer way compared to the Dreg Heap. The archers at the beginning are easy to get past and there are enemies that drop from the ceiling to hit you that, honestly, you could probably see coming. Ringed Knights are well-placed and give you ample room to fight. Sometimes you can fight them in incredible set-pieces. Invasions happen in the last place you want them to, so that just means that they’re placed properly. There is a certainly linearity to everything but if you want to find the secrets, then good luck. There are ample amounts of illusory walls and hidden trinkets to be found through exploration. I love the triple illusory wall, it’s just like the developers were goofing around with us. Plus I like the Lightning Arrow miracle. It looks super cool (and has farther range than the Sunlight Spear…?).

            I think I prefer the verticality motif of the Dreg Heap more than the standard issue things we get in the Ringed City, but overall the aesthetic of the Ringed City appeals to me. In typical Dark Souls fashion, we start in a place that looks fairly nice, if not outright beautiful, before being thrust into the muck and have to claw our way out to get back to the nice area…only for the rug to come out from under us and discover that nothing is good in Dark Souls and you should feel bad for thinking so.

            There isn’t a “bad” boss in this area, or the DLC at large. The Twin Demons/ Demon Prince boss-fight is similar to Ornstein and Smough in all the right ways, so that makes it pretty good. The Darkeater Midir boss-fight is a challenge, yes, but one of the better dragon fights. Halflight is something I’m about to get into, since it seems fairly divisive, and I ate up the Slave Knight Gael bossfight.

            Now, Halflight, Spear of the Church, is an interesting boss to discuss. On the one hand you’ve got an interesting misdirection. When you enter the cathedral (again, aping imagery from Anor Londo and Dark Souls) you encounter Judicator Argo, who seems to be the mastermind behind everything given his appearance all around the Ringed City and some mentions from various NPCs. However, as it turns out, he is not the boss of the area. Another NPC is, as well as two Painting Guardians. I’ve never fought Halflight, since I play online, but I really like the concept here. The idea of a PVP bossfight seems pretty fun and could be well-executed. The parts where I’m fighting the other Player directly are pretty fun, but it’s fairly easy. They can’t heal and, I’ve found, go down rather quick with a strong enough weapon, or basically anything imbued with Lightning.

            The only thing that makes this fight almost abhorrent, for me, are the Painting Guardians. Their stupid little darts stagger you every time you get hit with one and they never run out of stamina. Unless you summon at least one person, the fight turns into a three-on-one gank in no time. The Painting Guardians also give the other Player/ Halflight some healing and while it would make the fight a bit unfair, I think that because the Player/ Halflight has so little health makes it fine. I’m just confused why it takes me more hits to take down the stupid Painting Guardian than it does the actually boss of the area?

            And why them? Why the heck are there Painting Guardians in the Ringed City? Why not someone else, like some other enemy class that’s associated with Gwyn? Obviously not Silver or Black Knights, but I’m sure there are other enemies Gwyn would have saved up in the Ringed City like the Ringed Knights. Did the Church of Filianore really have connections with the Painted World of Ariamis? Keep in mind: we don’t see Painting Guardians at all in Dark Souls III up until this point.
            The only reason they’re here is to remind the player of how similar the Ringed City is to Anor Londo. At first it’s fine, but by the time you get to Gael, it can be a bit annoying. If the Painting Guardians weren’t here I don’t think it would be as bad. But the fact that you’ve got a resting princess just after this fight resting on a bed, Painting Guardians, a golden sunlight, powerful undead Knights guarding the Princess, and a big illusion hiding the truth…yeah, it can get a bit obvious.

            Perhaps if there had been more focus put on Judicator Argo then we would have avoided this problem completely. Who is this guy, anyway? Judicator, as you can probably guess, means “judge.” But what’s he judging? The Player? On what, or for what? Iudex Gundyr, another “judge,” was placed in front of Firelink as a means of testing our strength to see if we were truly the Ashen One, the Champion of Ash. The heck is Argo over here judging me for, my Fashion Souls?

            Argo, like Filianore, is shrouded in quite a bit of mystery, but at least with Filianore we know her heritage and probably why she’s been placed here. Did Argo know Gwyn, was he assigned the Ringed City or something? Is he a judge for the Church? If so, why not make him a priest or something like that? Agh. The best we can get is from the Ruin Knights armor set, which explains that Argo took the knights hunting for the Dark Soul and turned them around for his own purposes to defend Filianore.

            So, essentially, he used them to guard the flame, as Filianore and Darkeater Midir are meant to, I believe. I mean with the nameDarkeater you assume that’s what the ol’ dragon’s doing, right? The best indication that they’re all fighting on the same side, even though Shira wants the dragon dead because she fears the Abyss has gotten a hold of him (which is probably true, given how hostile he is) is how, as we approach the Halflight bossfight, there’s a room with Gwyn and a baby, probably the Nameless King, as the primary statue. Statues of Silver Knights are all over the place within the Ringed City, as well as a few noticeable status of the Primordial Serpents. It’s never indicated properly which of the Serpents this is, but given that this is all about Gwyn, I would assume it were Frampt.

            Filianore herself is a delicate subject. She lacks the splendor of Gwynevere but has all the intrigue of both her and Gwyndolin. I did enjoy how we approached her, and the complete contrast that seeing her has to seeing Gwynevere. Where one is a proud, beautiful woman in radiant sunlight…the other looks sickly, has black veins crawling down her face, and sits in a messy, ugly room. But, they both serve the same function: hiding an illusion of the truth.

            Or are they the same? Everything, for me, comes down to just what the heck that egg she was holding is. We’ll never get an answer for it, which means that this will probably be the Dark Souls equivalent to the briefcase from Pulp Fiction. What is the egg? Is it all the Abyss-based Dark that had been mentioned throughout the level compiled into one thing, placed in Filianore’s protection? Is it, perhaps, the last shell of good will in the Ringed City that was crushed when we, the Ashen one, touched it? Perhaps it reacted poorly in the presence of the Undead such as we. I do believe that Filianore’s rest was the thing that was keeping the world safe, since when she wakes up, we’re suddenly shown the truth, or thrust into the future. I feel that we’re shown the truth, not placed in the distant future.

            For starters, we’ve seen illusions before and shown the truth of the world without any time going by. We see on Filianore’s face that something is not right with her, that she’s already been corrupted by something. The Hag at the start of the DLC, and the Corvian, indicate that there is a great mystery surrounding the slumbering princess of the Ringed City, and now we know what that was. It’s possible that she was the thing that was Abyss-touched and when we awoke her, we unleashed the Abyss on the world.

            All my complaints about not knowing if the Abyss were really here could be silenced immediately if the illusion Filianore was hiding was that the Abyss had brought ruin the Ringed City before and somehow she had the power to keep everything looking okay. That obscures the timeline a bit, but time is the thing that gets beaten over the head the most in these games, anyway.

            I do not believe that what we see of the world is the Abyss, since we’ve seen this imagery before. This is the world of the fading flame. Some have theorized that Filianore’s degradation and hollowing is a sign that we were thrust forward in time so far that only Gael and the Player are the only things left standing, and while that would be something of a fitting end for the game, I think it’s just as fitting to see it as her hiding the illusion of the Ringed City. This would bring the game full-circle.

            Recall the initial cutscene of Dark Souls III, with the pilgrims drudging forward through wind and sand toward Lothric. From the Filianore Rest bonfire, the scene looks similar. We can see Lothric Castle and possibly Anor Londo from here, just like at the start of the game. What if we’re here, where the Pilgrims were earlier? I think that would be nice way to tie a bow on things.

            But I’m also fine with this being the last thing the Player does in the series, future or not. We see pygmies crawling toward Princess Filianore begging her to save them from the red hood, clear foreshadowing that Gael is up to something. We see him slaying the Pygmy Lords, draining them of their Humanity for the Dark Soul. This is a bittersweet moment.

            On the one hand, this is great imagery not unlike when the Player encounters Artorias. We’re watching a tragic figure just continue to slip into the madness and his initial run up is on all-fours. Dude’s lost it. He’s given in, and he was the last thing that we, the Player, had left. All other NPCs have either met their end at our hand or have passed on, their purpose fulfilled. Gael could not fulfill his purpose fully, since he went mad with the power of the Dark in these pigments of the Dark Soul.

            But on the other hand why didn’t we hear about these Pygmy Lords before? I mean what the hell! The Furtive Pygmy (probably Manus) is still a mystery from all the way back in Dark Souls and now we’re learning that there were pygmy lords? This is the end of the series guys, it’s the wrong time to be introducing new concepts. Remember those two repeated NPCs we saw earlier? Remember how, until Filianore, there’s no indication of the Abyss in the Ringed City?

            What if these pygmy lords were trying to get to Filianore and we could either stop them or let them go as summon-able NPCs to help us get to her? What if we had item descriptions about them beyond the Blood of the Dark Soul key item? What if I didn’t have so many speculative questions?

            Maybe this is just one last thing the developers wanted us to nibble on. That’d be fine. But there are so many plot threads left dangling from the main game of Dark Souls III for me to spend even more time pondering what the pygmy lords really are and what they’re doing in the Ringed City.

            Still, the fight itself is freaking amazing. Unlike Sister Friede, or the Soul of Cinder, or the Nameless King, this is not a multi-health-bar boss fight. It’s a traditional “two-phase” boss fight, but with a single health bar and a dramatic change midway through the fight that I actually don’t mind. The cutscene of him seeing the blood and pondering if it relates to the Dark Soul shows that Gael has lost his mind to all of this, but maybe he’s onto something. Blood was an important part of Ashes of Ariandel as it pertained to the creation of the painting, and it comes back up here. Curious.

            I like both phases of Gael’s fight. The first phase is essentially fighting a feral version of him, and even then, when he gets down to three-fourths health, he goes insane and has a wicked combo that can be difficult to dodge if you don’t get the timing down. Most of his movements are a bit unpredictable and he’s just a second slower than you anticipate. This phase is a bit more susceptible to stagger than the following phase, though perhaps I just didn’t spend enough time in his face in the second face to really find out.

            The second phase is where things get interesting. He becomes more human (probably absorbing more of the pigment of the Dark Soul) and gains a ton more power, imbuing his cape with some of his power as he swings his sword and the cape follows right after it. It makes dodging a bit tricky, since he has an initially short reach that doubles immediately after. When he gets down to quarter health is when things get absolutely bonkers, but in a good way.

            It’s all about management. Gael is a fair fight. The lightning doesn’t track and moves randomly around the map. He telegraphs when he’s going in for a long-range attack and his unleashing of fireballs is fair in that they move slow and can be easily dodged. His attacks are still vicious in nature but aren’t entirely impossible to avoid. It’s also some incredible imagery.

            Actually, it’s epic. Two warriors, one who seeks the Dark Soul and the other who has been consumed by it, stand at the end of the world as lightning rains down and the power of the Dark and the power of Fire clash within each as they duel to see who is worthy of the Blood of the Dark Soul. In a way, it’s a fitting end for the series. It’s no longer about the Flame, it’s about the Dark Soul of Man. And in a way, hasn’t it always been?

            Perhaps that’s why we see so much of Gwyn and the royal family. It’s that same fear that he had eons ago about the Dark and the rise of Humanity. We see that in the Ringed Knights and we see that in the way that he places his youngest daughter, Filianore, to ward off the Dark, even to the point where she can no longer really live. Gwyn fears the Dark, so he will do everything in his power to ward it off. Now that he’s gone, and now that Filianore has hollowed, all that remains is the Dark.

            Thus, when it’s over, the Player stands, at the end of the world, alone. Nobody left around them and naught but desolation and ruin of a once great city to see. It’s an affecting moment when you realize how truly alone you are in that area. Of course you can warp away, but, that’s it. That’s the end.

            While I have my complaints about the DLC, and it is far from perfect, it is certainly a major step up from Ashes of Ariandel and was a really fun experience to go through. I have my problems with the Halflight/ Spear of the Church boss fight but loved the Twin Demons and Gael boss fight, probably up there with my favorite bosses in the game. The imagery and iconography of some of the places is great and I did enjoy the new additions in terms of enemies and armor. The Ringed Knights are some of my favorite enemies to fight. That battle with the Ringed Knight that duel-wields the Greatswords in front of the church is a fight I’ll do anytime, it’s just awesome. They’re fair enemies, but still intimidate me every time I walk by.

            This back-half of the DLC allowed things to wrap up not as gentle as I would’ve liked, but I’m glad we ended up where we did. It wouldn’t be fitting for the series to end with us as a king or even us letting the fire fade. If this is truly the last thing you in the series—slay Gael at Filianore’s Rest—then that’s where it should end. A lone warrior in a world that’s essentially empty. Champion of Ash, Chosen Undead…it matters not.

            You are the Dark Soul of Man now.

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