There's a lot riding on this particular piece of Dark Souls DLC. Hidetaka Miyazaki, president of FromSoftware and creator of the esteemed Souls games, has hinted that Dark Souls 3 could be the last sequel we see from the series, at least for a long while. And as the latter of two additions to Dark Souls 3, The Ringed City could be viewed as something of a grand finale for a franchise that's become an indelible touchstone for the action RPG genre. As if that weren't enough pressure, it also has to earn back goodwill after the previous DLC, Ashes of Ariandel, left some players cold with its shorter playtime and largely linear progression. The Ringed City aims to fix all that, with an immense new realm that acts like a convergence of familiar worlds and an homage to Dark Souls' storied past.
The Ringed City, a phrase typically associated with the mystical lost city of Atlantis, is just a part of this new realm - your end-goal destination. During a brief hands-on demo, I got to venture into the opening area of this new DLC: the Dreg Heap, the sprawling expanse you see in the trailer above, with crumbling ruins jutting out of mountaintops as far as the eye can see. Dark Souls 3's setting of Lothric is described in the base game's intro as the "transitory lands", and the Dreg Heap epitomizes that ephemeral theme: it's a landscape jaggedly twisting into itself, as if frozen in time as it was swirling down a drain towards an abyss. It's a stunning sight, all bathed in the ominous glow of the Darksign-esque solar eclipse that emerges towards the end of Dark Souls 3. It's still being decided exactly where and how players will access this DLC zone, as FromSoftware needs to work out an entrance method for the small percentage of players who opt to skip the first DLC and jump straight into this one.
As you would expect and hope for, the enemies prowling the Dreg Heap all live up to the pedigree of Dark Souls' imposing bestiary. (If you want to take on the terrors of The Ringed City without any prior knowledge, best to skip ahead now.) After slaying a few simple Hollow soldiers near the start of the zone, you're accosted by a new adversary: a hulking brute clad in chainmail with a pot-belly gut made of bramble, a colossal scimitar-like sword, and a black hole where his face should be. Later on, you'll face off against withered, corpse-like wizards who seem pretty innocuous, blasting easily-dodgeable balls of dark magic at you. But get close enough, and they might morph into a gigantic creature of shadow and leap at you like pumas made of tar, seemingly sacrificing themselves in the process to pounce on you for devastating damage. You'll also be stalked by the grotesque butterfly-winged fiend (which you catch a glimpse of in the trailer) on multiple occasions, as this recurring monster accosts you with continuous volleys of deadly bolts that force you to run for cover.
The Ringed City also plays with a fresh approach to vertical level design that runs counter to your learned Dark Souls survival instincts: fall damage is apparently not a factor in this realm. Early on in your explorations of the Dreg Heap, you'll have to set foot on a crumbling ledge that instantly gives way, sending you plummeting 10 stories down and crashing through the stained glass window of a collapsed church. Yet somehow, you survive the plunge with your health bar unscathed (at least until you trigger a nearby creature that tries to pull you under the surrounding gravel). This startling moment is meant to teach you that in this Purgatory-like domain, jumping off a cliff may not mean instant death.
It's still unclear if there will be some kind of canonical explanation for how you can withstand the kinds of drops that would certainly be fatal elsewhere in Dark Souls 3, but this gravity-driven method of transportation is key to the structure of The Ringed City. The Dreg Heap is just the upper layer of this new zone, and you'll have to descend into its depths on your path to the Ringed City awaiting at the bottom. As you fall, the ancient stone aesthetic of the Dreg Heap will give way to a variety of environments including sprawling greenery or murky swamps, and these realms may also resemble recognizable regions from Dark Souls games past - not just 3, but Dark Souls and Dark Souls 2 as well. It's an intriguing world structure that evokes Dante's descent through the rings of Hell, though Dante probably had it easy compared to the demandingly difficult encounters that await here.
If you were at all underwhelmed by the content of the Ashes of Ariandel DLC, The Ringed City promises increased size and scope, with significantly more enemy types and bosses lying in wait. This DLC's story is closely linked to its predecessor, and FromSoftware has been treating the two as one unit akin to Bloodborne's The Old Hunters or the first Dark Souls' Artorias of the Abyss (suggesting that Ashes of Ariandel might've been fragmented off content envisioned as a larger whole, which could explain its relative brevity). The promise that The Ringed City will tie into and tie up not just story bits from Ashes (here's to hoping we learn more about the painting woman in the cathedral attic), but the entire tapestry of Dark Souls series lore in general, is an incredibly exciting prospect for those who've lovingly fought their way through the franchise's challenges all these years. You'll be able to see this finale through to the end when this DLC is added to Dark Souls 3's PS4, Xbox One, and PC versions on March 28.