I spoke before about my recent and rabidly overcompensating obsession with the Souls series in my long-winded Dark Souls III review. It’s been roughly a year since I’ve started playing the series to the temporary exclusion of almost anything else and about six months since I’ve stopped after concluding the latest installment. My experience, while exhaustive, has burned fast and bright and I won’t get into the minute details of what makes the series great this time. Mark has already done that. So let’s just focus on Dark Souls III’s first DLC Ashes of Ariandel.
Ashes of Ariandel (Dark Souls III DLC): Windows PC [Reviewed], Xbox One, PlayStation 4
Developer: From Software, Inc.
Publisher: From Software, Inc, BANDAI NAMCO Entertainment
Release Date: 25 October 2016
Price: 14,99€ [Disclosure: Game Copy Provided by Developer/Publisher]
Ashes of Ariandel – Return to the Painted Worlds
I’d been holding out for the DLCs since beating Dark Souls III late this spring. I hadn’t yet restarted the game in one of it’s New Game Plus modes so I was all primed and ready to jump into the extra content. The DLC is accessed less obtusely this time around, by simply returning to the Cleansing Chapel near the Cathedral of the Deep (accessible fairly early in the game) and speaking to an NPC that is praying there. You are ceremoniously but rudely transported to the Painted World of Ariandel which veteran players will have already recognised as being influenced by an optional hidden area in Dark Souls I named the Painted World of Ariamis. You wake up in a cave next to a bed of disgusting maggot eggs upon which a featherless humanoid bird sits and tells you to seek your own bed of rot and go to sleep. Immediately the theme of decay is established as central to the story of the Painted World, but unlike the main story, this is not the sort of decay caused by aeons upon aeons passing by, leaving crumbling buildings and overgrown sceneries behind. It’s not the tranquil absence of life and activity but rather something else entirely.
The first stages of the area (where a message advises that you not brave it before you’ve been to the depths of the Lothric Castle) are gorgeous wild lands covered in snow and inhabited by wild wolves and warriors that have lost almost all sense of purpose. Progressing onward, however, reveals more and more beds of rot, maggots and flies. The cycle of decay and rebirth, this time around, is not because of the inexorable passage of time, but rather because of corruption on a very physical, palpable scale. And in order for there to be rebirth, there must be cleansing. And what else cleanses, especially in the world of Dark Souls, if not flame? The few NPCs you will meet along the way will reinforce this idea, with some revelling in the corruption, seeing it as a natural progression of things and others asking for their world to be burned down so that it may be remade.
There are several subtle callbacks to the Painted World of Ariamis, which I will not go over, but the DLC relies less on nostalgia than the main story. In terms of content, it offers one new area, several new enemy types (and I think none that are reused from elsewhere), a bunch of new armour sets and weapons with very interesting move sets and weapon arts. At between 3 and 5 hours of slow, methodical, completionist play Ashes of Ariandel is definitely and by a huge margin the shortest Souls Series DLC in terms of play time. I will not call it weak in terms of content because while it is short, it is fairly dense. There is only one new area, but it’s absolutely huge and incredibly vertical (I’d say as vertical as one of the areas in the Dark Souls II DLCs). There are only two bosses to beat, one of which is optional, but the story boss has one of the most interesting fights in the entire series with multiple phases and move sets to adapt to. Defeating the second boss, the optional one, reveals one possible reason for the reduced size of the DLC: you gain access to a PVP arena with matchmaking and multiple game modes. This will add hours to your play time if you’re into the PVP, but is practically useless if you’re a PVE-only player.
The PVP mode hints that, while there is only one arena so far, based on the final boss arena from the main Dark Souls III story, there will be more added at a later date. There are several modes to choose from: duels, team fights or even free for all battles with either limited or no estus flasks allowed and it’s a welcome addition even if I liked the organic community-defined PVP arenas which had a very underground/fight club feel to them.
One disappointment I had with Ashes of Ariandel was its challenge level. The Souls series DLCs have been known for improving upon an established base, with some of the most interesting and challenging boss fights available. I’ve spent hours trying to defeat Artorias of the Abyss with his frantic attacks and one shot kills. I’ve spent hours trying to beat the bosses in the Dark Souls II DLCs. I’ve made countless attempts to defeat Lady Maria of the Astral Clocktower and spent several evenings trying to defeat the Orphan of Kos in Bloodborne. It’s a challenge to learn their moves and then a challenge to react to them. You smash yourself against a wall repeatedly until one time, probably because of equal parts luck and skill, it just works. In Ashes of Ariandel, I’ve had an easy time with one of the bosses after learning their strategies throughout several attempts and found them easy to counter after that, while the second boss I accidentally wandered into and defeated it in one single bumbling try.
Visually, the Painted World looks staggeringly gorgeous. The frozen vistas and falling snow remind me of one of the most beautiful areas in Dark Souls III: The Boreal Valley while the dark and disgusting infested dungeons really drive home the theme of rot and corruption. The enemy design is impressive and ranges from lowly and pitiful to intimidating or panic-inducing. Particularly noteworthy are the Corvian Knights and their aggressive yet tactical move sets and the wolves’ pack strategy of howling for backup and then running around the player, disorienting and distracting them, allowing their pack-mates to strike. Definitely some of the most frantic fights in the series.
I was looking forward to the Dark Souls III DLC season and while Ashes of Ariandel has a fairly high content density, it is somewhat lacking in terms of length and environment variety. One of the bosses is among the more interestingly designed in terms of combat in the series, but for both the bosses and the general content I didn’t get the same sense of tightly-designed, polished challenge that I usually got from Souls DLCs. It looks gorgeous and the enemies have very cool designs both visually and in terms of moves and mechanics. The addition of PVP matchmaking and custom matches will also probably excite a lot of players that are in it strictly for the competitive aspect. Overall I found Ashes of Ariandel enjoyable and interesting, but I was expecting a lot more and there was definitely a lot of precedent for a lot more. So come on, From. It’s the conclusion to your crowning achievement series. Do us and yourselves proud for the next DLC, ok? Thank you.