Well, the latest (and only) Dark Souls 3 DLC has finally arrived! But does it live up to the high standards the main game set?
Well, its been about half a year since the swan song to From Software’s massively popular Dark Souls franchise dropped, and since then there hasn’t been much in the way of news or activity for the series. Thankfully for Dark Souls fans everywhere, October 25 marked the release of Ashes of Ariandel, the first (and reportedly only) expansion for Dark Souls 3. As far as I was concerned, Dark Souls 3 was by far and away the strongest game in the series, and has been one of my favorite games to come out this year, so Ashes of Ariandel was high on my “Most Wanted” list. Question is, did Ashes of Ariandel live up to the hype, however self-imposed?
Ashes of Ariandel has players travel to the Painted World of Ariandel, a cold, inhospitable little slice of not so paradise wracked by snow and plagued with things that really, really want you dead. As is Dark Souls custom, you will fight them, they will kill you, they will repeatedly kill you, and eventually, you will triumph…then something else will kill you: such is the Dark Souls way.
I might as well just say this straight up: Ashes of Ariandel is great, and it’s great because it’s pretty much just more Dark Souls 3. Really, if you’ve read a review of Dark Souls 3, then you know what Ashes of Ariandel is going to give you: punishing but incredibly rewarding gameplay, a dark and fascinating world loaded up with bizarre and terrifying monsters, and some of the best boss battles in any video game in recent memory. Ashes of Ariandel delivers, with no drastic changes to the formula, but rather welcome little adjustments.
Much of these adjustments come in the level design, which is something a little different from the main game. The world of Ariandel is loaded with tight, close-knit pathways that seemingly spring off in all directions. It’s a welcome adjustment from the relative linearity of the major paths in the main game, and gives an impression of the snow-battered wilderness that makes up much of Ariandel. Ashes of Ariandel also has shortcuts that cover less ground, but are far more plentiful overall. While the shortcuts being less significant and more frequent reduces the thrill of finding them, overall they provide a much more consistently satisfying feeling of measurable progress. That said, however, the more obtuse level design can often lead to paths forward being confusing and unclear, even by Dark Souls standard of obfuscating level design. There was a good chunk of my time with the expansion where I was locked out of a big portion of the new DLC area because I couldn’t figure out the somewhat obtuse means through which to reach it. While uncovering hidden pathways can be rewarding, the feeling of accomplishment tends to diminish when it’s frustratingly unclear what you need to do in the first place to the point where you have to cave and look it up.
Of course, that’s just Ashes of Ariandel from a design standpoint. Visually, Ashes of Ariandel’s world is as hauntingly beautiful as any other part of the Dark Souls world. The snow-battered, frozen wildernesses and ruined towns overtaken by snow that make up the Painted World of Ariandel are a welcome change of pace from the environments of the main game, with little comparing to what Ashes of Ariandel offers. The grandeur and majesty of the world itself even stretches into the boss arenas, which are some of the most memorable and awesome in the series to date. The bosses themselves also slip comfortably into this category as well: while there’s only a couple of them across the DLC, both fights are immensely enjoyable, and one of them is truly bonkers in how much the boss escalates towards its conclusion.
Ashes of Ariandel also introduces a new feature in the form of Undead Matches. Undead Matches, which are unlocked following defeating one of the DLC’s bosses, finally provides Dark Souls with a proper PvP matchmaking system. From the Firelink Shrine bonfire, players can set up arena matches pitting themselves against other players: they can be one-on-one duels or battles between teams of up to 4 players. While I’ve always found a strange charm to the unorthodox manner that Dark Souls takes to multiplayer in the past, having a more formal system of matchmaking is still a welcome addition and provides another option for folks who can’t get enough of Dark Souls PvP.
With all that said, however, my praise of Ashes of Ariandel does come with a fairly notable caveat: it’s short. In fact, Ashes of Ariandel is very short. Overall, my time with Dark Souls 3’s newest addition clocked in at around 6 and a half hours, and in that time I cleared every area and boss. Now while that’s not going hold true for every player, I would still imagine it’s a solid estimate, especially for seasoned players. The length of Ashes of Ariandel is definitely its biggest drawback: its abrupt nature means that it leaves you with something of a deeply unsatisfying feeling. Combined with its at times very obtuse design, I found myself having cleared the last boss and absolutely pumped for more, only to have to look up that yes, I had in fact done everything there was to do; it was a letdown, to say the least.
Ashes of Ariandel is ultimately a small slice of Dark Souls goodness that’s over entirely too soon. Its like getting a tiny slice of cake for dessert after a big, beautiful main course: its delicious but its gone before you know it, and you want more, but From Software has already said they’re not doing any more Dark Souls and- y’know what, I think this analogy got away from me a little bit. I’ll just say this of Ashes of Ariandel instead- if you loved Dark Souls 3, you’ll love Ashes of Ariandel; just be prepared for it not to last too long.