The Dark Souls series has history of producing additional content that often surpasses the base game in the eyes of many. The Artorias of the Abyss expansion for Dark Souls was so important to the games' story and world that it felt like it should have always been a part of the game. Dark Souls 2's 'Crown' DLC trilogy was so rife with quality that it elevated the game as a whole and made it a much better experience.
Now that brings us to Ashes of Ariandel, the first in a series of DLC for Dark Souls 3. The base game was one I believe to be the best overall of the series, so my expectations for this DLC were quite high. While Ashes of Ariandel is not inherently lacking in quality, it did unfortunately leave me wanting much more.
It should be noted before I begin this review proper that the PVP arenas have been pushed significantly in the build up to the release of Ashes of Ariandel, but I could not try them out as the online component of the game wasn't available during the review period. As such I cannot comment on the arenas at this time.
As is par for the course with the series, Ashes of Ariandel is designed for Dark Souls players that have mastered the core gameplay and want more a difficult challenge than what is offered in the base game. I went into the DLC on my character that was on the latter half of a new game + playthrough, and immediately felt a step up in competition.
There are several new enemy types that work in tandem with the environment to create some interesting new gameplay scenarios. One instance I found myself in a thick winter storm that limited visibility, which made engaging with ranged attackers quite interesting as the storm disturbed my depth perception. It added some extra tension to an otherwise standard fight with undead knight type of enemies.
Another and more interesting encounter was one with the new Ariandel wolves. Canines in the Souls games have always ranked amongst the most irritating of foes to deal with, but I think From Software may have finally nailed the concept with these wolves. Each encounter begins with only a couple wolves, and fairly quickly they will howl to call in more wolves as reinforcements.
What I like most about this is the wolves only take a single hit or so to be dealt with, and are not that dangerous in small numbers. However if they complete a howl, you will be swarmed by a pack of them. There is a great sense of satisfaction in killing the wolves before they complete a howl, and a sense of utter despair when you hear the oncoming pitter patter of canine reinforcements.
While some of the new enemy encounters like the wolves work well, overall I can't help but feel that some of these ideas are not taken as far as they should have been. The battles in the thick of a winter storm for example could have been so much more than they are. It is a very short section and I think limiting the visibility and maybe amplifying the weather effects so that they add some status ailments may have added some bite to the ferocity of winter. There are several combat scenarios like this that could have been more memorable had From Software just expanded on their ideas.
Harsh winter settings is not exactly a new concept in the Souls series. The Painted World of Ariamis from Dark Souls 1 and Crown of the Ivory King from Dark Souls 2 both took place in this sort of environment already. It is a bit of a determent overall, because while Ashes of Ariandel is beautiful and the most visually stunning as far as presentation goes. There's a sense of of familiarly with Ariandel that thins the veil between predictability and the unknown.
For me personally, I prefer these games when they keep me guessing, fearful of turning every corner. This could have been fixed had From Software taken ideas like the winter storm and expanded on it to give the DLC more of its own unique flavor, but alas that isn't the case. In my review for the base game of Dark Souls 3, I mentioned that one of the few flaws was it catered to nostalgia to prior entries too much and lost personality as a result, and well that is happening here in Ashes of Ariandel too. I wont spoil anything but any long time series fans will know what I'm referring to when they play the DLC.
A defining feature of the original Dark Souls was its large interconnected world that fit together from a logical level design perspective and how it was used to tell a story through the environment. While I adore the interconnected worlds found in these games, the best level design usually comes from one off areas that are separate from the rest of the game.
Ariandel is one such a place, it is a very large place to explore but the shortcuts help bridge it together in brilliant ways. Those "ah hah!" moments when you end up back at an earlier section of a level are one of the most satisfying things about these games, and Ashes of Ariandel does not disappoint in this regard.
The only part of the environments I did not like was the introduction of snowbanks that crumble away when you stand on them. In one instance I stood atop one of these, it gave away, and I fell into a large pit from a height that would have otherwise killed me. It kind of went against the rules of the core mechanics, as surely the developers acknowledged that if you fell due to the platform crumbling you should not die as that would be unfair. However its just strange to me because normally a fall from a great height while wearing heavy armor should kill you. The whole scenario sticks out like a sore thumb.
Something that this DLC absolutely nails is the new weapons that can be found throughout. Out of the four I found, each one had their own unique playstyle that was fairly different from what you can find in the base game. My favorite of which being the Quakestone Hammer, a large hammer with a magical earthquake element to it. Probably amongst the most satisfying heavy weapons in the entire series to weld. I wont spoil the rest of what can be found, but rest assured that there's something for everyone's playstyle.
If I were to attribute a time to how long it will take you to finish Ashes of Ariandel, I would say somewhere between 6-8 hours. I spent around 12 hours on the DLC before I felt that everything that could be explored had been properly. It's roughly comparable in size to one of the 'Crown' DLC packs in Dark Souls 2, a fairly meaty addition, but not quite a full on expansion like Artorias of the Abyss in Dark Souls 1 was. With all the new weapons, spells and the PVP mode; there's more than enough new content for players that have already exhausted everything there is in the base game.
Ashes of Ariandel is by no means a drop in quality from the base game of Dark Souls 3, just one that lacks defining properties to help it stand on its own. If you are in the mood for more of that mechanic fineness and polish found in Dark Souls 3 already, then you will find plenty more here. However the new ideas introduced in this DLC rarely feel like they live up to their potential. Some of the combat encounters are brilliant, others feel more like a clumsy experiment. From Software opted to have Ashes of Ariandel go with the grain rather than against it. A safe bet for sure, but one that will leave players like myself wanting more.
Versions tested: PC
Disclaimer: A copy of this game was provided to RPG Site by the publisher.