As a hardcore Dark Souls fan, it’s always exciting when a new Souls opportunity arises. But the love of Dark Souls is a double-edged sword. With the months and weeks preceding a content release full of hype and speculation, it’s possible that a piece of content may not live up to whatever expectations are set in place. Unfortunately, this rings true for the first piece of content for Dark Souls 3, Ashes of Ariandel, as it is an enjoyable, yet short-lived experience.
Ashes of Ariandel begins precisely where we expected it to start, smack bang in the middle of the Cathedral of the Deep, near the Cleansing Chapel. After talking with Gael, players are taken on a journey into the Painted World of Ariandel, the sole location of Dark Souls 3’s first piece of DLC. What follows is a connection of snowy fields, crumbling towers, rotting villages, and hilltop chapels, all interspersed with a few new enemy units.
Long-time Dark Souls players will be immediately familiar with the setting as it is, for all intents and purposes, an emulation of the Painted World of Ariamis from Dark Souls. It even borrows the themes of the first Painted World, a home for abominations that is slowly decaying.
As with all Dark Souls storylines, the goals and motivations are murky and require a more experienced historian to piece together. Despite the obfuscated narrative, players who take the time to read weapon descriptions will get small insights into other characters that already exist in the Souls universe. It’s a nice touch, albeit lacking any real substance as it doesn’t affect the actual world presented in Ashes of Ariandel.
Dark Souls has always been skilful in its use of areas, with each and every section being purposeful, even if it’s to hide an NPC or an item. This isn’t the same in Ashes of Ariandel. There are multiple areas of substantial size that hold nothing special aside from a few consumables. Even the Corvian Settlement, with its twisting riverbed, interconnected houses and bizarre bridges, pales in comparison to the Undead Settlement.
While there are NPCs with which you can interact, there are only two major characters that are of any significance. The lack of NPCs makes the vast empty fields feel even more barren. There is a Kalameet or Freja-like encounter, but it doesn’t carry the same weight of the previous titles. The few significant NPCs are thoroughly intriguing, but they offer frustratingly little purpose.
The blessing and curse of Dark Souls has always been the subjectivity surrounding whether or not something is “good” or “bad”. What might appeal to one player will be the bane of another’s existence. While I felt Ashes of Ariandel is problematically short, others might feel it packs a heavier punch than Artorias of the Abyss.
To speak of Ashes of Ariandel’s length becomes a problem as the areas preceding the real meaty sections are merely large fields full of enemies. These fields hold no purpose other than to direct you and challenge you as you move toward the central location in the Painted World of Ariandel.
Experienced players could knock the DLC out in potentially one sitting (one long sitting), with only the bosses posing any real threat. However, much like each Souls or Borne game that has come before, bosses will either challenge you to no end or be a pushover.
The pacing in Ashes of Ariandel also feels peculiar, as the only meaningful boss fight takes place at the end of the game. Admittedly, the Painted World of Ariamis also held its main boss fight until the end of the area, but it wasn’t a piece of DLC. To further separate the two, the Painted World of Ariamis feels far more complex and interwoven than what’s presented in the Painted World of Ariandel.
The Painted World of Ariandel is beautiful and breathtaking. It pays homage to old areas, but it’s just too small to satiate any thirst for new content that Souls fans have developed.
At the moment, Ashes of Ariandel feels too hollow for PvE players, with the environment being a bit too truncated despite the majority of the space being open fields. On the other hand, PvP players will be relieved to hear that Ashes of Ariandel brings with it a new PvP arena mode in the same fashion as was in previous titles.
The only caveat for accessing the Undead Matches is that you must clear part of the PvE content, an area that is entirely possible to miss. It was odd to have such an integral part of the DLC locked behind a section of the world that could remain hidden. This is difficult to quantify, because that, at surface value, appears to be exactly what Dark Souls is about: the ability to miss elements in the world. But unlike The Great Hollow or Archdragon Peak, this optional area holds an item that is a vital part of this content drop, and without this item, the entire DLC is drastically shorter and does not offer much outside of PvE.
Regardless of how it’s accessed, when unlocked, Undead Matches is an incredibly handy tool for PvP players. Undead Match allows you to select the type of battle mode you wish to partake in, whether it’s a duel between you and one other player, variations of two groups fighting one another, or even a free-for-all.
The matches are often chaotic fun, with spells flying everywhere and scythes, swords, axes, and all manner of weaponry slashing across the screen. Unfortunately, as with all Dark Souls PvP, it can be riddled with players fishing for backstabs, phantom hits, and more often than not, nonstop rolling.
For Dark Souls PvP enthusiasts, the Undead Match is the answer to a prayer and will allow players to more easily setup tournaments and even friendly fights thanks to a password system to lock arenas. It’s an excellent addition that was puzzlingly missing from the base game, despite being a system in place since Artorias of the Abyss.
Though Undead Match is a success, the rest of Ashes of Ariandel pales in comparison to what has come before it. Players who steer clear of PvP will find little reason to come back after finishing the content, save for the opportunity to participate in coop boss encounters.
In terms of lore, Ashes of Ariandel does mention a few long-forgotten facets of the Dark Souls universe, as well as comments on the nature of a few previous characters in Dark Souls 3. So while there wasn’t a lot of playable content, the narrative potential and mystery is all there.
What’s left at the end feels like a stepping-stone piece of DLC that is merely there to pave the way for the next content drop. Storylines and characters are setup, but after finishing the DLC there was a distinct feeling of, “well, what now?” I was half expecting an extra cutscene or a final area to open up granting me access to the real Big Bad of the Painted World.
It would be easy to defend this design by inventing some narrative or symbolic reason, but Ashes of Ariandel ultimately just doesn’t have enough meat on its bones.
I feel that the deciding factor on whether this DLC was worthwhile will be greatly dependent on the following release, which is an odd idea that doesn’t typically work. In saying that, Ashes of Ariandel has set up an intriguing storyline and if DLC 2 doesn’t continue this thread, Ashes of Ariandel will appear to be a massive and perplexing sidestep in the closing of Dark Souls’ final chapter.
I love Dark Souls and I enjoyed Ashes of Ariandel, but it wasn’t superb and it doesn’t stand up to the level of quality previously delivered by From Software. But, and this is a testament to how good Dark Souls is even when it's "not great", I will definitely play it again, if only to experience the final boss fight one more time.
Ashes of Ariandel Review
Touches on old characters
Classic Dark Souls experiences
Not enough bosses
Areas lack inspiration
Australian writer who has a penchant for Souls games, an addiction to Destiny, and a love for the indie.