Ashes of Arandiel is the first of two DLCs for Dark Souls III [official site], making it quite possibly the penultimate Souls adventure. We sent intrepid Robert Zak into the cold wastes of the Painted World of Ariandel to see how well it lives up to the mighty legacy of the series, and he returned a short time later stricken with frostbite. And wolfbites. Here's wot he thinks.
"I really should've learned how to parry", springs to my mind as I fall for the ninth time to a scythe-wielding lady, and the familiar "You Died" message fades into view along with that dreadful chime that sounds like a Chinese gong reverberating through some Stygian cavern. The thing about these Soulsborne DLCs is that they assume mastery on your part - not only in the sense that you've completed the main game, but that you've been playing it persistently for the seven months since its release and have it all hard-coded into your muscle memory. They brutally exploit weaknesses in your game, and the fact that I tried using the face buttons instead of the right shoulder buttons to attack when I first loaded up Ashes of Ariandel tells you all you need to know about my so-called 'muscle memory'.
Not that I'm complaining. A difficulty spike - coated in the bloodstains of hapless Souls-rusty players like myself - is par for the course, and on that front Ashes of Ariandel delivers. It dutifully deceives you at every opportunity, and bluffs and double-bluffs to keep you in a state of twitchy Souls paranoia as you traverse the hostile, blizzard-blasted Painted World. It's formidable, beautiful, and toe-curlingly tense, because it's Dark Souls and of course it is; it'd take an unprecedented cock-up for From Software at this late stage to not deliver on those fronts.
And yet, more than ever, this DLC seems to be going through the motions - ticking the boxes of atmosphere and challenge, while offering a story that doesn't patch up any of the narrative holes in the main game, nor delivering much in the way of originality or rewarding level design. At around 3-4 hours long, it's by far the shortest of Souls DLCs, which - fittingly given its setting - may leave Season Pass owners feeling a little cold.
Finding the Ashes of Ariandel is less cryptic than getting into previous Souls DLCs (or exactly the same if, like me, you Google it instead of running around the entire world trying to join together tenuously connected oddities like you were Guybrush Threepwood circa. 1994). Just zap yourself over to the Cleansing Chapel bonfire, and an old hollow will tell you about a prophecy of how two Ashen Ones will set alight the forlorn Painted World of Ariandel (which exists in the same strange dimension as the Painted World of Ariamis from the original Dark Souls), before sucking you into a scrap of paper and having a right old chuckle about it.
Of course, with Souls narratives being the ethereal jigsaws that they are, the above may mean nothing to you even if you've played the entire series. Maybe you're just here for the challenge, and that's fine. For the sake of simplicity, let's just say the plot is like jumping into a painting in Super Mario 64, but instead of going to a lurid land of chocolate and mushrooms, you wind up in a frozen wasteland where all things abandoned and rejected and too horrific for the world go to live in eternal misery. On a lighter note, the way you get sucked into the Painted World is hilarious, with your legs dangling behind you all silly like you'd gone a bit overboard on the apple bobbing (obligatory Halloween reference - check).
Ariandel makes a powerful first impression. The blizzard conditions that persist throughout immediately put me on the back foot as I tentatively inched forward - cursing my decision to eschew a safe shieldy character in favour of a dual-wielding one while trying to detect the source of the snarls coming from the dense, dark whiteness around me. The weather conditions offer a nice new angle on making the level itself feel like an enemy, as I had trouble distinguishing shapes in the distance, and was convinced that one of those unsettlingly anthropomorphic trees would spring to life and get me - bluffs and double-bluffs.
My first encounter with a pack of wolves was particularly memorable. One of them stood at the top of a hill, and upon seeing me rallied its buddies with a howl. I backpedalled as four of them appeared among the trees, leading to a tense 10-second stand-off of strafing and growling before we collided. The people who complain about Dark Souls' tendency to reuse assets and animations need only look at this encounter to see how they can be rejigged to great effect, as these are your typical 'Souls' dogs in terms of their actual attacks. Notwithstanding, it was a great moment, and I'm happy to present this the Best Wolf Encounter in a Videogame (of the two that immediately spring to mind) Award
Whether it's the flies, the rotted Corvian bird-people or the Viking berserker-like Millwood Knights, every enemy in Ariandel looks new, nasty and befitting of the setting, even if some of their attacks are rehashed. There is no 'Dark Souls 2'-style dumping of random baddies in random places, and you'll run an eclectic gauntlet of challenges ranging from vast forested areas where meticulously placed soldiers snipe you from cover and summon their allies, to tightrope walks while under fire from explosive arrows, to the old 'fall into a pit and fight a trio of tough enemies when all you wanted was to find a bonfire' chestnut.
But for all the Souls 101 sequences, Ariandel lacks that design swagger that goes hand-in-hand so well with the unique flavour of suffering that we've come to love. Taking an alternate path in a Souls game would often lead to a dead end or a loop back to where you started, with your efforts being rewarded with some kind of treasure or lore tidbit. You can still go off the beaten track here, but rarely with the pay-off you'd hope to find; I felt a little short-changed when I went down a hidden path along a cliff-edge, slew an enemy in extremely precarious circumstances, and all I got for my efforts was a flapping ragdoll corpse stuck to my foot. Shortcuts, rather than feeling like the ingenious, devilish design of semi-mythical kings and twisted lords, take the form of trees that you knock down to bridge gaps and really, really long ladders to ascend from the glacier floor; they feel contrived, lacking that smooth sense of intentionality that we see in Souls level design at its finest.
I'll give the Ladder to Heaven one thing though - it makes for some dramatic screenshots. Your average Soulsian portcullis shortcut may feel good, but does it look this good, hmm?
The optional boss in Ariandel will stoke the indignation felt by the 'rehashed assets' contingent, essentially being a faceless invader-type baddie alongside a very familiar creature. The main showdown, meanwhile, is spectacular, though the unprecedented trick it pulls turns it into a battle of attrition. Like the shortcuts and level design, it feels a little less clever, a little less profound than the trickery we're used to.
I'm of the belief that 'Hell is other people trying to kill you in Dark Souls' and have never invested heavily in the PvP aspect of the game, but for those so inclined there's a new PvP arena that you can unlock, allowing you to fight one-on-one, in a team, or in a big Battle Royale of up to six people. So that's nice for the more bellicose among you, though a big brown colosseum strikes me as a kind of Joker card pulled out when there's no other card to play. "Out of ideas, are we? Summon The Arena and let them fight each other lest they turn on us! Tha-DUNK".
To me, Dark Souls 3 was a good curtain call. Ariandel, however, feels like perhaps the series has come out for one round of applause too many, and my hands are starting to hurt now from the perpetual clapping. The combat and visual design are fantastic - that was never in question - and I enjoyed Ariandel for its short runtime of four hours, but it's engulfed in the shadow of its predecessors' far meatier expansions. Where previous Soulsborne DLCs took dark deep-dives into their worlds, embellishing the lore and offering some of the greatest boss encounters, Ariandel feels a bit tangential and tired by those (extremely high) standards.
With talk of From Software reportedly working on three new games, could it be that their attentions are straying towards the future? That would be a shame, because no series is more worthy of a satisfying send-off than Dark Souls. With one more DLC to go, at least there's hope yet...