Dark Souls III: Ashes of Ariandal (DLC) Review

Jason Nimer
In Short
Ashes of Ariandal suffers from a lack of lore.

When the Dark Souls series made its official jump from PS3 (Dark Souls II) to PS4 (Dark Souls III), it was hyped beyond all reason and even players who had never played the series were pumped for the game's arrival. From Software's Souls series (which also includes personal favorite Demon's Souls and Bloodborne) has grown from its out of left field debut on PS3 to one of gaming's more revered and beloved series, and it never ceases to amaze me. I never would have thought that the niche, way-too-hard Demon's Souls would lead to a series that now stands toe-to-toe with giants like Mass Effect, Tomb Raider, Assassin's Creed and all the other blockbuster series out there. The first Dark Souls 3 DLC pack, Ashes of Ariandal, is now upon us, and given the near legendary praise for past DLC entries from the series, it's understandable to be excited. Ashes of Ariandal shows us that even though III will be the last of the Dark Souls series (yeah, right; and Brett Favre only retired once), From Software still has a few tricks and treats left for us.

Longtime players will recognize the Painted World of Ariandal as very, very similar to the Painted World of Ariamas from the first Dark Souls game. Ariandal is a snow-covered wasteland complete with all the things you immediately thought of when I mentioned the setting; Vikings, snow drifts, crumbling, frozen castles, etc. The setting fits excellently into the existing landscape of Dark Souls III and by extension the entire Souls universe. The only real drawback here is this world feels almost shockingly light on lore. Past Dark Souls DLC packs have had entire encyclopedias of various world and character history and story. Though Ashes of Ariandal does give enough expository information to give your journey a purpose, but the lack of the series' trademark oceans of backstory ultimately hurt my overall enjoyment of this 8-10 hour journey.

What this DLC pack lacks in story, it makes up for with things to do. Ariandal is easily identifiable as the series' largest DLC zone yet. Accessible through the bonfire and an NPC at the Cleansing Chapel, Ariandal's scope is apparent from the instant you touch down in this new world. You'll venture through frozen mountain ranges and various man-made structures, though like everything in this universe, it seems to have been abandoned for hundreds of years. Oh, but not by enemies, though; they are waiting around every corner to hop out and end your fun. What gives the location a little extra zing is that it feels designed to encourage exploration of every corner; the game accomplishes this by essentially losing the player and the path on purpose. You WILL get lost at some point during this adventure, and that open-ended feeling recalls the 'what do I do now?' feeling best showcased by the original Demon's Souls. I'm not sure if this will earn a gold star with all players like it did with me; newer fans of the series are more used to a linear experience, especially those who only got started with Bloodborne or Dark Souls III. Whether being hopelessly lost in the wilderness sounds appealing or not, Ariandal is definitely a place worth exploring for all players.

The star of the Dark Souls show was, has been and always will be the enemies and bosses, and Ariandal offers a few new encounters to players who can handle the challenge. Among the best of the minor foes are the Viking-like Millwood warriors, who pack an even bigger punch than their gigantic stature might suggest. Vets will know almost instantly how best to handle this new hulking foe, and the reward is a sweet one. The Millwood armor set makes your character into an honest-to-goodness Viking warrior, and the aesthetics alone are worth the battles you'll need to win to make it yours. The new weapons in this pack, from the Crow's Talons melee weapon to the frozen scythes given by defeating the main boss, are a mixed bag. Some work well, others don't. What's important is that none of the new weapons really stood a chance of replacing anything I was already using and used to, and past Souls DLC packs have been home to some seriously amazing weapons and gear. It's a minor letdown, but not enough to void the fun you'll have getting through this journey.

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Ashes of Ariandal offers two new boss encounters, one that caps off the DLC in typical Souls fashion, and one that is completely optional (and I won't spoil it ' promise). Sister Friede is your main boss and the wielder of those frozen scythes I just mentioned. The whole demon nun thing has been done to death (ooh, shock value') but in typical Dark Souls fashion, the battle becomes less about the silly character design and more about pure skill. Friede moves fast and hits hard, so even if she doesn't have that same last boss 'feel,' the fight proves challenging enough to be rewarding. I'll leave you to discover the optional boss on your own, but the fight is merely passable. Fun, yes, but not really all that hard.

What I haven't mentioned yet is probably the biggest draw for a lot of players; this DLC introduces a new arena mode for player vs. player battles ' Undead Matches. In typical (and amazing) Dark Souls fashion, unlocking this new mode isn't readily apparent and requires some real work on the player's part. Once you do open it up, the new PvP stuff does impress, but more on that in a minute. What I found so impressive about this was that it hides behind an area that no novice player would ever be able to reach. The high bar for enemies in the area keeps out those who might not be strong enough yet and thus keeps a lot of balance for the Undead Match mode itself. Everyone you encounter will have had to be strong enough to open the mode up through this DLC pack, so pretty much only folks who have already mastered the main adventure, reached level 100 and finished the main final boss will be your foes. It's an organic way to enforce a minimum level entry point, and further evidence of From Software's brilliant pedigree when it comes to smart game design. I have little to zero interest in PvP in most games, but I wanted to get this new mode opened up here simply because I appreciate how it was handled.

Once you do open this, players can visit the Firelink Shrine to participate. There are plenty of options, ranging from 'two man enter, one man leave' head-to-head matches to full on 6 vs 6 team matches that look like an ancient version of the Royal Rumble. Before I make my next point, let's clear something up: Dark Souls has a fanbase like any other. These rabid fans know every in and out of the games and have spent years and years exploring this universe. They are among the most dedicated fans in all of gaming, and that is something to be applauded. That said, I found the player base in these matches to be, well, toxic to say the least. People take these games very seriously and in more than a few matches, I was unable to find a single player or group who would graciously accept a loss. Lots of swearing and awful comments I certainly won't repeat ('Oww! My freakin' ears!' ' Todd Flanders) were prevalent. Granted, I was on the losing side far more often than I was the winning, but the players online almost made me dread victory with their childish kicking and screaming at a tough but fair loss by my hand. Being dedicated to a game or series is great ' I myself am a huge Dragon Ball fan ' but when players actively sling the most horrible, vile curses at one another over winning or losing a game, it might be time to step back and re-evaluate life. So for every bit of praise I had for the method for unlocking this new mode, it is countered by the swarms of malcontents and children who make having a good time online a literal impossibility.

Ashes of Ariandal is the first of two planned DLC expansions for Dark Souls III, and in some ways, it knocks it out of the park. The setting is great and the new enemies provide some new, fun challenges. The open-ended structure of the world makes getting lost something that absolutely will happen, but the emphasis on the journey over the destination of the final boss is refreshing and intriguing. But for all the good, there is a decided lack of lore here, the new weapons are more trophies than of any real practical use and the human population of the new PvP stuff more than kills the fun of the mode, it threatens the entire perception of the series as a whole by gamers like me, who are fans of the series but not nearly as hardcore as some out there. In the penultimate addition to the Dark Souls series (the next DLC will be the last, and thus, the end of the series ' sure.. sure it will be'), we see From Software's usually brilliance peeking through, but the Painted World of Ariandal, while worthy of the Dark Souls name, just isn't their best work. I don't doubt for a second that the final DLC will knock the series out of the park in legendary fashion, but this first Dark Souls III expansion feels a little lost in the blizzard.

Final Rating: 68%

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Transmitted: 3/3/2021 7:34:16 AM