Dark Souls DLC is always a challenge to pull off successfully. A large part of the charm of the Souls series comes from exploring winding paths and areas that branch out from each other in a huge, sprawling overworld. To capture that mystical idea of discovery and wanderlust in a bite-sized chunk of add-on content is a tall order. Ashes of Ariandel does a good job of capturing the essence of great Souls area design, but how much you end up enjoying the DLC will depend on whether you lean more toward boss encounters or human ones.
The first of two planned add-ons to Dark Souls 3, Ashes of Ariandel transports you to the Painted World of Ariandel, similar in many ways to the Painted World from the first Dark Souls. The landscape is caked in harsh, frosty snow, and the contrast of the stark white winter with the dark dead trees and the decrepit castle environments is hauntingly beautiful. I’m a sucker for snowy environments in Souls games, so on visual design alone, Ariandel is one of my favorite Dark Souls 3 zones.
Thankfully, it isn’t just the visual design that Ariandel excels at. Enemy placement is smart and well thought out. There are thick enemy chokepoints that test your skill and patience, and the variety of enemies on tap will have you constantly changing up your play style. A variety of tall knights, wolves, terrifying tree demons, huge Viking knights, and plenty more populate the world of Ariandel. The recommended minimum playee level for the DLC is 70, but even that is perhaps a bit too low. The enemies provide a consistent challenge, and in areas with swathes of enemies spread across huge snaking paths and chokepoints, it can get overwhelming if you’re not prepared for it.
The overall level design is, unfortunately, a bit more hit and miss than the enemy work. Ashes of Ariendal thrives on putting you into tight corridors filled with enemies, and it’s rarely a good time. The overall structure of the world is branching and open-ended, which provides the player with plenty to explore, but with the environments all looking so samey with their rocks and snow, it’s hard to tell where you are sometimes.
The weirdest thing, though, is the abundance of bonfires in the DLC. Within my first 4 hours of the DLC, I encountered 5 different bonfires. On initial runs, the environments between each bonfire felt long and difficult, but once you begin to speed through them, you realize just how small each area really is. That said, the frequent bonfires are appreciated in that they allow you to quickly access every area of the DLC quickly, and they also provide a good amount of checkpoints to ease the difficulty of the dense environments.
The frequent bonfires lead to my biggest problem with the game, though, which is the lack of boss encounters. By my fifth bonfire and my fourth or fifth hour into the DLC, I had not encountered a single boss. I ran into a handful of mini-bosses, and a plot significant NPC encounter, but no bosses. I had done what felt like significant pieces of content tying to the plot of the DLC, and experienced events that felt like they should have come after big boss encounters. Yet, no bosses.
When I finally discovered a boss fight by jumping my way down to a secret environment, it was another encounter that felt more like a Dark Invader encounter than anything. The only other boss, which is properly tied into the progression of the DLC story, is simply… okay. With only two bosses to battle, it’s disappointing that they don’t experiment more.
Ashes of Ariendal does a lot right, but the build up to breath-taking boss encounters, and the presence of said breathtaking bosses, is non-existent. Bosses are a big part of my enjoyement of the Dark Souls series, and Dark Souls 3 had some of my favorites. The Abyss Watchers cutscenes and boss-fight are hands down my favorite Souls experience to date. So it was a huge let down when Ashes of Ariendal failed to live up to the high standards set by the base game.
Fans of the online human encounters will have plenty to enjoy in this DLC, though, even beyond the encounters present in the campaign. A new PvP arena is introduced, accessible via Firelink Shrine after reaching a certain point in Ariandal. Unlike the way PvP has always worked in Souls games in the past, the new feature, Undead Match, is a true menu-based matchmaking interface that pits you against other players in a variety of modes, from 1v1 to 3v3.
While only one environment is available to fight in, the structure of the menu hints at more being available at a later date. Despite being awful at PvP in Souls games, I’ve still always wanted an easy way to jump into it whenever the mood struck me, so adding a proper matchmaking system is a great thing in my eyes, and from my time with it, it works flawlessly.
Ashes of Ariandal is, in the grand scheme of things, another merely alright Dark Souls DLC. It gives you new weapons, armor, and spells, and a new playground to test them in. It may not be something that will blow your mind or significantly shake up the world of Souls games, but if you just want an excuse to spend more time in the world of Dark Souls 3, this is that excuse. On top of that, a new match making system brings this much closer to being a must-buy for fans who are devout player-vs-player fans.