Expansions for FromSoftware's Dark Souls trilogy are regarded as some of the best content in the series. Dark Souls' Artorias of the Abyss revealed an ancient city polluted with corrosive darkness and introduced players to one of the franchise's most tragic characters. Dark Souls 2's Lost Crowns add-ons presented sprawling, interconnected worlds sorely lacking from its base game.
Ashes of Ariandel is the first of two planned DLC packages for Dark Souls 3. Although it's the shortest of any expansion in the series thus far, it offers a satisfying blend of lore, boss fights, and exploration that fans love, but fails to shake some of Dark Souls 3's problems.
Riffing on previous settings such as Dark Souls' Painted World of Ariamis and Dark Souls 2's Eleum Loyce, Ashes of Ariandel takes you through stinging snow and crumbling fortresses. Frozen fields do a nice job breaking up Dark Souls 3's abundance of murky caves and dungeons, and are broken up by familiar touchstones like dilapidated towns that do not overstay their welcome.
There are several new areas to explore, and while the whole of Ariandel is ultimately linear, like Dark Souls 3's main world, individual zones are spacious enough to slake your thirst for exploration for between three to five hours. Two bosses await you. One is optional and puts up a good fight, although it's a copy-and-paste version of two regular enemies.
Meanwhile, the final boss holds a place of honor among the pantheon of "SoulsBorne" brouhahas. Your heart will race, your hands will shake, and the exultancy that fills you upon finally clinching victory by the skin of your teeth—I won with zero estus flasks and a sliver of life remaining—is the stuff of which these games are made.
Aside from big bads, Ariandel's enemies are a patchwork of feral wolves, giant insects, undead soldiers, armor-clad Vikings, and twisted aberrations conceived in the darkest corners of director Hidetaka Miyazaki's mind. Their abilities are diverse enough to keep you on your toes. Leave a wolf alive long enough to let it howl, and you'll quickly find yourself surrounded by snarling pack mates that flank you before darting in for the kill.
That mob mentality is pervasive throughout Ashes of Ariandel, and it doesn't always make for a good time. Most enemies travel in groups, and trying to pull one brings half a dozen or more down on you in a whirlwind of blades and fire and snapping teeth. Whether you face a horde or the rare one-on-one battle, enemies are outrageously aggressive. They swing wide, and once their onslaught starts it doesn't stop until you're dead.
Gratuitous aggression plagued the main game, and is just as frustrating in Ariandel despite the expansion being tailored to advanced players who have conquered the toughest challenges that Dark Souls 3 threw at them earlier this spring.
Items are hit or miss. You'll come across a few new weapons and spells, but only a select few are worth more than cursory experimentation before switching back to armaments you've already upgraded. I also have to chide FromSoft for botched pacing and progression at several junctures. I often fought tooth and nail to follow one branch of a fork to its terminus, only to be rewarded with a single ember or pack of homeward bones.
Who puts homeward bones and only homeward bones at the end of a treacherous path? What message does that send? "Hey, you finally made it! Congrats! Now see yourself out."
Painting Worlds by Numbers
No self-respecting Dark Souls fans will skip Ashes of Ariandel, nor should they. It's a solid offering that checks most, if not all boxes. However, anyone who waited with bated breath for six long months for another serving of crestfallen souls may find this sampler-sized expansion bittersweet.
Here's hoping Dark Souls 3's second and final DLC, perhaps the final piece of Dark Souls content ever, delivers on more fronts.
This review is based on a Steam key provided by the publisher. Dark Souls 3: Ashes of Ariandel is available tomorrow, October 25, for $14.99 on PS4, Xbox One, and PC.