Dark Souls speaks its own distinct language. The more you play, the easier that language is to understand. Dark Souls 3's new Ashes of Ariendel DLC doesn't really teach us many new words, but it's still nice to have a new chapter. I'm no Dark Souls expert, but I do speak the language well enough. I know not to walk straight toward that glowing item at the end of the hall. I know that even when the path forward seems clear, I should probably look up (or down). I know that the broken lever next to the bonfire will eventually become a shortcut. I know to talk to NPCs until they start repeating themselves. I can smell a boss room from a mile off.
Ashes of Ariandel, which is out now on PC and consoles, has all of those familiar trappings — hidden paths, deadly enemies, weird NPCs and a couple of boss rooms. It's a small package of Dark Souls stuff, wrapped up in snowy paper and plopped down as the first of two planned downloadable expansions.
Some people like playing Dark Souls spoiler-free. If that's you, just know that the new DLC is pretty good but kinda short. More (but not too many) details on the PvE parts of Ashes of Ariandel follow.
First, the story. It's vague. What did you expect? Once you've installed the DLC, you'll find a guy waiting for you at the Cleansing Chapel. Talk to him, and he'll suck you into a scrap of a magical painting, and next thing you know you're trapped in the Painted World of Ariandel with no hope of escape! Well, except for bonfire fast-travel.
Ariandel is covered in snow. It's also full of hollowed-out soldiers, giant viking warriors, wolves, that kind of thing. In order to get to the bottom of what's going on, you'll have to pay close attention to the vague mumblings of a few NPCs, read a bunch of item descriptions and probably just go watch a lore video on YouTube. (In fact, Souls loremaster VaatiVidya has already made a video based on pre-release information. As far as I can tell, it manages to hit every major thing I discovered while actually playing the DLC.) I didn't play through Dark Souls 1's similarly frigid Painted World of Ariamis, but given how often Dark Souls 3 tied back with the first game, I'm guessing there are parallels for the loreminded among you.
My own Souls desires are more basic. I want to carefully make my way through dangerous areas, discover secret passages and fight big mean monsters. I want to climb really tall ladders and then slide down them. I want to crash-roll my way through rooms filled with desks and shelves and parchments. Ashes of Ariandel gave me all those things, though I reached the end more quickly than I thought I would. I'm a methodical player, and it only took me six or seven hours to explore every nook and cranny I could find.
I'm sure it's just a tree. Nothing to see here.
At the outset, you're plopped down in a wide-open snow field. You'll have to carefully make your way forward (or left, or right) until you wind up at fulcrum area where you're given a couple of different directions in which you can proceed.
One way leads on a short but interesting trip to the optional "downstairs" boss. The other path moves you through a plague-ridden town en route to the second, main boss. If it weren't for Ariandel's constant snow and whipping white fogs, the town, castle, cathedral and forest would seem like bog-standard Souls stuff. In general, the snow was enough to make it feel as though I was seeing something new, even though I really wasn't.
The enemy types you'll square off against also aren't exactly new to Souls games, but they're still plenty of fun to fight. Packs of wolves can howl and call their friends down from the hilltops, leading to fights that make use of the opening section's open areas. Giant frozen Viking men will quickly pound you into the ground if you're not fast on your feet. Most monsters are a bit more resistant to cheese than the ones in Dark Souls 3, dodging around high-vantage arrows and healing after returning to their patrols. One new enemy is an absolutely vicious bastard that I wouldn't dare spoil for you — I survived my first encounter with it by the skin of my teeth and spent the next 20 minutes laughing at myself for having ever felt safe.
And I did feel safe for a lot of Ashes of Ariandel, though some of that is owning to the circumstances under which I played. I lost a low 100s-level saved game about a month ago and thought I was shit outta luck for covering the DLC. Happily, I figured out a way to safely download a high-level character that is actually pretty close to the character I lost, albeit with a few more levels.
As a high-level knight with a comically huge health bar, I took down most enemies without much trouble, which made me think this expansion would be more a suitable challenge for a player in the 80-100 zone. There were times when I felt like I was having too easy a time of it, and I can't really blame that on the new enemies or areas. Your own experience will depend on your own level and whether or not you've started a NG+ or beyond.
Even if I had been a little less powerful, I still would have felt a tad let down by Ashes of Ariandel. As nice as it can be to look at, it feels somewhat routine. The level design steadily moves you forward from point to point, with little of the disorienting, layered Dark Souls design that had already been de-emphasised in Dark Souls 2 and 3. There are plenty of bonfires strewn about, and I can only recall one brief expedition where I felt the enjoyable stress of pressing forward into uncharted territory, eyes peeled for a bonfire.
Both boss encounters are initially striking, but one of them really just re-uses enemies you've fought elsewhere in the DLC. The new armour and weapons I've found don't do much for me, though my tastes in Souls weaponry are pretty boring. And while the new PvP options and arena sound cool, the game is as-yet unpopulated with other players and I don't really play Dark Souls for PvP to begin with.
Apparently Ashes of Ariandel will somehow connect with the second planned DLC, which we can assume will be out sometime next year. Hopefully that expansion will be a bit more substantive, particularly on the PvE end of things. Ashes of Ariandel managed to give me a fresh taste of what I so enjoy about Souls games, but I wish there had been more to it.