|Platform Win, PS4, Xbox One|
|Publisher Bandai Namco|
If Dark Souls 3 learned some lessons on its combat from FromSoftware’s 2015 hit Bloodborne, the Ashes of Ariandel downloadable content goes one step further, borrowing that spin-off’s whole aesthetic.
In that sense, Ashes of Ariandel seeks to improve upon many of the key complaints players and reviewers (like myself) had with Dark Souls 3. And it largely succeeds, pulling players into a gorgeous and original new area that feels better designed than the core game — if over all too soon.
Ariandel proved to be a world I wanted to spend time in
To access Ashes of Ariandel, you’ll need a high-level, late-game save for Dark Souls 3; I played with my endgame character who was floating around level 100 and still felt a teensy bit under-leveled. Players must hunt down a new non-player character in the world, a sketchy figure who will pull out a scrap of canvas and use it to transport the character to the Painted World of Ariandel.
Anyone who played the first Dark Souls and dug deep into that game’s hidden areas will be familiar with the concept of a Painted World. But while Ashes of Ariandel certainly suggests a connection with the original game, don’t expect much in the way of explicit plot progression. The DLC carries on with the series’ standard of extremely vague narrative, provided mostly via short item descriptions and snippets of confusing dialogue from bizarre NPCs.
Despite that, Ariandel proved to be a world I wanted to spend time in and explore to its greatest depths. The new area stands apart from the core game by presenting a chilly, winter forest setting. That fresh motif comes with its own new death traps — avalanches and collapsing snow platforms — and some never-before-seen enemies. It goes a long way toward making Ashes of Ariandel feel like something new, rather than just a retread of ideas the series has already mastered.
The enemies in the DLC deserve the most praise for what they add to the game. From the outset of the DLC, you’re dumped into a snow-covered, tree-pocked hillside. The locale is quaint and quiet at first, but it isn’t long before danger rears its head in two delightfully evil forms: packs of wolves that silently surround you, often before you even notice them, and the very trees themselves, which can spring to life and pepper the air with painful magic orbs. These early encounters blend environmental and combat challenges in a smart way that sets the tone for the rest of the content very clearly.
As you progress through Ashes of Ariandel, you will run into more traditional humanoid enemies — in both large and small varieties — but the layout of each location never allows you to let your guard down for long. Many of Ariandel’s hardest challenges involve working your way through precarious ledges while figuring out how to take down the small army of enemies throwing spears, spitting fire and generally trying to kill you. I had to explore and memorize each nook and cranny of the level to find spots that were safe to fight in, planning the best paths through each area.
This process satisfied me not just because of the difficulty but also the wonderful design of Ariandel. Outside of the forest, this region contains a few cool landmarks — a small village, a deteriorating tower, a huge church — but what really stands out is how intricately connected they are. Ashes of Ariandel employs shortcuts to a degree of success that the series hasn’t had since the first Dark Souls. There are still maybe a few too many bonfire checkpoints, but the space between each of those checkpoints — or a shortcut that opens the way back to one — has been perfectly plotted out to maximize a sense of reward for overcoming challenge.
Between patches and implementing the new DLC, FromSoftware has also put in a lot of work toward solving the wider problem of technical instability that bogged down Dark Souls 3. I didn’t experience a single noteworthy framerate dip or crash in all of my time with Ashes of Ariandel.
The only downside, then, is that "all of my time" with the DLC is a rather small amount. All said, Ashes of Ariandel took me somewhere between three and five hours to see more or less all it has to offer. It only features two bosses — granted, both are extremely cool, and one of them is easily the most hilariously tough boss fight in the series so far —and a handful of new weapons and armor. It’s all great content, there’s just not much of it.
Ashes of Ariandel is the best Dark Souls 3 has ever been
Still, if you’ve played enough Dark Souls 3 to have a character at the level necessary to tackle Ashes of Ariandel, I can’t imagine being very disappointed with what FromSoftware offers here. After a base game that had me questioning if the formula had lost its spark, this DLC proves that there are still frigid regions still worthy of exploration and horrifying beasts still in need of slaying. I won’t go so far as to say it’s the best Dark Souls has ever been, but it’s certainly the best Dark Souls 3 has ever been.
Dark Souls 3: Ashes of Ariandel was reviewed using a reviewable build of the DLC running on debug PlayStation 4 hardware, provided by Bandai Namco. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.About Polygon's Reviews