FromSoftware have had a good track record with their downloadable offerings. Dark Souls 1, 2, and Bloodborne had extra content that expanded on the story of their respective universes, while offering a stiff challenge that only the most devout followers could truly appreciate.
Their first batch of extra content for Dark Souls III however, may be their weakest offering. Ashes of Ariandel checks all the boxes required for a tight and contained piece of downloadable content, but it doesn’t elevate itself passed that. The result is a relatively short quest into a gorgeously desolate world, without much stringing it together.
Starting the DLC requires a fair bit of investment. If like me you only had a new-game plus character at the start of the campaign, then it requires you replay a significant chunk of the original journey to access it. Even once you manage to step into the frigid tundra that you’ll call home for a handful of hours, you’ll need to be high level too. If you don’t have a near end-game character, then you won’t be prepared for what the DLC has to offer.
Ashes of Ariandel takes players to a snowy kingdom of the same name. Inhabited by your usual cast of laconic and gloomy characters, things aren’t as they seem. A nameless infestation is creeping through the land, rotting it from within. Throughout your quest there are enough dangling threads for you to pull at and piece together a picture about one of the series’ biggest question marks. These threads come in their usual forms: oblique item descriptions, inscrutable dialogue, and a consistent visual language.
That language is beautiful. Ariandel is as frigid a place as its occupants’ personalities. Sweeping icy vistas are populated with pitiful shambling avian creatures, their faces cracked and pocked, with too-little skin pulled over too-much bone. Bosses include intimate one-on-one duels, to heated multi-part encounters. Armour and weapon sets that can be uncovered range from the mundane, to the grotesque, mirroring the societal degradation tugging at the heart of Ariandel.
But despite all this, FromSoftware’s latest DLC offering stumbles when it comes to content. There just isn’t enough of it.
Your time inside the DLC will run anywhere from four-to-eight hours depending on your skill level. The encounters and level design adding beats to your romp aren’t particularly thought-provoking though; swarms of enemies that are more about memorising AI patterns, and beasts with particularly high hit-points. You’ll weave your way through buildings and swamps, but everything about the spaces is predictable, with enemies routinely tucked away behind corners or in the darkness above.
There are also only two bosses. The first is hidden, requiring a modest amount of searching before it can be found. The latter comes right at the end, and is a fitting pay-off for the otherwise lacklustre nature of the content before it. It’s a multi-part encounter, peppered with dialogue and storytelling throughout – and it may be one of my favourite boss fights in the series.
But once you’ve plumbed the depths of Ariandel, there’s very little reason to stick around. There’s a robust arena mode included, but unless you like player-versus-player battles against a user base that have been mastering the game’s intricacies since launch, it’s a meagre gesture. More than that, only one map is currently available – and it’s unclear if more will arrive as updates, or in the next DLC offering.
Ashes of Ariandel is a competent piece of downloadable content for Dark Souls III. It checks all the right boxes and makes all the right moves. It’s gorgeous, mysterious, but it’s also tame. While it does fill in the gaps around one of the series’ bigger question marks, no amount of mystique can hide the fact that there isn’t a lot on offer here.