It is always a challenge to assess games as a reviewer when they come from a series you have an undying passion for. Patrick Klepek over at Waypoint recently referred to the Dark Souls series as ‘his Call of Duty’, and while I don’t love the precedent that sets, it is not far from the truth for me as well. Something about the pacing, tone, and challenge of the series just clicks with me on a level that very few games have in the past, and I am always chomping at the bit for more of the ‘Souls’ experience. Considering FromSoftware’s past DLC releases, there were big shoes to fill with the first DLC for Dark Souls 3. The Artorias of the Abyss DLC for the original Dark Souls was a master-class in adding new content to a cult-classic hit, and it contained some of the best bosses and story elements of any entry into the series. It was this exact precedent of greatness that made me so disappointed when I booted up Ashes of Ariandel to find a, expansion that was short and generally unspectacular.
It sounds harsh, especially considering my relationship with the series, but considering the breadth of past FromSoftware DLC it felt light and rushed. I don’t like to play the numbers and value game when it comes to games, but with only two bosses and six areas that I was able to complete in just a handful of hours and left me asking ‘Did I miss something?’ I prefer quality to quantity in a general sense of games, and if this had been a few hours of the best the series has to offer I would expect to have felt differently, but the famous level design and unnerving horror elements just felt perfunctory in relation to the rest the series. Additionally, a segment of the DLC is optional, as are one of the bosses (although, anyone with past experience with the series should be able to locate it quickly) but conceptually i just seems foolish to have that much of a portion of the content hidden considering how little content there is.
The bosses themselves are far and away the best part of the DLC. Boss design in the Dark Souls series, both mechanically and aesthetically, have always been the most painstakingly designed and polished features, and it shows in the design of Ashes of Ariandel. Without getting into too many details, the bosses mix nostalgia with new mechanics in a way that feels like more than the sum of their parts. The optional boss plays with PVP mechanics that keeps it fast-paced, while the final boss feels more serious and solemn like bosses typically in the late game of past titles. The final boss in particular is fantastic: its elements of surprise and terror are multi-layer, its challenge is extreme, and it has story nods to past titles that will make the lore nerds smile. It is often noted in the different titles the breaking points where different players give up, and it's almost always on a particularly challenging boss, and I have to say even as a decorated veteran of the series I was still almost broken by the final boss’s challenge.
Challenge has always been an axiom of the series going all the way back to 2009’s Demon’s Souls, and Ashes of Ariandel is no exception. From the immediate outset, you are beset by unfamiliar and powerful enemies, and it doesn’t pull any punches for new players or folks trying to clear away the cobwebs after setting the game down for a while. I rarely find the need to complain about difficulty in a series where it is paramount, but I found the beginnings of this content to be particularly harrowing. Taking it slow and trying to fight one enemy at a time is often the key to doing well and staying safe in the series, and from the start you are immediately greeted by enemies that almost exclusively fight in large groups and trigger each-other to join in on the fun in a way that felt more punishing than fun. The last boss was also a unique challenge, and while multi-phase bosses are not new to the series, this one pushed the limits for me. I think as a whole the boss is well designed, and I think there will be readers pooh-poohing me as a talentless casual, but i found its length to be frustrating. I did eventually take it down, but having each attempt take a significant portion of time, I found the conclusion less a point of satisfaction regarding my improved play and more of a celebration on having to never fight this damn boss again.
If you are a fan of the series, I don't need to tell you to play this because you already likely will be. If you are looking for another excuse to play more Dark Souls 3 this is a pretty good one, but if you are on the fence I advise waiting for the second half of the DLC in 2017 and playing them both together if you are looking for a more significant piece of content.
If you want to read my full review of Dark Souls 3 on The Movie Sleuth check it out here!
Developer: FromSoftware Inc.Publisher: Bandai Namco Entertainment
Platforms: Xbox One, PS4, PC
Release Date: October 25th, 2016
Reviewer’s Platform: PS4
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