Game Reviewby Dave Riley,
Dark Souls 3: The Ashes of Ariandel
PC, PS4, Xbox One
Taking place in a familiar painted world, The Ashes of Ariandel continues Dark Souls 3's strict tendency towards homage and reference of earlier games.
Calling the Souls expansions “DLC” does them a disservice. Not at all similar to the micro transaction character skins and map addons the term calls to mind, Dark Souls' Artorias of the Abyss and Bloodborne's The Old Hunters are more like the expansion packs of late-90s PC games—Half Life's Opposing Force or Diablo's Lord of Destruction—standing out as microcosm of the best their series has to offer. With some of the strongest level and encounter design of the series, as well lore hints and precious tidbits on its biggest unanswered questions, Souls DLC are essential parts of their games' wholes.
By comparison, Ashes of Ariandel is a story slightly out of place. Its setting, The Painted World of Ariandel, is a callback to The Painted World of Ariamis of Dark Souls 1. Purportedly a prototype or proof of concept from early development, the Painted World of Ariamis was an interesting end run around Dark Souls' otherwise interconnected Lordran. Since, thematically, it didn't fit anywhere in Lordran, they justified its inclusion by segmenting it off inside a magical painting and calling it a refuge and prison for Lordran's forgotten (or should be forgotten). Unfortunately, evocatively naming a level “The Painted World” might conjure images of traveling through dangerous pastel or ink-blot landscapes, but in Souls speak, “living painting” seems to translate mainly to “snow level.”
Ariandel follows suit, presenting the same set-up of refuge/prison for the forsaken and doing little more with its painterly concept than Ariamis did. To its credit, Ariandel takes place across a broad, snow-filled mountainside, where Ariamis was more of a snow-capped palette swap on Dark Souls' stock dilapidated castle. Its moments of relative serenity stand out—the crystalline hush of ice caverns or the soulful howls of winter wolves eying you from the distance—are a refreshing breather from all the grime and muck, yowling and yawping, that make up the lion's share of Souls environments. Still, it's as disappointing now as it was in 2010 to have a series whose greatest strength is atmosphere drop you into what it calls a “painted world” and present you with a landscape that really could've existed across any old rope bridge or through any set of double doors in the game proper.
Wasted aesthetic potential aside, Ashes of Ariandel's more fundamental misstep is it continues Dark Souls 3's regression to the mean. Where other Souls expansions have excelled by buttressing their base game's weaknesses—Bloodborne's low weapon count, Dark Souls 2's linear area progression—Ashes of Ariandel doubles down on Dark Souls 3's foibles. Half of its enemies are ogreish bruisers or posse'd-up knights whose attacks punish hesitation with seemingly infinite stamina and its two boss fights pull the same “gotcha!” tactics of the Dark Souls 3's late-game bosses, tagging in new enemies or refilling a boss's health bar just as victory seems within reach.
As with Dark Souls 3, Ashes of Ariandel creates a conundrum: the worst of a Souls game still tends to hover at the best this genre has to offer. There's few things technically wrong with it. It's not slipshod, it's not mechanically overwrought, it's not laden with technical errors. Even a serviceable Dark Souls expansion operates at a higher level than most of its peers. When you're in the thick of things, they satisfy. The handful of new weapons offer slight playstyle tweaks (a throwable javelin) or just look too cool not to use (a magical buckler whose special move unleashes a spirit lion). Beyond the cheesy humanoid enemies, the mountain's wolves convey a strong sense of not just danger, but verisimilitude in how they circle, harry, and harass you in sequence, and its twisted dryads are uncanny and strangely compassionate, their insta-kill grab move not a violent rend, but a gentle, mournful embrace. So it's not that Ariandel lacks creative enemies. Surprising you with avalanches that strip the ground out from under your feet, or having you scale down perilous, gigantic roots jutting from a cliff face, it's not that its areas lack intricacy either. And with gigantic, bestial battles and human-sized dual bosses, it's not that its signature encounters don't produce white-knuckle dread.
It's that, coming in at the tail end of a series that's produced hundreds of hours of refinement on these ideas already, this creativity, this intricacy, and this dread are somehow less than the sum of their parts. So much of Ariandel, and the rest of Dark Souls 3, relies on remixes of known quantities, and you can only be surprised (or saddened, or elated) so many times. Like coming back for a horror movie's fifth, sixth, or seventh sequel, the tricks are already known, and excitement for a new Dark Souls is at a mismatch with the excitement produced by a new Dark Souls. It's diminishing returns. And it's likely, for a lot of players, that the intensely referential nature of Dark Souls 3 only put a spotlight on what was probably an inevitable problem: familiarity breeds, if not contempt in this case, then a sort of outsized disappointment that scans as contempt because it's so trenchantly felt. Oh, another giant wolf guarding a champion's gravestone. Oh, another soft-spoken woman with a scythe and invisibility powers. This should be better. This should be fresher. This should be perfect in every way.
But, you know, even though that giant wolf guarding a gravestone might've touched a bit to close to other giant wolves of gravestones past, did you see the shockwaves as he zipped all super sonic across the snow-encrusted field of pure-white flowers? Did you nearly twist your controller to pieces with the stress of chucking throwing knives at it from afar, desperate to chip away the last centimeters of his life bar, your stock of healing items long-since depleted?
There's something to be said for nostalgia and, after nearly a decade, From Software certainly deserves a victory lap or two. But, self-reflexive a fault, Ashes of Ariandel exacerbates the burden of its context, creating an odd paradox It's likely the exact people it's made for, those who love the series the most, those who have played its prior versions to death (and beyond), who will come away the most disappointed or unsettled, feeling like they should be enjoying it more than they are, feeling like they must have enjoyed it more than they think they did.
Overall : B-
Graphics : A-
Sound/Music : B
Gameplay : B+
Presentation : B-
+ Strong, familiar tone and mechanics
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