Ashes of Ariandel, the first of two announced content add-ons for Dark Souls III, excels at feeling like a natural extension of the main game. It delivers much of what veterans expect from Dark Souls: challenging bosses, a locale that promotes exploration, and a new collection of gear. What's missing is that sense of awe that usually pulls you deep into the series' dark fantasy worlds. Dark Souls' best regions are those that command your attention beyond the promise of a fabled weapon or a novel group of enemies to vanquish. Ashes of Ariandel isn't in the same class as Artorias of the Abyss – the standout, lore-rich add-on from the original Dark Souls – but that doesn't make it a poor expansion--it’s just not a noteworthy one.
Like the frosted regions of Dark Souls II’s Crown of the Ivory King DLC, the Painted World of Ariandel is a wintry landscape that sometimes obscures its dangers behind fog and falling snow. Other areas provide typical Dark Souls vistas: The dramatic reveal of a grand chapel in the distance is enhanced by the foreground view of a long, fragile rope bridge. Like a similar overpass in the main game, this rickety span offers an access point to a new area, provided you have the imagination to find another purpose for the ropes.
The Painted World of Ariandel is a little bit larger than any individual DLC episode from Dark Souls II, though the generous scattering of bonfires--the series' safe havens--shortens an otherwise long journey. Many areas are as vast as they are tall. The trudge up a steep hill is a fruitful exercise in amassing a large kill count as you also manage your health-replenishing Estus Flasks. The undead soldiers who populate this hill are no zombies--they move with purpose once they see you and tactfully strike as well as any imposing Dark Souls foe.
There aren't just secrets in Ashes of Ariandel but also rewards for thorough exploration. One such prize is a switch that grants you access to the main boss, and the challenge comes from enduring the vile surroundings where the switch is found: a dark, dank room filled with giant flies that aim to kill you with bleed attacks.
Dark Souls III: Ashes of Ariandel accentuates the value of the journey over the destination.
Another reason to search every corner? To find the ticket to gain access to the PVP arena. While this online battleground is limited to one area designed especially for PVP, its replay value is reinforced by myriad match customization features, such as setting team sizes and access to consumables. While it's not engrossing enough to serve as the DLC's main draw, the ability to play beyond one-on-one battles is a welcome twist to a fan-favorite feature.
Like many Dark Souls environments before it, Ashes of Ariandel accentuates the value of the journey over the destination. It's about collecting new sets of gear and vanquishing the armed, aggressive hostiles who linger around the goodies. Typical of many Dark Souls areas, some items aren't directly accessible upon first sight. Studying the lay of the land in order to reach those items is its own gratifying brain teaser. And in classic Dark Souls fashion, a shortcut is the reward for surviving an excursion to the unlockable side of an otherwise locked gate.
Ashes of Ariandel's showcase battle is against Sister Friede, whose persona as a scythe-wielding nun--a holy death dealer, if you will--is an amusingly ham-fisted image. It’s a duel that becomes all the more memorable if it evolves into a battle of attrition, although expert players can avoid such a grind. Her magic-enhanced moveset doesn't include any surprises, though her speed and expansive repertoire make her a formidable opponent for those with average skills. Success against her requires defense and patience above all else, so players who lean on the aggressive side are doubly tested. She's also a superb reminder that this series still has the ability to teach veteran players new tactics--even those who already have dozens of boss kills under their belts.
The rewards for defeating Friede--a pair of frost-enhanced scythes and a curious bouquet of roses designed for flagellation--are appropriately representative of the DLC’s other unique gear. The Millwood armor set is one of the few ensembles in this DLC that makes you look like Viking, while the Valorheart grants the user a new way to shield bash. A melee weapon like the Crow Talons doesn't have much value as a main weapon over the long haul but there is gratification to having this loot as trophies for triumphing over tougher foes.
What Ashes of Ariandel lacks in originality, it makes up for in cohesion with the full version of Dark Souls III. The duel against Sister Friede, the DLC's highpoint, is the type of Dark Souls boss fight that makes an indelible impression--she’s on the same level as the Abyss Watchers or Dancer of the Boreal Valley. While Ashes of Ariandel is ultimately a safe addition to Dark Souls III, it's convincingly satisfying; the risk of death at any moment is as likely as finding a new piece of practical gear or the discovery of an unexplored path. Just don't expect any areas as memorable as those in the main game or revelatory moments that substantially expands the lore.