Dark Souls 3: Ashes of Ariandel Review

Dark Souls 3 has come and gone and with it, the Age of Fire. Or not, depending on what ending you picked up. Like the previous Souls games, Ashes of Ariandel expands the main game’s waistline with a whole new area to explore occupied by a host of new enemy types. Much like the core game, Ashes leans a little hard on the “Oh, hey! This is just like Dark Souls 1!” and if there’s a lore reason for it, the content is in no rush to explain itself. While it’s a bit on the short side, there’s enough material to chew on for fans hungry for more Dark Souls 3.

Because time is so convoluted, Dark Souls 3 shipped with a lot of winks and nods to Dark Souls. This was either fanservice or some deeper meaning established by the problems associated with prolonging the First Flame. The Painted World of Ariandel, the new zone introduced with the DLC, is a callback to an optional area in Anor Londo, a massive painting that served as a portal to a snowy, isolated world. In this pocket universe, it appears that the DLC gives us a glimpse of the future of Ariamas’ painted world. Or maybe. The plot here is vague and ends up diving straight off a cliff once the boss has been defeated. The lore masters out there are going to have a field day with the implications of this world.

The new area is accessible from the Cathedral of the Deep, where a man in rags waits for someone to help his lady see the “flame.” Holding a piece of a rotted painting in outstretched hands, the player is warped to the snowy painted world. The Painted World’s chief landmark is a tall, seemingly well kept chapel. Exploration of the surrounding area, however, reveals a society on the verge of death from an undisclosed sinister rot.

Ariandel, like much of Dark Souls 3, is an amalgamation of playable zones from previous games. The Corvian Settlement offers shades of the Undead Burg, and there’s even an area that looks exactly like the arena where Crossbreed Priscilla held court. There’s even a section that brings back terrible memories of the Great Hollow. The structure of the new zone lends itself to mystery. While it’s easy to see places you can travel to, getting there isn’t always so simple. Exploration is what I love most about Dark Souls and this add-on has some fun corners, hideaways, and mazes to discover.

Even though Ariandel is drenched in familiarity, It might be one of my favorite areas. I’ve always believed that Dark Souls excels at telling bits of plot and life through level design and enemy and item placement. On the surface, the Painted World has the look and feel of a sanctuary. Explore its depths and you'll discover a rot that afflicts everything below Sister Friede’s warm, cozy chapel. There are a lot of creepy looking monsters in this game, but the DLC comes with a few grotesque horrors that look like they were pulled from Bloodborne. The bird-like Corvians in the painting are warped and rotting away, their bodies little more than full grown chicken fetuses with blotchy skin and black, bulbous eyes. They frequently play dead, awaking only if the player gets too close which causes them to let out a horrible shriek. I love the design of these creatures. They’re just so wretched and pathetic. Another standout monster for me were the giant flies. Their design doesn’t bother me but the sounds the make do when the fly, buzz, and spew maggots from their mouths. When they’re not attacking the player, the squishy, squelching sounds of their feeding was enough to make me gag.

The flies are just one example of Ashes of Ariandel's fantastic sound design. The dying birds and gross flies come with brand new sound effects that are evocative of this dying,  decaying world. There's also the sweet, velvet voice of my new favorite NPC, Sir Vilhelm. I don’t know who voices Vilhelm, but whoever it is deserves recognition because the voice has the right depth, crispness, and resonance that belongs in a Dark Souls adventure. I really wish the character had more screen time.

If there's anything bad to say about the DLC, it has to be length and unsatisfying conclusion. Ashes could easily be completed in an afternoon, faster if playing with someone, and even though the world looks big, multiple shortcuts and bonfires make it feel a little smaller. Or at least comparable to smaller zones in the main game. There are two bosses and an NPC battle, which is optional along with the second boss who hangs out at the very bottom of the painting. The main boss has three punishing forms and if you die, the battle starts from the beginning. This was more of an annoyance than a challenge. Even with an NPC, I had to get human help because it was obnoxiously difficult.

Ashes of Ariandel offers a whole new bestiary of challenging creatures to murder, a beautiful, if haunting, world to explore, and a new story to figure out. Although the zone is built using a lot of familiar pieces, it evokes a rich sense of place. That’s the benefit of being separated from the rest of the game’s playable zones. Ariandel is mostly a self contained episode with a story and lore that seems removed from the greater narrative (at least, from what I can tell). How it fits in the larger scheme of Dark Souls lore (based on what game director Hidetaka Miyazaki has said that the game’s two pieces of DLC will effectively close the book on this franchise) is up to those intrepid theorists that scrounge every inch of the content for lore.

Teen Services Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.