I’ve never been fond of buying a $60 game only to be told that I need to shell out more money further down the line to access a drip-feed of content that will grant me the complete experience. Why can’t all of it be housed on the same disc in the first place? Call me cynical, but downloadable content (or DLC as it’s commonly called) feels like an easy cash in.
Sometimes there’s a real benefit, though. Dark Souls I and II might have been close to perfect, but the DLC that followed distilled the good stuff and found ways to break new ground. Such is the beauty of hindsight. The model allows developers to look back at what worked and what didn’t, and then wield brush strokes in a greater arc over a smaller canvas.
The series has become a multi-million dollar franchise over the years, capped off by the release of Dark Souls III in early 2016, which was self-aware, self-conscious and quick to pile on tropes that old fans could recognize and newcomers could caw over. I didn’t much care for it, which is to say that most people probably loved it. Somehow, the idea of DLC in a Dark Souls game finally feels fitting.
Ashes of Ariandel is the first of two installments designed to extend the life of Dark Souls III. It takes place in a Painted World, a nod to the Painted World of Ariamis in Dark Souls I. Strangely, accessing this new slab of rock illustrates how far the series has strayed from its roots. While the original game‘s DLC was accessed by defeating specific enemies, picking up certain items and heading to different areas, getting to Ariandel is as easy as warping to a bonfire. Where there were breadcrumbs before, there is now a large sign pointing you in the right direction.
True, the new setting is picture-perfect. You’re treated to a frozen wilderness of peaks and valleys that soars and dips; one that embraces the rise and fall of its 3D topography. But we’re in different territory now. Dark Souls has grown into a big-budget franchise that needs to please everyone. It offers up variety in its setting, from the blinding blue depths of its frozen lake to the dank interiors of its cavernous caves chiseled from mountainous rock. But it’s never truly breathtaking. Ashes of Ariandel might represent the zenith of third-person action, but it also misses a step.
In the spirit of playing it safe, it ticks all the boxes without upending the formula and like all DLC packs, it aims to give us more, more, more. There are new enemy types – over-sized flies with swollen abdomens, circus acts that expel fire (rather than eat it) and a creature modeled after Wolverine that reminds me of the boss fight in Resident Evil 4 – and new spells, armor and weapons. There are new boss fights, too, those marquee events that live long in the mind.
But DLC needs to be generous. More, more, more should equate to hours of extra fun. What’s vexing about Ashes of Ariandel is that it’s so truncated and is over way too soon. Those boss fights? They’re short, sharp encounters, but there isn’t enough meat on them. Experienced players will blast through it with time to spare in an afternoon.
Something else is missing here, too. If you’re not going to suffuse the experience with content, then at least make it memorable, right? While Ariandel is certainly beautiful at times, it’s nowhere near as well designed as Lordran, the series’ benchmark. Where are the intricate shortcuts? The sense of a world bending back on itself? The joy of exploration is still there, but it’s fleeting, and exploring Ariandel will lead you to as many dead ends as it will exciting new pathways.
It’s amazing to think that a product designed for such a niche audience has exploded so spectacularly on to the mainstream, and perhaps I’m holding it to impossibly high standards. Then again, I’ve spent a lot of money on this franchise and I expect the best. The Dark Souls formula is golden; its lineage assured, but with its vague story beats, affected English accents and orchestral score, Dark Souls is in danger of becoming a parody of itself. I can’t escape the feeling that From Software is a comedy act gone rogue, retelling old jokes that even newcomers in the room are hearing twice.
In the end, diehard fans will plonk down the cash for this DLC in an effort to scratch the itch that needs satisfying. The series has been honed so razor-sharp that it’ll need to re-invent itself if it ever hopes to recapture its former glory. Unfortunately, in the sharpening of that blade, the mystique has been replaced with familiarity, and Dark Souls III: Ashes of Ariandel represents yet another dulling of our beloved series.
This review is based on the PS4 version.