There are plenty of us that love nothing more than to overcome the tough battles that Dark Souls has to offer, and since Dark Souls III released earlier this year, fans have had that hankering once more. Dark Souls III: Ashes of Ariandel is the first of two planned expansions that will offer this satisfaction once more, taking us to a snowy world from an old and strange painting.
People who are into the lore of course already know all about the painting, about Friede, Forlon and the story behind it all. As usual you're not told about any of this in the game, but it's only by fleeting comments from the characters you meet and in the descriptions of weapons and other equipment that you find all this out. Some love that way of storytelling and others hate it like the plague, and it wouldn't hurt the game to have a stronger narrative (the same applies to Bloodborne), but on the other hand the world is in some way more exciting to explore by constantly being fed tiny crumbs that gives us clues about what goes on around us.
The expansion takes us to a beautiful, snow-covered world which is as horrible as it is inviting. Right at the start we encountered a collection of men that, from the looks of it, are not there to welcome us to a ski resort. Nope, they're there to kill us, as is everything in Dark Souls. The recommended level for the expansion is a modest 70, so we jumped in with a knight that happens to be level 68.
The challenge feels perfect and even if the new enemy types you encounter don't offer that much of a challenge straight away, there are of course exceptions. An enemy we used to fear throughout Dark Souls III were the damned (and scary) dogs, as everywhere we turned we got bit in the face by one dog and in our behind by another. Fortunately for us, in Ashes of Ariandel there is not a single dog. However...
The theme and setting for the expansion is the winter landscape, and which four-legged animals are typically at home in the winter? Wolves of course. These four-legged creatures take up a lot of space in Ashes of Ariandel and they come in a bunch of different sizes. At first we thought that they would have the same attack patterns as the dogs from the main game, but that was very far from the truth. The wolves are not nearly as aggressive as the enemies of Dark Souls III usually are; they stay at a distance and wait in packs before they choose to attack, all at the same time. Here you have to take lead and be quick before they can call for reinforcements, which can turn the battle completely against you.
Basically, there are more new enemies, and they vary from minor (but deadly) soldiers to really big knights with gigantic weapons, as well as the occasional creature you would prefer not to see. The expansion includes two boss battles and about ten Bonfires, taking us five hours from start to finish during our first play through, which we think in retrospect is a bit too short. Just when it takes off properly, and once we were warmed up and ready for more, it ended, and we probably expected a couple more hours, at least.
As usual, however, the sense of discovery is up front and centre. We really wanted to explore every corner of the world to find tucked away secrets and learn more about what was going on in the painting. To quote Sir William from the game: "Every secret must ask unearthed. Such is the conceit of the self-proclaimed seeker of truth".
As we've mentioned, we were blown away by the world of the Ashes of Ariandel. It's peaceful and horrible at the same time, feeling like a real part of the world in Dark Souls III, even though technically it's only a painting. There are, however, some problems in the form of an unstable frame rate, even more than in the main game. The atmospheric music is beautiful and iconic, though. In short, Ashes of Ariandel does things right when it comes to atmosphere, and there's brutally epic boss battles that somewhat make up for the short playing time and performance issues.
A very welcome addition that the expansion adds to the game is the ability to fight in arenas through matchmaking. PvP (player versus player) is a huge part of Dark Souls III and to show up uninvited in other people's games is always hysterically funny. In Dark Souls III: Ashes of Ariandel you can now access the arena battles - called Undead Matches - and there are a bunch of different modes to choose from. It offers classic duels, one on one, group fights with two against two or three against three, and a crazy all against all mode where six people are gathered in a small area for 300 seconds only to flog each other as much as they want.
It's super easy to get into a game, although at the time of writing there is only one accessible arena. This is a great opportunity to jump in and test different character types and weapons, to experiment with a style that suits you (which you can then roll with when you play the regular game should you wish). You can also queue up with friends via password, if you've got enough spare friends of course. If you want to play a two vs two together with a friend against opponents from the other side of the world, you can't use the password and it becomes more of a gamble when trying to end up in the same match, which is sad as it really would have been amusing to go into these matches together and spread terror. The lack of leaderboards also means the arena lacks depth, but it's still great fun despite this omission.
Ashes of Ariandel is a great addition to the already wonderful Dark Souls III, however, it's far too short and the arena could have used a little more work. But the game world as a canvas paints more stories and works superbly. It ends abruptly after a monstrously cool boss and left us longing for the next piece of DLC. The second expansion can't come soon enough.