Ashes of Ariandel Review

Video link here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JYtnqS5Pwls

 

 

Hey guys, today we’re going to be taking an in-depth look at the first piece of DLC for Dark Souls 3: Ashes of Ariandel. Before we start I want to give a spoiler warning, not just for Ashes, but for all of the DLC packs for the previous Dark Souls games including Bloodborne. You’ll also likely get a lot more out of this video if you’ve watched some of my older ones on the series, especially my critique of Dark Souls 3.

That’s all of the boring disclaimer stuff done. Let’s get started.

All of the DLC that has been added to the Soulsborne games has functioned in the same way: it’s a separate area that is disconnected from the world in the base game; it’s an isolated bubble with its own levels to explore, bosses to defeat, and loot to find. Players that started with Dark Souls on PC didn’t have to purchase this DLC separately since the Artorias of the Abyss content was bundled in with the Prepare to Die release.

In that game, you reached the DLC area by following a convoluted path that ended at a portal. In Dark Souls 2, shrines were added to the game that match each of the three DLC packs. These also teleported the player to a new location. Bloodborne was a bit more creative and used an item to cause a monster to teleport you to the DLC content in that game.

Dark Souls 3 continues this trend. It involves interacting with an NPC in the staging area of Cathedral of the Deep. After which you’re teleported away and immediately given a checkpoint bonfire as a way for you to leave the area and return to the main game.

So let’s use this information to zoom in close on the biggest problem Ashes of Ariandel has.

Artorias of the Abyss has three major areas, three levels that aren’t small connecting zones—a different version of the Darkroot Garden forest from the base game. The sinking town that’s infested with the fleshy head humanoids. And then a trek through the abyss that waits for you at the bottom.

There are also four bosses. The Sanctuary Guardian right at the start—which is the manticore you can see right now. A duel against Artorias himself after you get through the first level. Then Manus after you reach the end of the abyss. And a battle with Kalameet the bad ass dragon.

The forest area may be a rehash of something that already existed in Dark Souls One, but the other two levels, and these four bosses, are all unique new content. That distinction is important for later, which is why I’m taking the time to review them.

Proceeding to Dark Souls 2: you have the three Crown DLC packs. The Sunken King. The Old Iron King. And The Ivory King. Each of these has three new areas just like Artorias of the Abyss had.

Sunken King has the opening area in the lost city, the maze inside the first temple structure, and then the shallow waterway that leads to the second temple at the end. Old Iron King has multiple large towers that you need to get through and is difficult to segment—it feels smaller than Sanctum City to me but more interconnected. Because of the winding nature of these towers, and that there are so many secrets and paths to open, I’d say it’s fair to call it three levels but let’s bump it down to two-and-a-half so I’m not showing any favoritism. Lastly there’s Eleum Loyce, which has the first level going through the snowy castle, which then opens up to have many more expanded areas that function as a second level. It also has a third, separate area in the frozen wastes which, while not something everyone enjoys, is still new content. It’s a big level with its own enemy types, secrets, and a unique mechanic.

For the bosses we see some less favorable comparisons to Artorias of the Abyss. Each Crown Pack has three big battles but only two in each should be considered new. In Sunken King you have Elena at the bottom of the second temple, and then a fight against Sinh the dragon right afterward, but the third fight is just a trio of standard NPCs. It’s recycled stuff. Not new content like the other fights.

In Old Iron King you have Sir Alonne in a hidden part of the tower, and Fume Knight waiting for you at the bottom as the final boss. While the third fight is a rematch against Smelter Demon. Only this time he’s blue instead of red.

Ivory King has the quickest turn around time for reusing a concept since it makes you fight the first boss twice—sort of. Aava the tiger is a new encounter, but fighting two copies of her at the same time later on in the DLC is not. The other boss here is the Burnt Ivory King which finalizes the trend of the Dark Souls 2 DLC packs: two new bosses, and one rehash.

Bloodborne’s DLC, The Old Hunters, is like a mix of what came before. The first area, just like the reused forest in Artorias of the Abyss, is an altered version of the city in the base game. Then you move onto a clock tower, and end in a fishing hamlet—for those who haven’t played it, this is a dream realm so the areas don’t fit together all that logically.

There are five bosses here: only three of which are new content in my opinion. Ludwig the horse beast, Lady Maria of the Astral Clock Tower, and the Orphan of Kos at the end as the last boss. The other two are a fight against a reskinned version of the Cleric Beast from the base game, and a lackluster fake-out fight against a group of alien things called The Living Failures.

Now I will admit that my opinion doesn’t really fly with a lot of people. The Living Failures, while a disappointment to me, are still technically a new boss so they should probably count and up the number to 4. The rematch against Cleric Beast also admittedly has a second phase that’s unique, but I can’t bring myself to count it as a brand new fight. So let’s go with 4.5 as a compromise.

This is the chart we’ll be using for this video. You’ve probably noticed it has nothing to do with quality. It’s just the amount of content in each chunk of DLC.

The Painted World of Ariandel is a little harder to quantify. There are two ways of looking at it: either its one big conjoined level that, on its own, is larger than any single level from the rest of the DLC we just looked at. Or it’s five small sections that are interlinked with a few paths leading to and from each. Which is the way I have an easier time picturing it.

These five areas would be:

      1. The introductory snowy forest at the start, with the packs of wolves and half-giants defending their tower.
      2. The rotten town filled with rejected, birdlike Orphan of Kos clones and more agile enemies that feel like they’re ripped right out of Bloodborne.
      3. A second snowy forest section after you clear a house, with lots of pathways along some cliffs.
      4. The cathedral that serves as the goal of the DLC, with its interior levels infested with fly monsters, and its exterior fragile bridge that leads to a half-secret area.
      5. Which brings us to the final section: an awkward climb down some Lost Izalith style branches to a frozen river or lake.

I want to repeat this is hard to measure properly, but I feel confident in saying that, if you add all those areas together, that you’re looking at the equivalent of about one-and-a-half of the levels from the other DLC packs. These areas really aren’t all that large, even accounting for how open some of them are. If we were to be generous I would say that it’s maybe two levels worth of stuff but I think that generosity would be borderline charitable to excuse a lack of content.

Unfortunately the bosses in Ashes reinforce this idea of one-and-a-half, because there are only two. And one of them is a rehash. In this frozen arena you start fighting an NPC gladiator and are then ambushed by a wolf. Another wolf in Dark Souls. Which you can also fight at least two times before this earlier in the DLC. It feels like a regular enemy in those fights. It still feels like a regular enemy in this one.

The other boss is new and a lot more interesting. And we’ll get to that and a bunch of other examples of how the content in Ashes works in just a moment, but first we have to return to our chart.

We can add one-and-a-half areas and bosses to the list, which I think will make my point for most of you watching. For those who aren’t as familiar with the series, or might have forgotten the last column of relevant information, let’s add that now.

Artorias of the Abyss was fifteen dollars when it was released.

Each individual pack of Dark Souls 2 was only ten dollars. Which you could get even lower with the season pass for all three.

The Old Hunters is still twenty dollars today. Which shows that there is some variance between them all for how many bosses and levels you get for the cost.

So with this information you’d expect Ashes of Ariandel to be the lowest of them all. Or, at the very least, no more expensive than the individual Crown DLCs in Dark Souls 2. But it costs the same as Artorias. They want fifteen dollars for this.

Now some people don’t like it when I discuss the price of games. When I’m doing a critique I can understand where they’re coming from even if I don’t agree. But when it’s a review the price is very important. In this case it’s hard to ignore how little you’re getting for the entry fee, which is made even worse if you make an additional comparison for price-to-content in the base game of Dark Souls 3.

There’s so little here that, even if it was fantastic and a huge bump in quality, it would still be difficult to recommend. Not impossible. Just difficult. But that isn’t the case. Only one boss is really good and the five areas don’t introduce much that’s new or exciting. It’s not BAD by any means, so if you’re a die-hard fan and money is no obstacle to you then I guess it’s not so difficult to suggest playing it afterall. For everyone else, well…

The best way I can describe Ashes of Ariandel is to imagine the Painted World from Dark Souls 1, or Cainhurst Castle from Bloodborne. Now tack on two small pocket zones somewhere in those levels, and put a recycled lazy boss in them. That’s what Ashes is.

I think the key thing to understand here is that if you bought the game and the season pass a year from now in some sale bundle, and played the game not really knowing what was DLC content and what wasn’t, that you’d likely happily enjoy it and not think much of it. But when it’s advertised as a new release that you pay for separately and play expecting six hours or so of content, you’re likely going to be disappointed.

Let’s get to an appraisal of Ashes in that way then: ignore the price and a lack of content. How does what’s ACTUALLY here perform? It’s nothing exciting but it’s decent.

I think that playing this DLC will be an interesting experience for a lot of people. And I’m looking forward to how the reaction to it settles a few months or a year from now. Because to me it felt like a return to a lot of encounters in Dark Souls 2.

If you’re familiar with my opinions on the Souls games then you know that I like Dark Souls 2. A lot. Especially the DLC. I will agree the base game is lacking in places that made the first Dark Souls great, but I have never agreed with a lot of criticism that’s been placed on the game for its use of ambushes and fights against groups of enemies. Some people hate these things. I find them exciting and a lot of fun, as long as you’re willing to release your lock-on and play the game differently than you typically do when it’s a one-on-one duel.

Ashes is all about ambushes, fighting groups of enemies, and juggling multiple threats at once. It’s a decent step up in difficulty from the base game in Dark Souls 3 and is present in all five of those areas that I went through earlier. And both of the bosses. I view the DLC as training for those fights: you have pack after pack of enemies that test your ability to track more than one threat, and to position yourself to deal with more than one combatant at a time.

Right at the start you encounter this idea: a group of humanoid enemies in the snow. Some of them are melee guys. Others throw spears at you. This is the bread and butter of Ashes—learn how to move around or between multiple enemies that close in on you, but also remember that there will be ranged attacks that you need to dodge. Unlock your camera. Try to keep track of it all. Dodge or block when you have to. Good stuff in my opinion. I love having more than one thing to manage and, with ranged attacks in this arrangement and lots of room to move, there’s little danger of it becoming unfair by having attacks layer over each other in unavoidable patterns.

It’s important that these enemies don’t have a lot of health so they’re not crushingly difficult. This idea continues with the wolves in the next area, which some people have called the best designed wolves in any game ever. I haven’t encountered enough wolves in games to judge that but, if we’re comparing them to Skyrim, then I have to agree. They hunt together. Howl for reinforcements. Surround you and try to attack at your flank. They also have low HP and are fun tests of your positional awareness and ability to counterattack after openings, which is something the DLC continues to demand of you as you progress.

Next up the concept is taken to a more challenging level. You have the half-giant viking-like guys with their large weapons stomping around, but also an archer in the tower. So still multiple things to track, but now they have enough HP that you can’t rush them down. You also have the option to risk a mad charge into the tower to kill the archer early, but there are still roaming packs on the ground if you pull this off so it’s still building into the idea of fighting multiples.

Likewise, the enchanted fire and ice trees have enough HP that it’s unlikely you’ll be able to always spam them to death before they attack. Their slow grabs aren’t that threatening, but there’s rarely ever just one of these things. So you have to manage lots of the little fire sparks they send out in swarms and their ice breath—once again, testing your ability to dodge, position yourself, and avoid many attacks instead of one.

There are a few ambushes around here too that you can anticipate and trigger carefully, or try to fight your way free if you stumble into them. The first two fights with the giant wolf are like this, and can end with you swarmed with smaller wolves. I liked these fights more when they got like this. The big wolf on its own is really boring. Its attacks and charges are simple and too easy to dodge, which is a shame because I like the smaller size of this thing compared to Sif or the Big Dog Rat from Dark Souls 2. You can keep the whole wolf in your view much easier and can better judge what it’s going to do. Maybe that’s why it ended up being too simple, because that change wasn’t understood enough to make it more challenging.

The rotten town has a lot more ambushes. It can feel pretty relentless just like the dungeon area in Irithyll. There are a few more encounters that mix melee guys and ranged ones, but these felt a lot more simple to me. The main draw of this part was the twisted level design of the different homes, ladders, and locked doors. It’s the best designed place in the DLC in my opinion. It’s also the largest which, considering how small it is despite that, shows again how little there is here to do.

The other enemies nearby are ones that I’m unsure of because they feel like they belong in Bloodborne and got lost, ending up in Ariandel instead. They’re quite fast, attack in long combos, dart around like the Bloodborne dodge, and use a lot of quick ranged attacks in between melee strikes. I don’t hate these enemies but I don’t like them much either. I enjoy the challenge—and the switch up from multiples to one big threat instead—but their long combo chains showcase a problem that the series has developed in Dark Souls 3. Having so many strikes in a row, often requiring spamming the dodge button until it’s over, feels like a symptom of FROM running out of ideas for new, interesting mechanics. We’ll be seeing this in the last boss here as well.

The next area is a return to juggling melee and ranged threats, but this time the environment is more constricting so you have to be even more aware of what your options are to avoid damage, and also more observant to recognize where enemies might be coming from—or shooting you from. I like this area and in general I think it’s good that most of these sections have a distinct challenge in mind and feel like they’ve been created specifically for that idea. I just wish there was more of it.

The cathedral and the frozen area have less going for them. There are giant flies that will put a nasty bleed on you if you’re hit. They have a grab charge that, like many others in the series, feels close to bullshit to me because there’s no “grab” at the end—it’s just “avoid the monster when it suddenly decides to move toward you”. So even if you’re partway through an attack or anything else it gives this weak looking grab priority and allows it to connect.

The descent to the frozen river is also sort of bad. I never like it when the series does this stuff with unnatural walkways. It has never been consistent on what you can or cannot walk on so I never feel secure when I do this. Maybe that’s the point but this unease has been drilled into me from bugs causing me to slide or fall through stuff instead of narrow paths that require tense, careful movement.

I will admit that this is probably the best that the series has ever done it, but it’s still not good enough. Which is a shame because this is the capstone on the melee and ranged challenge. You are restricted more than ever in your options, and the arrows that come at you explode shortly after landing so there’s even more to keep track of. It’s an interesting addition despite how simple it is.

And that brings us to the bosses. I don’t have much to say about the Gravetender and Greatwolf. I found this fight to be incredibly boring. I think it’s meant to test you on your ability to fight groups of enemies at once, but by the time I got here I was so comfortable with it that I wiped out the wolves in seconds and had nearly killed the NPC fighter before the wolf showed up. Then it was easy to prioritize him so the fight was simplified. And then the Greatwolf is barely different than when you fought him earlier. Even after he empowers himself—the only new ability I saw was a breath attack.

The Gravetender might have some interesting moves but the fight was over too quickly for me to see them. I thought it was weird that he’s allowed to block when many other characters typically couldn’t—even when he’s doing a forward leaping attack and is in mid-air, he can still block. A better idea might have been to have wolves continually spawn so you have to really prove that you understand how to fight more than one enemy, but then I’d say the series still doesn’t do a good enough job in teaching the player to drop their lock-on so that change might make the fight frustrating for a lot of people.

The other boss is Sister Friede and it might be the new best boss in Dark Souls 3. It’s definitely up there and has a lot going for it. But it’s not quite a perfect masterpiece of a fight.

The first phase is a mix of Maria and Gerhman from Bloodborne—she has the same quick attacks and movement—and then occasional breaks for when she goes invisible. There’s clutter throughout the arena that’s meant to help you identify where she goes so you can rush to her and attack before she winds up a big hit, or you can listen for where she lands instead. You can still dodge this if you’re quick but it’s less reliable than interrupting her. The problem is that the clutter isn’t always present where she moves and even with a good headset I couldn’t CONSISTENTLY hear where she landed. So roughly one third of the time it became a mad scramble to search all over the room and hope that I found her. This isn’t a huge problem for this phase but more later on.

Overall this first part of the fight is decent. It’s a simple introduction to what you have to deal with next, since now you have to fight both Sister Friede and Father Ariandel together. He’s a big monstrosity with a weaponized lord vessel thing that he whacks into the ground as he charges around. And she’s still the nimble fighter that becomes more defensive in this phase.

This is my favorite phase of the fight and is one of the best boss battles with multiple opponents that the series has seen. Unlike Ornstein and Smough, Sister and Father allow for the player to be aggressive and create openings for a lot of damage, instead of having to wait around for the enemy AI to be gracious enough to provide those openings for you.

This fight does still have some of that, but it’s meant to be an endurance fight so I think it’s okay. It’s the abundance of it in other bosses against multiples that I don’t like. It’s also alleviated here because Sister and Father share a health pool, and each have their own separate moments that they’re vulnerable. You can sneak in hits after you dodge through the big guy’s charge, and also rush at Friede after he’s exhausted his combo for some easy hits if you can dodge her first few attacks.

There are two issues here. The first is that Friede will go invisible and start healing. This is telegraphed by her rushing away like she did in the first phase and then emitting a bright light. The problem is that, on rare occasions, the big guy can choose to channel a massive fire attack in the area that she occupies. So your choices are to let the healing happen or to risk taking a massive unavoidable hit to stop it. Although this is cool because the bosses are synergizing their abilities to make things difficult for you, I don’t think it’s fair. I don’t know if an arrow will break her out of this healing spell so that could be a solution. Even so, it’s not great that this can randomly happen and cause a lot of hassle for melee-only builds.

The second issue is tied to that. But first let’s get to the best moment in the fight.

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After killing both Sister and Father, they collapse to the floor and you’re given your reward. But you’re not done yet. This fake-out was so convincing that I fell for it hard. When the fight kept going I had the biggest smile on my face for how much the game had just toyed with me, and I hope that any fans of the series who haven’t played Ashes yet, listened to the spoiler warning at the beginning of the video so they can experience this themselves. It was a really fun moment.

Unfortunately this third phase is probably my least favorite part of the fight after that.

Friede becomes empowered with dark magic as well as ice. The fight returns to a one-on-one duel that is similar to the first phase. The problems start with two things: that she has some extremely long combos that don’t always have clear end tells, and that some of her hits do an absurd amount of damage when they land.

These two things aren’t bad on their own. In fact, in another fight they might be a good challenge even if I am sort of sick of really long combos in Dark Souls 3. The reason I don’t like them here is that they’re in a third phase after two other fights, one of which is a fairly long endurance test especially with her healing. If you die, it takes an investment of time on your part to get back. Doing the first phase again could be considered clever because it’s like practice on the third phase since they’re similar, and that’s good. But the second phase can take so long that it can be very frustrating to get to the third phase and get wiped out by some massive attack pattern that you need to see a few times before you learn it, or to get smacked by the end of a combo that you thought was over after more than 10 hits but surprise, there was still more.

I’m conflicted on this because having three phases rewards players for mastering the first two. It’s like a level and a boss wrapped into one and having tension build the more you play is a big part of Dark Souls. It’s the quick deaths that make me question its current form. Which is tied to Friede’s ability to dash away and go invisible. I had a lot of trouble reliably hearing where she landed when she did this in phase 3 and, even when I did, FROM decided to give her the ability to easily dart away even if you do find her. This affinity for dodging can also build up the frustration when you’re trying to slip in attacks between her long combos. Because sometimes she decides to dodge and now you have to wait around for her to exhaust another long series of hits before you can try again.

I know it may not be fair to compare the two but I can’t resist thinking about how Furi handled multiple phases on long fights far better by giving you extra chances with each phase, similar to how the boss has multiple tries against you. In a funny way it could result in multiple phased fights being able to become MORE challenging rather than less, since you can ramp up the difficulty without worrying about frustrating the player by making them repeat earlier phases too often. That’s the main issue here. Phase 3 isn’t crushingly difficult on its own. It’s that you have to replay so much before you get another chance to learn more about it.

Another solution could have been that her attacks in Phase 3 don’t do that much damage at the start, and put a stacking vulnerability debuff on you the more you get hit. So it’s not so punishing to get tagged when you’re learning the long combos right at the start of the phase, and becomes really punishing if you continue to mess up.

Either way I still enjoyed the fight. Especially phase two and its transition.

In closing I want to briefly address how Ashes of Ariandel continues what Dark Souls 3 started: returning to a lot of places in the original Dark Souls. The similarities between both painted worlds are obvious if you’re played both games: snowy environments, an unstable bridge, pulling a lever to turn the same statue to open the way to the boss. Those bosses both use a scythe and invisibility to fight. The way you enter these realms is similar, and it’s likely proof that FROM has a reason for doing this instead of running out of ideas. It may not be something that everyone enjoys, but I think the intention here matters a lot.

I personally don’t mind because I don’t buy into a lot of the story and lore in the series. It says something different to me however, because it’s so similar to the first Painted World that I can’t stop myself from thinking that this DLC was a piece of the original game chopped off to be sold separately. There was enough content in the base game already don’t get me wrong, but there’s so little here that this is the only way I can rationalize why it comes up so short compared to the rest of the DLC in the series.

It’s that, or a blatant display of disrespect for Dark Souls fans. Which doesn’t bode well for future games. I hope that I’m wrong and that the next DLC pack has more areas and more bosses than usual when compared to that list, to justify why this one had so little—it’s that it was poorly portioned between the two updates that they planned for the Season Pass.

If not, well, the DLC in these games has always been my favorite parts of it. It’d be such a waste if this is the first game in the series that doesn’t live up to that tradition.

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