Ashes of Ariandel is the first of two planned DLCs for Dark Souls III; it adds a new region to the game with a new boss, new enemies, new armor sets, new weapons and spells, and a PVP arena that can be accessed from the Firelink bonfire once you find and beat the second, hidden boss. For $15, it'll get you about four hours of content and at least one new toy for each type of build, which you can put to use in the arenas for 1vs1 duels (un-embered, no estus), free-for-all brawls (timed match with respawn, limited estus, player with most kills wins), or team-brawls (same as free-for-all, except 2vs2 or 3vs3). For the most part, it's all quality content with memorable encounters and fun new weapons, and the PVP arena will really help extend the game's life for those interested in PVP.
Despite its overall quality, Ashes of Ariandel wasn't that satisfying for me. Part of that has to do with its relatively short length; I was able to explore everywhere and do everything possible in a single afternoon, and the whole thing felt anticlimactic. In typical Souls fashion, the story is practically non-existent, with you entering the Painted World of Ariandel on an incredibly vague pretense, and then wandering around aimlessly until you trigger its ending, which leaves everything almost completely unresolved. In the end, this DLC felt more like it was a hidden, optional area that was cut from the base game instead of a proper DLC expansion. It's not a bad experience, mind you, but apart from the PVP arena I feel like I wouldn't have missed much if I'd just skipped it altogether.
The new area in Ashes of Ariandel is a snowy wasteland reminiscent of the Painted World of Ariamis from the first Dark Souls. It begins with an open snowfield that leads to a set of crumbling ruins, and then to a cathedral across a long rope bridge. From there you can descend a ways down the mountain to the rot-infested Corvian settlement, then cross a snowy mountain pass to reach the underside of the cathedral, which loops back up to the cathedral itself. That's about it; there are two other hidden paths to take, one that leads to an NPC invader and another that leads to an optional secondary boss, but both of these terminate in a dead end and don't really contribute anything to the main "story" of the DLC. If you ignore those two side-routes, you can run from the beginning of the DLC through every other area to the final boss, stopping only for one essential fight, in less than 10 minutes.
It'll take you much longer than that if you want to actually explore everywhere to get all the loot, fight all the enemies, and talk to all the NPCs, of course, but it's kind of disappointing to realize that the DLC is essentially just one short path to the boss chamber, and then it's over. The two side-paths are welcome additions, but they're deliberately hidden -- so well that I might not have even found them if not for floor messages left by other players. Even then, they're so short with so little of interest to do along the way (no fun twists in the level design, no unique encounters, extremely few enemies) that they're over almost as soon as you find them. The fact that one of the paths needlessly recycles the giant crabs from the base game, and that the only other boss battle in the DLC consists of a basic NPC enemy and another recycled enemy type (but much bigger), is almost inexcusable.
Except for those two lackluster side-routes and the general linearity towards the main boss chamber, the level design is actually pretty good. There may be only one real route through the DLC, but it's full of side areas and off-shoots to explore with a lot of hidden loot. The initial snowfield, for instance, is a pretty wide-open space with no clear sense of direction, which can make it a bit confusing trying to figure out where to go in addition to keeping track of where you've already been. The Corvian settlement features a lot of vertical levels that have you working from the gutters below the town up to ground level and then onto the roofs, unlocking a lot of shortcuts and one-way doors in the process. The mountain pass has a lot of winding paths with trees and cliff faces obscuring your line of sight, making it feel almost like a maze as you try to work your way to the top while exploring everywhere.
Some moments along the way stand out as fairly unique and memorable. Fighting the giant Viking-like Millwood knights while an archer shoots at you from atop the belltower with great arrows that cause the ground to erupt at the point of impact; the giant wolf that appears at the top of a steep path up the mountain, howling to summon more wolves before leaping down to cut off your path; the final boss and its surprise phases; the first Corvian knight slowly walking towards you as you enter the bowels of the Corvian settlement; walking around the settlement itself, with a bunch of mostly docile slug-like humanoids wailing and trudging around, showing just how badly the painted world is rotting and the effect it's taking on its inhabitants, leaving you to wonder what's really going on in this world.
None of this is really that special, however, and I ultimately found more enjoyment in the random, unscripted interactions with other players. I was invaded as soon as I entered the DLC, and got to experience the thrill of fighting off an invader who was trying to lure me into traps while I explored unfamiliar territory. The giant wolf encounter was kicking my ass, but I stumbled upon a purple summon sign and brought him in to help (hopefully). He did, and we went about our way in jolly co-op for a while, before being invaded by another Red. A Blue got summoned because of the invader, and promptly tried to kill my friendly Purple. After finally convincing him not to kill the Purple, we went on and eventually found (and killed) the Red. Then, while exploring the top of the bell tower, my friendly Purple betrayed me and tried to knock me off, but I'd equipped the Silvercat Ring beforehand, which saved me from the fall, and then I killed him as he jumped down to try to finish me off.
I went into Ashes of Ariandel on my level 120 character in New Game Plus Mode and found it decently challenging. The common wolf enemies move around a lot and are difficult to keep track of without being super annoying like all the other dog-type enemies in the series, and the giant wolf with its lunging and sweeping attacks that cover huge distances and kick up clouds of snow to obstruct your view gave me such a hard time that I panicked and summoned help. The Corvian knights have such quick attacks with unique movesets that they caught me completely off-guard and forced me to heal a few times just to get through a single encounter with a single one of them. Unfortunately, any real difficulty is offset by the typical overabundance of bonfires, with a whopping five of them on the way to the main boss. For being such a short DLC, I feel like they could've done with just two or three to make surviving to the next bonfire part of the challenge.
The final boss is pretty challenging, at least, ranking among the toughest of the entire series. I've found, however, that its difficulty can vary a lot depending on your build and weapon of choice. The final boss does a lot of fast, 360-degree, distance-closing, multi-hit combo attacks that I found nearly impossible to land hits against while using my trusty two-handed zweihander. The boss's attacks are so fast, and the zweihander's (and any ultra great weapon's, for that matter) so slow, that any time I'd try to attack I'd either get interrupted first, or the boss would dodge away before the attack went through, or I'd get punished hard with immediate counter-attacks and have no stamina to roll away because the zwei attacks cost so much stamina. I struggled hard trying to beat the boss using my beloved zwei, but found it almost laughably easy once I switched to a shield and estoc, because it was so much easier to land hits, interrupt the boss, and avoid taking damage.
This DLC thus reinforces a feeling I've had for a while now that From Soft just don't care about heavy weapons like ultra greatswords, great hammers, and great axes. As part of the DLC release, they applied a patch that supposedly adds improved functionality to poise, somehow making it so that, with higher poise values, your attacks with heavier weapons will be less likely to be interrupted, but only during certain frames of their attack animations (called "hyper armor"). A welcome addition that would seemingly make life a bit easier attacking with the big, slow weapons, but the reality is this system only benefits medium weapons like greatswords, maces, and axes, because they get enough poise and hyper-armor to trade hits with lighter weapons, while still being faster than heavier weapons and thus able to interrupt heavier weapons before their hyper-armor frames even activate.
This was readily apparent in the PVP arena, where I noticed an immediate uptick in the number of people using medium weapons, and where I felt constantly disadvantaged trying to get by with my trusty zweihander. My attacks were always so slow that people could easily dodge them or interrupt me, and while I could occasionally catch people by feinting an attack or delaying a followup attack, it only ever worked once because they didn't fall for those tricks a second time. It felt like, generally, I only won against people who got too greedy and made careless mistakes, or against clueless fools who thought they could trade hits with me; against anyone remotely skilled, I stood no chance. Being beaten by someone better than you is to be expected, but I fared much better, even against gold-ranked players, when I switched to katanas and straight swords, which tells me that the heavy weapons are simply out-classed by virtually every other weapon type. Or that I'm just terrible with them, which I find hard to believe considering I've been using them almost exclusively ever since Demon's Souls.
The PVP arena is another welcome addition to the game, but it isn't quite where it should be in terms of quality or polish. It has several game modes including one-on-one duels, multi-player free-for-all, and team battles, but I find most of its modes a little unsatisfying. Free-for-all brawls are just a chaotic mess of people running around kill-stealing each other, because all that really matters is who lands the last hit, which I feel strips the mode of the depth and nuance the PVP system is renowned for. One-on-one "honor duels" would be nice, except everyone plays with 30% lower un-embered health values, which makes fights often feel a little too short with the victor usually being the first to land two or three combos, and the loser being the first to make a mistake. Two-player brawl is probably my favorite, since everyone gets to play with the extra 30% health and limited healing, with the winner being whomever gets the most kills over the course of five minutes. I like it because fights tend to last longer, and getting to respawn and face the opponent again gives you more of a chance to learn and adapt to what they're doing.
So many things bother me about team arena. First and foremost is how difficult it is to tell who's on your team -- they could have easily made it "red vs blue" and given everyone the appearance of a red or blue phantom, or put a scoreboard on the HUD with players' names in it. But they didn't. Instead players drop into matches looking exactly like they do based on whatever covenant they're currently set to, and you have to find people and get close enough to them to see whose names are displayed in red, which signifies them as opponents. The only other way to tell who's on your team is by turning the camera away from everyone else so that your allies' health bars show up on the side of the screen, memorizing their names, then hunting people down and remembering what they look like. All of which is much more of a hassle than it should be, just to know who's on your team or not, and makes team arenas a little less enjoyable for me.
I've also found that there's a tendency for team arenas to become easily stacked in one team's favor. When one team scores a kill, they get a free recharge on their normally one-use estus flask, which means the first team to get a kill not only gets more healing capability to stay in the fight longer, but also benefits from then out-numbering the other team, which can potentially persist for the rest of the fight. For the team that scores the first kill in a 2v2 match, if they both survive they can stick together and go after the other team as they respawn one at a time, because if the other team is dying at staggered intervals they'll be respawning at staggered intervals, often times at opposite ends of the overly large arena, meaning you can be forcibly separated from your teammate for the bulk of the match if you get caught in that loop. This is less of an issue in 3v3 matches, but it can still happen. Nearly every team match I've played ended up with one team steamrolling the other, because once you get knocked down it's really hard to get back up.
The new DLC weapons have some of the coolest, most unique movesets of the entire game which makes them a lot of fun to use, but there are definite balancing issues that lead some of them to feel significantly stronger than other weapons. The carthus curved sword was already one of the most powerful, over-abused weapons in the base game, and the DLC adds the follower sabre, an identical weapon with an even better weapon art. The onyx blade is a greatsword that deals really high damage and has almost as much reach as an ultra greatsword. Valorheart is a sword and shield twin set that gives you straight sword-style movesets with a shield that automatically blocks hits during your own attack animations. These and other weapons from the DLC are so popular right now, whether that's because of how good they are or simply because they're new and fun, and it just gets tiring fighting against the same handful of weapons all the time.
So, ultimately, I don't care much for Ashes of Ariandel. The PVE portion of it, with the new region and final boss is decent, but it has pacing issues that made me feel like I was just wandering around until it was over, and it's so short that I actually spent more time writing this review than playing it. The PVP arena is a great addition, but there are some quality of life issues they could (and hopefully will) improve. I'm also not fond of how the arena is locked behind a hidden, optional boss fight in the DLC, because only people who buy the DLC and find the boss will be able to participate in it, which I imagine must be a drastically smaller portion of the overall community. For $15 you're paying for a few hours of entertainment exploring the new area, a bunch of fancy new weapons, and the PVP arena. The arena makes getting into matches a lot quicker and easier and can significantly extend the life of the game for you if you're into PVP, but aside from that it doesn't really feel like you're getting a lot of stuff for your money.
For a piece of DLC to be a quarter of the cost of the base game, you'd hope that it would give you a quarter of the content and entertainment value of the base game. Ashes of Ariandel doesn't come close to matching that ratio. For some, the new weapons, new challenging boss, and the PVP arena are enough to justify its cost, but unless you're a superfan who's completely enamored with the Dark Souls games and absolutely need more content to satisfy your hunger, you can probably just skip Ashes of Ariandel, at least for now.