Return to the Painted World: Our Thoughts on Dark Souls 3: Ashes of Ariandel

Ever since Eduardo and I finished up Dark Souls 3 proper, we’ve been wondering what was in store for the game’s two expansions. The first, Ashes of Ariandel, landed last month, so of course the two of us got together to chat about it in-depth, as is tradition.

Warning: Spoilers ahead.


Callum: Out of all things I thought the first add-on for Dark Souls 3 would be, a return to the Painted World certainly wasn’t it. Granted, I never had any specific ideas for what it could be (if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that From Software never seems to do what everyone thinks they’ll do), but still. After the base game was filled with so many obvious call-backs, I’d have thought they’d done something new than continue down that road.

Not that I’m complaining, of course. Ashes of Ariandel was fantastic. I’ve been pining for more wintery locales since Eleum Loyce from Dark Souls 2, and Ariandel certainly delivered. The introductory area felt like a much better take on the Frigid Outskirts zone from Dark Souls 2, the packs of wolves serving as a far more interesting and fair threat than those infinitely spawning horses. The base game was already full of enemies who wouldn’t attack on sight, but the way the wolves would just hang back and warn you not to mess with them, lest they decide to call in backup, was very cool. Love it when they play with enemy behavior like that. Kinda wish they’d played with it a bit more throughout the DLC, but oh well. Maybe the next expansion will do something similar.

I didn’t mind how short it was, either. Honestly, it felt about the same length as Artorias of the Abyss was way back when. Only difference is that we have less new bosses to take on. But when those two are as good as these are, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. It’s like the rest of Dark Souls 3: quality over quantity. And speaking of those bosses, man — Friede was one hell of a boss. One of those rare cases where absolutely everything was on-point. The staging, the music, the progression of the fight itself; everything was just perfect. Definitely one of the finest fights they’ve crafted.

Curious to see where the story goes from here, though. Something about it feels like this is just the set-up to something more rather than just a simple standalone story. I mean, it certainly serves that role as well — the tale of Ariandel and Friede, their connection to the Painted World, and their eventual end is tragic, while the cycle of fire and rot that mimics that of the greater world in Dark Souls is fascinating — but there’s a couple threads it establishes that make me feel like this story isn’t done yet. Or maybe they’re just more red herrings. Never know with these games.

What are your thoughts on it, Eduardo?

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Eduardo: I agree about this content’s start being much more well developed than that misty ice hell of the Dark Souls 2‘s second DLC. I never completed that specific part out of the entirety of that game because it was incredibly annoying and one of the only bits of the series I ever came close to considering unfair. As for the setting, I totally thought we were in a different painted world than in the original game’s?

Frankly, I totally didn’t expect this content to be this short. But then again, like you said, it’s quality stuff. I never imagined that a timid girl telling you to shove off would actually turn out to be the boss. Sure, being unwelcoming is a hallmark of these games, but when you walk into a long corridor with someone at the end, you kinda know what you’re getting into. When the fight began, I expected something more akin to similar to previous one on one fights with similarly sized foes, and in a way, we did get it, but one that’s from Bloodborne — the Maria fight from Bloodborne‘s own DLC, The Old Hunters. Then came the second form, which wasn’t much of a surprise, given how the second character was just moping around for the entirety of the first part.

Then, after many attempts learning her patterns, she finally went down, and hey, like many moments in these games, I breathed a sigh of relief, only to be startled by a third and much more powerful form. It’s that kind of craziness that I’ve come to expect out of From Software, but then again, there’s only so many times they can pull out that card. Their other plays were already pretty drawn out for the entirety of Dark Souls 3, which was, like you said, a lesson in quality over quantity. I really liked that fight for its surprising twist and mechanics.

The second one isn’t as good. I haven’t beaten it yet, mind. I’m sure that with a few more attempts in, I’d get it, but that fight in particular feels like something from the old boss designs when compared to everything that came into play in Dark Souls 3. It’s a shame, because the entire area that comes before reaching that fight is pretty damn cool.

Story-wise, I liked how everything felt like a forgotten slice of lore that was cut from the main world of Dark Souls 3, with the handful of characters you meet being resentful of our character’s kind for leaving them to rot inside the painting. It was like a cut piece of film that spent years on an editing room’s floor suddenly springing back to haunt whoever decided not to include them in the composition. You are never welcome there. That much is made clear. And what’s up with creepy girl up in the attic… what was her deal? Was she painting the world we’ll be visiting in DLC #2? Why was she so excited about our deal with her long dead uncle who we could summon for her sister’s fight?

The lore in Dark Souls 3 feels much more interesting than the rest of the series, for sure…

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Callum: It kinda is and isn’t. Like, it’s definitely a new world, but it’s one built on top of the old painted world. Ariandel didn’t create a new painting so much as he restored the original and added onto it, as evident by the presence of the colosseum-esque structure where Priscilla was in the first game. I didn’t actually realize that was the case until I made my way down there and got a closer look. Thought for sure it was something entirely new until then. Basically the same case as Irithyll and how it built on the foundation of Anor Londo.

That’s been the recurring theme throughout Dark Souls 3: revisiting old haunts and seeing how they’ve changed. It doesn’t feel like a nostalgia grab in Ashes of Ariandel‘s case, though. It seems like the game is making a case for letting the fire fade instead of kindling it in perpetuity. The entire story of this DLC tells of how Ariandel and the painting’s residents all decided to let it burn away once the rot began to set in, only for Friede to come along and convince Ariandel otherwise because she didn’t want this world to vanish. And then we barge in and force the cycle to continue as preordained, for better or worse. The current painted world will burn and a new one will take its place.

The whole thing is essentially a microcosm of the greater Dark Souls story. Just as the flame inevitably begins to fade in the real world, the painted worlds eventually begin to rot, and they either have to work to restore it so that it may continue to persist or let go of it entirely so that a new world can rise from its ashes. It’s the same dilemma we face in the main game: continue to link the fire and let the world persist in its current state, or let it fade and let things run its natural course. We’re of course told to link the fire because that’s our duty as undead, and because it’s the only reason there’s still light in the world.

Until this DLC came out, there wasn’t any case to be made about not linking the fire. Yuria, if you pursued that questline, would have you “usurp” the flame — take it for yourself and subvert it — but you still end up linking the fire in the process. The world will likely still persist, you’re just acting as its ruler in that case. But now the game’s essentially made a case for letting the fire fade and I’m not sure what to make of it. There’s never been a clear answer for what’s ultimately best for this world, and I feel like Ashes of Ariadnel is playing that up far more than the base game. Really curious to see if the next DLC will continue to explore that.

Anyway.

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While I agree that the Gravetender boss wasn’t nearly as good as Friede and Ariandel, I still think it was a fantastic battle overall. I was worried it was gonna be like those hidden optional bosses from Dark Souls 2‘s DLC when it first appeared to be a basic NPC — doubly so when the wolf first arrived and seemed to be the same as the other giant wolves from the early stages of this area — but it turned out to be a good twist on an otherwise simple boss. Felt like a lighter redux of Ornstein and Smough.

I like how they made both bosses play with the idea of fighting multiple foes. The Abyss Watchers was the only instance of that in the base game, and that turned out to be one of the best bosses in the game, so seeing those ideas come back into play again was great. Especially since they executed it so well with Friede. I never expected to see a three-phase boss fight in one of these games, but dang did they pull it off perfectly.

As for the painter, I think her role is simply to make the next painted world. I doubt her painting will serve as the location for the next add-on. Whatever Gael’s up to could come up, I suppose, but unless they make the two expansions tie into one another (which I still can’t help but feel will be the case in some way), we probably won’t be seeing or hearing about him anymore.

Did you get a strong Bloodborne vibe from this? Not so much thematically (though the way blood factors into the main boss battle sure is an obvious comparison), but aesthetically and mechanically. Those soldiers with the javelins and torches around the forests seemed awfully similar to the hordes of beastly citizens that patrolled Yharnam, what with them having the same lanky builds and their shambly movement. Then there was the flesh-like rot that was all over the place. Seemed like something out of Bloodborne‘s nightmare realms.

On the whole, it felt like the enemies leaned more toward Bloodborne‘s style of combat as well. I mean, Dark Souls 3 already leaned real hard in that direction already, but it still felt like it was filtered through the Dark Souls lens. Rolling became more important, but at the end of the day, blocking attacks was still essential. Whereas here, that seemed far less effective. Maybe it was just the sheer number of status inflictions you could receive — bleed, poison, frostbite — but I feel like trying to block and counter more often than not put me in a bad position than the ol’ Bloodborne method of dashing in and quickly retreating as necessary. Made sense that the bosses evoked that feel given they both dealt with multiple targets, not to mention the obvious similarities between Friede and Maria.

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You tackled it on new game plus, yeah? Did playing it on a higher difficulty essentially affect the experience for you in any way, positively or negatively? I tackled it first with a fresh character and it didn’t feel too difficult on the whole, save for a couple choice encounters with those large, viking-esque knights. Playing through it a second time with a different character  who was on new game plus definitely upped the challenge significantly. Felt like I was underprepared for it in some cases, though it was probably just my choice of weaponry. Hard to counter the aforementioned knights without an easy way to break their guard. Guess that’s what I get for using a rapier on my dexterity build.

Eduardo: I agree. The main content for Dark Souls 3 did feel like an eulogy for the series as a whole as we explored familiar areas that were thoroughly changed as the years went by in the fiction. That connection you made between both painted worlds is also on point, and I hadn’t thought of that before. That’s the cool part about playing these games that indirectly deliver story, there’s no two people that experience it the same way since it’s usually down to picking up tiny pieces of lore and putting the whole thing together in whatever shape it ends up taking. Though I doubt there isn’t an official canon that’s set in stone, I honestly think that our personal stories with the game end up being a whole lot better than anything that could come out of From Software’s writers’ room. Still, if I had to pick favorites, their games would make it quite high in my personal list.

Oh, I definitely got a Bloodborne vibe out of this thing. Then again, the core Dark Souls 3 also felt like a product of Bloodborne‘s influence, something that would have turned out completely different if From hadn’t swerved into making that game before coming back to their flagship series. Since Bloodborne, I had completely forsaken the use of shields because they were (almost) non-existent in that game and the gameplay really favored a more aggressive approach. Dark Souls 3 wasn’t as intense, but definitely worked in a similar fashion. So the only shield I stuck for the majority of both core and DLC side content was the Grass Crest Shield, but only for its stamina buff, as it’s been the case since the first game.

I also got a huge Maria vibe out of Friede. Everything from that first and third bits of that fight echoed the battle inside the clock tower from The Old Hunters. The second phase sorta played it off a little so it wouldn’t turn out so similar, but the other parts were really reminiscent of that fight, which was already very reminiscent itself to other action games I played in the past — mostly Devil May Cry — from both design wise and it its overall pacing.

Oh man, yeah, I did play through Ashes of Ariandel on new game plus 3. I never quite go through with my plans of leveling a second character, so I just took the plunge and picked my main guy up as he set by the bonfire ready to start NG+4. I don’t have a frame of reference as to the DLC’s difficulty in a first playthrough environment, but at the one I played it on, it proved to be quite a challenge. And yeah, definitely, those viking guys with the axes and bows were surely the hardest “normal” enemies I faced. So much so that I haven’t gone back yet to see what they were guarding in the first place. I did pick up a couple of new spells from the nooks they were hidden in, but I haven’t bothered using them yet.

Honestly, though, I think that if you come into this DLC having a certain amount of previous experience with Dark Souls, it’s a little bit easier to expect where some of its traps are, even though a few of them did catch me unaware, the Wolverine mobs especially. Ooof, those guys are both awesome and incredibly scary, falling down on you if you’re not careful. Loved them!

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How about the new PvP mode? Have you tried it out yet? Coming from a very arduous experience getting Dark Souls 3‘s platinum, I’m very hesitant on jumping into any more duels with other players, considering the amount of grinding I had to do for the covenants that are focused on invasions, which to my dismay were plenty and extremely demanding before coughing up the spells and trinkets needed for their respective achievements. Without much knowledge of how the new mode works, from an outsider’s perspective, I think it’s really weird for From Software to focus on that aspect in particular, even more after all the woes with broken stat elements in Dark Souls 3 that are intrinsically tied to player vs. player, like poise. I’ve close to zero interest in competitive play in general, even more in this game. Would’ve much preferred more cooperative modes, maybe a boss rush or something.

Callum: The PvP arena was an essential addition. As someone who’ve grown to despise invasions (they’re kinda fun for the first couple weeks of release when everyone’s still making their way through the game for the first time, but after that, it’s awful for anyone who isn’t specifically building characters for PvP), I’m hoping its presence will cut down on the number of invasions I get while wandering through certain zones since anyone who just wants to fight can go to the arena instead. Before, the community had to set up unofficial “fight club” zones for dedicated PvP, which sometimes led to some people just looking to do some co-op getting caught in the cross-fire. Now they’ve got a proper section of the game devoted to it like Dark Souls 2 had.

I haven’t messed around with it much myself (I’ve never been great at fighting other players in these games), but it’s surprisingly robust. You’re able to choose between one-on-one duels, two-on-two team battles, or even six-player free-for-all brawls. I think that last one is probably my favorite just because of the sheer chaos that ensues. There’s only one arena right now — a modified version of The Kiln of the First Flame where the final boss rests — and the way the menu is set up suggests they’ll be adding another eventually (probably with the release of the second DLC, if I had to guess; though maybe they’ll just patch more in at random).

Before we end this, one final question: is there anything you’d like to see the next add-on do? Myself, I’m hoping we’ll visit somewhere entirely new. I love revisiting old locales, but it’d be nice to end this on an entirely fresh note if possible. That or for it to pick up on those hanging threads Ashes of Ariandel left us with. I’m sure I’ll be satisfied with whatever they do with it regardless (they haven’t disappointed me yet), but it’s hard not to wonder and speculate what’s coming, even if we’re sure to be way off the mark.

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Eduardo: You have a point there in regards to the arena and invasions, but I doubt it’ll do much to cut back on the invasions during the single player portion of the game. Some areas will continue to be really popular spots for people to come into our games uninvited, but sure, the arena will probably cut down on some of those spots where people would congregate for PvP, like the area between the cathedral we fight the archbishop in and Anor Londo’s entrance, one of the optional fight clubs you mentioned. At least I certainly hope so, those are especially annoying spots if you’re just playing the game and minding your own business!

But yeah, it definitely sounds like something the devs put some time in to make it a really solid and substantial update to the game, which is something rare this late in a game’s lifespan. I’ll have to make sure and check it out at some point. The six-on-six fight in particular sounds completely insane.

As for the final DLC, man, yeah, I hope they come up with something special for that, considering that it’ll probably be the final piece of content in Dark Souls as a whole if what Miyazaki and From Software have said about tying a bow on the series. While it’s incredibly fun and nostalgic to pop back to iconic locations from the franchise changed up and messed around with in Dark Souls 3, I do think that idea is starting to feel a little long on the tooth.

We both definitely came out of Ashes of Ariandel pretty much in agreement that it’s an excellent DLC for an already pretty darn good base game. Even though I would’ve loved to have spent even more time freezing my virtual hide in the world of Ariandel’s painting, I’m ready to close the book on Dark Souls 3 with the last DLC that’s scheduled to come out at the beginning of 2017. We should have more info on it soon, I hope!

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