It starts in the Cathedral of the Deep. There’s a sad man prostate in the chapel and, noting that I’m an ashen one, he wants me to travel to Ariandel to show his “lady” the flame (it has to be a “proper” flame, he adds). Since I'm also seeking a flame, he figures that it won’t be a hassle for me to set his friend up with one, too. I accept the mission and he presents me with a scrap of the painting of Ariandel, which I only need touch to be transported there.
Ariandel is snowy and miserable and definitely a place one might enjoy a flame. Since it was revealed earlier this year, many have compared this expansion to the Painted World of Ariamis from the original Dark Souls, and it’s true that they’ve both got snow in them, and it might also be true that they’re somehow connected. But whereas Ariamis could be completed in as little as ten minutes, depending how daring you were, Ariandel is comparatively massive: not only in the seeming length of the journey you’ll take through it, but also in the way it sprawls. I only played for two hours and haven’t come close to completing it, but I certainly got lost, confused and mercilessly slaughtered.
When I read that Ariandel was to be set in a snowy area, my heart sank a bit. I’m a bit tired of snowy Dark Souls levels. Crown of the Ivory King was drab. The Painted World was nice enough, but I’m not a fan of all that white. As for Cainhurst Castle? Won’t go there in subsequent playthroughs. The reason I’ve pressed through each Souls game is largely due to my desire to see more stuff: to be surprised and delighted by strange sights. The prospect of a new snowy area did not excite me until I started dawdling around Ariandel a bit.
It doesn’t start promisingly. The first bonfire sits at the edge of the snowfields, and like all sprawling Dark Souls areas with no obvious path, it’s terrifying and a bit annoying. One must take a leap of faith pressing into the blizzard, and typically enough, the fog shrouded fields are sentried by tall knights that pack both spears and fire (but not the good type). Employing a familiar tactic (the knight character in this preview build was not well-levelled) I ended up bolting through the fog straight into a nest of infested blowflies, and the half-dozen angry knights were not slow catching up with me.
Unlike in the main game, bonfires are hard fought for in Ariandel – you’ll often need to toil through a handful of tricky encounters before you find one. As for me, I was mauled by a pack of wolves and splattered by a party of giant iron-clad soldiers before opting to run away… straight in the arms of an angry, murderous tree. That second bonfire proved a very long trek indeed.
Though the early areas of Ariandel appear to sprawl in every direction, they’re really just swollen pathways towards an inevitable centre. When those swollen pathways are populated by so many enemies, though, it’s easy to gain the impression that you’re lost. It doesn’t help that some parts of the terrain collapses beneath your feet, and while you won’t fall to your death during these mostly scripted tumbles, it contributes to a sense of disorientation.
As someone who struggled with most of the Dark Souls 2 DLC, I was surprised to find that most of the regular enemies in Ariandel are reasonably easy to get a handle on. That is, until I’ve reached a mountaintop chapel and conversed with Lady Friede – presumably the one I’m meant to be looking for. After our chat I’m accosted by an ominous character who warns that I should leave the painting immediately. Ignoring this advice (even though, frankly, it seemed pretty sound), I descend into a ruined township and find some of the most dexterous and absorbent foes I’ve ever encountered in this ridiculous video game series. Seriously, one of these bastards is one part Freddy Krueger, another part the ballroom scene in Eyes Wide Shut, and as painful as both combined.
The landscape of Ariandel hugs, in a roughly cylindrical shape, a deep icy chasm strewn with ruins. When I stopped playing I had two directions to push in: either through the township – thus along the rind of the chasm – or straight down into it. Among the press who attended my preview session, it was understood that there are at least two bosses in Ariandel, and while I only encountered one, some of the one-off encounters in the world rivalled anything in Dark Souls 3 for difficulty. And yet, unlike the Dark Souls 2 expansions, it doesn’t feel punishing for punishing’s sake: I dare say it’ll get harder as I continue my travels, but as an average-but-determined Dark Souls fan, I never felt hopeless, and the vistas are gnarled and beautiful enough to keep me interested.
Ashes of Ariandel also comes with a dedicated PvP arena supporting up to six players, set in an area familiar to anyone who finished the main game. I wasn’t able to play it as the servers weren’t operating, but even without the competitive shenanigans, I’m confident that this adventure will be one worth undertaking. It releases next Tuesday.