FromSoft has a pretty amazing track record with the DLC expansions for its Dark Souls and Bloodborne games. Heck, the Crowns Trilogy expansions basically save Dark Souls II from being completely dismissable within the Souls library. Needless to say, expectations for a Dark Souls III expansion were pretty high. Maybe they were too high, as FromSoft sadly seems to have really misfired with Ashes of Ariandel.
Is this mid-game content, or end-game content?
My primary problem with this expansion is that it has wildly erratic difficulty. It breaks with the tradition of having a very obscure access point, and so it's very easy to access very early in the game. It's basically un-missable. There are no arcane hoops to jump through this time, nor is it so obscurely-hidden that From needed to include a dialogue box to tell you where to go. Instead, there's simply an NPC in an area of the game that is accessible fairly early in the game. Talk to this NPC, and he'll transport you to the Painted World of Ariandel.
The developers recommend facing "the depths of Lothric Castle" before playing the DLC.
Once you enter Ariandel, you'll find a pair of developer hints. One reads "Before one faces the painting, one should face the depths of Lothric Castle.", and another claims that only the mighty will survive. So clearly, this area is intended to be late-game content (as you're recommended to have already beaten Lothric Castle and/or Oceiros' Garden). But take a few steps into the DLC, and you'll find some pretty simple basic enemies. The followers of Farron are easily beatable by any mid-level character. Some of them can throw spears at you while hidden behind the blinding snow while you're dealing with their comrades in melee. I didn't have too much trouble dealing with this though, as the melee enemies can be easily kited away from the ranged ones.
The wolves are pretty weak and are only tough if the whole pack gangs up on your or if the camera wigs out while they are jumping around. A level 50 or 60 character would probably have little trouble with these enemies. To From's credit, these wolves are actually pretty fun to fight. They aren't nearly as obnoxious as the dogs that have driven me nuts in previous games.
Most of Ariandel's enemies are pretty easy for mid-game characters
as long as you don't let them swarm and overwhelm you...
But then there's the Millwood Knights and Corvian Knights, which feel like they require the player to be closer to the 80-100 range. Seriously, there's like a 40-level difference between the enemies that you'll encounter in this level, and that's pretty ridiculous. Some of the Millwood Knights guard some fancy optional weapons and an optional area, but the other Millwoods and the Corvian Knights are placed along the necessary paths of progress. You have to fight them. Or at least try to run past them.
The Corvian Knights are a particular pain in the ass. They are incredibly fast, agile, and relentless, and they hit very hard. But the worst part is that they love to jump around, which causes all kinds of mayhem for the camera. It was hard enough to keep track of them in order to dodge their attacks, let alone move in for hits of my own.
The Millwood Knights are more manageable, but they also hit so ridiculously hard that any single screw-up is likely to get a mid-level character killed. Their uppercut attacks routinely wipe out my entire health bar with a single hit. And they have a lot of hit points, which means that you have to play very well for a very long time in order to avoid making a potentially-fatal slip up. One of the Millwood Knight's attacks even has the frustrating effect of preventing the player from dodge rolling. I've suffered numerous cheap deaths at the hands of these knights because the game prevented me from dodging past the attack. I'm not sure if it's a glitch or some kind of feature of their weapon skill.
... But then there's absurdly difficult enemies that hit hard, have a lot of hit points,
and seem clearly designed to be fought by late-game characters.
So what's the deal, FromSoft? Is this a level 60 area? Or a level 100 area? Are the larger numbers of Followers and wolves supposed to be overwhelming? I had very little trouble managing the crowds. Besides, I don't recall there being anything in Lothric Castle or the Consumed King's Garden that would train the player in dealing with these sorts of mobs, so I don't see why you'd recommend going there first.
And ... that's it?
So assuming that you don't enter Ariandel at too low a level and struggle to get through it, the actual amount of content offered seems a bit skimpy. There's only the one level (consisting of roughly four small areas - five if you want to be generous and include the chapel) and only two proper bosses (one of which is optional). I say "proper" because there are also two other mini-bosses in the form of the giant alpha wolf and a duel with an NPC - both of which I defeated in my first go against them (with no summoned help). There's also a scripted NPC phantom invasion if you find yet another secret area.
Who - or what - is this...?
There's also very little direct story within this expansion, and very little concrete lore. I have some speculations, but I'm not very confident about anything that I think I know about what was happening here beyond the obvious stuff about burning away the rot of the painting. About the only thing that I know for sure is that it provides some background information regarding at least one of the Sable Church sisters of Yuria of Londor. And there's some loose references to the Abyss and Farron, but none of this ever really gets any kind of resolution. The DLC also just sort of ends very anti-climatically.
Other than that, I'm mostly at a loss for the meaning behind most of what's presented here. Is this the same painted world as Ariamis' world in the first game? Or a different painting altogether? Is the weird, snake-like corpse in Father Ariandel's chamber supposed to be the remains of Priscilla? Or some kind of Medusa? Or is it Oceiros' baby Ocelotte? Is there some significance to the Followers of Farron and Millwood Knights being here? Who is Ariandel, and what is his relation (if any) to Ariamis? Is the white-haired girl Ariamis, as she's the one who is apparently doing the painting? Or is she the daughter of Ariamis? Or the daughter of Ariandel? Is she Priscilla's daughter? Dark Souls' lore is always very esoteric and cryptic, but unless I am missing a huge, hidden chunk of the level, and a bevy of item descriptions, then it seems like these details are just missing.
I feel like Ariandel would have to be the same place as Ariamis' painting; otherwise, this DLC doesn't really have much relation to the main game and lore. The whole trip feels kind of pointless if it's not the same painting.
Ariandel seems even less forthcoming
with its lore than usual for a Souls game.
This DLC also made reference to at least two potential plot threads for a future DLC, but I doubt that both of those threads could be explored in the single DLC pack that is yet to be released (or announced). Those being the possibility of another painted world being created, and references to some kind of "Abyss Dragon" that might tie up the Millwood thread. There's also still the open questions of what the deal is with Yuria's third sister, and the fact that we've still never actually gotten to see Velka. So if that DLC doesn't pick up on these plot threads, then it looks like we'll end the Dark Souls series with even more open questions than we had.
One of the things that really made Bloodborne's Old Hunters expansion excel was its array of fantastic new weapons. There's also a bunch of new weapons and equipment in Ashes of Ariandel as well, and they are probably also the strength of this expansion. Though I don't feel that they are quite as neat or interesting as the weapons offered by The Old Hunters. I think the reason for that is that DSIII already has a very wide variety of weapons. Bloodborne was criticized for having a small variety of weapons, but I didn't mind because the limited arsenal allowed each weapon to feel much more unique. The DLC weapons filled broad new niches and felt equally unique.
The Follower's Torch gives the potential of fire attacks without the need of a Pyromancy Flame.
There's a handful of interesting new weapons in the arsenal of Ariandel. The Follower Torch offers a variant of the torch with a ranged flame attack. The Follower Spear and Crow Quill grant some magically-throwable weapons that allow for ranged attacks that are limited by FP availability rather than by ammunition. There's also a Pyromancer Flame variant that allows the user to recover estus charges by killing enemies. These four are probably the most interesting weapons, in that they open up novel functionality that you might build a character around.
There's also a boomerang magic spell that has some interesting utility, earth-themed weapons that have AoE attacks, a series of weapons that deal fire and dark damage, and a shield that offers gradual HP restoration. These weapons are fine, but they all feel much more niche. If you have a character that fits into one of these niches, then these new weapons are worth pursuing. For example, if you've got a pyromancer who also deals in hexes and dark damage, then the Onyx Blade or Friede's Scythe are a must-have. Otherwise, none of these weapons are likely to draw much attention.
Anybody want to join me in the Arena?
Much like the first Dark Souls' Artorias of the Abyss expansion, Ashes of Ariandel also introduces a PvP arena. It's hidden, but it's there. I was disappointed that the base Dark Souls III game didn't include a PvP arena for players to practice their skills. The inclusion of the arena early in Dark Souls II was one of that game's wisest improvements, in my opinion, and I thought it was strange that no such arena existed in Dark Souls III. Well now there is one. Of course, you'll have to pass one of the Souls series' trademark terrible platforming segments (complete with annoying archers that turn the whole thing into a test of whether or not you brought enough poison arrows), and then beat an optional boss in order to unlock the arena. This area is much higher level than the Undead Purgatory is in Dark Souls II, so the barrier of entry for unlocking the arena in Dark Souls III is considerably higher.
Reaching the arena will require passing an annoying platforming challenge.
Make sure you bring lots of poison arrows!
The Hollow Arena can allow for up to six players to engage in brawls or team deathmatches, as well as one-on-one duels. The larger matches can be very chaotic and fun. They're just really hard to get into. There just weren't that many people to be matched up with when I tried entering brawls. Even the duels that I tried ended up matching me against the same three opponents because I guess no one else was playing at the time. This highlights the problems inherent in hiding your dueling arena behind an optional boss within DLC: the user base ends up being too small for the feature to actually work! From Soft made the same mistake when Artorias of the Abyss added its Battle of Stoicism to the first Dark Souls: there just was never anybody else playing. At least that arena was locked behind a mandatory DLC boss, rather than being hidden away in a secret area. It doesn't help that there are currently no rewards for fighting or winning in the arena - not even achievements or trophies! So there's no incentive for otherwise un-interested players to even bother giving the arena a try.
The user base is too small for large arena battles,
leading to lots of waiting and failed matchmaking.
In the unlikely event that enough people buy the DLC and start using the arena, then it will give some extra longevity to the expansion for those who enjoy PvP duels (those who like ganking newbs won't find much to come back for). Otherwise, this expansion is only good for a weekend of play - maybe only a single night if you're over-leveled or particularly efficient. When I finished the DLC content, I just kind of felt like "What? That's the end? That's it?" The whole experience just left me feeling unsatisfied.
It's a shame too, because the visual design is pretty outstanding, and the level is a nice, multi-tiered one with well-conceived shortcuts. The snow and weather effects here put Dark Souls II's snowy Eleum Loyce to shame. The snow effects of that level were one of the visual highlights of that game and its DLC, but Ariandel's natural landscapes and gusting winds create an atmosphere that just blows Eleum Loyce out of the water. The cold and snow don't have any effect on actual gameplay (like maybe a constant build-up of frost unless you're holding the torch or near a bonfire), but it certainly looks nice. If Ariandel had better encounters (and more of them), then the atmospheric aesthetic would be the sort of detail that would push this expansion into greatness. Instead, the pack as a whole passes too quickly and feels very mediocre.
Up to six players can brawl in the chaotic Hollow Arena.