Three sequels and several pieces of downloadable content later, perhaps Dark Souls has simply run out of steam.
It's tough to get a read on Ashes of Ariandel, the first downloadable content for Dark Souls III. It's surprisingly short, lacks imagination, and overly relies on gimmicks that prove more annoying than surprising. It's not bad, but in the same way that Dark Souls II wasn't bad, either. Expectations for Dark Souls are rightly high, and Ashes of Ariandel doesn't hit the mark.
Set in a blustery winter world, Ashes of Ariandel is a self-contained area that's cordoned off from the rest of the game world. Either by chance (or by looking up a walkthrough), players will encounter a character who invites them to touch a torn painting, transporting them to a land of wolves and Viking-inspired henchmen. Even by Dark Souls standards, it's brutally difficult—high-level Souls veterans can expect a proper challenge. I was taken aback by how punishing I found the opening area, and only by confirming my struggles with other players did it become clear I hadn't lost my touch: This DLC is really just that hard.
But as is the case with all Souls games, death leads to learning, learning leads to understanding, and you begin to make progress. It's a powerful cycle, and at times, as I was barely surviving on a sliver of health, the mixture of fear and adrenaline that rushed into my face and fingertips proved an acute reminder of why Souls works. But more than any other experience with a Souls game, Ashes of Ariandel left me feeling—and I apologize in advance—cold. It's forgettable. The highs weren't as high, the lows lower, and I felt like I was just going through the motions.
It's tough for Dark Souls, at least in its current form, to be surprising. After investing hundreds of hours (and thousands of deaths) fighting endless monstrosities, it's now possible to be comfortable while playing Dark Souls. Players who have stuck with the games know their tricks. Some of that comes with experience, but not entirely; it also involves FromSoftware nerfing the series. (How else do you explain bonfires within less than a minute of one another?)
That said, I'll grant that Ashes of Ariandel elicited an audible gasp from me during its tough main boss fight. It's less clever and more "you have to be fucking kidding me," but it's surprising, nonetheless. I'm loathe to reveal what actually happens, but prepare for an endurance run. I'm legitimately proud to say I finished the boss without resorting to summoning any help, too.
The rest of Ashes of Ariandel? Eh. As with Dark Souls III, it pulls on nostalgia strings that I'll leave for players to discover themselves, but overall it falls flat. It doesn't help that Ashes of Ariandel is deliberately riffing on the Painted World of Ariamis, a famously nightmarish (and beloved) optional area in the original Dark Souls. It's one of the best sections in the series.
If Ashes of Ariandel was simply a random section from Dark Souls III, you might just shrug and move on. But after waiting six months for a return to Lothric and invoking Ariamis, I was left wanting much more. It doesn't help that when you "finish" the area, nothing happens. No cutscene, no interesting dialogue from nearby characters. You fight a boss, the boss dies, and you leave the area. There's an interesting (and tragic) story within the painting, but as with most Dark Souls lore, it's a lot easier to understand when someone tells you what's going on.
Since falling for the series a few years back, as I rushed through Dark Souls in anticipation of Dark Souls II, the arrival of a new Souls game has been a regular highlight. My wife knows to ignore the screaming and swearing coming out of my office late into the night, and to expect bleary eyes and mangled fingers in the morning. Beating a Souls game is psychologically exhausting, emotionally draining—and has given me personal joy in a way few games have.
Souls games have, for me, assumed the same role as Call of Duty or Madden for others. Good or bad, I'm back for the next one. They've got me for life. If there was a new Souls game released every year for the next ten years, knowing that meant sacrificing quality along the way, I'd still be sitting down for it every year. Intellectually, I know that's a bad idea, but it hasn't stopped me yet.
There's reason to believe Souls is a victim of its own success. There's been a lot of Souls since Demon's Souls was released in 2009. That was a cult hit, but its successor Dark Souls was, in relative terms, a legitimate blockbuster. Blockbusters become money machines, and money machines demand sequels. Between three main games, a spin-off in Bloodborne, and several add-ons, there's never been a more prolific time to die over and over at the hands of From Software.
Blockbusters become money machines, and money machines demand sequels. Between three main games, a spin-off in Bloodborne, and several add-ons, there's never been a more prolific time to die over and over at the hands of From Software.
But all good ideas have an expiration date, and an important reason Bloodborne felt fresh and familiar was because it took Dark Souls's DNA and twisted it in new directions. As I argued in a review earlier this year at Kotaku, Dark Souls III was a pleasant, if largely unnecessary, farewell to a series whose shock value has been part of its charm. Dark Souls III couldn't deviate like Bloodborne; being called Dark Souls conceptually boxed the game in.
From Software designer Hidetaki Miyazaki, who has guided the series since its inception, has said Dark Souls III marks an end—for now. (There have been hints we're getting another Souls-like game, possibly a sequel to Bloodborne, in the next year.) Ashes of Ariandel suggests that pivot is here at the right time. Another Dark Souls III add-on is coming early next year, and while I'll be sitting down on day one, for the first time, it'll be with tempered expectations. That's a shitty feeling.
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