After almost a decade of From Software’s Souls franchise, everything seems to be coming to an end. In Ashes of Ariandel, the first DLC expansion for Dark Souls 3, even the trees seem mourn this inevitability, bending their boughs downward in quiet resignation. As I approach them through mounting snowdrifts, they release a glittering gift: tiny pyres that float through the air like silent fireflies. They descend upon me slowly, cutting me to ribbons. I instinctively roll forward, sword drawn, ready to chop it down, but it grabs me, cradles me ever-so-gently, and coats me in its icy breath until I succumb to frostbite. This is still Dark Souls, after all, creator Hidetaka Miyazaki’s now-legendary five-part testament to persistence in death – and even as the world grieves, it still wants to kill you.
Yes, the Souls series is all but over, by order of none other than Miyazaki himself. He's repeatedly declared that this year’s Dark Souls 3 is the last that From Software will develop – at least for a while. Ashes of Ariandel, and the promised second DLC that'll follow, may just be goodbye to this haunting and harrowing world.
The Souls games are acclaimed for their striking world design and elliptical storytelling, and Ashes displays so much of Miyazaki’s characteristic restraint that it borders on incomprehensibility. As with most Souls DLC, it begins with a mysterious force whisking the player off into an unknown land – in this case, an old man cajoles you into touching a scrap of canvas, which sucks you into a shivery “painted world” of ravenous wolves and neverending snowfall. As you trek through ruined villages and collapsed towers, vanquishing fallen knights and malformed creatures all along the way, you rub shoulders with the usual crowd of muttering loons who whisper obscurely of fire and destruction. Eventually, you arrive at a final confrontation that manages to thunder with emotional heft despite a complete absence of background or context. The self-proclaimed “lore-masters” of YouTube and the various Souls wikis – famed for their ability to explain even the most confounding aspects of the series – might be able to glean something from these depths, but for the rest of us, this is all well-trod territory.
The mystery, the wonder, and the challenge that have made Souls a durable gaming institution all feel a bit abbreviated in Ashes.
The same could be said of the painted land itself. Though Souls games don't tend to lean on simple square mileage to communicate their scope, there simply isn’t that much territory to tread in Ashes. The world of Ariandel may be twisting and torturous, but it’s not particularly large. A cautious player could witness its entirety in a paltry six hours, give or take, which seems meager compared to previous Souls DLC. The mystery, the wonder, and the challenge that have made Souls a durable gaming institution all feel a bit abbreviated in Ashes.
From Software is also careful to tie its expansions to the original games in ways that make them feel integral to the whole. For example, 2011’s Artorias of the Abyss – an add-on to the first Dark Souls – reveals the origin of “Humanity,” the notoriously arcane currency that forms the backbone of one of the series’ most bizarre game systems. 2015’s expansion to franchise spin-off Bloodborne is probably the best example: titled simply The Old Hunters, it traces back the curse that afflicts nearly every character in the game back to its source, revealing enough secrets in the process to make the ones that still remain concealed all the more tantalizing. Like it or not, The Old Hunters is no optional expansion but an essential part of the game, and anyone who wants to begin to understand Bloodborne's seemingly-impenetrable story has to play through it. Ashes doesn't feel anywhere as indispensable.
Perhaps the comparison isn’t fair. After all, Dark Souls 3 rarely attempts to differentiate itself from its forebears. It’s an unapologetic sequel through and through, the Dark Souls 2 that the actual Dark Souls 2 refused to be. A gracious critic would say that 3 is the Miyazaki of 2016 having a conversation with the Miyazaki of 2011: ambling along, occasionally striking upon an unexpected turn, shining up the more glaring flaws, but almost always responding instead of leading. A more blunt critic would call it a retread – albeit a thorough and inspired one. Even the idea of a world within a painting itself is brazenly recycled from the original Dark Souls: five years later, the Painted World of Ariamis remains a quietly intricate crash course in level design that easily outclasses anything found in Ashes.
So, as you open a door and find yourself instantly beset by a ghastly abomination; when you navigate narrow, skeletal roots besieged by exploding arrows; when you step down into a deserted grove only to be jumped by five, six, seven wolves – it’s hard to escape the feeling that you and a generation of feckless champions have faced these exact obstacles before, and prevailed. And even as you descend down again and again to be vaporized or melted or cut in two by the scythe that belongs to Ashes’ final boss – as brutally challenging and wrist-snappingly galling as any a foe they have yet laid in your winding, years-long path – you can’t help but think in the back of your mind: please, let it go; let the fire go out; let it die with some dignity. I just want it to be over.