For a series that revels in forcing the player to relinquish any sense of power or safety, Dark Souls 3 was an oddly welcoming return to Hidetaka Miyazaki's unforgiving world of action-RPG attrition.
While Dark Souls' third act remains a magisterial refinement of visceral 'SoulsBorne' gameplay, it traded in some of its gruesome strangeness and unfamiliarity in favour of comforting throwbacks to characters, locations and story beats of old.
Ashes of Ariandel – Dark Souls 3's first DLC expansion – continues this trend, taking Souls veterans back to the 'painted world' for the first time since Dark Souls 1. While Ariamis has handed over the brush and easal to Ariandel this time around, the aesthetic and tonal similarities clearly link the two together, even if it bears a closer resemblence to Bloodborne's Forsaken Cainhurst Castle.
This is a much prettier and chillier return to the painted world though, as Ariandel's snow-topped mountains and ornate cathedrals take full advantage of the current hardware to create one of the more visually striking locations in Dark Souls 3. It comes complete with intriguing lore additions that mostly ignore the machinations of those seeking the First Flame, before ending with a tantalising glimpse of how its embers could light anew in the next, possibly final, DLC chapter.
FromSoftware's always stellar sound design work also stands out, with every clash of blades or pained cry from a lupine aggressor satisfyingly cutting through the howling icey winds.
In spite of it visual panache, the geographical layout in Ashes of Ariandel is a tad messy. The handful of larger areas too often feel cluttered and confused as opposed to labyrinthine. It's also disappointing that the best area – down in the branching, crystalline depths of the painting – is entirely optional and much smaller in size.
The various new enemy types are a mixed bag too. The rank-and-file Millwood grunts do an impressive job of cleverly flanking each other and mixing ranged and up-close combat, but the easily-countered, axe-wielding vikings come off as a little derivative. The same can't be said of the terrifyingly frenetic, avian-like Corvian Knights though, which are capable of obliterating your health and stamina bars in seconds.
Thankfully, while there are only two bosses in Dark Souls 3's first expansion – one of which is optional – they both rank highly in FromSoftware's pantheon of savage villians. The final boss in particular is a test of fortitude and patience that craftily breaks away from the established Souls rulebook and delivers an intense, emotional punch.
Despite ending on a beautifully high note, Ashes of Ariandel is over all-too-quickly, clocking in at around three to four hours in total. In an effort to counterbalance its short length, the DLC also holds the ashen keys to a deathmatch-style online PvP arena.
This multiplayer add-on features matchmaking, team matches and point challenges, and is on the whole a fun diversion from the usual online invasion mechanic. With just one map, occasional lag issues and no rewards aside from momentary glory the mode is a little spartan, but it's an entertaining testing ground for the PvP-focused new weapons found in the frozen mountains.
If Dark Souls 3 is the franchise's greatest hits album, Ashes of Ariandel is its B-side collection – a mostly unremarkable, yet complimentary addition that hides one unmissable gem – in this case, the gloriously climactic final showdown.
The bare-bones PvP arena offers a fleeting blast of adrenaline and the painted world's gorgeous wintry landscapes are enchantingly brutal, yet as a whole, Dark Souls 3's first expansion colours within deeply worn lines and falls short of FromSoftware's illustrious history of unforgettable, industry-leading DLC.