Enter The Painted World via the grovelling NPC at the Cleansing Chapel bonfire and you're plunged into a harsh and isolated environment, with vision-impairing snow and unfamiliar faces. Wolves hunt you down and axe-wielding warriors make the very earth beneath you quake. It seems like a tough environment where even the trees want you dead, so you prepare for the inevitable onslaught of incessant death, but it never quite comes. This first DLC drop for Dark Souls III feels strange, and it's not the maggot throwing flies to blame, for once.
Ashes of Ariandel starts off brilliantly, surrounded by swirling snow that's peppered with the deep orange glow of enemy torches. It's a disorientating shift from the cathedral innards we've become accustomed to throughout the main game, but it's hugely refreshing. The lack of visibility brings a cool new dynamic to exploration and reinvigorates a sense of unease – even for Souls veterans. Progressing through the snow introduces you to a handful of new foes, including the fire-blowing Followers, giant wolves, and the Millwood Warriors. Of those, the wolves feel like the best addition, but also the one with the most issues.
We regularly encountered haphazard animations when it came to the wolves, which appear in varying numbers in the early stages of the DLC. The pack mentality is clear; the wolves will often circle around until they've bolstered their numbers enough before attacking, and it's unnerving as heck to see them silently pace the outskirts of the area. When they do initiate an attack, however, their speedy movements and the rugged terrain collide, causing all kinds of clipping and floating issues. It's a snag that's an unfortunate blight on an otherwise challenging foe.
Two boss encounters are to be had while in The Painted World, and in true Souls fashion, these guys are not to be trifled with. One boss consists of three distinct and increasingly difficult phases that'll yield the infamous 'You Died' screen innumerable times. In terms of design, however, it's actually business as usual, with the fight boiling down to essentially just three back-to-back duels with limited differentiation or spectacle.
The other (optional) boss can be found in a vast glacier-like arena after navigating down some giant tree roots while dodging incoming javelins. This begins as another anti-climactic duel and only really becomes interesting when, during the second phase, a giant wolf enters the area that's as fast as it is massive. While the boss fights are usually the cornerstones of the Souls experience, the bosses found in The Painted World don't feel innovative at all, which is a deep disappointment.
Dark Souls tends to do a lot right by not doing anything at all, an odd quirk that it somehow consistently gets away with, frequently leaving omitted features in the hands of the ever-impressive community to work out for themselves. Defeating the optional boss yields the items necessary to access Ashes of Ariandel's The Arena.
Undead Matches in The Arena give you the chance to face each other via a matchmaking system for 1v1 duels, all the way up to chaotic six player free-for-alls and co-op matches – each with varying restrictions on Estus. It's a long-requested feature for Dark Souls III, but now that we finally have it, we don't think we even needed it. The Arena offers no reward for victory or participation, and to play with friends specifically requires a password protected match – populated just by your friends. It's convoluted and fails to successfully emulate the thrills found in the fight clubs of the main game. It will surely strike a chord with those that love the PvP element, but without any kind of reward for play, we can't see it elongating the longevity of Dark Souls III all that much.
Dark Souls III: Ashes of Ariandel misses the mark. It fails to fill a large, fresh environment with tangible reasons to stay there any longer than a few hours, and although the new weapons and gear are some of the best in the game, you'll want to play about with them somewhere other than The Painted World. Each boss battle feels generic and produces a dead end, feeling unrelated as a result. The experience constantly builds itself up but never climaxes, falling flat without spectacle leaving you to lug your new arsenal of weapons and gear back to the Firelink Shrine, your work in The Painted World apparently complete. The Arena finally constructs a functional environment for something long curated by the community, but removes something in the process thanks to reward-less matches that fail to emulate the underground fight club feeling found in the main game.