Version tested: Xbox 360
Artorias of the Abyss - the downloadable Dark Souls expansion that's also included in the new Prepare to Die edition of the game - is a two-pronged proposition. It's a pitchfork that digs deeper into the two most fertile areas of the core Dark Souls experience: the beautiful, decaying environments that chronicle the extent of Lordran's curse, and the game's potent competitive multiplayer. As developer From Software's first add-on for the series, it also ranks as a curious example of how a new adventure can be woven into an already tightly-knit world without making it feel too out of place.
The obscure lead-in to this new content is remarkable in itself. In true series spirit, there are no breadcrumbs or signposts to guide you along, and without a walkthrough, plenty of exploring is needed before you can truly get going. The Artorias of the Abyss quest can also only be accessed once the Anor Londo area is cleared - a smart way to ensure you have the warp ability before you jump into the portal, in case you ever want to return. Once a giant, shadowy hand snatches you through it, it's clear that the series' signature minimalist attitude to storytelling is still in full effect and that there are still plenty of mysteries to uncover. Welcome back to Dark Souls.
The new single-player journey immediately has you trundling through some exotic areas where quality of design presides over quantity. Opening with the Oolacile Sanctuary makes for a real visual punch, with rows of mossy idols slanting towards an unlit bonfire - a peaceful spot defended by stone walls and torches fashioned from gnarled branches. It's quickly apparent that these are of a different cultural making to the more medieval stonework seen elsewhere in the game, and soon a local resident explains that you've been sent to Lordran's far-flung past.
Progressing to the Royal Woods puts you in the company of some unusual enemies, and each one poses a unique kind of risk. We're first introduced to rabbles of ghoulish-looking Gardeners: a clumsy tribe of forest-dwellers prone to tripping over themselves in their attempts to catch your trespass. These bizarre folk inspire more sympathy than anything else, but are coupled with lumbering Golems who pack a deceptive ranged melee attack. In true Dark Souls fashion, complacency becomes an easy trap to fall into with this combination, and impatient darts across this terrain will often net you that familiar crimson-red "You Died" sign.
By design, this challenge is what takes up most of the expansion's overall playing time. For those jumping back into this world after neglecting it these past few months, the combination of Gardeners and Golems in this opening section does a great job of whipping you back into shape. That said, it's only down to this inherent difficulty that the advertised completion time of 10 hours can be upheld. For most enthusiasts of the series, it can take as little as five to finish the entire solo campaign; rather on the short side given the expense, though the goalposts move radically once you bump the difficulty up with the New Game+ mode.
"Easily the biggest highlight of this episode is the generous helping of boss fights."
Easily the biggest highlight of this episode is the generous helping of boss fights. The difficulty of each encounter largely boils down to rote memorisation of move-sets, though an exceptionally cautious player could dust each one off within a few tries. Animation plays a principal part in game design for these enemies, since each attack has a distinctive, stylish ramp-up, allowing you a split-second window to decide whether to block, roll or charge forward. There's always a right answer. As always, it's infuriating when too many moves are stacked in advance, causing things go belly-up, but the result is often a fair reflection of your self-control and patience.
Multiplayer in Dark Souls has proven to be an acquired taste - and one that you can only develop with patience for its netcode, and often by working around the boundaries of the game's solo-orientated design. Waiting around when attempting to invade another world is a regular fixture in the vanilla experience, especially under covenant conditions, such as using the Cat Ring to ambush trespassers in the Dark Root Woods. Thankfully, this latest update makes the player-versus-player side of the game a little easier to negotiate.
It all kicks off once the titular Artorias has been taken off the map, giving you access to the Battle of Stoicism Gazebo. This is more of an annex to the Oolacile Township than a separate pavilion structure, but it gives you six handy warp points to access dedicated battle arenas for PVP. These points allow you to join either 1v1 duels, 2v2 team matches or even free-for-all deathmatches; each mode is mirrored between Ruins and Dais arenas. To add an endgame here, a focus is put on consecutive victories, as emphasised by the leaderboard that towers nearby. It works by at least giving an incentive to each battle, although frustratingly, the win streak will reset once you return to the gazebo. If you're going to do it, you've got to do it all in one run.
"For Dark Souls fans the sense of overcoming a seemingly insurmountable challenge is everything, and the Artorias of the Abyss DLC brings its fair share of mountains to climb."
In practice, the team and deathmatch modes are too heavily reliant on locking down four random players at once, which can take some waiting around. The 1v1 games seem far easier to hop into; getting into a game is as simple as standing on a trapdoor above the arena and then dropping once the bell tolls. The 350MB download required for this DLC also happens to include a slate of new spells, which are conducive to some interesting tactics for magic-wielders. For enclosed spaces, sorcerers using the new area-of-effect spell, Dark Fog, can quickly pin an enemy to a corner with a poisonous cloud before using the Black Flame ability to strike directly.
The direct melee approach also has huge merits, though the frame-specific demands of blocking, parrying and rolling in close quarters are, at times, undermined by the levels of lag. With a sound connection, however, it's a solid enough platform for competitive play, and much like the single-player experience it rewards those able to pick out an opponent's patterns while holding their nerve.
For Dark Souls fans the sense of overcoming a seemingly insurmountable challenge is everything, and the Artorias of the Abyss DLC brings its fair share of mountains to climb. The new single-player campaign is also faithful to the eerie, mysterious mood of the core adventure, largely thanks to some beautifully crafted, sprawling areas to explore and the twisted creatures that populate them.
It's fair to say the single-player side of Artorias of the Abyss may not offer quite as much mileage as other RPG add-ons. However, that's more than made up for in its intensity of focus, with difficulty that scales according to which New Game+ mode you might be undertaking. All in all, it's a tightly wound adventure well worth setting aside time for, backed up by a multiplayer angle that will have greater staying power.
9 / 10