Dark Souls did a lot to become a classic. Between its polished combat system, enticing challenges, and inspired art direction, it's little surprise that it drew such a devoted following. But perhaps Dark Souls' (and Demon's Souls before it) most memorable attribute was its ability to surprise people. Who can forget the first time you encounter a colossal hydra basking in a moonlit lake? The first time you realise that you can curl up into a crow's nest and be whisked away to a remote mountain? The first time you discover that you can step into a painting? But after Dark Souls' DLC, sequel, and its sequel's DLC (not to mention the series' spiritual sister Bloodborne), developer From Software was sometimes criticised for retreading old ground. Dark Souls 3 is a fantastic looking game, but one can only explore so many castles and fight so many knights and dragons before the whole enterprise blends together into a Castlevania-esque milieu of medieval mishmosh.
From what I've played of Dark Souls 3's upcoming DLC, Ashes of Ariandel, at Namco Bandai's Tokyo office, this add-on fits From's latest mold of capitalising on nostalgia over originality, yet the details are so divine that every frame feels fresh.
On the surface, Ashes of Ariandel looks like a piece of fan service, retreading Dark Souls' highlight realm of The Painted World of Ariamis. Like that delectable delight, Ashes of Ariandel takes place within another wintry painting come to life. The snow theme isn't particularly original after From already crafted Dark Souls 2's frigid Crown of the Ivory King expansion and Bloodborne's chilly Forsaken Castle Cainhurst, yet the developer has created an atmosphere so rich that it still inspires that grand sense of awe at every turn.
Given how enigmatic the prose is, you can't really spoil a Dark Souls game in terms of plot, but you can spoil it in terms of enemy types. If you're sensitive to that sort of thing, turn back now.
The Ashes of Ariandel demo begins in a cave opening up to a snowy plain. Solemn knights stalk the lands like Game of Thrones' iconic White Walkers, frequently obscured under whirring blankets of snow thrashing through the air. More unsettling are rare trees taking the form of a shrieking women, with strands of hair camouflaged as twigs. It's an eerie image, but just that: an image. These feminine flora are mere window dressings... until they're not. As it turns out, some of them are sentient and these cleverly designed background details do not like trespassers. Before you know it these creaking Evil Dead kissing cousins start spewing streams of frost and hurling fireballs.
Less supernatural, but no less imposing, are packs of feral wolves. Perhaps it was just coincidence, but I'm pretty sure one wolf alerted the rested of their herd by howling after discovering my presence. These more familiar predators are spooky in their own right, and the carnivorous canines only grow increasingly creepy as their colossal den mothers are introduced. In true From form, their introductions are never less that brilliant with one teased through methodically composed level design offering a brief glimpse of them while winding your way through a crevice, while another charges into the fray with no fanfare whatsoever.
There are also spooky strips of land covered in a blood-red pulpy presence where skeletal man-sized insects skitter about. Another one of these infected blotches of tundra is full of creatures I can only describe as Cronenbirds.
The highlight of the demo is its boss battle: a two-stage dual with a mysterious figure called the Champion's Gravetender. Set in a field of lavender flowers adorning a frozen arena, the Champion's Gravetender is a mysterious gender-ambiguous humanoid figure no greater in size than the player. Clad in a chainmail tunic and mask, yet strangely wearing no pants or shoes, they begin the fight surrounded by three wolves set on tearing you to pieces.
The wolves aren't particularly difficult if you're a veteran Souls player, and the Gravetender too seems a little too simple for what's supposedly a high-level boss (the demo player character was set to Soul Level 100). But of course, From Software would never leave things this easy. Midway through the battle, they summon in the Greatwolf Gravetender and all bets are off. More majestic than macabre, this furry foul beast is an obvious reference to Dark Souls' fan-favourite boss Great Grey Wolf Sif, and its a splendid homage to one of the series' most memorable battles.
Like all great Dark Souls' bosses, this pair can be tackled through a variety of strategies. One journalist defeated them by taking advantage of a spell coating their sword in fire, while another favoured a greatsword for heavier hits. As for me, I panicked too much to want to devote time to spellcasting, while heavy weapons worried me with their lengthy windups and cooldowns. So, after a bit of unsuccessful experimentation, I stuck to the old-fashioned tried and true method of a simple sword and shield. It worked, but only after seven or so attempts. (Amusingly, I nearly conquered the boss on my second attempt, but got too cocky afterwards and found myself unable to replicate that for many further tries. That's the beauty of Dark Souls: just when you think you have it, your hubris gets the better of you.)
With nearly an hour of Ashes of Ariandel under my belt I can say that it stands up to the best of Dark Souls 3's content. At a glance, its familiar motifs may not inspire much magic, but actually exploring its frosty fields recalls the dreary feeling of From's most beloved classics where every blind corner revealed something brilliant, wonderful and deadly. Based on my early impressions, Ashes of Ariandel may be a callback, but it's not a cash-in.