Well, they did it. The sadists at FromSoftware finally found a way to break my will to continue a game in their "Soulsborne" action RPG family.
It wasn't through more hulking enemies that can kill you with two blows. Nor swarms of harmless enemies that can kill you with a staccato of several. Nor cramped footing that limits your ability to dodge all those enemies without tumbling into some abyss.
No, the "Ashes of Ariandel" DLC for "Dark Souls III" has all of that. As it did on "The Lost Crowns Trilogy" coda to "Dark Souls II," FromSoftware sharpens its design work on this first of two new pieces of content for the third game in the series.
Like the rest of "Dark Souls III," the new Painted World of Ariandel evokes the two previous games: The first's Painted World of Ariamis and the second's similarly snowy Frozen Eleum Loyce. It's a succession of cliffs scraping vast gray horizons and swampy trenches that look like the inside of pomegranates, culminating in the familiar high, crusted ceilings of a millennia-old church.
But Ariandel also evokes the peaks of FromSoftware's level design. It navigates as the best "Soulsborne" maps did, branching its path forward and, once you've survived the deadlier stretches, opening shortcuts to circumvent them. Its eight bonfires may be a few too many, though.
Wolfpacks and the whitened husks of soldiers surround you early in Ariandel, calling to mind yet another experience from "Dark Souls": the claustrophobic choke points of the first game's first environment, Undead Burg. The first time you're shrewd and quick enough to thin one of those herds, the series sinks its dopaminergic hooks in once more.
Then, after a quick two hours of combat and cautious exploration that improves upon that of "Dark Souls III," FromSoftware continues what I hated most about the game: gimmicky boss battles.
The two in "Ashes of Ariandel" take on a structure that twists the series' classic one: traverse the gray fog and attack until the red bar is dry. Beating the boss required to complete the DLC's story is not one, nor two, but three parts. The other, optional battle, meanwhile, adds a second, more ferocious opponent midway through.
After a few stabs, my level-105 Ashen One still hasn't beaten either.
I'm not sure why, psychologically, these twists weaken my resolve to make the repeated by-the-bootstraps efforts that "Soulsborne" bosses almost always require. Perhaps it's unique to the series' DLC, where I'm less entrenched in this grueling process than I am in its main games. After all, I've still never beaten "Lost Crown's" Fume Knight.
Perhaps it's unfair of me. Or perhaps it's just unfair of the game.
Regardless, here I am, unsure I'll ever give "Ashes of Ariandel" another shot. Congratulations, FromSoftware: I'm no longer prepared to die.