Crown of the Sunken King is the first piece of Dark Souls II DLC, and as such it has a lot to prove in showcasing what developer From Software are aiming to deliver with their trilogy of expansions. The only content released for the original Dark Souls – Artorias of the Abyss – kind of came as a surprise to most players. It felt like it was a surprise for From, too, like they’d never expected their niche game to be popular enough to warrant an encore. Crown of the Sunken King definitely feels different in that respect; it feels planned and – mostly – well thought out. It has a place in Drangleic, that it’s sunken city and labyrinthine crypts always lurked beneath our feet, had we only looked.
From are master world builders – I don’t think that can really be contested anymore – and Crown of the Sunken King takes us to places that doesn’t disappoint this lineage. It’s handful of locales are at once familiar and terrifyingly alien, with spiraling staircases pirouetting perilously through the air and a myriad of structures that raise from the depths with the hit of a switch. There’s an interconnectedness here that the original Dark Souls garnered so much praise for, with elevators and hidden doors having you emerge into already bested ventures. These revelations are awe inspiringly well crafted and always intelligently thought out, demanding respect as well as the flood of relief a familiar locale brings.
As I plugged through these ruins there was a constant feeling of descent, that all progress led downwards towards uncertain doom. Uncertain, that is, in how exactly your doom will be brought about, not about whether or not you will meet it. You will meet it, countless times. I entered as a veteran Souls player, with all the cocksure swagger I thought appropriate. I left a child, having been schooled time and time again to relearn a rule I should have remembered: I am nothing. There is no appropriate swagger here, and Crown of the Sunken King brutally teaches this lesson constantly.
Crown of the Sunken King would like to kindly remind every player who questioned DSII’s ability to test your skill – and, more importantly, perseverance – that this team still knows a thing or two about challenge. On my six hour trek through its deadly halls I died at the hands of its denizens countless times with a faltering belief that I would ever claim the crown as my own. One particular boss fight pits players in a three on one grudge match that, for the life of me, I couldn’t topple without calling in spiritual help. Even shoulder to shoulder with my Sun-covenant brethren I had to take a run at these guys a few times. It errs on the side of unfair, worryingly dancing with the notion that most offline players may indeed never succeed. Aside from this (optional) boss fight, however, the package is some of From’s best work.
Fights are smartly designed and populated with opposing forces that initially seem unconquerable. It’s this immediate sense of “I can’t do this” that nurtures the pure adrenaline rush of victory when you do, in fact, do it, making every inch of ground won that much sweeter. The Dragon’s Sanctum in particular stood out as a highlight. Full of hexing witches, ghostly phantoms and enough traps to make up for the distinct lack of pressure plates in the original package, it really has it all. There are often rooms within these tombs that host a ridiculous overabundance of enemies, forcing smart play and even smarter manipulation of your surroundings. It wasn’t just my sword-and-board battling prowess, but also my approach to these battles that saw me claim victory, and it felt great to be challenged in a more cerebral, thoughtful way.
Crown of the Sunken King made me excited for the rest of the DLC trilogy set to launch over the next couple of months. It’s well thought out design and interesting enemies more than make up for a couple of rough spots that tested my patience, and I came away wholly satisfied about buying my way in to an all new wing of Drangleic’s ever expanding world. With this new content From have proven that they’ve listened to fans – sometimes perhaps too much – by making a harder, more punishing, more creatively designed world that feels more coherent than anything in vanilla DSII. The long-forgotten city of Shulva breathes, makes senses, and waits with a terrifying eagerness to murder you, over and over and over again…