Dark Souls 2: Crown of the Sunken King
The bonfires in Dark Souls have always been special and yet our relationship to them can be fragile: although freed of their role in levelling up in the sequel, finding and lighting them is still something of a moment to savour, a chance to breathe. Yet it is easy to become blase about them if they are handed out. It is only when a player comes to them at the end of a tough run, with no health items left and weapons falling apart, the dark closing in, that they experience, in a word, their beauty. What I’m saying is the placement of these bonfires can make a huge difference in the experience of playing the game.
The good news is that from the start of the Crown of the Sunken King the bonfires are few and far between. So, time to stock up on Lifegems and venture forth. The even better news is that this initial impression is wrong; there are lots of bonfires in this DLC (six as far as I can tell) but finding them is the hard part, and this is the true achievement of this first of three instalments of downloadable content, offering a return to the way Dark Souls is meant to be experienced, the slog and then the relief, the trial, the death sentence, and the release.
“The area is filled with switches, traps, and hidden paths giving a clear nod to the level design of Dark Souls where the route to take was at times less obvious, less linear, occasionally near impossible”Deep in the heart of Drangelic then, through the poison filled Black Gulch, in a cavern so vast that the ground above must be paper thin, are a number of giant stone pyramids, cave systems, and tombs that must be explored to reclaim a crown (well, no one’s forcing you). The area is filled with switches, traps, and hidden paths giving a clear nod to the level design of Dark Souls where the route to take was at times less obvious, less linear, occasionally near impossible. But this isn’t just an exercise in orienteering. The whole area is teeming with enemies. Infested with them. Sick. Rotting. Deadly enemies. And it is no surprise that on progressing deeper it is clear that others have attempted to come this route too and failed. There are looted chests, bodies, knights turned mad, and devilish witches. There is even an invasion from an old friend from the main game to trump all other invasions so far.
What From Software have also added as a nice touch is that the NPC invaders now sometimes taunt you just like a real player would. Getting blown away (literally) by the aforementioned friend and seeing him then shrug was worth the soon to come understanding that, yes, half an hour of careful progress has just been undone, and thus would embark a new quest, not for some crown but my many, many collected souls. Yes, this is the game I love. I am also on one hand ashamed to say that I didn’t realise the first time that my two companions in my first attempt at the last boss fight were not real players, but on the other I am also delighted by this. It shows how good From are getting at blurring the lines between human and not.
As with any game or add-on there are low points, which ironically (or not) occur at the very bottom of the area during this trip. Yes beneath all of the brilliant architecture and design, lies a drab puddle of water full of copy and pastes of a large and tired style of saurian enemy I’m naming Boo-Rex. Boo-Rex turns out not to be so smart and is very possible to sneak past or outrun, but it’s kind of jarring to enjoy the first pyramid descent so much and then find your character in what appears to be a cheap version of Jurassic Park. It just brings that feeling of ‘what are all these things doing down here, just wandering around, and then for that matter what are all the other enemies really up to? Don’t they have better things to do than waiting for me to arrive, and lumbering, and then it’s just urgh, don’t do this to us. Let us suspend our disbelief.
Thankfully Crown of the Sunken King soon picks up again (if you’ve happened upon the right item en route to work a lift, that is, I can’t imagine how boring it must be to feel you have to kill all the Boo-Rexes) leading to a new pyramid and a daring drop down to confront one of the toughest bosses of the series to date, who — get this — can summon one of the previously most challenging ones mid-battle to fight against you, and a handful of skeletons. I have no clue if it is possible to beat this single handedly, I imagine it must be with the right build, but I am not complaining, it was great to be forced to multiplayer through this and the other bosses.
“There is much to be said for showing an inexperienced tomb raider how to get past the traps, find the interesting new weapons, open secret bonfires, or beat the many tough enemies”Indeed, much of this DLC begs to be played co-operatively (also read counter-operatively – speed-dropping down the temple as a red phantom to get the host can be quite a buzz). There is much to be said for showing an inexperienced tomb raider how to get past the traps, find the interesting new weapons (a sword that can turn into a whip(!)) open secret bonfires, or beat the many tough enemies. The complex layout and puzzles also bring the messaging system to the fore (I don’t think I have ever had this many recommends for writing “revenge but hole” in a suitable spot) and if a player takes the time to read the many signs left around it is sure to enhance the experience.
A certain part of my souls is still slightly irked that From Software said they wanted to ship a complete game and then announced DLC. But when it is this good any irritation is soon forgotten. For fans of the series it is of course a must buy, and offers the perfect opportunity to go back to an old character who has apparently seen it all (they haven’t), start fresh, or both. It is after all possible to get through Black Gulch in around 25 minutes from the title screen, allowing us to think of the delicious idea of wielding the whip sword so early in the game, teaching that Last Giant a thing or too about mobility… Therein lies the point. To take a game that was supposedly complete and yet seamlessly expand it in such a way is laudable, and overall, this is a bravura performance.