The harder aspects of Crown of the Old Iron King make it plain that FromSoftware are in a kind of difficulty arms race with their players. With so many ardent Souls fans out there, the problem of maintaining the series’ lauded level of challenge is one which becomes ever more, well, difficult for the creators to solve. There’s a fine line between encounters being tough and being downright unfair, especially as they attempt to keep up with the abilities of an improving set of players.
I’m more lenient than some when it comes to assessing whether From have resorted to a few dubious tactics in Dark Souls 2. For the most part, I think the repeated use of attacks by multiple enemies has been justified, and in-keeping with the reputation of a game series that demands patience, skill and timing. There has, though, been a bit of hitbox-based nonsense at times.
This latest expansion to Dark Souls 2 dabbles a little in the murkier realms of added difficulty, but for the majority of its five or six hour running time Crown of the Old Iron King is an example of From upping the ante in the correct fashion. Presented with a relatively tight room stuffed with armoured hollows, a buff-emitting totem and a large, lava-spurting ogre of a foe, there will be those who claim it to be an example of lazy, artificial challenge. In fact, it’s something of a puzzle room.
Crown of the Old Iron King presents several situations where leading powder barrel toting hollows into a crowded room (particularly one featuring an enemy who gushes fire) can be the answer to all your problems. It’s a DLC which rewards a certain amount of lateral thinking, rather than those who wade in unaided.
There are, mind you, a whole lot of ambush situations throughout this towering level’s ashen and industrial confines. For every couple of rooms where you need to use your ingenuity to control the battle, there will be a bit where it’s advisable to fall back on the old “lure out one guy at a time and pick them off” tactic. The latter is a Souls staple, of course. But I don’t begrudge those who feel it’s getting a little long in the tooth.
Crown of the Old Iron King’s level structure unfolds in a more straightforward way than the geometric intricacies of the previous Sunken King DLC, at least at first. It continues the impressive return to stages based around verticality and, while lacking the clever shortcuts of its predecessor, becomes a mini hub of exploration once the tower lifts are reactivated at around the half-way mark.
Though I slightly favour Sunken King’s rolling interconnected design, From’s apparent desire to take a slightly different structural approach for each of these add-ons is appreciated. I’m interested to see how Crown of the Ivory King will continue this trend.
Where Crown of the Old Iron King surpasses Sunken is in both boss design and an expansion of the base game’s lore. The latter may not be of interest to everybody, but in contrast to Sunken King’s often self-contained story, Old Iron King provides some interesting insights into the connected Iron Keep area and various important players in the Dark Souls 2 narrative. It expands upon parts of the story in a way that feels planned, rather than bolted on.
I mentioned the bosses. Two out of the three boss encounters in this DLC are outstanding. Up there with the best of either Dark Souls title. The mandatory boss of Crown of the Old Iron King took me more hours to defeat than anything since the first game’s Artorias of the Abyss expansion, and presents what should be an archetypal Souls fight. One where players have to learn the timing windows and react to every attack, be confident when dodging, and poke away in the brief windows of opportunity. There’s no real trick or gimmick to succeeding (though this boss has a great reaction to one specific lore-related helm,) and summoning additional help won’t diminish the challenge.
The other impressive boss encounter takes place within a memory, and while the run to reach him is on the tedious-but-fair side, the fight itself is fantastic. A proper one-on-one duel of skills in a terrific location, with a lovely soundtrack. It’s never possible to frame Souls boss fights as a universal experience (some will always find them easier or harder than others, depending on fighting preferences and builds,) but both of these brought me back to the sweaty-palmed anxiety of being a hit or two from victory or defeat.
Then there’s the third boss (and second optional challenge.) The third boss is just a bluer version of somebody you’ve already fought, with some wacky new delays to some of his attacks. He’s at the end of an absurd gauntlet run, featuring sorcerers who cast a slowing spell on you to make running to the fog door that bit harder. It’s alright, but pales in comparison to what came before. The two prior boss fights are examples of the Dark Souls 2 team at FromSoftware rising to the arms race with gusto, while this third one encapsulates some of the sequel’s weaker tendencies.
Regular Crown of the Old Iron King enemy types range from the basic hollow warriors with different armour and weapon sets, to the more imaginative possessed suits of armour who provide a decent fight by drifting and sweeping around in somewhat confusing arcs. There’s a cameo roll for some weird crawling torsos, and my favourite of the bunch; the Fume Sorcerer. Fume Sorcerers are total jerks, casting a steady stream of lighting miracles at long range and teleporting about with daggers up close. A decent challenge to fight, and an interesting (though sadly not quite as interesting as it looks on the enemy model) outfit set to wear.
While on the subject of dressing up, this latest add-on maintains the decent quality of items being handed out in these releases. Once again, there’s a nice supply of twinkling titanite and petrified dragon bones (tough to scrounge up in the base game,) along with enough interesting new weapons and fancy outfits. Pyromancy fans are treated to a trio of talents, too. It’s a shame that, once again, there are no friendly NPCs to chat with, but From continues to be creative with their red phantom invaders. Even NPC white phantoms use gestures and greeting stones now. The final step in their evolution will be to program them to spin in rapid circles after being summoned.
Crown of the Sunken King showed that the Dark Souls 2 team were willing and able to address level design criticisms, and Old Iron King furthers this commitment to more expressive structures in its ashen and vertically themed environment. It also provides two tense and challenging boss fights, alongside (mostly) interesting enemy placement. There are infrequent missteps along the way, but in the main Crown of the Old Iron King shows FromSoft are capable of nudging the bar higher in the difficulty arms race without resorting to underhand tricks.