Imagine being on the FromSoft team for Dark Souls 2. Tremendously exciting, sure, but you’re also weighed down by the impossible burden of having to follow up Demon’s Souls and the original Dark Souls. I’m increasingly partial to the theory (which I first heard about on the Midnight Resistance podcast) that the game’s persistent theme of recurring imperfect copies is as much about the task of iterating on what came before as the story of Drangleic.
Then you hear back from Bandai Namco’s head office that Dark Souls 2 will be needing some DLC. You’re now not only having to follow up Dark Souls, but Artorias of the Abyss as well. An add-on that’s a potential candidate for best DLC ever made. No pressure lads.
I must admit, the portents didn’t look great. Committing to a triplicate of releases seemed like an all-too-convenient way for a publisher to flog a Season Pass, and risked spreading the material too thin. More Dark Souls 2 was never likely to be an outright bad thing, but disappointment loomed.
Turns out I needn’t have worried. Crown of the Sunken King isn’t just a splendid piece of level construction, it has a strong claim to being the best of the whole game. Whether by happenstance or design, the realm of Shulva and it’s internal Sanctum address many of the critiques aimed (reasonably enough) at other Dark Souls 2 stages and introduce a few interesting ideas of their own.
Remember shortcuts? No, not like the bit of tree in Huntsman’s Copse that accomplishes absolutely nothing. Real shortcuts. Handy lift back to Firelink Shrine from the church kind of shortcuts. The type that bring justified relief and, somewhat ironically considering they’re sending you back to a prior location, signify that you’ve made some real progress. Shulva has those.
Crown of the Sunken King can’t entirely bring back that feeling of being lost and forced to press on in a hostile environment, because you can still do the Dark Souls 2 warp trick and head back to sunny Majula whenever you fancy. But it comes closer than any other level in the sequel to making you feel as if you’ve earned each bonfire you uncover. Especially those which are somewhat hidden.
Shulva fits together like a labyrinth, with forked paths and dimensions every bit as layered as it’s ziggurat pyramids. There’s a little bit of Zelda dungeoneering in this DLC, with trigger posts and switches able to morph the surroundings by opening previously sealed doorways, or raising pillars that create pathways to otherwise inaccessible locations. Inside the temple walls, there are tricks, traps and spikes to navigate around, like a true action-archeologist. Like every Souls area it’ll become second nature as soon as you’ve made it through once, but doing so is a minor puzzle.
You’re not just up against environmental obstacles, of course. Crown of the Sunken King has a full roster of enemies to ensure you never go too long without hearing the drawling note of the YOU DIED musical sting. You’ll run into shambling Sanctuary guards (effectively tough hollows) whose poison aura encourages you to down them fast, and witness a semi-return of Lost Izalith’s dino buttocks. Except now they have mouths and are less disappointing.
Other ghostly encounters demand a bit of lateral thinking, and FromSoft has improved their invading NPC technology to the point that they’ll make mocking gestures at you. Quite apposite really, as one such phantom has no doubts in his own jovial nature.
Where Crown of the Sunken King cannot really threaten to surpass Artorias of the Abyss is in the stamina-sapping arena of boss fights. The latter add-on had, in Manus, Sanctuary Guardian, Kalameet and Artorias himself, some of the greatest clashes in the series. This DLC offers three bosses, one of which is optional and something of an in-joke for devotees of certain Player vs Player encounters, and two others which could be accused of being near reskins.
That’s true in a semantic sense, but doesn’t really tell the whole story. In the first instance, the ‘reskin’ could be interpreted as further acceptance of Dark Souls 2 criticism. The fight here is far more challenging (and interesting) than the one offered by the matching(ish) model in the main game. For the latter, a slightly differing move-set, damage types and the fact that the confrontation is another tough and atmospheric one just about give it a pass in my eyes. Still, I can sympathise with anyone who’s a bit put off by this and join them in the hope that upcoming pair of DLCs will strive to include some outstanding original bosses.
Incidentally, the optional boss (as if anybody playing Souls games can truly resist the allure of another boss) is one that players who don’t own the DLC can be summoned for. Earlier reports of a more difficult, co-op only path through the add-on were probably odd mistranslations of this feature. There’s only one path, and it can be done solo or in co-op, just like any other level.
Only a terrible person would spoil exactly what kind of item and weapon secrets lay in the sunken city’s damp and probably rather pungent depths, and I’m not a terrible person. There are armour pieces, sets, new spells (including one handy miracle,) rings and enough additional weapons for there to be something to suit the majority of character builds.
Crown of the Sunken King is also reassuringly robust in its challenge. The normal enemies you encounter are rarely a push-over, the NPC invaders can be fairly relentless and one of the bosses took me a couple of hours to overcome. Granted, it was one of those near-jinxed situations where either myself or my summoned help kept screwing up in unlikely ways. But even taking that into account, unless you blitz right through it there’s a good five or six hours in this DLC.
Suitably self-contained and demonstrating some of the best level design in Dark Souls 2, Crown of the Sunken King surpassed my doubts. The bosses don’t live up to those in Artorias of the Abyss (what does?) but the intricate stage construction, challenging enemy encounters and reintroduction of meaningful shortcuts suggests that FromSoft’s DLC team are up to the daunting task put before them. If the other two Lost Crowns releases are as strong as this, we may be looking at something rarer than the Old Mirrah Greatsword drop rate: a DLC Season Pass that’s actually worth the money.