Dark Souls II: Crown of the Ivory King Review

Introduction

Crown of the Ivory King is the last of the Lost Crowns trilogy of downloadable content for Dark Souls II, and likely the last piece of downloadable content for the game period. As such, you'd expect it to be the game's grand finale, a celebration of everything good about Dark Souls II. From Software, however, apparently wasn't interested in a mere celebration, and rather opted to toy with the game's formula even more than in the previous installments of the trilogy. While calling Crown of the Ivory King experimental would be excessive, its mix of new and old makes for an interesting beast, and a fitting finale for the game's lifecycle.

Level Design

Aside from the fact that its portal isn't located after a primal bonfire, but rather in the Shrine of Winter, Crown of the Ivory King can be accessed in the exact same way as the other DLC for Dark Souls II: once the DLC is installed a key is automatically added to your inventory and lets you open the humongous door at the entrance of Frozen Eleum Loyce, the DLC's location. If you don't happen to own the DLC, you'll at least be able to access the DLC's challenge route as a summonable white phantom. Going off the previous DLCs' track record I didn't expect anything good out of it so even having mixed thoughts about this one turned out to be a positive surprise. While the co-op areas of the previous DLCs had some of the most mediocre level and encounter design the series ever offered and precious few ideas, Frozen Outskirts, the optional route of this DLC, is a mediocre execution on a novel idea that doesn't really have a precedent in the series.

The area is a very large expanse covered in snow, dotted with very few landmarks and periodically hit by blizzards that strongly impair visibility. In addition to that, while the blizzard is raging, patrolling creatures attack you and force you to move around, potentially losing your bearings in the process. Limited visibility is really hard to do correctly in videogames and From Software failed to hit the right balance here: the storms hit too often and last too long, and I soon started seeing them as an annoyance rather than a challenge. Additionally, the area's main enemies can't be spotted before the blizzards hit, adding another level of tedium, as it's not possible to plan a route to avoid them in advance. There's also the fact that the area is simply too long, especially when you consider it ends with a challenging boss fight and that there is nothing to do once you have memorized how to reach its end and scavenged all the loot present. If nothing else, I can praise From Software for trying something different and for the area's excellent atmosphere, but unfortunately that alone doesn't make up for the sheer lack of fun to be had in it.

The rest of the DLC's area also plays with visibility, but in a far tamer way. To give a bit of context, at the beginning of the DLC, after walking through a bridge that brings back memories of Demon's Souls' Boletarian Palace, you are greeted with an expansive area that branches out in multiple directions, though plenty of paths are blocked by ice due to an unnaturally strong raging blizzard. The same ice also encases chests and enemies, and creates barriers that can be used to split up a group of enemies or block their line of sight, while the blizzard interferes with your visibility and covers distant enemies armed with ranged attacks. In other words, breaking the blizzard makes the level fully explorable and removes the visibility problems, but at the cost of having to deal with more enemies and a few other hazards. Even more interestingly, once the blizzard is dispelled it's immediately possible to access the DLC's final area and fight the final boss, though at that point the battle is almost unfairly stacked against the player.

To actually get a shot at finishing the DLC you're supposed to search for knights lying in wait in Eleum Loyce's locales and recruit them to help you in battle. It's an interesting mechanic that leaves the amount of the challenge of the final battle partly in the hands of the player and gives him or her an additional incentive to explore a location that thankfully amply rewards exploration. After two DLC that both can be traced back to the design template of Sen's Fortress from the original Dark Souls, Crown of the Ivory King feels like a cross between stark castles like Undead Burg and Boletarian Palace and the frozen self-contained Painted World of Ariamis. Despite being indebted to those locations, though, the DLC has a personality of its own, thanks to the aforementioned special mechanics integrated into its design and also due to the variety of situations it presents. There are winding roads, snowy paths that need a keen eye to be spotted and even hidden ladders, linking together frozen plazas, garrisons and icy caves together.

And speaking of linking, one characteristic Eleum Loyce shares with its predecessors is its penchant for looping into itself. The level offers plenty of shortcuts, and while most amount to doors that can only open from one side, a few are more creative. In particular, the way a certain broken bridge can be fixed manages to tie together the DLC's visual themes, to show a certain devious sense of humor, and also has a minor gameplay application that goes beyond simply opening a shortcut. A similar off-kilter and unsettling sense of humor is showcased by the way you access the DLC's co-op route, which is equally funny and macabre once the implications fully sink in (a pity, again, that the actual area doesn't capitalize on it). Finally, I also believe it's worth mentioning that the area feels larger than the ones featured in the other DLCs. While it doesn't necessarily take much longer to explore, the sense of scale and size the development team has managed to convey is quite welcome, and reminded me of the best vistas of the original Dark Souls.