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Crown of the Sunken King is the first of three planned pieces of downloadable content for Dark Souls II, which aim to further enrich the already big action-RPG from From Software with more areas, enemies, bosses, items and spells.
Coming only a few months after the release of the vanilla game, Crown of the Sunken King doesn't just have to stand on its own merits, but also demonstrate that these DLCs are meaningful additions to the game in the same way Artorias of the Abyss was for Dark Souls, and not fluff for the completionists and the compulsive buyers. Did it manage? Keep reading to find out.
The Crown of the Sunken King DLC adds a new area, the Sanctum City of Shulva, and a minor story event to the main game. Just as hinted by the message on the monument in Majula, Shulva, the meat and potatoes of the DLC, can be accessed from the Primal Bonfire in the Black Gulch, located immediately after the Rotten boss fight. While all the content of the DLC has been included in the recent patch for the game, to open the door that bars the access to Shulva you'll need a Dragon Talon key that's unavailable in the main game and gets automatically added to the inventory of the DLC owners. Compared to the seamless integration of Artorias of the Abyss it feels like a step back, but it has the benefit of being slightly less arcane and more easily accessible for players that are in the middle of their playthrough, or want to make a new character for the DLC.
That's not to say that players that don't own the DLC can't get a taste of it. Aside from the obvious ability to play in co-op and PvP with and against players that possess equipment and items from the DLC, it's also possible to place a summon sign in the starting area and get summoned to help in a side area called Cave of the Dead, and even obtain some DLC-exclusive items from doing so. While in the PR blitz that preceded the release of the DLC this was touted as a full-fledged alternative challenging route, it's actually a fairly small piece of the DLC, and unfortunately one of its least appealing areas. There's something frankly puzzling about From Software and Namco Bandai's decision to use this area to showcase the DLC to players that are on the fence. It's certainly designed for co-op, but it's also a short Black Gulch-like gauntlet that doesn't really mirror the qualities of the DLC's level design, doesn't include its best enemies, and ends with the worst boss encounter in the Crown of the Sunken King, a challenging but cheap fight against three enemies that I wouldn't recommend soloing to anyone (it's possible, but it makes for a fairly tedious battle).
Luckily the rest of Crown of the Sunken King does much better and more interesting things in terms of level design. In fact, I'd be surprised if anyone found anything controversial in me arguing that it's the best area of the whole game when judged by this parameter. The very first vista you encounter in the DLC, after using the Dragon Talon and walking through a short ruined corridor, does an excellent job at foreshadowing the kind of level design you'll deal with for the 3-4 hours it takes to complete it: an intricate maze, part natural cavern and part ancient quasi-mesoamerican complex, which beckons you to explore with plenty of items and structures in plain sight. In truth reaching those items and structures often requires a significant amount of work and some ingenuity on the player's part, as the DLC areas make a much larger use of puzzles, traps, side paths and shortcuts than the main game. The environments expand, horizontally and vertically, in a way that is difficult to find in the main game, save for a few exceptions (i.e. Forest of the Fallen Giants) that still don't execute as well as the DLC, and feel like they're meant to be explored and conquered in a more free-form way.
Simple puzzles can often solved by hitting some switches in the environment, which can have a variety of effects: raising and lowering platforms, moving rotating doors and activating traps being by far the most common. So far, so standard, but the way these simple environmental interactions are integrated into the actual gameplay and level design is worthy of praise. You could initially raise a platform to get access to an object just to realize it also offers a handy escape route, or that it blocks the line of sight of enemy archers. It's a nice twist over the series' level design that wisely avoids overstaying its welcome and complements the Indiana Jones atmosphere of the ruined environments rather nicely. Puzzles aside, the DLC areas also feel strong in their own right, with multiple paths to reach your objective, relatively large side-areas, nice loops and shortcuts, and a few nasty traps that can be also used to your advantage against the enemies and even invaders.
That said, it's not all perfect. The DLC still makes use of poison and equipment corrosion as environmental hazards, and while it smartly avoids being frustrating with them, I can't help but feel that side of Dark Souls II is a bit overplayed by now. Also, while strides have being made in terms of bonfire placement, I still have the feeling that From Software placed a couple too many, the biggest offender being the one in front of the Cave of the Dead, which effectively makes the shortcut you can unlock to more quickly access the area completely superfluous. Considering the lengths the development team went to make sure the DLC doesn't feel linear and includes quite a few clever shortcuts, it's a bit disappointing to see them shoot themselves in the foot like that. On the plus side, a few of the bonfires are cleverly hidden and will require a second more thorough run through the areas to be found by most players, punishing those that don't spare some time for exploration with longer runs after death. Finally, another niggling issue I have with the level design is its reliance on platforming to access some hidden items and small alcoves. Platforming in Dark Souls II tends to be unreliable and not very compelling and can lead to quite a few untimely deaths that don't quite match up to the series' "tough but fair" difficulty mantra.
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