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Crown of the Old Iron King is the second of the three announced pieces of downloadable content for Dark Souls II. Despite having a few notable flaws, the previous DLC, Crown of the Sunken King, proved to me that From Software still isn't out of ideas for Dark Souls II, and is well aware of its shortcomings. It goes without saying, then, that I went into Crown of the Old Iron King with fairly high hopes. Where they matched? As always, I'll try to answer to that question in the full review.
Much like its predecessor, Crown of the Old Iron King contains a single large area that is separated from the rest of the map, called Brume Tower. The method to access the DLC content is extremely similar too: a teleporting altar situated after the Iron Keep primal bonfire which connects with the DLC area. While every character can access this altar and teleport to Brume Tower, only those who own the DLC will get a key in their inventory that lets them proceed beyond the iron door that blocks the entrance to the actual level. Other players will only be able to place their summon signs to co-op in the DLC's challenge routes. My use of the plural form here wasn't a mistake: the DLC has two optional "challenge route" areas, each with its own layout and boss.
Unfortunately, this fairly generous offering suffers from the same problems that plagued Crown of the Sunken King's optional side-area: neither Iron Passage, nor the Memory of the Old Iron King are interesting, and mostly provide a challenge just by filling every corner with adversaries. Clearing these areas initially forced me to adopt an exceedingly cautious playstyle, but given neither has any interesting loot before the bosses, I ultimately ended up running past enemies in an attempt to reach the fog gate. I'm a big fan of the idea behind these challenge routes, co-op gauntlets for veterans that also offer a sneak peek of the DLC to other players, but the execution so far has been really disappointing. Crown of the Ivory King isn't out yet but at this point I'm skeptical its own take on the idea will be any better.
What I can say with certainty is that the two DLCs that have come out so far share not only many of the same flaws, but also many of the same strengths. Crown of the Old Iron King too offers a fairly large area that's rife with secret passages, detours, and shortcuts. As one might expect, given the area consists of a cluster of towers connected by huge iron chains, vertical movement is fairly important to the experience, but it's balanced in such a way that a player never has the impression of going through an uninterrupted ascent or descent. Every objective has to be conquered, sometimes in apparently counter-intuitive ways. While some of the floors are connected by ladders and drops, others locations can't be reached until automatic elevators are activated or alternative passages are discovered.
Exploration is clearly staggered into two phases. A first descent through the mostly still central tower hints at possible blocked passageways and an interconnected system of elevators that only opens once a player has found and used a key item. Once the tower hums to life and its mechanical contraptions resume working, the way to the final area and a multitude of optional ones is open. Moreso than in Crown of the Sunken King, much of the content of this DLC is optional, and sometimes very well hidden. It might be argued that the titular crown is the final objective, but I certainly can't say I felt I'd exhausted what the DLC had to offer after finding it, and I immediately teleported back to a bonfire to start checking every nook and cranny I had previously ignored.
Speaking of bonfires, Dark Souls' iconic checkpoints have been placed more sparingly this time around, and in a way that feels rational and does not clumsily invalidate shortcuts like it did in Crown of the Sunken King. The number could have arguably been cut down further, but the few that could be deemed "unnecessary" were obviously placed to save the players from having to embark on uneventful runs through emptied environments, so I can't honestly say I mind. After all, Iron Passage is already annoying as it is, and not placing a bonfire at its entrance would have just been cruel on the developers' part.
It's also worth mentioning that, like Crown of the Sunken King's Shulva, this DLC's area also has a puzzle "gimmick" to it. Brume Tower is populated by a number of Ashen Idols, statues that depict the "Child of Dark" that's influencing the area. These idols can have a variety of effects, ranging from healing the enemies surrounding them, to indefinitely resurrecting a certain enemy type in the area, and can only be destroyed by plunging a Smelter Wedge (a new DLC item) into them. Once destroyed, not only the effect of an idol ceases, but it also drops a piece of the soul of Brume Tower's intangible antagonist. These pieces can't be used by themselves, but once they've all been collected they reform the full soul, which functions effectively as a boss soul, and can be used to make a unique weapon or a unique spell, or simply as a consumable that grants a large number of souls to the character.
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