Review: Dark Souls II – Crown of the Sunken King (DLC)

Dark Souls II is at its absolute worst when it’s brilliant.

I resent those brilliant moments, because they’re always over so quickly. A brief reminder of how good it could have been, before it crashes back to ‘great, but disappointing’ and leaves you longing for From Software to have done their sequel justice, not for five seconds at a time now and then, but for a whole game’s worth. This must have been how Good Will Hunting’s teacher felt, before Robin Williams showed up to give him a crash course in inner-potential-realising.

It’s safe to say that Dark Souls II has been a success, but one tempered by a rising tide of criticism. Amongst the fans, talk of what could have been pervades discussions and articles, including this one, and the not-so-affectionate nickname ‘the B-Team’ has taken hold as the popular way to reference the Dark Souls II development team. Meanwhile, the same critics who were pushing Darks Souls’ word of mouth success a couple of years after release by writing articles about how wonderful it is are now finding that they’re more interested in all the ways Dark Souls II failed to deliver.

It’s not what From Software or Bandai Namco had in mind.

Crown of the Sunken King is the first in a trilogy of DLC episodes (due out in three regular monthly releases, take note Telltale), and it’s an important release for this popular but struggling game. It needs to be brilliant, to get the fencesitters and internet mutterers back on side, to get that word of mouth PR machine turning again, and raise a new army of evangelistic Dark Souls II elitists (or bores, opinion depending). Not brilliant for a moment, but brilliant from start to finish, to prove that Dark Souls II isn’t necessarily the great mistake it sometimes feels like it is.

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Although the new content is appropriately Dark Soulsy, in that it adds a few hidden tweaks and extras to a couple of other areas from the main game to surprise you when you’re not expecting it, the bulk of this first DLC pack takes place in the ruins of yet another ancient city: this time the city of Shulva, a gigantic underground sprawl built to worship the slumbering dragon that rests beneath it.

Dragon, eh? Yeah, I’ll bet it’s sleeping soundly. Certainly no reason to concern yourself with the possibility of it waking up at any point. Nope. I’m sure we’ll be fine.

It’s accessible via a portal, using an item which appears as if by magic in the player’s inventory when the DLC is purchased, perhaps a lesson learned there from the notoriously inaccessible method of accessing the first game’s only DLC pack. The item which appears in your inventory even explicitly tells you where to take it to progress. Internet neckbeards everywhere, let me hear you tut in unison.

I’m not criticising the whole ‘ruins of an abandoned kingdom’ thing, because I don’t know what else a Souls game could do, but as the series increasingly uses time travel to move the player around, it becomes a difficult pill to swallow. If we’re travelling through time every other Wednesday, isn’t it strange that we never once visit anywhere back when there were actual people living there?

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My first experience with the new content was one of faith-affirming joy, that no matter what mistakes From Software do or don’t make, the playerbase will always find a way to use the soapstone messages creatively. First player-written note I see after materialising in Shulva City via the Playstation Store and their good friends at PayPal: “Good job, money bags!”

Never change, guys.

It takes a little under 30 minutes in Shulva to realise that lessons have been learned. If there was one big message that screamed out after the release of Dark Souls II, it was that we prefered the level design the other way. You asked for it, you got it, and by Umbasa it’s good to have it back. Shulva is a labyrinth of interconnected pathways, with secrets, mysteries, shortcuts and tricks behind, around, under and on top of just about everything.

My first three hours of play barely took me past the first couple of rooms, as I pissed about experimenting with raising and lowering bridges, rolling through things, leaping over things, dying a lot, finding secrets, and figuring out environmental puzzles. It was even more Dark Souls than Dark Souls ever was, and I loved it. It was a reminder that this series wasn’t all about just killing enemies. Too long spent playing Dark Souls II had made me forget that. It was nice having a break from the action to figure out what combinations of switches had what effects, or getting my Dark Souls nostalgia on whilst playing the ‘How do I get to that shiny?’ game. It also has an unsettling, eccentric, gloomy tone that brings back fond memories of Demon’s Souls too.

Meanwhile, the combat has come out well. There’s just the one (thankfully, easy to avoid) enemy type who is annoyingly overpowered, whilst the rest feel classic, punishing, difficult, but perfectly defeatable. A couple of them have tricks to defeating them, with a spectral enemy type standing out as particularly pleasurable to defeat. None of the enemies, weapons, spells, scenery or items found in the DLC are re-used from the main game, so everything feels suitably fresh.

As is customary for a Souls game, we must discuss the bosses – not necessarily the highlights of the experience, but certainly the most vital landmarks. There are three bosses to take on in Shulva, two in quick succession at the end, and one optional one which the player could hypothetically encounter at any point, given the non-linear nature of the layout. The optional boss is a strong contender for the award for Biggest Fuck You in the series to date, as it’s essentially a succession of all the things which have pissed players off in the past. However, as long as you take a summon or two in with you (as is intended – there is a special summoning station that allows you to draw in volunteers for the fight from outside the DLC area), it’s perfectly manageable.

The ultimate boss is memorable and visually evocative, though some may find it overlong, or feel that the reward for completion is underwhelming – for now, at least. I suspect it may take on more importance as this trilogy rolls on. I personally enjoyed it a lot, despite the Souls series having a history of making mis-steps with bosses who have too much health (I think my final fight against it took about 30 minutes), but in this case it has an interesting enough moveset to elevate it above the hateful crapfest that is the Ancient Dragon, or the occasionally tedious grind of the Gaping Dragon. I’ve literally just now noticed that all of the bosses with stupid health are dragons. I’m an idiot.

The only major disappointing element here is that there isn’t much in the way of interesting story or lore to discover. A shame, as the short form nature of DLC seems an ideal opportunity to tell a story without worrying too much about how well it’s supported by the main game’s fractured narrative.

So, overall it’s a wonderful experience, delivering what the fans wanted and getting near everything right. That’s good. But didn’t we already establish that Dark Souls II is at its absolute worst when it’s brilliant?

Well, that’s true when it’s a brief flash that’s quickly over. When it’s a good 10 – 15 hours of high quality adventurin’, and it’s the first of a trilogy that now appears to be very promising? That changes things. It doesn’t inspire disappointment, but hope.

I don’t think we’ll see any more content for Dark Souls II after these three packs (and its epilogue, which is promised as additional free content for anyone who purchases all three) are out. If they released them, I’d buy them, but the game hasn’t yet been the success it should have been, and the PS3 and Xbox 360 are now last-gen consoles, slipping further and further from the hearts and minds of the fickle game-buying public. But, wouldn’t it be wonderful if all three of the Lost Crowns trilogy were a glorious swansong for the game?

To quote from the item description of The Old Knight Set: “How old could this nearly-crumbling armor be? Sometimes, just as a thing falls to pieces, it unleashes its last flash of great power…”