When I wrote my review of Dark Souls II, I was many hours in, and felt I had been sufficiently challenged and stimulated by it. I was wrong. The game is huge, and after sixty-five hours of near-continuous death, I only finished my first playthrough last week. With the volume of games coming down the pipeline, it’s rare for me to continue playing a game post-review, but Dark Souls II consumes its players. Whether undertaking marathon play sessions or daydreaming about its tactics and lore, it sucks up time like few other games I’ve played. I love it. (At some point, I must get around to playing the first game, which many Souls purists claim is even better.)
So onwards we adventure to the recently-released DLC episode, Crown of the Sunken King. If you’ve played Dark Souls II - and to play the DLC or make sense of this review, you should have - you’ll remember the particularly assholey Black Gulch with almost as much venom as the area itself spits at you. Bad news: the journey into Shulva, Sanctum City, begins in the Black Gulch, descending deep into one of the more difficult and satisfying realms the game has to offer.
Compared to the sprawling, wide-open levels of vanilla Dark Souls II, Sunken King takes place over a fairly limited area - but an area with impressive verticality. Replete with labyrinthine ziggurats, moving platforms, staircases, elevators, and precipitous drops, the sanctum-spelunking often gets confusing, only to loop back on itself and spit you out exactly where you started. The world itself is a puzzle, with obelisks and buttons to alter its intricate layout. These puzzles aren’t difficult - you basically want to hit every button you come across - but they add an additional level of complexity to a game where every enemy encounter can be deadly.
One particularly fucking sadistic section features the return of a fan-favourite NPC summon. In the main game, he was capable of beating his area’s boss completely on his own. Great! Now, he’s invading your game to fight you. Shit. As if that weren’t bad enough, he’s sandwiched between spiked floors and physically-unharmable ghosts, and a large underground lake populated by incredibly fast and powerful dinosaur douche-dicks. One of my deaths in this area occurred literally two steps away from retrieving a bloodstain worth 50,000 souls, and four steps away from reaching a new bonfire. I quit the game and left the room in fury, only to return two minutes later, nothing left to lose. Such is the masochistic cycle of Dark Souls. It’s one of pain and release; Cenobite heaven reconfigured into an RPG.
I haven’t even touched on the optional “Cave of the Dead”, which drops players into an intimate rabbit-warren of caverns crawling with enemies and other perils. Remember the poison-spitting statuettes from the Gutter and the Black Gulch? Now they come in clusters, and they can move. “You’re welcome,” says From Software.
The bosses - a sorceress, a dragon, and a trio of warriors - are varied and all present their own unique challenges. Elana, the Squalid Queen, gives a particularly enjoyable fight. With a hefty range of physical and magic attacks, plus the ability to summon skeletons and another of the game’s bosses, she all but forces you to call on help from other players or NPCs. Developing team tactics with my temporary co-op buddies was a huge amount of fun. If there was a high-five gesture, I would have used it. Naturally, immediately following that boss was another, whose insanely high health and resistances rendered my weapons almost as useless as its corrosive hide did.
Sadly, the visual design of Sunken King doesn’t live up to the splendour of the main game - or of the opening moments of the DLC itself. Granted, the underground tomb locale demands a certain degree of claustrophobia, but you can only stare at so many grey stone walls before getting lost, physically or psychologically. Luckily, there are still glimpses of the terrific environmental storytelling that helped make the main game so compelling. It will be interesting to see, when it is complete, how this three-episode DLC fits in with the story of Vendrick and his fallen kingdom. I've got my suspicions.
Crown of the Sunken King can’t offer the sweeping vistas of the Dragon Aerie, or the foreboding doom of the Castle Drangleic approach, but it makes up for that with five-ish hours of clever and difficult gameplay that matches the best of what From Software are capable of. You’ll die a lot, curse a lot, and very possibly drink a lot afterwards, but in the end, that’s what Souls games are all about. You’ve been bad, you will be punished - and Dark Souls is holding the spanking paddle.