Dark Souls II: Crown of the Sunken King

"At the very least, this content doesn't accomplish anything on its own and must rely on the next two episodes to justify its existence. Not a good start."

In the Artorias of the Abyss downloadable content for the original Dark Souls, the first enemy you fight is the Sanctuary Garden, a wicked chimera out for blood. It spits lightning from its mouth, attempts to poison you with bites from a deadly snake tail, slashes at you with huge talons, and probably insults your mother in an incomprehensible language to human ears. It's an amazing fight that encompasses the best parts of the Souls series; brutal, measured combat and fantastic monster design. In the first piece of DLC for Dark Souls II, called Crown of the Sunken King, the game sends yet another humanoid enemy with a big mace to attack you, and then follows that up with some palette swap bosses from the main game. That should pretty much tell you everything about this first of three planned episodes from developer From Software.

Players who purchase The Sunken King receive an item in their inventory granting them access to the new content. Right away, it's like From Software isn't even trying. Dark Souls is about discovery and mystery, attempting to figure out how the pieces of the puzzle fit together. Now they just give you a key to a door that is a brand new addition with the latest patch. You can't even miss the door, as it's placed directly after a boss you must face in the main game. Thankfully, you can access the new areas as a phantom helping another player, allowing you to examine the additions and see if they warrant a purchase.

Shulva, the first area players encounter, is certainly impressive when it comes to spectacle. The grand temple-like exteriors have a distinct South American vibe. Things look pretty standard for a Souls title at first, but some new wrinkles show From Software is listening to the fans (somewhat). Traps and contraptions litter the environment. Pressure plates raise and lower hidden doors, while glowing pillars spring forth massive spires into the world. These giant structures grant cover from nasty snipers and can even be used to directly damage the monstrous denizens below. The locations also feel more like mazes, harkening back to the original game and addressing one of the main criticisms of the sequel. Caverns and hallways twist and turn to put the player off balance. I felt lost and extremely nervous at times when compared to the far more linear structure of the rest of Drangleic.

Unfortunately, all of this environmental inspiration comes at the cost of detail. The temple interiors are the blandest of the bland when it comes to features, with little more than drab hallways and very few natural markers to your progress. Imagine if the Undead Burgh in Lordran lacked any tables, chairs, doorways or contrasting textures. It's easy to feel lost when everything looks the same, and perhaps that was a conscious decision by the developers, but I can't help but feel like one more pass at the levels by the art team would have made a huge difference. There are a few standout areas, however, so maybe greater things are being held back for later.

Enemies in The Sunken King are all pretty dull, though the giant horrors in the lake towards the bottom of the main tower are a welcome surprise. You mostly fight large humanoids wielding massive weapons. Block, stab, and repeat; we've been here over and over. Sure, some enemies emit a poison aura to challenge melee-focused characters, but it's nothing a few Estus swigs won't fix. One enemy type can only be killed after fulfilling an environmental task, which put me on my toes for all of five minutes. Most of the enemies feel like simple obstacles, making each failed trek frustrating as I died over and over again. Admittedly, playing on New Game+ with enhanced enemy damage probably isn't the best way to experience a new area in a Souls title, but I didn't have time to replay a great deal of the main game all over again. (Gaming is fun, but as it turns out, it's not the only thing on my plate.) Death came more from carelessness and lack of patience rather than real challenge, forcing me to slog through huge groups of enemies again and again. Difficulty spikes from invading characters added to my fury. These enemies completely ignore your attacks and have more hitpoints than a whale. Thankfully, I used the environmental traps to my advantage, but I anticipate these adversaries will be neutered in future patches.

The uninspired designs reach their pinnacle with the bosses. Three boss fights round out the DLC, and they're all terrible. The first is a fight requiring co-op help, the second a maddening mechanic with summoned enemies (because we needed more large group encounters in Dark Souls II?), and the final boss tries to emulate Kalameet from the original but comes up far short. Worse still, these fights feature reused material from the main game. Sure, they have one or two new attack patterns, but you've seen all of this before and conquered it already. I kept hoping I would have an amazing encounter with a truly special beast, but From Software had other plans in mind. Nothing was fun or awe inspiring, and that's the most damning indictment of his expanded content.

It's my hope that this lack of ingenuity or character is endemic of this being the first part of a trilogy. Maybe From Software has high ambitions and truly amazing content waiting, but for now I can't recommend this to even the most hardcore Dark Souls fan. It took around five hours to complete The Sunken King, and I have almost nothing to show for it. I got a fancy new sword, some new spells (useless for my big bruiser of a character) and a crown that might do something later. There are no standout moments, and just about everything can be described using parallels or even direct references to either the original game or its sequel. At the very least, this content doesn't accomplish anything on its own and must rely on the next two episodes to justify its existence. Not a good start.

© 2014 Bandai Namco, From Software. All rights reserved.

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