My initial experience with the new Dark Souls content was not a particularly pleasant one. I loaded up the game with my faith build at the dragon shrine to find that most of my Great Lightning Spears had evaporated and my armour had been nerfed. While this isn't the end of the world considering the game offers a re-spec option, it certainly soured my first few hours back with the game after a few months away. As this is external tothe DLC however, it won't factor into this write up. Balancing is a continuous process with this game and it's just a matter of time until things are hopefully smoothed out. Our review of the first game is available here.
So, onto the new content then. The new areas on offer are accessed through Black Gulch, past the primordial bonfire guarded by The Rotten. The shrine itself is similar to the statue at the Shrine of Winter, a link that will no doubt start to flesh itself out as the new chapters of content are released. Walking into the first new zone is a real treat and gives a great first impression. I don't want to spoil anything here, but if the slow increase in the volume of heavy breathing doesn't send shivers up your spine, I doubt much will. Everything is just drenched in atmosphere.
The level design on show here is absolutely fantastic and I'd possibly go as far as saying it's the best seen in Dark Souls 2 so far. Everything interconnectsin a way that hasn't been seen since the previous title and it's an absolute delight to explore, full of moments of wonder as the many shortcuts reveal themselves. There is a lot of incentive to check every inch of each area not just for all the cleverly hidden items, there's also two hidden bonfires that are extremely useful to progress. The environmental puzzles on show are a standout here and I hope to see more of them in future releases. It's a shame that the aesthetic side of things don't quite gel, the aztec lost city style design on show being at odds with Dark Souls medieval fantasy-horror setting. It's tolerable though considering what's on show, the dragon wall carving being a particular treat.
It's a shame this is where the all out praise stops though. The enemies that populate the thre eareas of the DLC have some of the most irritating gimmicks I've experienced in a Souls game. There's mobs of enemies with stupidly high poise levels that inflict poison at an alarming rate. There's enemies that can only be killed once you've hunted down thier real bodies resulting in getting trapped in corners without the chance of escape. Worst of all there's the return of the spitting statues seen in Black Gulch, except this time they're on the back of creatures that follow you and can only be killed by using attacks that sweep low or with arrows. Souls games have always been about overcoming challenge but what is on display here is simply cheap. There is an exception toward the end in the form of enemies that are like fighting NPC invaders but this is the sole example of a fun new creature to fight.
It would be nice if the bosses could offset the issues with the fodder but unfortunately they are somewhat uneven. You've got one that's near identical to the last boss in the regular game with the added factor of mob summoning, followed by the highlight of all the fights on offer in this first add on chapter. That's all the details on the campaign side of th econtent that can really be shared without detracting from the experience but it's fair to say things finish on a high.
The last boss fight on offer is something that hasn't really been done before and will be something of a Marmite experience. Here you fight through a gauntlet of tightly packed enemies finishing on a fight with 3 high powered NPCs. While possible, doing this part of the content solo will result in much frustration, even for the best Souls player. Do this area how it was designed though, with two people at your side to help, and suddenly it turns into a fun challenge that demands teamwork and high level play. Something that's not always easy considering the lack of communication outside of gestures. I certainly enjoyed this section but I can see its quality being up for debate among the community. At least it's good to see From trying out new things within the framework.
Story wise, it's not the best in the series, but it ties together well with the game's dark fantasy. There's also extra dialogue to unlock in the main game once the Sunken King's crown has been claimed. The loot on offer is high quality as well, including what is currently my favourite new sword. You'd hope so too considering this is a high level area and is best left until end game. Even at level 170 there was still areas that proved quite the struggle on a standard new game. The content can be rushed though in a couple of hours, but should take around half a dozen to reveal all of the well hidden secrets within.
This first expansion shows that From still have plenty of new ideas to inflict upon its fanbase although some aspects do leave me slightly worried about the direction of the new content and the series in general. Despite its issues however, there's lots of fun for series veterans to have here and it's doubtful that those who went for the season pass will feel hard done by. It's also great to be back getting lost in the interlocking level design that made the series so memorable.