I go into this new content with not one, not two, but three characters. I do this in the name of thorough coverage of the new challenges thrown at us by FROM software. Realistically it's so I can get through the content if a certain build turns out to be ill suited for the area, but thankfully the difficulty here for the most part is slightly lower than the first add on episode so my level 170 dexterity/faith build was the focus of this new adventure.
An off shot of this is that I've been through the whole game fresh another two times and have uncovered a few personal revelations about the game. The first:Playing as anything other than a tank results in shields actually being a bad idea. A mixture of chip damage and low estus count means it's almost always a better idea trying to dodge enemies or try and finish off a faster opponent before they can either get a hit in or overpower you through sheer numbers. The second: design wise the game feels a lot less coherent. While we've touched on this in our other Dark Souls 2 coverage, after this much play time it really does feel lazy. The intro to Crown of the Iron King is another new area that seems to have popped out of this air where a wall once was. It seems such a minor thing to complain about but something I feel needs to be highlighted in a game that is all about immersion. At least there hasn't been any NPCs asking you to buy content. Yet.
Thankfully when you pass the (quite literal) pay door, the player is treated to another great view. About half of the stage is viewable from this spot and it has a nice sense of place. You can look back as you come across the opening to the outside and see how far you've come through this fearsome newland. The flip side of this is that most of the time spent navigating these structures are from the inside, which takes the rather bland form of narrow corridors going up and down some towers.
It all ties in quite well to the aesthetic of a burnt out kingdom covered in ash but feels very by the numbers. There's not much we've not seen before architecturally, to the point where the inside area could be any part of Drangleic castle or castle area seen in the parent game.
Enemies wise we've got a more balanced selection here than with the first piece of content.The standard grunts need to be respect but can actually be staggered.Not inflicting poison just by proximity is another plus, something that felt like a step too far in the sunken kingdom. There is something similar in terms of ambient damage but it can be dodged if you're careful and actually serves a purpose to one of the highlights on show.
That is FROM yet again experimenting with what kind of challenges that face the player. In this instance we have funny little imps that carry around barrels.They don't hurt you or attack. Well unless they touch fire, in whichcase they act as walking bombs. How they are introduced and their use in getting through the several puzzle like areas are best left to self discovery but serve to carry some of the shortfalls on show. What's not quite so welcome is the return of near invincible enemies with a gimmick kill switch. It feels rather lazy in comparison to the barrel boomers and I hope we don't see this mechanic used for a third time next month.
There's a lot of NPC invasions to challenge the veteran here. While not as smart as players, they're tough cookies and are quite the challenge even in comparison to a certain misjudged jester seen recently. This helps with playing on your nerves but almost becomes an irritation towards the end. Something like this would be better served as a gauntlet of some kind rather than used to bulk out what is a shorter journey in terms of distance covered and areas explored.
The one nod I will give to the tower design is that is harks back to the terrifying Towers of Latria seen in Demon's Souls although they lack the feeling of pure dread found in their inspiration.
There's a great boss to face at the tail end of the adventure and is quite the joy to fight. He comes across as a mix of Artorias, Smelter Demon and Gwyn. He's quite the challenge and is the toughest enemy you'll face outside of the maligned one hit kill Ancient Dragon. It's certainly a step up compared to the re-skinned mob spawner faced before Sinh.
One more boss can be accessed once certain milestones have been hit. Unfortunately in what can only be described as an awful decision, he can only be faced after you get through a memory section guarded by Alone knights and salamanders. The scenario is set up to mob you anyway, it's the last thing you need when you're on a timer. While the boss itself is thankfully not too hard to beat and actually quite fun, the entire scenario may take a place as one of the worst ideas I've seen in a souls game.
There's another coop gauntlet to run in this area and and is unfortunately not nearly as fun as the first one. Enemies that case slow combined with area of effect projectiles results in what feels like a chore. The boss is also a joke, a re-skinned smelter demon. This section is only for those looking to get the most out of the new content, everyone else should just pretend it's not there. For context, the memory is one of the worst thought out scenarios so far seen, the gauntlet is just plain terrible content stretching and actually concerns me about where the game may be headed. I hope this is but a blip for the development team.
More amazing weapons are on show for those who explore every nook and cranny. Those looking for item buffs are in for a treat and collecting everything adds great new possibilities to character builds. The highlight is another dexterity based sword (The puzzle sword being the previous one). By hitting parry, you stab yourself results in a HP hit and a thirty second weapon buff. This could be a great boss and PvP dual weapon and I can see it popping up a lot within the player base.
Story wise there's some interesting aspects but unfortunately focuses on what I found to be fairly dull. What is exciting though is how this DLC ties in with a theme seen in both the main game and the sunken crown that could end up being a revelation about the true nature of the Dark Soul. We'll have to see how the next episode ties it all together of course, but I have faith there's something brewing here that could be truly special when you take the content as a whole.
When it comes to value, I'm happy with what's on show, just about; Even if it does feel increasingly as though this content is only for the more dedicated fan looking for more, rather than the first game's trip to fight Manus and gain some real insight into the overall story. I'd really like FROM to step up for the final episode however and make all the extra content truly worth every players time rather than an optional extra.