While playing Crown of the Sunken King—the first of three DLC installments for Dark Souls 2—I experienced several moments where two normally unrelated emotional responses fell right after one another: surprise, then admiration. (I'm sure the Germans have a concise compound word for it.)
The following statement might make it sound like I set my expectations incredibly low, but really, all I wanted from Crown of the Sunken King was, simply, more Dark Souls 2—something it would inevitably deliver. Though my review would obviously address any uninspired content, even the least exciting area of any Souls game has something worthwhile to offer, be it interesting enemy encounters, powerful items, or hidden bits of lore to help explain the confounding mysteries of the surrounding world. If Dark Souls 2's first DLC didn't end up amounting to much, I'd inevitably spend hours exploring every nook, then retreat to the Internet, where I'd spend several more hours watching other people explore every nook.
Thankfully, Crown of the Sunken King goes beyond the simple mission statement of "more Dark Souls," and fills its myriad of caves and tombs with tricks and traps you've yet to see in a Souls game. Revealing the most devious of these surprises in a review would eliminate their effectiveness, so you'll have to believe me when I say this first installment of Dark Souls 2 DLC sets out to slap around players who think they've achieved true mastery over the land of Drangleic. And, to paraphrase a certain fictional Russian boxer: it must break you.
Crown of the Sunken King does more than just add new wrinkles to the Souls formula, though. In a sense, this chunk of DLC feels like From Software's rebuttal to common criticisms about Dark Souls 2. So, instead of presenting a largely linear level similar to most of the core game's areas, Crown of the Sunken King features a convoluted maze of corridors and rooms that link up in subtle and clever ways. That said, much of the challenge doesn't come solely from battling a gauntlet of enemies until you reach the end—you're also tasked with making a mental map of the surrounding geometry, as the key to success in Sunken King can be found in discovering the most effective way to sprint past danger. As with the original Dark Souls, Sunken King is laden with plenty of "a-ha!" moments, where the activation of an elevator halfway through a level links up to an earlier checkpoint, saving you precious minutes of running back to the point that killed you, and will kill you again.
And believe me, you will die. Though the DLC can be accessed roughly halfway through the game, the enemies you'll face offer a much greater challenge than those found in the final area of the core game. And if you think you're going to be able to resort to your old tricks, think again: I assumed I could stagger the enemies I'd faced with my overpowered strength build, as I'd done through the game up to the point, and with my previous character. But the enemies of Sunken King don't back down, and some offer unique challenges that should evoke the latter option of your fight or flight response. Remember how much those poison-spitting statues in the Black Gulch annoyed you? Well, how would you like to see an entire group of those things mounted on the back of an enemy that you can't target, and can only take damage in a very small area of its body? Sounds pretty bad, huh? Well, at some point, you'll run across a variant of this enemy that can paralyze instead of poison you. Yeah—it's pretty rough.
And if you thought the bosses of Dark Souls 2 were pushovers, those present in Crown of the Sunken King will make you regret your hubris. Again, it's hard to describe just why these encounters are so challenging without spoiling them entirely, but I can at least tell you the DLC's first boss—described as "the easy one" by several players—took 30-40 co-op tries to take down, mostly because this creature possesses the ability to summon one of Dark Souls 2's later bosses into the fight—multiple times. Though it's just as easy to summon co-op pals as it was in the main game, bosses are much less forgiving, and require careful monitoring, lest they wipe you out in one or two attacks.
At the risk of giving anything else away, it's hard to imagine a scenario where a Dark Souls fan could possibly be disappointed with Crown of the Sunken King. It's far more ambitious than the first Dark Souls' flirtation with DLC, and, unless you're unbelievably amazing at the game, Crown could easily last you 12-15 hours. From Software even went so far as to develop a bonus dungeon that co-op partners can participate in without spending any money—but be warned: it's a harrowing experience with a multi-enemy boss fight that will leave you screaming "WHY!?" And really, isn't that what Souls games are about? Crown of the Sunken King actually feels truer to the Souls experience than the core game it's attached to, and for that, it's a must-buy for any Souls fan. Now all that's left is to wait in terror over the horrible new adventures the next two DLC installments will bring.
Though its status as an underground area eliminates the possibility of any vast, sweeping vistas, Crown of the Sunken King's visuals are on par with what Dark Souls 2 has to offer. In other words, it looks great.
As expected from any Dark Souls experience, Crown features excellent sound design, which savvy players can use to their advantage to detect incoming threats.
Crown of the Sunken King doesn't add any improvements to Dark Souls 2's UI, which is just fine—it worked well enough to being with.
Even though this is only one of three DLC installments, Crown of the Sunken King offers a lot to dig your teeth into, and a formidable level of challenge that'll keep you from blazing through it. It'd be hard to imagine anyone skipping over this area in subsequent playthroughs.
From Software went above and beyond with their Crown of the Sunken King DLC: invest in its tiny asking price, and you may find yourself getting just as much time out of it as you would a $60 game. But it's more than just the amount of content that makes this DLC irresistible—it's what From did with it. The amount of surprises and fresh ideas Crown has to offer should make any Souls fan salivate over the prospect of two incoming DLC packages developed (hopefully) with the same amount of thoughtfulness.