July 22 saw the release of Crown of the Sunken King, the first DLC episode for FromSoftware’s Dark Souls II. The package gives players access to the Sanctum City of Shulva, a sprawling subterranean dungeon filled with ferocious, never-before-seen enemies, novel weapons and equipment and—perhaps most importantly—a trio of new bosses to test players’ mettle.
I bought and downloaded the DLC on its release date and, within minutes, was already shouting obscenities at my computer monitor. Crown of the Sunken King is hard—the common enemies and environment alike are absolutely unforgiving and present a much greater challenge than that which I found in the vanilla game. Perhaps it was just because my first encounter with Shulva was on New Game+++, making enemies significantly harder than they would have been on my first play through, but I found myself dying quite a bit, even when I can race through most of the game without so much as getting hit.
The DLC’s enemies—mostly undead denizens of the Sanctum City alongside a few insects and other creatures—often attack in swarms, making it difficult, if not impossible, to face them in single combat, a factor which greatly increases their difficulty. A rarer, hard-hitting wraith enemy is also nigh-invulnerable until you locate a secret room in which you can destroy some suits of armor to materialize them. Assuming that you can manage to do that while dodging the leaping, deadly attacks of three of these ghastly swordsmen, anyway. The city itself probably killed me a dozen times as well before I was finished with it. Gaping pits and towering ledges dot the eerie sub-terrain, posing a massive threat to Souls players who aren’t careful with their rolling.
The fact that Crown of the Sunken King quickly made me furious, however, doesn’t mean that it isn’t fun; in fact, quite the contrary. As with the heft of content in both Dark Souls games, the unforgiving difficulty of a given challenge is ultimately what makes it rewarding for you to overcome it. While I found the scarcity and secrecy of bonfires to be more vexatious than interesting, it was an exception rather than a rule to the DLC’s overarching quality.
In the vein of quality, Shulva’s visuals definitely stood to impress. The nice thing about those deadly ledges that I mentioned earlier is that they often offer quite a few of the city’s towering, gray-green ziggurats and cascading waterfalls. If nothing else, they present you with quite a spectacle as you plummet to your death after leaping (a little bit too far) away from a ghastly walking corpse for the fifth time.
Conversely, I had rather mixed results with the new items and magic included in Crown of the Sunken King. On one hand, the spells that the DLC added genuinely struck me as lackluster. Dark Greatsword, one of the new hexes, is a bit too similar to the Soul Greatsword spell, endemic to the “sorcery” school of magic. Denial, a new miracle that leaves the caster with 1 HP after they endure a fatal attack, seems useful, if a bit lackluster considering that it takes up three attunement slots. Even so, I was hoping for something a bit more interesting or powerful, especially considering the sorry state of characters that focus solely on magic in endgame PVP.
The DLC package’s weapons and armor were a bit more promising. The Drakeblood armor set, a black and red suit of armor left behind by a host of invaders that once attacked the city, is frankly one of the best-looking heavy armors in the game. While it certainly doesn’t stand up to Havel’s set when it comes to raw stats, it is a welcome addition to any player’s inventory and is guaranteed to make your character look like a hulking, steel-plated badass. The new weapons, similarly, were novel, but far from game-breaking. My personal favorite was the Puzzling Stone Sword, a short weapon etched with glowing blue runes that whips out like—well, like a whip—when you use a heavy attack with it. None of the new weapons have the sheer damage to quite match a Ruler’s Sword or lightning-imbued Defender’s Greatsword per se, but few of them are boring or anywhere near unusable.
Now, if you’re anything of a veteran Souls player, you’re keenly aware of the fact that the only things that really matter about the DLC are the bosses. If you’re adverse to spoilers, now is the time to stop reading—although given Dark Souls II’s lack of emphasis on shocking plot twists, reading further probably won’t ruin much of anything for you.
Without further ado, the first boss that you will encounter is actually three optional bosses boiled down into a single fight—Afflicted Graverobber, Ancient Soldier Varg and Cerah the Old Explorer—affectionately termed “The Gank Squad” by the community. Put bluntly, this was easily the worst fight in the entire DLC and potentially one of the worst bosses out of the entire game. The core of the fight revolves around engaging all three phantoms at once. None of them use any skills and the only challenge that the fight presents rests in the fact that you are trying to dodge three separate enemies’ attacks while simultaneously trying to land a blow of your own here and there. When I finally defeated the encounter, I spent most of the fight running around and waiting for them to separate themselves enough for me to get a backstab in. Get one of them alone and they really aren’t difficult at all.
The second boss takes the form of Elana, the Squalid Queen. This rotting member of the sunken city’s royalty looks eerily similar to Nashandra from the game’s vanilla content and judging from the lore attached to her weapon, probably shares a similar history with the ruler of Drangleic Castle as well. While she has a few heavily-damaging magic spells, the real trick to the encounter is the fact that Elana occasionally summons a host of minions, including a golden copy of Veldstadt from the Undead Crypt. Dodging both of their attacks at once proved to be incredibly challenging and I died to the duo more times than I care to admit.
The real gem of the entire DLC package lies in the final boss—Sinh, the Slumbering Dragon. Sinh is one of the most engaging, fast-paced, difficult and utterly awesome boss battles in the entire game. In fact, I would probably say that the encounter takes the cake as my favorite fight in Dark Souls II. Sinh doesn’t fly around, groggily spitting fireballs about his cave before gently settling to the ground like a big, scaly butterfly and letting you hit him a few times with no repercussion. When he lands, half of the time, he dive-bombs you, crashing into the ground and sliding forward with enough force to shatter the huge stone pillars that dot his arena. Regular fire isn’t enough for this beast; Sinh spits toxic fireballs that afflict you with a deadly poison even as their flames are melting your now-hollowed face. Even when you think you’re relatively safe between his hind legs, Sinh will turn around and shoot jets of flame under his immense body, generally killing you unless you flee to safety. Sometimes he even spins around, whipping his tail and claws in a sweeping circle that amounts to three or four bone-shattering attacks all within a couple of seconds of each other. Sinh is an absolute monster and unless you seriously over-level the content, he will prove to be one of the most challenging and rewarding boss fights that you face in the entire game.
At the end of the day, while Crown of the Sunken King is far from perfect, you absolutely get your money’s worth out of it. A season pass (which includes not only Shulva, but two other upcoming DLCs) costs about $25.00 on Steam and will probably last you about four hours, if not more, just to get through the underground city on your first play through. The new boss fights, armor sets and weapons are very well-put-together with few exceptions and—at least in my opinion—give considerably greater thrills than the vast bulk of the base game.
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