Man, I have a lot to say about this one. For this review I’d like to first take a leap back to some months ago, when I actually started playing Dark Souls II’s base game. Known for the franchise’s cryptic lore, this title is no different and opens up with a cutscene depicting our player character’s pilgrimage to the lost kingdom of Drangleic, one of many realms overtaken by the seemingly untamable curse of the Undead. Fast forward to present day, one line spoken during that cutscene returned to my mind at the end of the Crown of the Ivory King DLC when I was triumphantly reaping the bounty for my efforts. I’ll try to paraphrase: “One day, you will stand before its (Drangleic’s) decrepit gates, without really knowing why.” I had passed this phrase off back then in favor of atmospheric build-up, but now, after extensive overthinking like a proper Souls fan, I think I’ve come up with how this newest episode brings a closure to the game as a whole. First though, let’s laser focus on the actual DLC so that I might explain myself better.
Eleum Loyce, like Shulva, the Iron Kingdom, and Drangleic, is one of the many realms that have been ravaged by the curse. Its beautiful courtyards and breathtaking snowy scenery all but lost into a permanent blizzard, this is yet another kingdom whose dutiful inhabitants have devolved into little more than mindless beasts that hunger for those with sanity and souls. Enter the Bearer of the Curse, in their third and final quest for strength in the form of mystic crowns. Another perilous ordeal awaits them: Eleum Loyce’s ice wielding protectors, retainers, and golems stand in their way, all with the single goal of destroying the brave wanderer; dangerous personages dwell within the frozen-over ruins, victims of the same madness; a formidable guardian bares its fangs at the Bearer of the Curse, all of hinting at the dangers ahead. No quarter is going to be given. But you are the Bearer of the Curse, so hold onto your Estus Flask and get ready for one of the most unique and tough challenges FROM Software has graced us with yet.
After the plethora of different locales presented to us in the main game and the previous DLC episodes, a snowy ruined kingdom was instantly welcomed by my eyes. Eleum Loyce is gorgeous even while it is assaulted by the visual-impairing snow storms, its numerous ramparts looking out to the near endless vast landscape surrounding the kingdom. What the player can expect as they explore this place is the multitude of closed off paths and goodies that have been encased in ice, preventing access to them. As is customary in Dark Souls II, you’re supposed to make a beeline towards whatever switch will enable you to continue your exploration; only this time, you’re presented with an entire bloomin’ blizzard to counteract, and no mechanical switch is going to turn that off for you.
Initially, the path inside the kingdom diverges into two paths, one of which leads you to a tall fog wall. Just as you approach it, a voice asks that you turn back repeatedly. You can be prudent and take the other path or go through the fog wall at your own risk, but I thought it helpful that for this occasion you’re at least told to back away because you clearly are not ready for this. When you come back though and show the mighty foe who’s boss, though, you are rewarded with the second half of Eleum Loyce’s exploration in the form of a quest given by Alsanna, the Silent Oracle. After the lady clears out the blizzard for you, visibility in Eleum Loyce returns, revealing the ruined kingdom in all of its vintage glory. Without the ice covering treasure chests or enemies, it all becomes accessible to us, both for good and for bad. This was a very entertaining approach to the gameplay’s design that made it worthwhile to go through the initial area twice in order to loot the place dry, but it also added to the aesthetic value, marking a before and after the blizzard. I absolutely loved it.
Just as with the previous DLC episodes, you will soon find out the reason why Eleum Loyce is in its current state. Alsanna had been sealing off access to the Old Chaos which swallowed the once benevolent Ivory King and most of his entourage of Loyce Knights, transforming them into battle thirsty monsters willing to spare no expense at the prospect of eliminating trespassers. Now a Burnt Ivory King, you’re tasked with descending to the Old Chaos yourself in order to put a merciful end to his life.
If I had to put the encounter with this boss in a word it has to be stylish. Stranded in a circular arena with three open portals spewing out Charred Loyce Knights at you and no escape, white Loyce Knights (that you must actually recruit by exploring!) join you for a battle of large proportions as you struggle to close the doorways and prevent more enemies from spawning. At one point in the showdown, an enormous fiery portal emerges at the edge of the arena, from where the Burnt Ivory King steps out, brandishes his ultra-great sword at you, and then the battle is on. I can’t say it was particularly challenging in terms of difficulty; it is balanced when you go through the trouble of bringing in reinforcements (the white Loyce Knights, who close portals for you by sacrificing themselves over time), but the boss itself is something along the lines of Crown of the Old Iron King’s Sir Alonne combined with the Lost Sinner battle in the main game, which makes the engagement accessible and not at all difficult in a one-on-one showdown. The actual challenge is to survive through the hordes of Charred Loyce Knights, which I thought was a really good presentation!
After we’re done with the Burnt Ivory King, the game will cleverly introduce a side-quest that I considered a funny attempt at sneaking an unofficial covenant to add more content to the DLC. We’re tasked with collecting the sorrowful souls of the Charred Loyce Knights in exchange for rewards (2 armor sets and 1 extra boss soul). I thought this was a good idea at first, but after 3-4 hours of constant grinding to get the 50 darned Loyce Souls, I thought that perhaps the requirements should have been smaller. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the intent to give you an extra side-quest, but you’re being sent to farm chanced drops which compete with six other changed drops in the Charred Loyce Knight loot pool, turning what should’ve been an enjoyable addition into an MMORPG grind-fest.
After you’re done combing Eleum Loyce for all it has to offer, you’ve yet to find the infamous third challenge area of the DLCs. After suffering through the Frigid Outskirts in the New Game ++ cycle, I have mixed feelings on what the challenge represented. In contrast to the Cave of the Dead in Shulva and the Old Iron Passage in Brume Tower, tightly packed challenge areas that screamed annoyance at your frowning face and renowned for their attempts at cluttering you together in narrow spaces chock-full of hard hitting foes and traps, the Frigid Outskirts is an absolutely gigantic barren flat map which is still being assaulted by a blizzard.
The peculiarity here is that the blizzard dies out every 30 or so seconds in order to give you a very brief window of time when you can actually see where you’re going before the storm resumes and clutters your screen up again. Among the snow are patrolling reindeer-like enemies that react in your proximity and charge you violently, chasing you all over the map if they have to, counting with very accurate and long-traveling projectiles to get you: hunters. These reindeer are scattered all across the map but the biggest feature is that they’re invisible until turned aggressive by stepping into their patrol area during high storm; at that point, you better keep your ears attentive, because your eyes will not be as helpful and you might get caught off guard.
The Frigid Outskirts are difficult-to-overwhelmingly frustrating to navigate due to those two reasons; you can’t see where you’re going most of the time, and you’re engaged by enemies during the time where you can’t see, so being unable to keep track of where you’re facing after an encounter makes it a very risky endeavor to tread on if the storm hasn’t died out yet. Forget about getting anywhere if you’re invaded by a player and you have no effective counter-measure or backup here, invaders will work with the reindeer to bring you down, andRudolph tore out his bright nose to ensure you wouldn’t see him coming.
Navigation in this area is done by following landmarks whenever you’re able to see, but the area is so freaking big that you will spend the better part of 10 minutes either fighting or running for your life as you attempt to conserve your healing items, because as you’ll soon realize, at the end of the area there is a tough boss fight consisting of not one, but two giant beasts, and they aren’t shy about ganging up on you. Challenging is the right adjective for this area, but would it have killed them to put a bonfire at the middle of the area or maybe right before the boss fight?!
As players, we have reached the end of a trilogy. Each episode culminated with the Chosen Undead acquiring one crown per realm, and just as the memory of Vendrick hinted at us, you had to collect these in order prove your strength. The reward you receive is what makes me return to the start of this review when I mentioned the phrase the old hag told you at the beginning of the game. What did you come to Drangleic for? Just what did you hope to accomplish? Eventually, that one goal dispersed just like all memories of your past self, and you climbed the Throne of Want without really knowing why. You fulfilled a prophecy, but what, then, is the significance of our quest for the crowns? Dark Souls II explains nothing after we acquire our ultimate reward, so it’s easy to feel dissatisfaction, but this writer feels like the trilogy represented more than just materialism.
As the Bearer of the Curse, you did not go into Shulva, Brume Tower and Eleum Loyce just to gain power; you went there to follow your primary goal of curing the Undead Curse. Yes, while at the start of the game you’re shown as one of millions who have traveled to Drangleic to find a cure for the mystic disease, eventually this plot point is diluted with Drangleic’s own lore and history while you’re left as a mere pawn of fate. But the journey to the other three kingdoms represents a wholly different interest: King Vendrick clearly states that by seeking strength your wishes would be granted. Just what kind of wish do you have? You’re depicted as a wanderer who’s slowly losing their mind, so what is it that you could have a reason to gain strength for exactly? Well, Bearer of the Curse, you have just gained a semblance of self by attaining your one wish since the first few seconds of us meeting you. That, people, is closure.
While my challenge seeking heart and likely inexhaustible patience were hoping for our reward to be a secret new area, an Ultimate Boss or heck, a minor change to the ambiguous ending to Dark Souls II’s main story, Crown of the Ivory King was not just a delicious (and at times bitter) cake to go through, but it also provided me with a cherry top that was clear interpretation of what our player character was able to ultimately accomplish. More informed fans might disagree with my interpretation, but I all the same welcome them to try the last episode of the trilogy, as they will not be disappointed.