Welcome back to the Dark Souls II Crown Trilogy! After waiting with barely bated breath since last month's Crown of the Sunken King, players can now resume their quest to seek out new, perilous lands full of mystery, treasure and romance. Visit a shrine past the Old Iron King’s Primal Bonfire to be enveloped by a swirling mist and transported to an entombed chamber with a single exit. Step out into the light and be amazed by one of the most gorgeous backdrops I’ve ever seen. Off in the distance is Brume Tower, nearly stroking the clouds in its majestic verticality. A beautiful design that not even time has been able to distort. Being the brave potential monarch you are, you can feel its danger. The corpses of brave soldiers lie scattered about cliff sides connected by gigantic iron chains used for passage; is your vertigo doing okay? A thick coat of volcanic ash covers every square inch and outside the chained towers hides lurking enemies. And this is just the exterior; what lies within? Will you meet the same fate as those outside or make a triumphant return to Majula with your hard earned loot?
Much like the first episode, players will explore the ruins of an ancient kingdom. Full of deadly traps and hazards, exploration and observation are key skills to have honed by now if you intend to make your getaway with the crown in one piece. Brume Tower quickly introduces its gimmick. While Shulva, the Sanctum City relied on operable contraptions and puzzles, the prevalent feature of this new dungeon are the Ashen Idols, molten iron statues in the shape of an agonizing female in charge of making your life hell. From making nearby enemies immortal to spewing hellfire and cursing you, these idols will be responsible for dishing out punishment to less wary adventurers. But fret not, for these passive enemies can be dealt with by collecting useful Smelter Wedges, plunging them into the Ashen Idol like a stake on a vampire. Nearby enemies will not make it an easy task, as they are fast, relentless, and most painful of all, have incredibly damaging attacks. Coupled with their sheer numbers and ability to revive, adventurers will have to be extra careful this time!
Enemy variety in this DLC seems to follow the design of Sunken King: thematic armored hollowed equipped with diverse loadouts backed up by gimmicky new additions. Examples include the Fume Sorcerers, dagger-wielding assassins capable of fast melee and lightning based ranged attacks. Headless Minotaurs are big and powerful, and their slow speed is offset by the ability to drip burning hot lava on a rolling character with their guard down, setting them up for a punishing smash from their gigantic weapons. Possessed Armors were a personal favorite of mine. As their name suggests, they are floating suits of empty armor that carry a large blade and a great bow that can detach from their forms and snipe you from different angles; very dangerous! Almost every opponent felt like a puzzle in this DLC. Gunpowder carrying hollows can be hazardous with open flames within Brume Tower, and can be hazardous to those who like swinging fire-infused swords. All the same, and with a little ingenuity, these enemies can be set against their own and even create deadly traps against invaders!
Speaking of invasions, the vertical layout of the tower is a challenge in and of itself. Descent is your means of making progress, and if we know our Souls games right, this can equate to many, many dumb deaths from simple missteps! Add functioning elevators and player invaders to the mix and hilarious (and surely frustrating!) shenanigans ensue. Players are also treated to new three new NPC invaders which surprised me in a very good way. Even if I usually respond to a sudden invasion during exploration with a frustrated sigh, two of the encounters ended up with me almost laughing my ass off. One of these invaders, when in a pinch, will run off into an area full of mobs that also curses the player, and will heal, mimicking the usual human invader we all know and… well… tolerate! Another encounter was a fairly simple one: The dark spirit invaded me, I summarily dispatched him and then continued on with my business… until four clones of that invader spawned right ahead of me at the same time. I couldn’t properly fight them not so much because I was underprepared or caught with little health, but due to the hilarity of the situation. Of the three that survived, I was taunted by them all upon death and that was enough to make me burst out with laughter. Good game, From, good game.
What else is there to look forward to beyond the visuals, rewarding gameplay, and a plethora of new items and spells? A trio of tough, grueling battles against some of the toughest bosses in the game! Halfway into the DLC, adventurers have access to the Challenge area of Crown of the Old Iron King, the Iron Passage. If you manage to come out alive from this tough ordeal, your reward is a towering stone husk cloaked in bright blue flames. A veryangry stone husk cloaked in bright blue flames. This boss took me a few tries to beat in New Game ++, but he’s nothing you’ve faced before. In fact, it’s almost sad that it’s a reused enemy, but I can forgive the developer this time around because the Brume Tower is literally connected to the Iron Keep, so it makes a lot of sense for this decision.
Next comes the boss I associate with the romance surrounding this particular adventure. Digging a bit into the DLC’s lore through item descriptions reveals the origin of the DLC’s final boss, the Fume Knight. A soldier who, having defected from King Vendrick of Drangeleic, took refuge in this very tower and became infatuated with the motherly Nadalia, the Bride of Ash. This relationship escalated to the former worshipping Nadalia, who in turn imparted some of her power to the Fume Knight in exchange for his loyalty. These two are the guardians of Brume Tower and the Crown of the Old Iron King. Defeating the Fume Knight is no easy task, as the fight is split into a fast-paced exchange of quick swings and later into a punishing endurance match where you absolutely do not want to get hit once. And that, like with the rest of the enemies in this DLC, is super hard to accomplish. I believe the developers went with a “delayed swing” theme for Crown of the Old Iron King, because I’ve never been punished for rolling too early in PvE as I have in this DLC. Nearly every enemy and the three bosses require some adjustment from the player’s side, as the foes behave in a way that they bait some of their strongest blows with motions that delay the incoming pain. It sure broke the pace of nearly all of my fights, especially versus the Fume Knight.
Finally, as a second challenge area (and right after the Fume Knight), players who have a special item can traverse into the Memory of the Old Iron King, a short stride accompanied by returning foes that culminates in the final boss fight. The atmosphere before and during the fight is intense. Stand before the fog gate and you can hear the boss sharpening his Bewitched Sword, ready for a worthy adversary to taste its steel. Enter the area and fans of Demon Souls will likely have their inner fanboy/fangirl squeal in delight as the lustrous floor of the arena contrasts with the dusky skies outside the three windows overlooking the samurai in the center of the room; a reminiscent of a renowned fight in the PS3 exclusive. I can say without a shadow of the doubt that the devs went ahead to give longtime fans a bit of a service with certain items and places they can appreciate; I sure did!
Crown of the Old Iron King felt shorter in comparison to Crown of the Sunken King. Perhaps vertical exploration is the reason for this, but I saw a lot of effort go into the level design, with nostalgic visuals that reminded me of both the infamous Sen’s Fortress and excellent Painted World of Ariamis of Dark Souls; we have its own flavor of enemies and gimmicks, while also retaining the right amount of challenge. The content addition felt solid, although I would have appreciated either of the two challenge paths to have been made a bit longer, since they are basically two rooms full of enemies leading into a boss, unless you decide to explore to pick up a few non-essential items; they didn’t feel as rewarding as the main path in my opinion.
Now all that is left is to wait for the Crown of the Ivory King DLC to come out late September. Can we expect more thematic knights? What kind of queen will we find next? Just what are the answers that we will find once we get our hands on the third and final crown? That third DLC can’t come out too soon.