"I haven't seen anyone make it this far," the Namco rep tells me as I meticulously slice my way through hordes of undead soldiers and soon-to-be-dead insects in an E3 demo build of the upcoming Crown of the Sunken King DLC.
I'm not sure if this is insincere flattery or if others playing simply aren't well versed in From Software's incredibly precise combat systems. It's not that hard, I think. They gave me like a dozen estus flasks. It's worth noting that the demo over-levels me at a whopping 140, so hopefully this isn't an indication of how it will be balanced in the final game. It won't be far off though, as the DLC will only be accessible at the tail end of the campaign once you've attained a certain something something from a certain giant something something.
Dark Souls 2 global producer Atsuo Yoshimura assures me that the series' notoriously difficult challenges will be intact, as these new areas will feature an alternate route that is much more difficult. Stubborn players can rise to the challenge and attempt these solo, while co-op is an option for the mere mortals among us.
"We want to motivate the players to do co-op in order to complete the challenging route," Yoshimura tells me. For this reason, DLC owners can summon players who don't even have the DLC. It's a smart idea that lets those who pay for it play with their friends, while giving owners of just the parent game something of a demo for the add-on content.
The producer notes that "[for] players [that] complete all three DLCs, there will be a surprise."
Otherwise the design remains the same as it ever was, with the new additions coming in the form of fresh enemies, environments and bosses. The half-hour chunk I play is set in a grey, cavernous expanse full of towers that rise and lower with the attack of a corresponding lever. This makes the terrain more dynamic than we're used to with its claustrophobic interiors shifting around to create a mild maze-like feel as you try to determine where you've gone.
There are only a few new types of foes from what I see, but they're all winners. A mossy, tree-like undead soldier makes up the most common enemy in these parts. One on one, they're a cakewalk. But get two or more of them together and they can cause some serious damage. Some ominous clusters of egg sacs unveil themselves as living, breathing insects that won't hesitate to exhaust a cloud of toxic gas in your direction. These pesky buggers won't cause much damage, but will quickly corrode your equipment if you're not careful. Oh, and remember those annoying green statues that spit acid at you in The Gutter? Well they're back, but when I try to smash one I'm shocked to see it only chips a tiny amount of its health away. I'm even more shocked when it reveals itself as protruding from the back of a sluggish, turtle-like creature.
The elephant in the room is Crown of the Sunken King's performance. From Software has until 22nd July to iron things out the kings - sorry, kinks - but the current E3 build plays dreadfully, delivering something I would guestimate is in the neighbourhood of 15-20fps on average, while the lighting is garishly bright and grainy, giving the whole thing a slightly faded, bleached quality. The environment is also less aesthetically inspired than the series has generally been, with its rubble-heavy caves resembling a more generic version of Doors of Pharros. It's a mild disappointment from a visual standpoint, but it's only a glimpse of what's to come, so hopefully the unseen parts will provide more solid demon-slaying nourishment.
In terms of size, Yoshimura says that each DLC will feature three to five areas and he estimates that all three DLC packs combined will be about 1.5 times the size of Dark Souls' Artorias of the Abyss add-on, which sounds about right given the price.
Some Souls fans may decry the addition of DLC so shortly after the main game has launched - although it's hard to argue that Dark Souls 2 was small - but Yoshimura is adamant that the new content's production was a response to the game's sales in the west anyway. "It was really last-minute that we became confident about the game content. We were so anxious about it," he says about the parent game's unenviable goal of having to follow up the cherished Dark Souls. "In regards to the DLC, after we finished creating the game we had a will to create the DLC, but we weren't sure if [Dark Souls 2] was going to be successful, so it was only after we released the game that we decided to do the DLC."
With the unofficial Souls successor Bloodborne on the way, Dark Souls 2's DLC looks a fraction less fresh and inspired than it would have last year, but even a slightly lacklustre addition to the Souls franchise is still an engaging experience. Furthermore, the somewhat malleable environments, fresh foes and optional challenging routes should provide added incentive to explore Dark Souls 2's robust combat systems and marvellous monstrosities even further. For fans of the series, that's in no way a bad thing.