Toward the end of Crown of the Sunken King, the first in a trilogy of downloadable episodes for From Software's brooding, melancholic sequel to Dark Souls, you find a ladder that leads up to a temple roof. Climb the ladder and exit through a crumbling doorway and you're presented with a widescreen view of Sanctum City, the underground metropolis in which much of this chapter takes place. The cave walls, slick and iridescent, echo with the sound of rushing water, while stalactites drip overhead like so many swords of Damocles.
Across the way you can pick out the first bonfire you lit in this area: the original and therefore dearest point of safety in what is an unflinchingly hostile place. On my first visit to the roof I lit two torches left on the balcony and paused to wonder at just how far I'd come. It was a welcome moment of respite in an otherwise jitter-filled two hours of exploration and confrontation. After a few moments I noticed a message on the ground left by another player. A memo of encouragement, perhaps, or an offer of advice or even trickery: you never can tell in Dark Souls. I opened the message. It read, simply: 'Pointless?'
The typical Dark Souls player is not, perhaps, best known for an appreciation of landscaping - although From Software's artists consistently display a talent for scene-setting. Indeed, the game itself inspires a kind of hysteria in its player: you are a drowning man, thrashing about for some new weapon or item which might save you as the ghouls and monsters seek to drag you under. Not much to time stand around admiring the view when you're scrambling and fleeing. Crown of the Sunken King is no different: a new chapter for those players who have completed the game once, twice or maybe even more times. Indeed, from the ferocious dinosaurs that pad about its vast underground lake to the traumatising ordeal of its final boss, Sinh the Slumbering Dragon, this is unusually challenging stuff. All the more reason to pause and savour the view from time to time.
Another reason to savour this view is that it demonstrates the return of a design consideration that was, for many, lost in the main Dark Souls 2 campaign. There, From Software's designers abandoned the grand and intricate puzzle layout of the first game, whereby every new area somehow looped back and locked in with previous environments. Instead we were given a series of trailing rooms that usually concluded in dead ends. Crown of the Sunken King returns to the former game's ingenious blueprint with style: Sanctum City's zigzag network of temples, walkways and aqueducts has an Escher-like quality. When one area concludes by opening up a shortcut to your starting location, you have the 'a-ha!' moment that was, for many, largely missing in the main game.
Much of the difficulty derives from the enemies you find down here in the jungle of Sanctum City and its tributary areas. There are ghostly phantoms, almost impervious to your sword swipes until you can turn them corporeal. There are black knights, nimble and stabby, who roll under your attacks, ending their tumble with a rapier jab. There are numerous dark phantoms that will invade your game at inopportune moments, one of which must be bested using carefully timed parries. But the challenge also derives from the environment itself, a giant interlocking puzzle with platforms that are raised and lowered by activating glowing pillars. You'll need a quiver full of arrows or a clutch of projectile spells, if not to trigger the remote pressure pads dotted around the environments, then to thin the enemy numbers from a distance before you approach.
Of course, with so many players descending on this area at the same time, there's no shortage of helpful messages or, more usefully, at least in terms of the duo of bosses at the end of the chapter, opportunities to summon someone into your game to offer assistance. (Notably, it's possible to sample the DLC before purchase: leave a summon sign outside of the new area and you can be summoned into another player's game to try out a specially designed area). The final dragon boss in particular is a long and difficult battle, even for three experienced players working together. In this way, Crown of the Sunken King encourages co-operation more forcefully than any entry in the series to date.
This is best exemplified in the Cave of the Dead, a new area unlocked midway through the chapter where you fight a horde-like gauntlet of enemies while simultaneously dodging poison and traps. There's also a clutch of new treasure and secrets to find, both spells and weapons. One hidden magical tree (with wild, unblinking eyes set into the trunk) will grant you a welcome benefit when struck with the correct implement. At least two of the life-giving bonfires are hidden behind secret walls.
It's a strong start for this series of add-on chapters for Dark Souls 2, then. There are no standout battles - save, perhaps, for the grim final encounter - but the cumulative effect of its fights, puzzles and secrets is memorable: Sanctum City and its offshoot areas lodge in the mind like so many of this series' locales. It's exciting to see the team return to the ingenious, interlocking layout of Demon's Souls and the first Dark Souls and there are enough novel ideas to be found in this shantytown of pillars, temples and chipped blocks to reassure you that this is a team that has run out of neither inspiration nor vigour.
8 / 10