Crown of the Old Iron King, the second of three add-ons for Dark Souls 2, begins with one of the game's most memorable moments. You stand on the summit of some giantess of a mountain, in the thin and licking wind, and stare across a chasm at Brume Tower. This Babel-like construction rises into the clouds a hundred metres away, bridged to your position by nothing but a rusted, ice-glazed link chain that sags across the gap. The only way to reach the tower is to step onto the chain that tethers the stratospheric towers together. 'Try jogging,' quips one player in a message etched onto the ground in front of the chain - a suggestion that's imported into others' games around the world. It's not the worst advice. You have to keep moving lest the wind mess with your sense of balance; there's no coming back from that fall.
The first chapter in the Lost Crowns series was a scramble and grope through a dim-lit weave of crypts and caverns. This second instalment acts as a visual counterpoint: a brisk, cobweb-clearing tumble down a mountainside, snow-crunch underfoot, bright sun overhead. It's something new to the series, in other words, at least in terms of ambiance. But don't be fooled: these happy rays do nothing to hold back the nightmare horde - the 10-foot Minotaurs that drip lava from their armpits, the fat and bald crawlers (their missing legs replaced by nothing but tendrils of smoke) who detonate themselves if you come too close.
Neither is the sun able to restrain the old familiar skeletons, whose bones gather up into human shape when you step near, nor the gaunt zombies who buckle and strain under barrels of oil, which will scorch your beard off if struck by a wayward sword. Neither can the mountain light and air penetrate Brume Tower's thick iron doors. When you finally step inside this elegant contraption and the door slams behind you, you're back in hell's belly, where the only things to light your way are the spurts of lava wheezing through its incinerators or the overflowing bowls of black oil that can be lit with a flame torch.
The tower is circular and gigantic, with many floors and offshoots. A series of chains and pulleys rise and fall at its centre, forming a spine of sorts. Huge stone armour-clad warriors dangle from these chains (like knights who hung themselves in disgrace, heads bowed in penitence from broken necks). Each has a platform planted on its helmet which, once you successfully bring the tower's mechanisms to life, doubles as a lift that can ferry you between floors. As with the first chapter in the series, Brume Tower's complicated network of rooms are initially navigated in sequence until you finally unlock shortcuts that allow you to move more freely around the structure. Much of the appeal comes from the elegant way in which From Software's architects and designers make everything slot together.
There are various novelties both within and without Brume Tower, most notably Ashen Idols, piles of rubble that glow red and mean. These structures spit fire, summon enemies or, in the case of the four Ashen Idols that surround the chapter's final boss, provide healing for your enemies. To deactivate an idol you must plunge a stick called a 'smelter wedge' into its centre. Do this and the rubble turns to ash. You are gifted just six smelter wedges at the start of the chapter, but there are more than six Ashen Idols to eliminate. To replenish your supplies you must search Brume Tower's knots and shadows - an essential treasure hunt if you're to complete the chapter.
Crown of the Old Iron King is a shorter proposition than the first add-on. Its final boss, the Fume Knight, is arguably tougher - and that difficulty scales if you choose to take him on with other players. Certainly you will need to deal with each of the Ashen Idols if you're to have a decent chance. Nevertheless, a skilled player will take less time to collect the Old Iron King's crown than that of the Sunken King. As with the first add-on, victory is something of an anti-climax. You collect the crown from the cadaver, then stand around looking rather aimless.
There is, however, further aim. For one thing, Brume Tower is a nest of secrets. Its quiet passageways are stuffed with trinkets (including the excellent Baneful Bird Ring, which reduces stamina loss when blocking with a shield) and, while the majority of players will have settled on their favourite get-up some time ago, some of these items will complement a well-worn set. Then there's the Iron Passage, a corridor that leads to an old, familiar (and optional) foe, which has been buffed and upgraded to terrifying proportions. Best encountered with a couple of other fighters on hand, this enemy offers a final challenge before the third and final chapter arrives. It is, however, a one-hit bonus, unlike Crown of the Sunken King's gauntlet of foes in the Cave of the Dead.
A brisk and challenging chapter, Crown of the Old Iron King's strength is in its unique setting and the difference in tone and ambiance this brings. Compared to its predecessor, it's somewhat brief, but it's arguably more memorable in terms of both its foes and vistas. There is, however, a certain melancholy to its conclusion: once Brume Tower is conquered, only one offshoot to the kingdom of Drangleic remains, the final link in a glorious chain.
8 / 10