A quick look through my previous reviews for the Lost Crowns DLCs shows that I don't like them quite as well as the core game. I loved Dark Souls 2; I have since replayed it several times, both for fun and for work (including twice in the process of reviewing the DLC as they were added). In truth, I was looking for the excuse, as the Souls series has a design philosophy and execution that excites the desire to revisit, to explore content in a new fashion. The Sunken King and Old Iron King DLCs, while quite good, did not present the same overall strength and excellent synergy that the core game possessed – whole both had strengths, even answering the minor flaws I had with the main product, they didn't quite present the same standout-appeal.
The Crown of the Ivory King, however, manages to recapture that feeling, and even manages to excel beyond it in certain ways.
The Ivory King's domain is accessed via the Shrine of Winter, located in the Shaded Woods area behind the door that can only be opened when the four Old Ones have been slain (or you've put enough grind in to have a Soul Memory of one million), approaching the game's final arc. Anyone can use the Shrine to enter the great, wintery plateau, overlooking the massive icy wastes, but only those who've purchased the DLC will be able to unlock the door into the great fortress (though placing your summon sign in the area allows you to be summoned into it to assist, as with other DLC). Those who do approach the broken metal gate, only to see tendrils of ice arc outward, and an echoing, eerily familiar voice warn you to turn back. Of course, those who brave on are rewarded with some of the best content the game has to offer.
The level design takes the general philosophy present in previous DLC, and executes it amazingly. The area is breathtaking to behold, even with the icy winds cloaking everything. Once the winds have been silenced, however, the great fortress of Eleum Loyce is visible, and the dead city behind it. The sight is truly breathtaking, and rivals Anor Londo from the original Dark Souls in scope and effect (it is a direct visual homage.) You don't get to explore the great city in the distance, as much as you would like to, but the small collection of structures and walls will suffice. Great battlements lined with ice-rimed troops, snowy ditches, and a towering cathedral all give this a sense like it's a real place, somewhere people lived and defended, once.
What's more, everything is even more interconnected than in previous DLC. Areas require revisit later after a critical key or event has occurred, changing the fortress' structure – for example, many paths and treasure chests are frozen in ice on the first trip, only to be later shattered when the snowy winds die down. If you can see it, you can probably get to it, and if you can't, you wish you could. The DLC’s items are some of the best looking in the game (I'm a big fan of the sorcerous twin-blade) and have some of the most fascinating lore descriptions.
Fighting through Eleum Loyce was a joy, and the enemy variety is impressive. The DLC 'giant undead' are back, as easy back-stab targets as ever, though there's a greater variety of them, including a sneak-attack-proof version covered in ice crystals. White-robed women dot the fortress, ignoring you completely – I walked right by them, unwilling to disturb them, and they didn't ambush me until I returned later after fighting some of their magic-wielding sisters elsewhere. There were rodents with spikes of frost erupting from their bodies, and golems who come to life if an enemy dies near enough for their souls to enter the construct (with strange implications, given the Golems' association with the giants), with truly entertaining. To be fair, there are previous bosses repeated as standard enemies, though their placement and situations are quite clever. Special credit goes to the NPC phantom invasions – the AI emulates a lot of standard player behaviour, and often surprised me with tactics I wouldn't expect from an NPC.
The bosses are a step above the previous DLC, and feature unique designs. What makes the bosses noteworthy is that their arenas provide clever complications – they are all but impossible without exploring the level and discovering means of countering their home advantage, at a greater and more involved level than the boss fight the Iron King. The first boss, for example, is invisible until you find a means of seeing through its disguise (treating you to an intriguing boss design and move-set). The final DLC boss's arena is amazing, and is a huge lore reference to the previous game (I will only say this – I consider the fight a suitably apology for the awful Bed of Chaos boss battle in the original Dark Souls).
The optional area deserves special mention. It's one of the most innovative things I've seen in Dark Souls – in a departure from the high-difficulty, claustrophobic areas previously used, this co-op zone is a huge, wide area of tundra somewhere in the distant horizon beyond the walls. Constant blizzards render visibly nearly nonexistent, save for the brief respites that allow you to plot your course. Exploring its dangers was some of the most fun I've had, and while the boss is another reskin, it's also a far different and more complicated fight.
My only real complaint, aside from my own pet theories not proving true (the Lady of Dark convention present in each kingdom is handled uniquely in this kingdom and sheds light, so to speak, on the nature and motivations of the fragments of the Abyss), is the endings. Taking the last of the three crowns to the one who sent you after them gives you a short cutscene and a prompt that the crowns have been powered up – wearing them gives you a shocking ability, with impressive story connotations for the Undead and for the quest to cure yourself. I would have liked more fanfare – I'd already beaten the main game's final boss, so I wasn't able to see if the cutscene had changed.
To be clear, if you only buy one of the three DLC, then purchase this one. It's the strongest of the three, and actually might be better designed than the game proper. Eleum Loyce's icy prison drives home the true desolation of Dark Souls – the frozen monstrosities and desolate landscapes show the futility of the kingdoms that came before, tempting you to steal their power and create a better one for yourself. I am not even sure I found all the secrets yet, and I'm interested in doing it again soon to see what I missed.
Don't listen to the voices. Enter the gates and claim the Ivory Crown (PS. It looks fantastic).