We weren't supposed to get DLC for Dark Souls II. The only reason the original even had its Artorias of the Abyss content was because the game was unfinished, and the content had to be cut (along with several other things where the lack of polish starts to shone through, such as the short areas and poor boss fights of Izalith). When more DLC was announced for the new game, the question that should have been on everyone's mind was “does this add to the story?” Dark Souls 2's story is told indirectly, but it's deep, and the milieu of countless doomed kingdoms is well-established.
Crown of the Sunken King is part one a three-part DLC – amid exploring the ruined kingdom of Drangleic, your Undead survivor comes across the remnants of older kingdoms. In the case of this DLC, you've got a sunken ruin to explore, filled with the poison and decay – and of course, death.
The actual Sunken City is certainly an evocative place. When you first arrive, you're greeted by a colossal dragon, who roars a violent greeting before swooping off into the looming ruins. Square towers rise and fall with the strike of a switch, rising next to a towering ziggurat that you see from the cliff above – and down to the water below, where horrid monsters roam looking to devour you. Dark Souls II lacked some of the visible interconnectivity the original had, where chances were you could go to the places you can see off in the distance (it still exists in the form of things like the Undead Purgatory arena, but to a limited extent). The Sanctum tells a story, in the items and enemy designs, and it doesn't hurt that these designs are high quality. Some of the enemies are downright clever in their execution, and the level design follows the standard Dark Souls tradition, ramping difficulty (starting off simple to teach the player how to use it, and then making it more complex later). Learning how to use the moving towers to block archers, or to hunt down certain tenacious enemies is rather rewarding.
New items and spells are quite a plus – there's some rather impressive ones, including Dark Greatsword, an awesome Hex version of the sorcery spell that also has a ranged component. Item designs are unique and distinct, with the glowing, segmented blade snapping apart into magnetically-connected chunks for a whip-like attack, to the dark-shooting crossbow dropped by the venom-tainted Sanctum Guardians. There's items in there that I'll definitely be carrying into the rest of the game.
That said, there are some points that are just so similar to core game elements that it takes me out of it. I felt the whole Sunken City resembled the Shrine of Amana and Undead Crypt a little too much for my liking. Those areas were amazing on their own, and to have the DLC mirror them so strongly when they aren't geographically related (unlike the Black Gulch, whose poison-spewing statuettes make a return with a deadly twist).
The bosses are the heart of the level, and I'm somewhat satisfied with them. There are three fights, one of which is optional and the other two which are right at the end, but only the final boss really stood out for me. This is somewhat of a reversal for Dark Souls, where the last enemy is often disappointing; the ultimate encounter is stupendously fun, with a lot of move variety and creative counterattacks to player strategy. The boss before it is interesting, but reminds me too much of the core game's final boss in structure (something that's logical given certain elements), and the optional battle is deliberately designed with co-op in mind, encouraging players to join up, if their soul levels match.
And that brings me to one of the major issues I had with this DLC – the lack of information regarding what level is appropriate for an area in the context of grouping up with others. Dark Souls doesn't adhere to standard scaling, as you can kill an opponent far more powerful than you over time in a lot of cases, but it's clear this area is meant to be tackled AFTER the final confrontations, though you can reach it much earlier. Dark Souls II tracks player level 'soul memory' – the game tracks how many souls you've acquired, whether you've upgraded stats with it, bought items, or just lost them to death, and uses that to determine who you group with. This isn't too much of an issue most times, but now that the rush has died down and it's harder to get groups, it would be nice to know how close I am to the player bracket, so I can summon others for the insane optional battle.
Overall, I'm pleased with the DLC and feel it's a strong start to the chain of 'Crown' DLC. Exploring the previous kingdoms that Drangleic replaced and seeing how they fell is good enough, but there's also a subtle hint that the search for the crowns may actually shed some more light on the game's ending. There's plenty of questions answered just in this offering alone, regarding King Vendrick's reasoning for his actions and some revelation into the nature of the undead curse. The writing's well up to Dark Souls standards, and this DLC alone has enough going for it to be worth the purchase. You can also try it out by using summon signs to be summoned into the world by someone who bought the DLC, allowing other players to get a taste.
It's an important first start, but it also brings concern with the whole 'season pass' structure. The first DLC has to be great, and this one lives up to it, but we're essentially paying for DLC we haven't received yet by buying the season pass. This game shows that the bar's set high and they can reach it, which is a vote of confidence for many. It's always difficult to recommend buying a season pass, since you don't know what you'll get (as Bioshock Infinite's serviceable but disappointingly-narrow-scoped DLC showed). Crown of the Sunken King is worth it, though, and you'll have fun dying
The crown's not bad, either.