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Dark Souls 2: Crown of the Old Iron King disturbed me with its difficulty.
Even in a franchise bathed in brutality, the second installment in developer From Software's downloadable content trilogy contains the most punishing hours I've ever experienced in the action role-playing series. Unlike its predecessor, Crown of the Sunken King, it focuses not on changing the environment through puzzles but on surviving the environment itself. In that sense, it is a return to the formula established by the original Dark Souls, where astute players can use the quirks of the world to their advantage.
But that landscape is teeming with herds of powerful enemies and inhumanely powered bosses, and they will crush anyone unprepared for Crown of the Old Iron King's unrelenting mercilessness. If you arrive underprepared, as I first did, the difficulty is likely to tarnish an otherwise excellent expansion.
Not only are its freakishly powerful enemies new, but they tend to travel in packs
Like the previous DLC, Crown of the Old Iron King’s world is connected to but separate from the landmass in which Dark Souls 2’s campaign takes place. You begin high atop a monumental fortress overrun by murderous vestiges of a bygone era and make your way into its depths. Not only are its freakishly powerful enemies new, but they tend to travel in packs. Managing these herds is a welcome twist on an established formula. I not only had to learn the rhythms of fighting singular enemies, but how to prevent my would-be murderers from overwhelming me as a gang.
Enemy management is made easier through clever level design, which often presents multiple ways to approach the axe-wielding hordes. For example, the straightforward path to an early room dropped me in front of a group of several adversaries, who had no qualms about cooperating for the kill. But, as I made my way back to their lair after several deaths, I noticed that I could leap off the side of a broken platform just before the room’s entrance. Within seconds, I was at the back of the room and able to take down each enemy with a combination of stealthy backstabs and one-on-one encounters. It’s classic Souls level design, which rewarded my scrutiny and left me feeling smart. Further strengthening the bond with the original Dark Souls, Crown of the Old Iron King presents an environment that can be either deadly or helpful, depending on how you treat it. The DLC’s most endearing characters are a case study in making the old new again. Like "Iron Keep," the Dark Souls 2 level that inspires and links to it, Crown of the Old Iron King is bathed in fire. This often takes the form of ornamental iron sculptures that vomit plumes of deadly flames around which skittish, spindly little undead creatures carrying barrels of explosive powder tend to hang out.
After taking turns avoiding and blowing the creatures up without a goal, I realized that they weren’t a direct threat. They were, in fact, scared of me, and I could use that knowledge to my advantage. In a section of gated rooms filled with nearly insurmountable sorcerers, my very presence turned the barrel carriers into living puzzle pieces. I herded them toward my enemies, where they walked into the flames. There, they ignited and exploded and killed everyone but me. On my first playthrough, this new, oblique way of interacting with characters allowed me to dispatch enemies that I could barely damage with my regular weapons, hexes and sorceries.
This is how Crown of the Old Iron King communicates with players. It’s a subtle, one-way conversation centered on gameplay and with roots in its predecessors. It was also a monologue that I initially failed to listen to.
I began the DLC in New Game+, an optional, higher difficulty mode accessible after you complete the Dark Souls 2 campaign. New Game+ reset the world, bumped up the difficulty and let me begin the campaign again with my established character and equipment. I didn’t anticipate a problem since I had played the previous DLC on NG+ difficulty without issue. I was wrong.
Even at about level 215, I was occasionally ineffectual when trying to defeat enemies. Though I died countless times, I was often able to grind out progress by turning the environment into my ally, like with the spindly creatures above. When the DLC’s design failed to present clever environmental opportunities, I felt woefully underpowered. Crown of the Old Iron King is not designed to be played with anything less than very high level characters. Nowhere was this more apparent than in boss fights, a problem that also plagued its DLC predecessor.
The last DLC’s bosses were not designed to be battled solo. From Software made an implied acknowledgment of this by placing two NPC summon signs around the bonfires before each. Crown of the Old Iron King offers the same tacit assistance. The message is clear: This is difficult. Accept the help. Unfortunately, the boss fights are even more of a pain this time around.
When the DLC’s design failed to present clever environmental opportunities, I felt woefully underpowered
Starting over from the first bonfire, my journey was easier — but not in any sense easy
On my first playthrough, I spent more than nine hours fighting two different bosses. I burned through more than 30 Human Effigies and was summoned into countless other games. Not once did I or any of the dozens of players I teamed up with succeed. Yes, the difficulty was ratcheted up, but I also made the assumption that my teammates had the experience and the desire to embrace the extra challenge. Yet we all failed, over and over and over. The Souls formula, in which you learn a little more with each failure, evaporated into annoyance, replaced by nonsense so masochistic that it halted my progress. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go back.
Stalled and frustrated, I decided to complete the NG+ campaign and return to Crown of the Old Iron King in a much more powerful form. Starting over from the first bonfire, my journey was easier — but not in any sense easy. Even at level 250, where nearly 300,000 souls separated me from my next level, I needed help with the DLC’s three bosses. But I overcame. They fell at the blunt end of my Dragon Tooth in probably less than an hour, combined.
Crown of the Old Iron King rewards players who accept its difficulty and required effort
The unique genius of the Souls formula is that it’s constructed on a foundation of frustration that players are invited to conquer. Yes, these games are difficult, but that alone isn’t enough to sustain them. The other half of that equation is equally important: They convince players that, given enough time, patience and study, these games can not only be overcome, but mastered. Dark Souls 2: Crown of the Old Iron King gets the formula right, but only if you’ve invested the time required to match its level of difficulty with your own and you’re willing to listen to what it’s trying to tell you.Dark Souls 2: Crown of the Old Iron King was reviewed using a retail downloadable code provided by From Software. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here. Screenshots used are taken primarily from the main game, not the DLC. About Polygon's Reviews