It's great to see Crown of the Sunken King, the first Dark Souls 2 DLC expansion, is closer to the first game's mazey madness, albeit in a more conscise form. Its rocky inclines and crumbling chambers don't so much twist and turn as gently lead you astray, and the interconnections are more foreshadowed. It makes sense for the DLC's scope; it takes five hours to find and defeat the final boss, and that's even if you lose your way a few times.
All the same, in its stone-cold heart of hearts, Sunken King is just more Dark Souls 2, albeit inevitably tougher. There are a few new enemies - some total bastards - while others are more reworked and re-skinned, but generally the higher difficulty comes from placement and numbers. One memorable section has you blind drop into an intimately small cavern that's brimming with skeletons and petrifying statues, and it's just horrible. Once you see how stuffed to the walls it is the overriding temptation is to run away, but it's like one of those Doctor Who scenes with the Weeping Angels. The enemies just get closer and closer, and it's so much easier to blink and accept your fate.
A larger watery cave hides a bonfire in a distant corner, but it's patrolled by several menacing beasts. They're mostly just giant jaws, but they are tough enough one at a time. There's only something like seven or eight of them there, but their mess of patrols and the danger of getting caught between two reminded me of the road traffic in Frogger. Like a panicky amphibian, I only reached the bonfire by speeding past and not looking back.
While there's nothing hugely fresh in Sunken King, the heightened danger of rooms like those complements the disorienting design. It gives the area a physical mystery; you can't just push through and pinpoint your goal. That mystery is accentuated by puzzles that, while not hard to solve, have satisfyingly profound effects on the landscape. At first the abyss below seems deep without end, but you'll be surprised at how much it's hiding.
What doesn't complement that mystery, sadly, is the visual design. Sunken King starts promisingly, contrasting its green-grey ruins against black darkness punctuated wistfully by glimpses of white light. Then, the colors drain away and everything seems to become green-grey - the enemies, the walls, the darkness below. There are some enjoyable little touches - one room simply has a row of opened chests and a corpse lingering in the corner. But Sunken King simply doesn't inspire the curiosity produced by similarly bleak areas like the New Londo Ruins and Sinner's Rise. Compared to those areas, Sunken King feels grim for grim's sake.
There are enough high notes in this first DLC, though, for it to serve its duty as a familiar, if far from spectacular, opening act. In short, it doesn't feel too much like more of the same, even if that's mostly what it is. That's what you'll probably take away after defeating the final bosses, both of which rank among the most interesting in Dark Souls 2, and definitely among the toughest - be prepared to burn through human effigies and summon a-plenty. I won't spoil the final boss, but suffice to say, if you wanted more Goliath-like monsters ripping you apart in dauntingly huge arenas, then you are in for a treat.
This review is based on an Xbox Live download of Dark Souls 2's "Crown of the Sunken King" DLC, provided by Bandai Namco. Images: Bandai Namco.
Note: Joystiq does not provide star ratings for downloadable content reviews with the understanding that the quality of the core game's experience is unchanged from the original release; See our Dark Souls 2 review.