Visions of death, therefore try crying.
Practice makes perfect, even in Dark Souls II. The Souls series reinforces the idea of improvement and player growth. I died plenty of times in my first playthrough of Dark Souls II, but now I can breeze through parts that previously tormented me. I guess From Software caught wind of that, because I'm being tormented yet again in the "Crown of the Sunken King" DLC. Its four new areas and painfully difficult bosses truly test the player in ways that the main game rarely does. Thus the love/hate relationship with the Souls series continues.
At its most basic level, Crown of the Sunken King succeeds in that it adds a sizable amount of new content. Players will explore four new areas—Shulva, Dragon's Sanctum, Dragon's Rest, and the optional Cave of the Dead—each of which contain plenty of unique items. I was particularly happy to find a mace that deals poison damage just 20 minutes into the DLC, considering the fact that my character currently wields a huge club. I figure the transition from club to mace will be a smooth one once I satisfy the strength requirement. There are also new spells, rings, and plenty of other goodies that will require Souls fans to meticulously survey every nook and cranny of the DLC-specific levels. Doing so will take roughly 6-8 hours, though skill and soul level will add or subtract from that estimate.
A large portion of my time was spent in the opening area of Shulva, and for good reason. Just a few minutes into the DLC, I encountered an odd-looking pillar and a player message that suggested hitting it. I did so, and heard the thundering roar of the ground being raised. This moment reveals the main conceit of Shulva—players must hit a series of pillars to create new platforms and discover shortcuts. It adds a welcome level of verticality to the game and also increases the tension. I could feel my stress level rising higher and higher with each new pillar I hit (the only cure was the comfort of a bonfire). The pillar system toes that fine line between legitimate challenge and frustration and largely succeeds.
Shulva features other challenges, including bugs that can quickly break the player's equipment and a whole slew of enemies that deal poison. But Dragon's Sanctum was the level that nearly broke me. I don't want to give too many details because discovery is one of the game's greatest strengths, but there are rooms and enemies in there that took great pleasure in destroying me time after time. I'll admit I ran through most of that place like a coward until I had to go back and find important items. Just when I think I've escaped the clutches of Dark Souls II's difficulty, it pulls me back in.
Though I enjoy the challenge Crown of the Sunken King presents, it doesn't completely compensate for a lack of inspiration. Much of the level and enemy design appears unoriginal and borrows heavily from the main game. Shulva is dominated by a green hue, which appropriately compliments the enemy's favorite element. But a lot of the environments feel lifeless, and not in a way that establishes strong atmosphere. The bosses also stand out as a weakpoint in the DLC. Let's just say I dislike encounters that rely heavily on the player's ability for crowd control.
Crown of the Sunken King marks the first piece of DLC in a planned trilogy, and it's a wonderful opening chapter. It doesn't reach the heights of Dark Souls' Artorias of the Abyss and features design flaws that hold it back, but the simple bliss of more Souls content is something fans can get behind (as long as they mentally prepare themselves for death and despair).