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Dark Souls 2: Crown of the Ivory King Review (PS3)

Matt Barr takes one last moment to breathe in the cold, crisp air of Drangleic

DS2IvoryKingcThe snow glows white on the mountain tonight

Crown of the Ivory King represents the final, snowy chapter in From Software’s planned Lost Crown trilogy of Dark Souls 2 DLC. However, it also marks the first occasion I’ve returned to Drangleic since defeating the Queen Regent and completing the main game. I’ve been enthralled by the Souls games from the moment I first got my hands on an imported copy of Demon’s Souls, but the allure of the franchise has, for me, diminished incrementally with each instalment. Vendrick forgive me, but towards the end of Dark Soul 2’s lengthy campaign, I began to feel that From Software had, perhaps, spoiled us with too much of a good thing. Within moments of embarking on the Crown of the Ivory King DLC, however, its icy winds had sucked me right back in again.

DS2IvoryKingb
A kingdom of isolation

This being Dark Souls, DLC is not accessed in a conventional manner. Purchasing the add-on bestows the player with a Frozen Flower item, which must be presented at a mysterious altar within the Shrine of Winter that previously provided passage to Drangleic Castle. Once transported to the eerily empty kingdom of Eleum Loyce, a portentous female voice warns against proceeding and she has a point – one wrong turn at this stage and it’s possible to find yourself facing off against the DLC’s final boss, the titular Burnt Ivory King. Such a premature encounter will not end happily. Eventually, you’ll be presented with the option of recruiting some assistance with this fight, but not before you’ve been invaded by at least one hostile NPC, become partially snow blind from peering into blizzards in search of real or imagined foes, and been bludgeoned to death by demonic ice rabbits. The ominous clatter of those evil bunnies’ approach will taint my dreams for some time.

With these intermediate challenges overcome, you will be met with the feline form of Aava, the King’s Pet: a boss battle I found to be nigh-on impossible. It is a special kind of despair that the combination of a challenging Dark Souls boss and a review deadline instils. While Aava was eventually put down, it’s worth noting that this slice of DLC is positioned as the final chapter in an adventure that may only be embarked upon if the player has obtained all four of the Old Souls from the main game and lit the four corresponding Primal Bonfires: it’s not meant to be easy. Prepare to die, indeed.

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You’ll never see me cry

For me, the Souls games are more about the unique, visceral gameplay experience they provide, and less about the attendant story. That said, the endearingly impenetrable lore of the Crown of the Ivory King – delivered with ominous authority by the same female voice that welcomes players to Eleum Loyce – adds a sense of gloomy purpose to proceedings. The otherwise superb gameplay experience is marred, just marginally, by a handful of somewhat – dare I say it? – lazy design choices. The optional Frigid Outskirts area, for example, is actually a rather sparse expanse, with progress impeded only by a recurring and utterly blinding blizzard, out of which angry flying reindeer periodically spawn. Personally, I enjoyed (for want of a better word!) the disorienting effects of the blizzard, and found the potentially tedious appearance of the reindeer tolerable. However, it was difficult not to feel disappointed when this portion of the DLC concluded with a boss fight that simply recycled a previous rendezvous, but doubled the number of antagonists and, um, changed their colour a bit. It’s a little sad to think that this underwhelming skirmish might be many players’ final encounter with Dark Souls 2.

Within the main body of the game, there is some mandatory retracing of previous steps as you work to recruit the NPC knights that will help you defeat the King. However, this enforced re-treading is brief, and the already-familiar ground is sprinkled with some new surprises: those apparently harmless, frozen corpses you observed on your first journey across the wintry ramparts? This is Dark Souls, you fool – of course they’re going to try to kill you later! Additional secrets and shortcuts are revealed, and the sense of achievement that comes with successfully recruiting a knight is not diminished by a little repetition. The NPC recruitment drive also pays dividends in terms of the spectacular final battle with the Burnt Ivory King: it’s incredibly gratifying to see the screen fill not with your foe’s minions but with your own private army of NPC knights and player phantoms.

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The cold never bothered me anyway

Finding fault in small aspects of the DLC’s design is churlish considering the renewed appreciation for From Software’s work that this chapter has inspired. Crown of the Ivory King is Dark Souls in microcosm; a bite-sized but meaty slice of the series’ opaque lore, atmospheric locations and ludicrously difficult boss fights.

4.5 demonic ice bunnies out of 5

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