Review: Dark Souls II – Crown of the Ivory King (***** stars)

The last Dark Souls II expansion play directly on your expectations, in the best possible way. First, a story, then an explanation.

The moment you enter the snowy, frigid regions of Eleum Loyce, things look quite odd. Fiery looking shapes sit under a panel of icy glass, somewhat similar to the Chaos flames of the first Dark Souls. Take a few steps toward the now-decrepit front gate, and a women’s voice warns you “Go back!” She tells you there is nothing for you here – but hey, you’re in a video game, right? So you press on, chosen Undead that you are, to find loots and treasures and stuff.

Finally entering the blizzard-like whiteout conditions, two paths lie before you: one to your left, and one to your right. The left path contains a fog gate, which memory serves leads you to most boss encounters in the game. The right path leads…who knows where? Again, because Souls games teach you to enjoy boss fights and be confident in your abilities, you take the left path. The voice once again warns you, saying that you’re missing a “seal” or something to that effect. No matter: whatever kind of boss they throw at you, you can take it.

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And how wrong you’d be…

Of course, what you don’t expect to happen is that the boss is an invisible tiger you can’t see; you are summarily, completely, and quickly vanquished by some sort of invisible beast. Good, you learned your lesson: listen to disembodied voices. The entirety of Crown of the Ivory King tests your expectations of “Souls” difficulty, and tests what claims you can trust. It also places challenges in your way that force observance of your surroundings, much like Dark Souls I – a return to form I much appreciate.

The coolest part, however, comes from the two-tiered approach to content that Crown of the Ivory King takes. First, you go through the entire level in the middle of a blizzard, with most paths frozen. Once you obtain the means by which to kill the big kitty and slay him (which I will not reveal), the blizzard dies down. New paths open, new loot appears, and the area may as well be completely new. That sort of layered design, again, echoes the original Dark Souls, and it forces you to remember where the ice sat in your first walk through.

You’ll also need to do this if you want to defeat the Ivory King himself. In a new idea for the Souls series, you need to recruit a band of knights to even stand a chance again the titular boss, as waves and waves of enemies pour into the arena looking for your blood if you don’t. That adds a nice twist to this epic boss battle, and the setting/music really contribute to the mood. Unfortunately, the Ivory King himself proves a bit of a pushover, but I love that exploring a level helps your chances of beating the boss in a direct way.

Unfortunately, less positive things could be said about Frigid Outskirts, which certainly stands as one of the most challenging Souls areas ever made. You literally cannot see as you move through a frozen wasteland of nothing, and giant ice horse/reindeer of doom spawn out of the blizzard at random intervals from random spots in random numbers. Seriously, this whole area seems designed to cause people to throw objects in their house, since these creatures attack relentlessly, and do lots of damage. Add that to not knowing where you’re going (the first few times, at least), and Frigid Outskirts quickly turns frustrating.

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You will quickly learn to hate these dumb things and how they never seem to despawn.

That said, the area clearly seems designed for co-operative play, and as far as that goes, it’s a whole lot better than a bunch of small corridors loaded with enemies like the last two DLC. Just, I was hoping that walking back to the boss encounter didn’t always take 15-20 minutes. Additionally, I hoped said boss encounter didn’t involve fighting two of something rather than one (yes, two tigers of doom), which seems incredibly lazy in my mind. You come up with the idea of evil horse reindeer, and then can’t think of something more interesting than two tigers, both of which decimate you pretty easily without a cheesy damage strategy or a co-op guy? As you might be able to tell, this area isn’t my favorite.

Regardless of that challenge (which, honestly, I never want to experience again, and will probably skip if I ever play Dark Souls II again), the Crown of the Ivory King DLC is a real winner. Out of all the DLC content, it presents the most new concepts and experimental ideas. Not all of them function the way that the developers probably intended, and some appear intended to cause untold player suffering, but I appreciate the experimentation with a proven formula more than anything else. Their ideas work, and work well, which is all you can hope for sometimes!

Video games that challenge your expectations and preconceived notions of what a game should be often will remain the most memorable experiences. They force something out of you, pushing your mind out of its comfort zone to some unfamiliar, and frankly uncomfortable, places. But friends, those kinds of experiences are exactly the kind I’m looking for, the kind that use novelty in a way that presents an utterly new experience, even under an old framework.

I think Micah 6 provides a good example of this, mostly because it contravenes the total, complete emphasis of the Law that, supposedly, Jewish religion saw as a given.

With what shall I come to the Lord
And bow myself before the God on high?
Shall I come to Him with burnt offerings,
With yearling calves?
Does the Lord take delight in thousands of rams,
In ten thousand rivers of oil?
Shall I present my firstborn for my rebellious acts,
The fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
He has told you, O man, what is good;
And what does the Lord require of you
But to do justice, to love [c]kindness,
And to walk [d]humbly with your God?

And yet, here’s a total contrast from that way of thinking. What does God require? Not the accouterments of the Law, but the intent of the Law. God would explicate that intent more fully in the New Testament, but the idea is the same. God pushes us out of our comfort zone constantly, as he did the Jewish people who expected a kingly Messiah, but ended up with some guy born in a manger as a poor wandering guy. Appearances can deceive, and our expectations might need some adjusting.

Anyway, without such grand gestures of theological proportions, all I can say is Crown of the Ivory King was a surprising delight in a game that, I thought, exhausted all of its tricks. Totally worth playing the entire game, in some way, just for this!

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.