Honestly, each Dark Souls II DLC (even in the context of Scholar of the First Sin) seems best reviewed like a separate entity, considering all three function in completely separate areas and never link up at all. Not surprisingly, this review involves SPOILERS to the max, but suffice to say BUY IT if you can.
Dark Souls II, at least the base game, remains somewhat unfinished in its current state. Scholar of the First Sin tries its best to remedy that situation (with mixed success, as my later review indicates), but cannot fix the issues of the base game. However, From Software obviously knew that their level design in the sequel lacked the labyrthine connectivity and charm of the original game; whenever the DLC went into production, a different design philosophy came into play that evokes the original.
Why do I say this? The Sunken City of Shulva uses that oft-ignored Dark Souls treat: the shortcut. You wander through a dangerous area, finally assured of your safety. Who knows how many hours you’ve spent in the game, because tension in an unfamiliar, nearly silent area always engrosses. You wander into a door, peering into a dark room where a switch lies. What does it do, you wonder? You press the switch, and you hear a platform from far away. You figure, “why not?”, and take the platform up. Suddenly, you observe that, somehow, you find yourself right where you started the whole area, and a nice “eureka!” moment of euphoria pops into your brain.
In the DLC content player so far, the shortcut reigns supreme, encouraging players to explore the entire region and find out what they missed. Lots of items are also hidden behind these switches, as are dangerous traps, and dealing with the consequences of either really sells the danger of this new area and the Dark Souls mantra of “you’re responsible for your actions”. I would say, in some sense, that such things are a bit of a shallow pleasure, but who doesn’t love commending excellent level design? This isn’t the Dark Souls II modus operandi of “big room, corridor, big room” in a tiny area; Shulva is a sprawling city with tons of secrets, alternate paths, and interesting places to explore (it should tell you a lot that the area requires five bonfires to cover, and they are not close). I suppose we could expect an expansion that retails for $9.99 to provide content, but you rarely see DLC that gives so much.
That goes for the bosses as well. Elana and Sinh both pose a massive challenge for anyone who finished the original Dark Souls II, and both clearly attempt to best anything in the base game. One summons other bosses in the middle of the fight, meaning you need to find an effective strategy to kill Elana quickly or die trying. Sinh, on the other hand, gives you entirely little room for error, and people who play greatshield builds (I.e., me!) can’t even block his attacks. Beating Sinh was one of the most exhilarating experience I’ve had with a video game in a while, and figuring out the right strategy took many attempts – but, that’s why I play video games! Honestly, this fight seems worth the whole DLC alone, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the entire area just for the challenge of it.
This says a lot about me, of course, that I could completely ignore every other element and focus on the bizarre, unique challenges lying within. Most Souls veterans should beat this just fine, but everybody else will have a rough time, I guarantee. But, Christians should challenge themselves, I believe, and that remains just as true in video games as in life, whether forced upon us or chosen willingly.
2 Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various [a]trials, 3 knowing that the testing of your faith produces [b]endurance. 4 And let [c]endurance have its perfect [d]result, so that you may be [e]perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.
That’s not to mention the perfect progression of enemy types (from poison soldiers to weird armor-destroying bugs and ghost knights that can only be harmed by destroying their corpse) and the rather eerie setting of a dead underground city destroyed by a toxic dragon where a haunting voice keeps the dragon from waking yet again. As a side story in the context of collecting the crowns of kings, it’s an interesting one: the Sunken King discovers the dragon Sinh, and erects a sanctum and an entire city to worship him. Followers of another religion, the Drakeblood Knights, invades to take (unsurprisingly) the blood of the dragon. Things don’t end well! I’m curious what about the link between this and the main game; my guess is that the shards of the Abyss (like Elana, the Squalid Queen) motivated these kings to terrible deeds for their own use of power. Even Vendrick succumbed, but later turned hollow rather than allow Nashandra access to the Throne of Want (i.e., the first bonfire). This theme plays out in the second expansion too, so I’m excited to see where it goes.
In conclusion: this expansion exudes quality from top to bottom; if you finished Dark Souls II, and felt a little put off by its design, playing Crown of the Sunken King and its subsequent brethren should elevate your opinion of the game overall. I know it did for me!