The worlds of the Souls games have consistently excelled in conveying a sense of history. There’s the impression that their castles and other fortifications have changed ownership by various invaders many times over. The kingdom of Drangleic in Dark Souls II not only feels ancient, but haunted as well. In the Crown of the Old Iron King add-on, the ashen bodies that litter the open spaces of Brume Tower effectively echo the flash-heated victims of Pompeii. Merely touching them casts their fragile shapes into the wind, which is inevitable given that they’re littered around the game’s fields of battle. Dark Souls might be punishing, but it doesn’t punish you for disrespecting the departed, not surprising for a series that encourages the player to embrace death.
Whereas the South-American-inspired temple in Sunken King helped give the first DLC an aptly disconnected feel from the main game, there’s a sense that Old Iron King is meant as natural extension of Iron Keep. It’s as if Brume Tower were the original mine and furnace of Drangleic, and Iron Keep were built as the fancier upgrade. It explains the lack of moving parts in the map’s various towers. In a land strewn with large misplaced gears and other clockwork pieces, Brume Tower is both antiquated and charming. It’s of little surprise that recovering the towers’ keys and switches make up many of this DLC’s objectives. These towers, by the way, are impressively intricate and are more involving than Dark Souls II’s other vertical areas, like The Pit. Brume Tower feels like a fortification built around its towers as opposed to the other way around.
The settings of Crown of the Old Iron King are both fantastical and relatable, but nowhere near practical. Gigantic suits of armor hang inexplicably under elevator platforms, hinting that humans10 times normal size once protected Drangleic. A part of me laughs at the sight of enormous chain link bridges made of actual chains. I nervously get the camera angle just right so I don’t fall off and wonder if I’ll have to endure combat on these narrowest of bridges. From Software would be cruel enough to subject us to such tribulations. As it turns out, you won’t have to fight anyone on these chains, unless you lack foresight and lure an enemy there yourself. At that point, any deaths on the chains are all on you.
Explore thoroughly enough and you eventually find Iron Passage. Given its cavernous, yet tight spaces and its deep roster of demons, this optional area is a clear follow-up to the Cave of the Dead from Crown of the Sunken King. These caves would be the most challenging sections of the Lost Crowns trilogy if not for the two helpful phantoms you can summon. This cavernous journey concludes with a duel against a blue variant of the Smelter Demon, further underscoring the uninspired boss designs of these expansions. Same goes for Fume Knight, a mandatory opponent in Brume Tower who dual-wields melee weapons not unlike The Pursuer and Old Dragonslayer.
If you seek variety, look to Old Iron King’s lesser foes. Agile assassins exhibit talents with small blades, lightning spells, and short distance teleportation, so killing them feels all the more gratifying. The most frightening group of creatures appears around the DLC’s halfway point: portly humanoids that crawl toward you due to their missing legs. They’re especially creepy when they charge at you and self-destruct in an explosion of flame. Picture the legless T-800 at the end of The Terminator mixed with the fireballs in the Final Fantasy series.
In Iron Keep, there was an odd ease and simplicity in dipping a group of enemies into a lethal pool of lava by the pull of a switch. Similar conveniences appear in this DLC, provided you’re able to spot these situational tricks before you fall victim to these traps yourself. Brume Tower is populated with mutants who carry barrels of explosive and flammable liquid. Their bow-legged movement makes them look scarier than they actually are. Their non-hostile behavior should be your first clue of their usefulness. Much like the windmill puzzle in Dark Souls II, this DLC provides its share of “Ah-ha!” moments, which almost always reveal themselves as you continue to explore and take stock of your surroundings.
I’ve grown to be that person who can stand in an old building and envision the ghosts of those who have roamed its halls. It’s an achievement when a digital environment can trigger similar meditations, something that the Souls games have pulled off time and time again. From Software is keenly aware of this, as evidenced by a memorable, and more importantly, playable flashback sequence of Dark Souls II. What is noteworthy about Crown of the Old Iron King is how it conveys a deep sense history without the help of a flashback. Its slumbering defenses await your arrival, just as they have for countless heroes before and for those who’ll follow in your footsteps. It’s these guardians who act as the connective tissue between past and present, formidable as always.