Welcome to See Drangleic, an episodic playthrough journal exploring the world of Dark Souls II. Be sure to check out the introduction post first if you haven’t already, otherwise continue reading for Part 12 which explores Iron Keep.
“The earth spouted fire, and a beast arose from the flames. The short-sighted king was incinerated by the creature in one swing, and his castle devoured in a sea of flames.”
Similar to when we toured Heide’s Tower of Flame (see Part 4), there is a definite sense of incongruity with players going from a vertical windmill ride all the way to a lava-filled stronghold seemingly residing above the clouds.
Iron Keep doesn’t fit into this world in any logical sense, so it’s very fortunate that the location as a whole is still one of the most memorable in all of Dark Souls II. I say memorable rather than best because there will be some players who detest walking its scorched battlements as countless Alonne knights and ironclad soldiers close in for the kill. The inner walkways are very precarious, there are traps everywhere, and in terms of PvP activity, the entry bridge is a spot that’s just as hot as the lava that surrounds it.
Iron Keep is a longer and more satisfying prospect when compared to Sinner’s Rise and you’ll find not one but two bosses waiting for you deeper inside. It’s a difficult level jam-packed with danger, though that’s perfectly suitable considering a Great Soul is being guarded at the end of it.
Before you can even think of snatching that precious heirloom you have to contend with the area’s first guardian, the terrifying Smelter Demon. Once again, players shouldn’t go into this boss battle expecting anything tremendously original. The “great mass of iron that was given life” is exactly that; a gigantic metal automaton who assaults players with a massive sword and a core of molten fury.
The difficulty level is more notable here because Smelter Demon is not one of those throwaway bosses who is easily bested. New players will have their hands full trying to deal with an aggressive enemy whose multiple phases of attack only get more powerful as its life depletes. The hulk is almost immune to pyromancy and once its torso flame is stoked, players will begin to suffer burn damage when remaining in close quarters. It will be a tough time for melee specialists and you can’t necessarily rely on outside support either as this is one of the few bosses in the vanilla game whose health bar adequately scales up to match your party’s size.
The backing music to this encounter has been pinched from the Ruin Sentinels fight, which is a shame, though it sounds just as fitting when used in the new environment, so it’s really not a problem. Smelter Demon looks badass too and the various rewards you get for slaying it – including the Smelter Sword and matching armour set – will be worthwhile to those who dream of transforming their character into a walking heavy metal mascot.
It speaks well of the overall level design here that this boss can be bypassed if players are finding it too frustrating. The demon’s lair is hard to miss from its centralised position outside the inner keep, but players are more than welcome to solve the nearby furnace puzzle if they’d rather delay or skip the fight entirely. It’s a good bit of design that grants players more freedom in tackling the level as they choose and as a result it won’t forcibly break up co-op parties or restrict access to goodies and secrets that the players might want to secure first.
Other sights include a hidden alcove leading to Belfry Sol, an optional ascent through the bowels of a giant statue, and a host of red phantom invaders courtesy of the Scholar of the First Sin edition. Other than the welcome relocation of the essential Dull Ember item (that got moved to Lost Bastille), other changes brought about in the remastered edition are less noteworthy. An early ambush inside the keep foyer was toned down, but otherwise the area remains fairly straightforward.
The cruel miniboss and general abundance of enemies makes Iron Keep a challenging act, especially if attempted early, and thus it’s an ideal place to find summoning signs for cooperative as well as competitive play. It’s also nice to see an area with a bit more colour to it. The molten iron bathes everything moving through here in a warm orange glow and even if the enemies are all of the armoured humanoid variety, there’s still their visually impressive ruler to contend with.
If nothing else, you can’t deny that Old Iron King makes one hell of an entrance. The ruler of Iron Keep is a massive demon who stands waist-deep in the molten metal that vanquished his kingdom and during a lengthy pre-battle cinematic he slowly advances towards the player atop their pitifully small outcrop. The scale of this boss is suitably impressive; players never see the lower half of his body for the molten ocean and the challenge soon becomes how best to dodge his powerful slams and breath attacks that engulf the tiny battlefield.
The initial walk that the boss makes towards the player looks sweet as can be, even if in subsequent builds of the game, the developers had to move the king a bit closer to the platform due to the insane advantage that ranged characters had by pelting him from afar! And yet a problem with balance persists because Old Iron King is neither a particularly challenging or exciting boss to face off against.
The main problem concerns the boss’s offence which is too sluggish to pose a considerable threat. His huge punches come with similarly huge wind-ups and pretty much every variation on his basic fire beam is telegraphed and therefore easy to dodge. Players can still suffer numerous deaths here, but it’s more likely that will occur due to them accidentally falling off the tight ledge rather than being beaten into submission. It’s an unattractive quality not entirely dissimilar to the Bed of Chaos boss from Dark Souls, but then Old Iron King is just mildly disappointing rather than abysmally bad.
As the owner of another Great Soul, Old Iron King is an attractive boss that nevertheless underwhelms from a gameplay standpoint and that’s especially galling seeing as how frantic the journey to reach him will have been.
The closing blemish spoils it a bit then, but overall Iron Keep is still the sort of vibrant level that Dark Souls II really needed at this point. From here the path opens up to us once again, so in the next chapter we’ll select a new route from Majula and begin making our way towards Great Soul number three.
Continue to Part 13 »