Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin Review
Sony PlayStation 4Also available on Microsoft Xbox One
In one of the more bizarre launch schedules of the year, we see Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin, a remastering of last year’s release for the PS4 including all DLC, land on our shores only a few days after its spiritual successor Bloodborne. Effectively splitting fans of From Software’s excellent catalogue of games, owners of PS4 must either splash out a fair chunk of cash for both or somehow make a choice between the two. Given that many will own Dark Souls II on their PS3 or 360 and their characters cannot be transported across, and that Bloodborne turned out to be rather brilliant, the choice may end up being rather sadly one-sided.
Much of what has been said about Dark Souls II can still be applied to this release. Our conclusion that “it is still wonderfully mysterious and horrendously punishing, all backed up by a unique battle and skill system that is so gloriously balanced it feels like a real talent to master.” holds true. Only now with the power of the next generation of consoles the engine is pumping out crisper visuals and heavily contrasted flickering lighting that really strengthens the tension, at 1080p and 60fps. All that being said, it is still a rather crumbling engine that has its roots buried deep in the past, models still appear to be rather angular and awkward in motion and the textures remain rather grainy, particularly as a direct comparison to Bloodborne. It may not be pushing the very limits of these next generation machines, but it is certainly a worthwhile improvement graphically making the whole game feel more vibrant and involving.
From Software, as well as their publishers Bandai Namco, have a reputation of listening to their followers, illustrated a few years ago when a huge fan campaign eventually caused a PC version of Dark Souls to see the light of day. Praise the Sun! While this release may not have quite the same fan-driven force behind it, the developers have again listened to their thoughts and added a bit of spice to proceedings. Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin isn’t therefore a straight remastering, it also mixes things up. Items have been relocated, some enemies have diverted off their normal patrols, while others have been completely replaced with often more formidable foes. Serious fans of the Souls series will know that a large chunk of the learning curve for each release is memorising the position of enemies, in order to fight them strategically or downright avoid them, which means that this simple reshuffle makes the entire experience feel fresh and exciting. Interestingly, assumedly because they expect mainly experienced players to pick this up, most of these changes are geared to increase the challenge, with monsters from the later game appearing earlier and often unexpected swarms of enemies emerging from the darkness to overwhelm you. While the movement of monsters and locations, as well as the frame rate increase which has a marginal effect on the action alter the game’s chemistry, it’s not completely changed by any means, those ingrained paths, timed movements, and precise swings of the blade will still generally hold faithful, but at certain times Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin will surprise you. A lurking monster grappling you from a previously safe hideaway can bring a rueing grimace to the face, perhaps causing you to unleash a slurry of dirty words as that infamous ‘You Died’ text rises onto the screen. Touché From Software, touché.
Technically most of the new content for Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin has already been included in a patch for the original game in April, most notably in the form of an NPC, the titular scholar. Introduced very late into the game, this mysterious man opens up a few key events that if followed correctly rewards (curses?) the player with a new boss challenge. However this specific release does include a neat group of items called the ‘Forlorn set’, which when worn makes the player feel rather like the grim reaper. A nice touch when most of the game is spent dying.
However the most appetising part of this package is certainly the Crown trilogy that was released as DLC for the original release. This inclusion gives a reason for purchasing Scholar of the First Sin for those that have not already purchased and played through it previously. Arguably these new areas, distinctly separate from the main campaign, are some of the most unique, ambitious and impressive found in any of the Souls games. Their narrative which intertwines with the rest of the series, but still manages to remain just as mysterious, leaves the player connecting the dots with phrases hidden in item descriptions. A narrative design that has become a signature of a From Software game.
Each DLC area is distinct, with the player challenged to find their entrance from items and their descriptions that (unlike in the purchased DLC, which dumped them in the player’s inventory) are hidden across the world. At first there seems to be no obvious connection between the Crown of the Sunken King, the Old Iron King or the Ivory King areas, yet the inquisitive player will slowly uncover the sinews of a narrative that connects it all. And (without ruining it) that connection, once made, is rather beautiful and monstrously epic.
Even beyond the narrative, these dungeons are more intricate than the slightly open world form of the rest of Dark Souls II. Perhaps more reminiscent of the original Dark Souls, the areas loop around each other with paths that unexpectedly and wonderfully join back together, meanwhile certain events cause whole areas to evolve and reform, misdirecting and confusing the player at every turn. It feels like this DLC was a chance for the team at From Software to really throw the boat out and create some diverse and fresh experiences, that even the most hardened Souls player will be surprised by. It’s a fitting end to the series.
Playing Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin immediately after finishing Bloodborne is something of a curse, and really highlights the vast differences in their structure and play style. The sluggish nature of its combat, the more frustrating level design with creaking wooden planks spanning deadly drops, the tortuous poisoned ranged attacks from creeps just out of arm’s reach and its tendency to unfairly overwhelm the player with mobs of creeps were all toned down or redesigned in Bloodborne. Going backwards feels almost archaic, and it takes some time to settle into that once familiar gameplay. However once the player manages to find their slower paced footing again, Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin offers the chance to revisit that still fantastic and familiar world with a slight twist to proceedings and a respectable face lift. The addition of the DLC makes this package more than worthwhile for any fan of From Software’s catalogue, but those that already own the content on another platform may find the investment too high.