The PlayStation world may be smitten with the recently-released Bloodborne right now, but Bandai Namco has made sure that game’s spiritual forbearer is not forgotten so easily by releasing what is effectively the ‘’Definitive Edition’’ of last year’s Dark Souls II on PS4 soon after with Scholar of the First Sin. Much discussion concerning what was right and wrong about the sequel to the now bonafide classic Dark Souls has swirled around the internet for a year now, throwing up frustration, disappointment, melancholy -and the odd person who didn’t care because it still felt like more Souls- amongst the range of dialogues out there. I found that while it had some grating facets, Dark Souls II was still a fine game, if not the standout entry into the series many had hoped it would be. So will Scholar of the First Sin ease some of the woes now that the DLC is all there, the game has been tweaked and it doesn’t look quite so ropey?
Let’s get the basics out of the way early doors as I’m sure most of us know what a Soul’s game is about by now, but for the benefit of those who live under rocks for large stretches of time I’ll tell you a little about what makes this a popular series. Firstly, you are a mysterious stranger type who has to pit themselves against the very worst the given world has to throw at you in an action RPG style. Secondly, you’ll die. A lot – to the point of hair-tearing insanity at times – but you’ll dust yourself off and jump right back in. That’s the Souls’ series; this is why it gets such acclaim — it dares you to beat it and offers little compassion for any failure.
This time round your undead protagonist awakens in the land of Drangleic which comes across as a land abandoned by civilisation. You will take in a variety of environments here from the sun-kissed eerie calm of Majula to the dank, dark realm of The Gulch and beyond. The graphical improvements (as well as being 1080p and 60fps) brighten up the hit and miss aesthetics of the PS3 version, making the game not only run at a mercifully consistent rate, but also make it look absolutely stunning in places; though it does pale in comparison to its recent younger sibling overall.
If this is your second trip to Drangleic then something may seem a little off in Scholar of the First Sin. From Software have added new paths and areas as well as shifted a few enemies about to spice things up and sadly this latter part doesn’t always make changes for the better. While its understandable that From Software would want to offer existing fans an excuse to repurchase, it ends up spoiling certain areas. The earliest example I found was Heide’s Knight. Originally he appears early on in the Forest of Fallen Giants (the area he was in now plays like a fairly routine section) and now he joins the Old Knights on the crumbling pathways of Heide’s Tower of Flame. That wouldn’t be such a bad thing normally, hell, it’d make sense to some degree, but the problem here is that there is no longer just one of him. The pattern along the paths to both bosses is essentially one Heide’s Knight, one Old Knight and it only succeeds in making the area feel like a cheap difficulty spike. Which brings me to my other big grumble: the difficulty spikes caused by simply having the game chuck multiple enemies at you far too often.
This was present in the original version and appears to have been built upon in Scholar when it was an area that really could have done with being toned down. Fighting multiple enemies as a set piece here or there would have been good, a neat curveball that threw you off your game. Unfortunately, there are so many instances of this that it comes across as a lazy attempt to increase difficulty artificially.
One more tiny fault (which is actually something Scholar improves on) are the hitboxes. In the vanilla Dark Souls II there were some frustratingly unfair instances of you getting hit by something clearly out of range and/or you missing a swing when you were absolutely positive you nailed it. It is so much better in Scholar, but it hasn’t gone away completely.
All that negativity about Dark Souls II probably makes me sound like I don’t like it. Truth is, it may have its faults, but the things it does right are far in excess of the flaws. Both the Souls and XCOM series are magnificent at making death matter. It is an inevitability that it will come and all you can do is make what you do in between count. While a certain area may be beyond your capability upon first tackling it, there is no shame in doubling back and finding a different route or challenge and eventually you will come back to the part that caused you so much trouble, full of determination to beat it; and guess what? You probably will (give or take a few failed attempts). Learning from your mistakes is a key part of Soul’s games and while there are cheap moments to contend with, the majority of your demises will be down to your own incompetence, naivety or inexperience. Death in Dark Souls is not a punishment, it is a reward for daring to venture into the unknown.
The other major factor in why Dark Souls II works is down to the design of the world itself. While a little lighter on story by exploration than Dark Souls and far looser in focus than Demon’s Souls, the land of Drangleic holds many fascinating wonders and mysteries that flesh it out and build rich character and life for what is essentially a bunch of glorified rooms stuck together. There are games out there that look far more striking and still fail to deliver that level of ambient detail. That’s something that carries through in the DLC too; each of the additional areas introduced in Crown of the Ivory King, Old Iron King and Sunken King feel like a proper extension of Drangliec and its lore and perhaps add some of the game’s finest theaters of death in Crown of the Ivory King as you run the brutal gauntlet in the harsh wintry conditions of its temple set area. Simply put, From Software builds great worlds.
If you missed out on Dark Souls II first time round due to upgrading to PS4. Or just now feel like you’ve a taste for it thanks to Bloodborne, then there is a great game here that only suffers by not being brilliant in the way many saw its forbearer. For those who got their fill of relentless brutality in Drangliec before, what you may get out of Scholar of the First Sin entirely depends on how Dark Souls II left you feeling.