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Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin

Score: 95%
ESRB: Teen
Publisher: BANDAI NAMCO Games America, Inc.
Developer: FromSoftware
Media: Download/1
Players: 1
Genre: Action/ RPG


Graphics & Sound:

Dark Souls II is viewed by some as the black sheep in the Souls franchise. It's not as teeth-grindingly brutal as either of its predecessors, the boss fights aren't as memorable, and the world design doesn't have that labyrinthine hook to it. I didn't enjoy Dark Souls II as much as Dark Souls, and I still don't, but that disparity has been significantly lessened with the release of Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin. This is a tougher, more satisfying, and more complete version of Dark Souls II that's worth at least a look, even if you've already made the trek several times over.

Do you remember the first time you broke free of the moody, dark caverns of Things Betwixt and stepped into the gorgeous glow of Majula's evening sun? Double your euphoria (short-lived as it may have been), and you have a decent idea of what to expect from Scholar of the First Sin's visuals. Next-gen re-toolings are the norm, these days, and most of them (DmC: Devil May Cry Definitive Edition, Borderlands: The Handsome Collection) have brought some significant visual improvements. Dark Souls II was already a fine-looking game with an impeccable sense of atmosphere and it looks even better on Xbox One. Most importantly, the game runs at 60 frames per second, a notable and crucial improvement over both Dark Souls and Dark Souls II.

Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin didn't really have anywhere to go from the last release. At least, not in terms of sound quality. Every Souls game has sounded dark, menacing, and alien. This is obviously true in terms of the gothic horrors waiting to do you in, but what's more telling is that it's more true of the voice acting. Hope is a foreign concept to the individuals who inhabit this sorrowful world, and communication is infected (as apt a description as I can think of) with strange inflections, bizarre accents, and just plain unhealthy sounding voices. When you reach the hut at the end of Things Betwixt and meet the coven of strange old crones, it's clear that these souls are as withered as their bodies; the unsettling timbre of each delivery manages to set the tone long before they stare up at you with their creepy, rheumy eyes. And that tone manages to keep you on edge throughout the entire experience. That's a very good thing; on edge is the only way to play this game.


Gameplay:

You bear a deadly curse that has "hollowed" your body. Your humanity is slipping away, bit by bit. There is hope, but it only lies at the end of a trek through the demon-infested hellscape that was once known as Drangleic. After meeting the mysterious Emerald Herald, you learn that you must seek out four "immense souls" before moving on to meet Vendrick, the king of Drangleic. But it's not nearly that simple. Friendly faces are few, and hostile ones are legion. And those hostile entities pour every ounce of their beings into killing you dead.

Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin doesn't fundamentally change last year's initial release. The quest is the same and, for the most part, so are the environments. From the Iron Keep to The Black Gulch and all the way to the Throne of Want, Drangleic hasn't undergone any sort of continental drift or breakage. The routes are largely the same. But certain things have changed and, as it always is in this series, not in a way that makes things easier for you. Enemy placement and variety has been altered in several instances and even if you're one of those fools who claims (maybe validly) that you can beat the game blindfolded or with a Rock Band guitar controller, there are some surprises along the way that may very well bring your no-death, no-bonfire run to a quick and unceremonious end.

So yes, Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin is largely a "point A to point B" affair, but that sells the experience short. Sure, you can play it that way, but you won't get nearly as much enjoyment out of it if you choose to do so. There are secrets buried in Drangleic that are worth seeking out. Usually this is done in the service of either improving your character in some way or bringing glory to yourself as a skilled gamer, but this is a world built for exploration. Sure, it's rife with incredible dangers, but the best adventures always are.


Difficulty:

Challenge is a good thing, and Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin is full of challenges to overcome. Combat is precise and unforgiving, and the slightest mistake will result in a quick death and a shortened life bar (which is still a dick move). Enemy placement has been tweaked a bit; there's no way you'll miss the troll wading through the ford that bisects the Forest of Fallen Giants. The game's biggest fault is a genetic defect that From Software has been ignoring since their initial forays into hardcore role-playing games.

So here's the problem. It's not that Scholar of the First Sin is too difficult. Because it really isn't. In fact, it's probably From Software's second easiest Souls game to date (with the original release of Dark Souls II being the easiest). The problem is (and has been from Demon's Souls all the way through Bloodborne) that it has absolutely no interest in teaching you how to play. It is the video game equivalent of being dropped into a foreign country with no knowledge of its languages or customs. Only every time you mispronounce a word or make a social faux pas, your neighbors forgo a simple correction in favor of a punch to the throat. This has always been a poisonous design philosophy, and the developers need to cut it out.


Game Mechanics:

Idea-wise, the mechanics of the Souls series haven't undergone any meaningful kind of change; it's always been an elegant risk-reward system that strongly incentivizes tactical planning, careful decision making, and close observation. Your experience and currency are directly tied into your combat performance. You kill an enemy, you absorb their souls. You use those souls to level up and purchase gear and items. If you are slain, you drop your souls (and a recording of your final few moments among the living) into a bloodstain. If you reach that bloodstain without dying again, you can reclaim your souls. If you die again, they are lost forever, and your efforts have been in vain. Actually, thanks to the "lose a bit of your max health" mechanic, they have resulted in a straight up loss.

Movement and combat are precise and deliberate, and they both require you to be on your toes at all times. In a role-playing game like The Witcher, invisible walls keep you from falling to a certain death. In a role-playing game like The Elder Scrolls, you can slide down near-vertical surfaces without damaging yourself. In Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin, if you go where you're not supposed to go, you will die. End of story. The same is true for combat, which mainly consists of you attempting to stay out of the way of your enemies, learning their attack patterns, and finding windows of opportunity so brief that a single slip can (and often does) result in a quick demise.

Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin's greatest mechanical flaw, like its greatest difficulty problem, is shared across the entire series, save for perhaps Bloodborne, which took a measured step in mitigating it. The user interface is woefully inefficient. Comparing recently-acquired gear to equipment you're already using is a chore. Maybe it's just the nature of the beast, as Dark Souls II is a game that cannot be put into anything resembling a paused state (bonfires excepted).

From Software and Bandai Namco should seriously considering bringing Dark Souls to next-gen; if they gave it the same degree of care and attention that they've lavished upon this release, it would truly be something special. This is a great series, but it can always get better. As long as From keeps getting the support it deserves, though, we can trust them to keep delivering.


-FenixDown, GameVortex Communications
AKA Jon Carlos

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