Sharpen your swords and check your shards for another bout of madness. FromSoftware has done gamers a tremendous favour by creating a revamped sequel to 2011’s cult classic, Dark Souls. It’s bigger, badder, and tougher.
Much like Dark Souls 1, there is a story here but it’s as subtle as ever. But this is what’s so good about video games like this: Players choose whether or not they want to learn more about their character’s purpose and Drangleic’s inhabitants. Crucial information is drip-fed through in-game dialogue and tidbits of lore are hidden in item descriptions. Or, there’s the other option where you can focus on not dying.
The character creation nicely whets the appetite for what follows. Your ‘Souls brain’ is immediately switched on when pondering what class best suits your play style and which stats for that class will be invaluable going forward. Even though being able to select either sex is a good move, the customisation options are quite limited with no sliders for your character. Furthermore, classes such as the Explorer (max. items), Swordsman (primary duel-wielder), and Bandit (primary sniper) will be an afterthought to players when compared to the classic Knight (high HP and resistances), Cleric (high faith; miracles), and Sorcerer (high intelligence; spells) options.
Being my first time through this title in any form, FromSoftware has made several changes to its predecessor. The flawlessly interconnected world of the first instalment has been scrapped – players warp between bonfires from the outset of the game – meaning more locations and more checkpoints with each new area.
Of course, with more areas comes a new array of items. Along with the familiar Estus Flask Shards, which increases your amount of consumable potions, players will want to keep an eye out for Sublime Bone Dust, to amplify the potency of Estus Flasks, and Pharros Lockstones. The latter are incredibly useful for assisting players in traversing certain areas (e.g.: lighting up darkened rooms), leading to hidden treasure and even revealing new locations previously undiscovered. Being a Knight/Pyromancer hybrid, Fire Seeds were a sought after resource – increasing damage dealt by the Pyromancy Flame.
The game doesn’t look as impressive as FromSoftware’s first offering. While there are many opportunities for slow-pans and screenshots in cloud-dappled skies and sun-kissed forests, there are definite low-resolution textures in most areas; this is a last-gen game with a decent makeover. However, it still harbours a lot of personality which made the original Dark Souls so good.
After navigating your way through a casual tutorial section, players will step out into the world of Drangleic and the new HUB area, Majula, just around sunrise. Playing Scholar of the First Sin at 1080p/60fps makes for some super-smooth, enjoyable gameplay – a big selling point for console gamers. It’s a great start to the game but, for veterans of the Souls franchise, the game doesn’t really start until the first boss has been slain.
There are stacks more boss enemies in Dark Souls 2. Furthermore, the hordes of enemies on the way to these head-honchos have had their AI tweaked to be more aware and aggressive to your presence. This ultimately affects their attack patterns and makes for some very overwhelming, frantic combat. Often players will think they’ve mastered an enemy’s openings, only for an opposing knight or minotaur to release one or two more devastating hits in a previously unseen combo – draining your HP. If you choose to flee a battle, baddies will follow you for longer and in greater numbers.
Clearing one area at a time, usually through several ‘fog doors’, requires a lot of composure, patience, and is a studied build-up to your next true test. The soundtrack is impressive, kicking in when it needs to so the player is immersed in the environment. It’s increased exponentially during boss battles, though, with emotions of your love/hate relationship with the game rising and the desperation in wanting a beast to fall amplified.
There are equally impressive sound effects and the deftest of sounds could mean a nearby enemy or a slightly amusing troll on behalf of the FromSoftware team. Instead of backing off, gamers may take one too many slashes, resulting in a quick death, with the gauntlet of enemies you killed along the way only to respawn again. The amount of respawns per enemy has been capped, however, and can only to be rescinded with a Bonfire Ascetic.
As painful as it is to say goodbye to 26,000 souls after being knocked into a watery grave, you will learn to rise above the rage with a high appreciation for Drangleic. New additions such as an item durability bar underneath your weapon eliminates the constant checking and re-checking of armaments from the original Dark Souls. Furthermore, items automatically repair at every bonfire, meaning no more visits to the blacksmith when your trusty greatsword or halberd is on the brink.
There’s also a new mechanic shortening players’ health bars upon death. It may be only five or 10 percent, but it all adds up – quickly. Though it may seem brutal and completely unfair to punish your customers by giving them half of their maximum health, it adds to the challenge, stress, and only heightens the importance of stamina management FromSoftware’s games are famous for.
Another key aspect of Dark Souls, in both helpful and helpful forms, is its multiplayer. Gamers may be slightly disappointed that playing with friends hasn’t been facilitated to any extent; I was hoping for some sort of friends list-specific item players could leave – much like the traditional White Soapstone. But the amount of player slots for a session of co-operative play has been extended to six. This seems like overkill, but will undoubtedly be useful when venturing into New Game+ and beyond.
NPC Invasions are a more common occurrence in Dark Souls 2. Because more souls are awarded for fodder and boss victories than ever before, players will level up much quicker than they realise. For instance, I finished Dark Souls at Soul Level 87 and not even halfway through Scholar of the First Sin I was Soul Level 75.
One of the most intense encounters, second only to boss fights, are player invasions. These aren’t AI; they are accurate, calculating, and unpredictable. You can chuck the etiquette book out the window here, as extending a ‘good luck’ bow to your shady opponent simply leaves you wide open for a backstab or AoE blast.
On top of a much prettier and stable version of Dark Souls 2, Scholar of the First Sin contains three DLC packs. The Crowns of the Sunken King, Iron King and Ivory King all come with their own trials and epic encounters that will test your skills – resulting in lots of deaths.
Of all the rehashed games of the last generation, this is the most definitive edition of any game – rivalled only by The MasterChief Collection. Scholar of the First Sin does its ancestor, Demon’s Souls, proud and adds to the obsession which blossomed from Dark Souls. FromSoftware continues its benchmark formula by punishing players with death and then saying: “Come on, get up! Is that all you’ve got?!”