It’s been about three and a half months since I looked at Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin, a sequel to a game I came around to loving despite a few gripes, but found irritating to play because of a few mechanical changes. But with Dark Souls III coming out tomorrow, at least for those who haven’t grabbed the Asian English version, I figure I may as well give it another go and actually beat the game.
Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin Review
Platform: PC(Reviewed), PS4, XBO
Publisher: Bandai Namco
Specifications: Intel i7-4790k, 16GB of RAM, R9 390, Windows 10
After reviewing a good amount of sequels over the past four years of doing this, the act of reviewing a game and going “like its predecessor” or “compared to *insert game here* 1” has become a little tiresome for me. And with Scholar of the First Sin, it’s pretty clear that the developers, who were a largely different team than those behind Dark Souls, were heavily referencing the first game, trying to recapture the same magic, and change things up as is expected from a sequel.
What’s there is largely the same experience. You take on the role of an undead with no other goals or ambition other than preventing their own insanity who sets off to destroy deific beings with little beyond your own determination. One who must endure an onslaught of challenges in order to gain strength, skill, and souls in order to survive in a distraught fantasy world filled with an assembly of abominations that desire nothing but your demise. It’s an engaging, interesting, and fairly engrossing world, but in order to make heads or tails of anything beyond that, you will probably need to look outside of the game. Something I would criticize if not for how deliberate this design decision is.
Similarly, the core elements of the core gameplay are all maintained, and maintained pretty well. You are still a vulnerable sort of person, and need to use patience and reflex to dispatch enemies, earn their souls. Souls which you invest in items, upgrades, and levels, can be lost upon death, but after reviving at your last visited bonfire, a bastion of safety, you can easily retrieve them assuming you don’t die along the way.
However, some of the more… intrusive elements of the gameplay are left largely unchanged. While allowing for a sleuth of variety in one’s appearance, playstyle, and so forth, the act of managing and maintaining your character’s stats is a bit too complicated. You regularly gain levels, but with the minimal increase to stats after a while, it can be hard to figure out what you should invest levels in.
While the assortment of weapons with their own feel, damage type, and potential upgrade paths is still as daunting as ever, as is maintaining the aesthetic of your character along with equipment burden and stats. It all works, but adds a layer of busywork that made me regularly question whether or not I was playing the game wrong by not reading an equipment guide of some sort. Then again, I am a very numerically driven sort of person, so these things often bug me.
As a whole, gameplay is responsive, reactive, fair, and often a little relentless. Bosses are daunting and intimidating threats who necessitate a calm mind. Along with a variety of enemy types placed throughout vivid and beautiful backdrops that manage to walk the line between a distraught variant of fantasy and the more magical sort while still maintaining a dilapidated and dismal look.
The graphical fidelity and artistic merit of these areas goes unquestioned, but the design that goes with them simply doesn’t feel right. There’s something to the world design, how drastically areas change from one to another, and how little connection they have from one another beyond the basic hub world at the center of this flow chart of a world map. When looking at the entire world together, it simply doesn’t feel cohesive or fully thought out. It is more akin to a series of areas thrown together. Areas that had me eagerly and fearfully making my way forward through their well designed layout, but often didn’t stick with me.
It is a more loose and segmented means of world design, one that is helped, and hurt to some extent, by the instantaneous presence of fast travel. Unfortunately, the same scattershot approach was taken when it came to enemy placement, which was changed between the original version of Dark Souls II and Scholar of the First Sin. From what I could tell, the placement was never as deliberate or as well thought out as that from the first installment, and the changes made an already difficult game harder in a way that’s far more irritating than it is enticing.
This would result in a series of arduous to traverse areas, and it does, specifically when ten of the same enemies are thrown at you in groups of two or three. But if you happen to kill an enemy fifteen times, then congratulations! The enemy will no longer spawn. No longer do you need to get good and persevere through a challenge, now you can enjoy a leisurely stroll through an empty area of enemies because you killed them all by being a scrub and spamming sorcery from a distance. Or killed them all because you’re not very good at the game. Or killed them all because you wanted to grind for the souls or enemy drops.
Now, not every area is limited by these rules, and there are some infinitely respawning enemies. But even those with respawn limits can be reset by using a Bonfire Ascetic to reset the area and make things a little bit harder. Meaning everything is technically limitless if you want it to be. This minute mechanical change still sucks though. It is a net negative to the experience as it puts restrictions on much of the game and punishes players when I seldom if ever find that to be a favorable thing.
It makes improperly using or accidentally losing souls feel like a punishment, on top of the punishment that comes with death; a loss of maximum health and a disgusting undead appearance for your player character. Because of these, I never dared to undo my death by using a humanity or upgrade my equipment beyond the first level… At least until hour 80, when the DLC areas started kicking me in the rear.
For the most part, enemies could be overcome by carefully examining their animations, reacting accordingly, backstabbing if possible, and backpedalling to use magic when things got hairy. It is how the series ultimately works. Be patient, wait for your opportunity and strike when you can. Yet, that changed come endgame. From enemies who are incredibly capable of responding to your attacks, to ones who attack swiftly, in groups, and cleave off massive chunks of damage, mandating an aggressive playstyle.
Bosses are no exception, as they vary from very intensive and demanding fights that encourage you to cheese your way to victory, to battles that took me hours to finally beat, to battles I looked at, chuckled, and simply claimed to be beyond my skill level. A giant dragon you cannot lock onto is simply difficult, a boss who can summon another endgame boss is just bad design in my book, and a boss that is three characters comparable to the annoying phantoms that occasionally invade your game is just absurd unless you are using buddies… which I was largely opposed to. The other DLC bosses are similarly difficult, if only because their numbers are really big, so I chose to skip that area, beat the comparably pathetic pair of final bosses, and put the game down.
It was the point that put this game in perspective for me and realize a key distinction with this game and its predecessor. For all intensive purposes, Dark Souls was a game about victory and conquest, where you scrounged up victories and whatever loss you may have experienced could easily be undone by trying it once more. Death truly meant very little, and its challenge, while intense, felt thoroughly fair throughout. It was an ultimately optimistic experience, and Dark Souls II is more pessimistic in comparison. Failure is met with punishment, your resources at the very least feel finite, and the balance became so out of whack that I gave up on some of it because I already spent five hours trying to beat one boss.
Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin is a well designed game that offers an intense experience that respects the player’s abilities and the greatest moments make me beyond happy to have given it a second chance. Yet some of the design decisions, oversights, and overall feel to the experience resulted in a game that, while good, is one I don’t plan on ever revisiting for myself.