Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin
'Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin' is an upgrade and bundle of Dark Souls II that brings the game to Playstation 4 and Xbox One, as well as DX11 features on PC. It also bundles all previous DLCs and provides additional features and content.
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"The murk shifts and stirs; yet another stands before us. Then so be it, for the curse of life is the curse of want - and so you peer into the fog in hope of answers."
I must admit that if I had written this review upon my first experience with the world of Drangleic, it would turn out vastly different. I had fallen in love with FromSoft after struggling and fighting my way through Sekiro, and then continued on with Dark Souls, becoming enraptured by the carefully crafted world and lore of Lordran. It was with this same excitement and bristling energy that I dove into Dark Souls 2, but this time I was met with a disjointed world filled with an overabundance of enemies and convoluted mechanics. I couldn't see past them - sometimes when you peer into the fog, all you see is fog. I needed to clear my eyes. Make no mistake, those things are present in the game, but they are not meant to be experience defining.
Drangleic is the kingdom of the surreal - an impossible landscape that gives the impression of wading through mist, or trying to make out landmarks in a blurred photograph. The beginning of the game makes this abundantly clear, as you fall into Drangleic from a swirling ocean. You are cursed, and things are not always as they appear. Travel times and splits between cities and other areas within Dark Souls 2 are inconsistent, lending a Lynchian quality to their design and experience that feels disjointed, especially when compared to the tightly crafted and consistent world of Lordran. To dismiss this as poor design, as I once did, is an effect of the Curse of Want. It's natural to lay expectations of its predecessor onto Dark Souls 2, but they are not meant to be viewed or felt in the same way. That isn't to say that the glaring omission of a certain volcanic fortress, for example, isn't jarring or a flaw, but rather it's more important to highlight the disorientation that comes from experiencing inconsistent geography. The feeling of being lost or the world not making sense is the intended effect, as the Bearer of the Curse experiences this as well.
It's not only the landscape, but the travelers in Drangleic reflect which these feelings of loss and being lost as well. Many have come to the kingdom in pursuit of purpose - something essential in the Dark Souls world as it staves off hollowing from the Curse - and now find themselves mired in tragedy, surrounded by things that are not what they seem. This thread weaves its way through all of the major storylines within Drangleic and its lands, as well of those in the three separate kingdoms in the DLC. Time and time again we find that fog shrouds Drangleic, its people, and the game itself, forcing us to take a deeper look in order to find meaning and understanding.
Doing so can be difficult, however, as within this fog lies hordes of enemies, treacherous terrain, and otherworldly dark phantoms. The increased enemy count compared to the other games can be frustrating, as well as the inclusion of the absolutely awful adaptability and agility stats, leading to a beginning area that can become an exercise in sighing rather than an exciting exploration of a new world. Even in my replay, I came away believing that Forest of the Fallen Giants does a relatively poor job at introducing the player to the game, as it has some of the most difficult enemy placement compared to the player's level and equipment. However, it does teach a vital lesson about how to proceed in Dark Souls 2 - with caution and patience.
Drawing out enemies with careful movement and strategy is an integral part of Dark Souls 2 combat, and it reflects not only the slower animation speed, but the dreamlike world as well. Dark Souls 2 wants you to take time in its areas rather than rush through, forcing you to think about how to proceed rather than react. Some of the most frustrating areas in the game become rather simple once this is understood, and the strategy component to clearing areas also allows you to take advantage of your entire combat toolbox rather than relying on the same trick over and over. More than any other modern FromSoft game, Dark Souls 2 offers many builds and options to test out, such as power-stancing, a much deeper magic system, or using torches to intimidate enemies. Having multiple options to approach difficult situations becomes a necessity rather than a luxury, and once this is embraced, the combat becomes exciting and meaningful.
Sometimes this theme of adaptability is taken a bit too far, like with the stat bearing the same name, and veers out of the realm of enjoyment into tedium rather than challenge. Adaptability, weapon durability, the removal of i-frames from interaction animations, and slower Estus are all things that were changed in order to support the more strategic nature of Dark Souls 2 combat. However, the mistake was believing these things to be a part of the combat system, which in practice they are actually quality-of-life features. Having to swap between weapons because the situation calls for a different tool or more creativity is fun; having to swap weapons because you hit too many enemies with your favorite one feels like being punished for enjoying a weapon or playstyle. Having to clear enemies before facing the boss because you can't rely on the fog wall to protect you is a fun, strategic choice the first time; on subsequent retries, it is tedious and a chore. Even the choice to include life-gems to supplement the slower and more rare Estus actually backfires, as you can carry up to 99 life-gems at a time, meaning you have nearly infinite healing. It no longer becomes a resource, thus destroying the strategic component.
These things were all I saw during my first playthrough in the game - the differences between what I had come to love and this new kingdom standing before me. I was Cursed with Want and blinding expectations. However, after some time of being able to peer through the fog, searching for the soul of Drangleic, I have come to appreciate how different Dark Souls 2 feels from its peers. It's a game based on feeling rather than logic, and is made to evoke an emotional response of confusion and loss. After all, the throne in Drangleic is not one of fire, but that of Want - feeling, desire, and experience. At times, this can be rough around the edges, but when travelling, cursed through a land of fog, sometimes the solution is to thrust out your hand and be guided by what you can feel and not what you can see.
Its amazing how a different director can make a series' feeling change so much. I like Dark Souls II, but it feels pretty special compared to the first and third entry.
The game is hard as having nightmares in hell (as always) but pretty fun. And the Emerald Herald is always waiting for your return, so what else do you want?
Beaten: Apr 6 2022
Time: 17 Hours
Platform: Xbox Series X
Scholar of the First Sin is a unique remaster. Rather than just upgrading the visuals, it's also somewhat remixed, with enemy placements being almost completely redone, and some new content (plus all the DLCs).
As for the new enemy placement, it's probably the weakest thing here. And by weakest I mean most frustrating. SOTFS takes the already somewhat high enemy counts of the original game and ups them just enough where they're all on the "hard to even kind of manage" line. In the second half of the game it's not too much of an issue, but the first half of the game is made significantly crueler by these additions. In particular, the Iron Keep, one of my favorite areas of the original game, has had the enemy's aggro range increased to cover half a room, and it just feels incredibly annoying. Once you're past the iron keep though, nothing feels all that impossible.
On to the good stuff! First of all, the game looks gorgeous. It's not an enormous overhaul, really just a slight facelift, but it takes the already stellar art direction and kicks it up juuuust enough . It still looks like an Xbox 360 game, just in higher res, higher fps, and slightly richer lighting.
The DLC's been mixed in pretty well here too, feeling like a very natural part of the game. As for the DLCs themselves, the first one (Sunken King) is visually cool but a bit aimless in level design for my tastes, but the other two feel like the standalone legacy dungeons in Elden Ring. Flatly, they're both tons of fun to explore and experience. I liked the Ivory King expansion a tad better, just because of the theming and spectacle of the final boss, but really they're both stellar.
The extra content with Aldia, Scholar of the First Sin is also fantastic, bringing the already Hard Hitting themes of the game together in an even stronger way than before, really emphasizing the cyclical nature of this universe, and our world beyond.
I wish that the vanilla version of the game, or even just the original enemy placements, was available on modern platforms. A lot of the new placements feel like in jokes, responses to what you would've gotten used to in vanilla, and while that's fine, it doesn't really make sense to me to disallow access to the original like they have.
Still, DS2 remains a great game, thematically poignant and artistically expansive like nothing else, and is worth a try. Just, maybe try vanilla first :)