Game Name: Dark Souls 2: Scholar of the First Sin (2015)
Developer: FromSoftware (King’s Field, Armored Core, Bloodborne, Demon Souls)
Platform: PC, PS3, PS4, XBox 360, XBone (reviewed on PC)
Categories: Punishing Trial and Error, Nintendo Hard, 3rd Person Action, Western-Style RPG, Open World with “Branches”, Exclusive Multi-Player Messaging and Cooperative Play, Multi-Player Griefing, Medieval Fantasy, Eclectic Story Unraveling, Perilous Platforming, Exploration, Inventory Management, Gritty Visceral Horror
May Appeal To: serious series followers. I mean, if you don’t already know what you’re in for I would advise against this sequel as a launching point.
May Repulse: hollow braggarts, posers, complainers, DarkSydePhil (in a perfect world)
Comparable To: a smaller, harder, more focused and concise Skyrim…. so really nothing like Skyrim and more in the vein of Dragon’s Dogma, though better assembled. This game is super bright compared to Dark Souls and lacks the nuanced professionalism of its switch-backed level design. In a strange way, this environmental choice puts it on par with the ‘levels’ of Demon Souls, which was harder and more thematic. This straightforward game has arguably better story fragments than Bloodborne and I found its iconic vistas easier on the eyes. The Souls games are less King’s Field and more Shadow Tower than most people are aware of – just sayin’.
Learning Curve: We’re all learning, broseph. But I’d say you get familiar with the game controls at Hour 3, learn a new strategy per enemy introduced, and have at least one “ah HA!” moment about the game mechanics every 10 hours post-Wiki consultation.
Game Length: 60 hours
Difficulty: Medium/Low as a Souls game; parts of the DLC are nigh-impossible solo
Mastery: New Game Plus, speedrun leaderboards, and PVP await the inescapably masochistic. As an alternative, I’ve heard positive things about swallowing various parasites to see which emerges victorious, a veritable king of your digestive tract.
To each their own.
Story: It would be dishonest to say that this series retains a story in the tell-able sense of the word, nor could I fully explain what it was I experienced in a tenable way. Rest assured there is plenty depth to delve and mysteries to unravel or speculate about. As one of the more attractive traits in a Souls game, the player isn’t presented with a cohesive exposition of past, present, and future – the fictitious world breaking a fourth wall to remind the player about its chaos and madness. In Dark Souls 2, there is no need for a reminder.
The old, archetypal RPG framework unloads literary tons of people, places, and things in droves until the surplus of syllables-to-ignore detracts from would-be action and the primary sword wielder spearheads the nearest city gate to sate compounding bloodlust. These game types espouse half-assed, half elven make-believe bullshit like the second coming of Tolkien’s great, great, grandtoddler excitedly regurgitating some half-remembered oral history of Middle Earth’s first draft. These game types *want* you to know how inspired and clever they are to place so many vowel sounds together, and that they’re well read enough to rip plotlines from the most casually-discovered titles that preceded them. They *want* you to both hear and read every maligned word put to script for that aggressively tame [yet popular] localization actor to butcher with weird inflection. Or worse yet…. the developers don’t necessarily care for validation of their writing chops, get bored, and stuff hours of bland filler to fatten an insipidly dull product without proper knowledge of how to ‘end scene’ with a transition device.
The correct way to do it -the *clever* way to do it- is to starve the player, tease the player with a palpably living/breathing world full of wonder and intrigue, to reward a detail-oriented exploration and examination of the playscape with tantalizing bits, tips, and hints until the gamer has gestated a ravenous appetite for backstory. (Not thrusting the meal down their gullet with an expedited shovel/funnel combo.) In this scenario, the tables are flipped and learning the meted tale through dialogue clips and item descriptions can become a welcome respite from the dank, alert wilderness bristling with blades and poison. You’re indeed left wanting at the game’s end, but this isn’t from lack of pieces to mull or to draw correlations from.
If you’re looking to me for a more substantive glimpse as to what Dark Souls 2 story offers: too bad. I’ll say it is about kings and castles, dragons and treasure. It’s about sadness, the collection of souls, and both the unnatural decay of power wielded too long and the harm it can bring upon the wielder. These themes are felt more often than told and experiencing them firsthand as a denizen of the realm is the best delivery method I can imagine for a story so sparse yet so powerful.
Presentation: With such a broad console release including previous-gen machines, it’s not surprising that low-poly/higher-textured graphics indicate a revision or resuscitation of sorts to breath new life into an aging title. That 60 FPS admonishes my previous misstep excuses though – I can fail with maximum precision!
Honestly, the Souls series is not on its best behavior here with the vanilla installation. The world is crisp but not dark, common enemies are sufficiently creepy though bosses drain inspiration, environments are uncontestably interesting though get arranged in an unrealistic way. Unintuitive corridor layouts reveal barren endpoints where something (anything!) could have been placed to convey a slice of despair and appear less like repetitive tiling. All in all, the colors are saturated, gaudy, and simultaneously nice to look at. Good luck reconciling insta-travel icons with known locations though.
What you don’t want to do is compare the DS2 preview footage where they publicized intentions of an obsidian-steeped world of high contrast shadows, where the derelict ‘torch’ mechanic was essential to both visibility and game progression. The final product is not that game they’d been alluding, for better or for worse.
Unique Features: Scholar of the First Sin makes the base experience shine. Each representing a different kingdom, the three locations complement the theme of building atop fallen empires in an endless cycle of golden ages supplanted by dark, unstoppable forces. They have their own exclusive atmosphere, personality, and challenge. The brainy subterranean platform environ. The frigid, desolate, and labyrinthine ice castle to explore. And the balls-hardening, OP, floating iron towers of doom…. a place to stash hellish beasties to test a player’s mettle (and patience). All feature unconventional enemies, each showcasing discordant traits in proving why the series is so popular.
Gameplay: While not embodying the initial promises of cutting light swaths amidst the gloom with a timed torch burning, Dark Souls 2 proves to be quite bright on its own. This squanders/nullifies the existing mechanic while underlining other points of interest; breathtaking surroundings encapsulate the curiosity used to drive the player forward. Improved Cursed and Humanity mechanics also return, offering better systems when needing to balance maximum health and the possibility of crowd-sourcing boss assistance vs the likelihood of being invaded by another player. (Or you may just be desperate in the conservation of scant humanity you’ve hoarded.)
Some resurfacing bad ideas: the ‘levels’ are now recognizable as levels, with loose spaghetti endpoints branching out from the initial hub -none organically laid out, and rarely intersecting. Barring the typical difficulty spikes and maddeningly cheap boss fights, the game is curiously easy for its ilk. Having trouble passing an area? Defeat the local enemies 8-10 times and they’ll cease respawning, affording you a clear shot to a desired objective and a casual grind to higher levels. Powerful, ranged weaponry is also to blame, and likely the fact that occluding [or dynamic] lighting or fog is in short supply. (Hell, even the visuals convey a sense of ease and amity.)
To offset that negative positivity: there are buttloads of accessories and gear to adopt, test, and customize your playstyle with. There is everything from handheld talons, to Ivy-style whip/sword bastardizations that keep opponents guessing, shield/talisman combos capable of blocking blows and casting divine protection, and anything that resides between giant FFVII Cloud blades, halberds, rapiers, crossbows, bombs, bikinis, bulky battleaxes, and brazen broadswords. The dual wielding, riposte, and weapon-unique movesets may have even backslid since this game came out. The pinnacle of combat is a delight.
As far as typical ‘Souls stuff’ goes: you have your endless harvesting from defeating enemies which yields levels for your character’s stats or provisions for the next bend in the journey. Previous series’ difficulty is bucked by new merchants that allow you to sell items for souls (a big no-no imho). Of no particular note (pun intended), you actually get the best and the worst of the online community in the form of nondescript, pre-formatted Engrish jargon littering the very floors. ‘Weakness:rear’ either denotes an ambush ahead requiring 20 sword-to-ass buttpokes or it could mean a player spotted a static corpse bent over a railing (passively soliciting anal sex of course. -_- )
‘Amazing chest ahead’ – yes, yes, I see the NPC boobs. They’re very nice.
It’s hard to supersede that observation with a sincere compliment but the series’ one-of-a-kind multiplayer facets add an irrevocable value in humor, fear, spirit, and hope – all worthy tenets of the Dark Souls faith.
Additional Comments: This game is generally reviled but is well worth playing.
What I Liked: The low difficulty allowed me to beat the game almost unfettered. (DLC excluded) All the heart from previous titles are present and refined – dry humorless and lamenting laughter, lore-soaked walls exuding ambiance and intrigue, memorable locations, soul collection and the feeling of progression. I love its combat and this game’s stamp on the skills, moves, and equipment acquisition. Some vistas are gorgeous.
What I Disliked: The low difficulty resulted in very little pride or accomplishment in finally beating the title. Conceptually-eclectic ‘easter eggs’ and personally-unidentifiable conventions like discarding items in an invisible bird’s nest are most certainly tradition…. but still infuriating. (I hate myself for using the wiki. Don’t make me do it.) Basic game mechanics like statistics aren’t fully explained, yet are up-front and unavoidable. Ledges and some hitbox geometry are off. Enemy attacks frequently clip doors and doorframes. That ‘You Have Died’ message and loading screen suck. And there is a general middling quality to nearly all sound effects and music here. I expect better.
Glitches Experienced: The game hard crashed on me when entering a tower on the PC version. However, I lost almost zero progress since I was spawned in an unusual spot near the last item I picked up. Praise the Sun!
Hours I Played: 97 upon completion of the main story, including DLC bosses
My Personal Reaction: I was pleasantly surprised after all the negative hype. I genuinely enjoyed DS2 on its own and felt it was a nice breather before playing the looming ominousness of Bloodborne and after the nail-biting tension of Dark Souls 1.
Noob Tips: Beat the ‘Crown of the Old Iron King’ DLC last and with internet players at your side. Don’t fucking kill everything just because you can. Don’t commit to equipment upgrades until you’ve done a thorough comparison. Prepare to Die. Roll with your bad luck [or improving skillset] and learn from the experience. Stop playing when angry. The best way to not lose a glut of souls is to spend them smartly and freely. The game often telegraphs a hard area, ambush, or traps – play it slow and develop survival instincts.
Depth and Replayability: High Depth, Low Replayability unless you’re needing a further challenge via New Game Plus (NG+), all the way to NG+7
Suggested Value: $30 + $15 for the DLC
Where to Buy: Gamestop, Steam
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