Dark Souls II: Scholar Of The First Sin
360, PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox One
Boy, do we miss Bloodborne. We miss its busy scenery and complex geometry, despite this remake boosting Dark Souls II’s resolution on consoles to 1080p. We miss its darkness, despite this re-release’s partial restoration of the lighting system pulled from the original version. And we miss its pace, with our first hours back in Drangleic feeling like we’re swimming through bricks, despite the increase to what, on PS4, is a mostly stable 60fps. FromSoftware has done a more comprehensive job than most in updating a classic, but nonetheless Dark Souls II was aged instantly and dramatically by the release of Bloodborne.
While the eyes and hands adjust before long to the look, feel and pace, we find ourselves still pining for Bloodborne’s healing system to the very end. With its regain mechanic and the split-second snap of a Blood Vial restorative, Bloodborne encourages a respectful sort of aggression. After that, an Estus swig lasts a lifetime, and a substantial chunk of our many deaths come from desperate chugs from a flask that we had not given ourselves the time or space to complete.
It’s a particular problem against the Fume Knight, end boss of the Crown Of The Old Iron King zone, the second of the three new areas released originally as DLC and bundled with this remaster. While the Fume Knight may conform to Dark Souls II’s boss template – a big humanoid with a melee weapon – he fights like a Bloodborne boss, hitting fast and hard, with a special knack for punishing errant Estus swigs with the tip of a blade. Halfway through, he imbues his vast greatsword with fire, and a single hit does for three-quarters of our health bar. Having readjusted to Dark Souls II’s pace, the Bloodborne part of the brain takes over. We unequip our shield and wield our weapon in both hands. We take off the heavy armour that’s carried us through the entire game, and we forget about healing entirely. We put the hardest boss in the game to the sword wearing only our pants, and then comes that Souls feeling: a sudden release of tension transforming the preceding hours of pain into an overwhelming, drug-like rush. Not all of the DLC contingent’s boss fights are so rewarding. In the first area’s Dragon Sanctum waits Elana, Squalid Queen. Visually, she’s a reskin of the main arc’s Nashandra. As if to compensate for that, From chucks new abilities at her and the result is a frustrating fight against a hex-casting, scythe-swinging foe who summons help – a band of skeletons; Undead Crypt boss Velstadt; or, if you’re lucky, a drift of tiny Majula pigs – and can instantly teleport to anywhere in the arena. Immediately afterwards comes Sinh, The Slumbering Dragon, which would be a fine fight were it not for a bug born in the PC version and bafflingly carried over here: the increase from 30 to 60fps means the rate at which weapons degrade is doubled from the vanilla console release. Since Sinh’s tough, toxic scales deplete durability at one-and-a-half times the normal rate, one of our attempts left us with two broken weapons against a boss with half a health bar remaining.
That was our own fault, in a way, for taking in two co-op partners, and so giving Sinh a more robust health bar. NPC summon signs are plentiful throughout the world, and From has raised the maximum player count to six. With this many people onscreen, boss fights become cakewalks, one player drawing aggro and the others bringing the pain unfettered. All the host need do is stay alive. It’s an absurd sight, really, and makes one DLC boss that’s already set on a busy field thanks to NPC helpers and enemy mobs look more like an MMOG Dynasty Warriors than a Souls game. It’s seemingly From’s way of letting players blow off steam, and look at well-known areas in a new way.
That’s a recurring theme, thanks to From’s decision to remix Drangleic’s enemy and item placements. None of the base game’s areas have been left unchanged, but not all the tweaks are successful. Things start out brilliantly: in Heide’s Tower Of Flame, what was once a straightforward route to a vital ring is now a gauntlet of aggressive enemies with a dragon to finish, the ring moved to the other end of the level. But later on, some of the toughest mobs have either been slimmed down or removed entirely (Shaded Ruins, once packed with hard-hitting Lion Mages, is now virtually a ghost town). Some changes are for the better, more for the worse, and most seemingly changed for change’s sake. The lack of an option to restore old placements suggests this is the definitive version, the director’s cut From always wanted to make. Only rarely does it feel like it.
Indeed, it says much that the DLC areas have been left as they were. The three areas that compose the Lost Crowns trilogy are the best the game has to offer, sprawling but tightly designed, with an emphasis on shortcuts over new bonfires. In Frozen Eleum Loyce, the setting for the Crown Of The Ivory King DLC, From pulls a rare trick, forcing you to retrace your steps across almost the entire level and making every step on the way feel substantially different. Each DLC area is punishing in the extreme, too, a thumb of From’s nose at those who said the base game was too easy and going some way to justifying the higher co-op player count.
Indeed, it’s the bundled DLC that rescues Scholar Of The First Sin from that most ignominious of fates: being a remaster that is worse than the original. With its visual enhancements made as good as redundant by Bloodborne and its gameplay tweaks whiffing of gimmickry, only the inclusion of the Lost Crowns trilogy makes this a worthwhile exercise. Happily, it showcases FromSoftware’s inimitable talents at their absolute best and means that Scholar Of The First Sin, while surely flawed, is nevertheless essential.
The three areas that compose the Lost Crowns trilogy are the best the game has to offer, sprawling but tightly designed