From Software’s “Souls” series has managed quite a feat in this day and age, being a very Japanese game by a very Japanese developer that has gained tons of critical and commercial attention in the west. The Bandai/Namco published series has entered the gaming lexicon, with bloggers and YouTube commentators declaring “Dark Souls hard” to be the new “NES hard” when something in a game is particularly challenging.
As a longtime opponent of difficulty for difficulty’s sake in games I’ve steered clear of the series so far but as a lifelong fan of what I like to call “weird Japanese shit” it’s been hard not to pay attention. Thus it was with equal parts enthusiasm and trepidation that I finally picked up the latest game in the series.
Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin is, as we’ve lamented in previous reviews, yet another re-release of a PS3/360 game for PS4/X1 with , again, all the previously released DLC bundled in and the graphics bumped up to 1080p/60fps. From has gone above and beyond the call of duty here though, adding lighting and particle effects on par with anything seen in an actual current-gen game for a truly stunning and thoroughly modern visual presentation.
From has also done the unthinkable and completely remixed all the enemy and item placement in the game, and made a hard game even harder. Needless to say, this is not a good place for a Souls neophyte to start. But being a Souls neophyte with a shiny new copy of the game, into the breach I went…
First impressions? I love the overall nihilistic vibe, the lack of information given leads one to draw their own conclusions about the game’s plot and setting. The weird old ladies at the beginning do little but laugh at your sorry zombified ass. You can kill them (and all non-hostile NPCs, including important merchants and the woman you need to speak to in order to level up) but you probably shouldn’t. Entering the hub world of Majula is a feast for all the senses, with a gorgeous sunset cresting over the horizon, and a haunting melody in the air.
From here you can enter several different areas, some that beginners are more suited to than others. Combat is satisfying, with block and parry options for defense and quick weak and slow heavy offensive strikes. Undead foot soldiers go down easy but bigger enemies (including an enormous cyclops added early on to this version of the game) require extra attention, putting the rolling, dashing and dodging defensive mechanics to work.
And even if you feel fairly confident in your fighting abilities you will die. A lot. The game says “prepare to die” on the back of the case for a reason, and it does exactly what it says on the tin. Sometimes things do feel unfair, but patience is the key. If you try to run through an area without slowly dispatching each foe along the way they will chase you to an eventual, inevitable (literal and figurative) dead end. Dying also results in your character losing their humanity, which means they can’t summon other online players into their game for help, and every time you die your life bar shrinks a little (until you manage to restore your humanity with a not-exactly-growing-on-trees “human effigy” power up), which I found particularly masochistic.
Playing offline (I find the other players’ messages strewn about the landscape distracting and detracting from the atmosphere) I was very proud to reach and defeat what many consider to be the game’s “first boss” (The Last Giant). Where will I go from here? Not sure. I’ve tried to take on the next two bosses (Perusuer and Dragonrider) and was thoroughly destroyed, meaning there’s lots of grinding in my future. I don’t know if I love this game but I definitely respect it, and look forward to playing more of it. It’s hard to shake the feeling of being absorbed into the game’s destroyed world and not want to explore and fight to the end. Maybe the Stockholm syndrome I feel towards the game now will eventually evolve into love. I imagine that’s how it’s started for most of the series’ feverishly devoted fanbase.
And for those that have been drinking From’s Kool Aid this is a slam dunk, more of the game they love, but different enough to warrant another blisteringly difficult but thoroughly satisfying run through. Weary travelers less versed in the ways of Estus Flasks and Lifegems may want to start somewhere else or skip this series entirely. I’ll be soldiering on though, albeit very carefully…