Game review: Dark Souls II: Sins of the First Scholar for PS4

I just finished Dark Souls II: Sins of the first Scholar last night, having gone through all of the DLCs and beaten every boss, no matter how huge of a pain in the ass they were. Most weren’t, and there were only a few bosses that had me swearing violent threats against whoever designed those encounters. But for the most part, the bosses aren’t bad, they’re just…easy? I think until I got to the very end of the game, 75 percent of the bosses I took down on my first attempt. Even for some of the two attempt runs, it was because I pressed the wrong button and could immediately acknowledge “my bad” before the ubiquitous YOU DIED had appeared on screen. Most of the time, the real challenge to any From Software game isn’t fighting the boss. It’s in finding a route to the boss through all the ambushes and “gotcha” traps. The enemies are dumb as always, so for this edition, someone decided to add more of them to artificially crank up the difficulty. But that doesn’t make it hard. It’s just cheap.

Before I go into niggling details about the good and bad, I need to address an issue. With every video I’ve seen of people playing other From Software games, there’s a constant rant going on about Dark Souls II not being “right,” and I want to put that argument to rest first. This is a Dark Souls game just like the first and third. It takes place in the same general continent, albeit with hundreds or possibly even thousands of years passing between each age of the curse reviving. The game still has the same love of narrow cliff ledges, illusory walls, random mimic chests…it’s Dark Souls, y’all. If you’ve played one, you know what to expect from the rest.

There are a few points that the naysayers make with the ring of truth to them, namely that the game has a lot of samey enemies and a lack of varied environments. This is true. You fight a lot of knights in armor, and there’s not as much variety to this world as there are in the first and third installments.

But put that aside because really, the places you go really do look lovely. Take Brightstone Cove Tseldora as an example. It’s an inhabited aquifer brimming with glowing flowers. The first time I arrived there, I just hung out by the bonfire, taking in the view. (Enjoy the silence, by the way. The rest of this area is pure bullshit troll tactics.) (EDIT: I’m in my second run through the game and now notice that the area is the second bonfire for Shrine of Amana. Sorry for the mix up, but to be fair it is a really big game world.) And even the many castles have a sense of wonder to them on my first playthrough. I might lose that later, after my tenth run to try out all the possible build and weapon combos, but I can say with my first run through all the pretty that this games looks much better than the first, and the first looked pretty good to me.

There are HUGE improvements to the interface over the first game, and to the bonfire system, making the more tedious affairs of inventory management and fast travel less of a pain. You don’t need to find anything to fast travel from one bonfire to another. You just get that option instantly. Similarly, you get access to a storage box for all the stuff you pick up but can’t decide if you need it or not, and the interface for that is leagues better than the clunky crap of the first game’s attempt. (Which you had to buy from a vendor, BTW.)

I should also mention a major improvement to the camera, in particular for the way it handles objects blocking your view. If a tree or pillar is taking up too much space in front of the camera, it becomes semi transparent. This leaves objects on the other side a little blurry, like you’re looking at them through a thin layer of Vaseline, but it’s still possible to see enemies, and the visual effect is nicer than the version I saw in Ni-Oh. All around, there’s less instances of the camera losing track of fights, so while the camera lock could sometimes be a problem, I felt like this one change was huge enough to deserve a special mention.

Plus, this game has torches! In the first game, that was one of my biggest issues, being sent to one dark as fuck hole after another with no light sources, and not one fucking vendor had the most basic light source known to fantasy games. But no, Dark Souls II has you covered, and that’s good because it too has some dark areas, and without a torch they’re almost pitch black. Littering these dungeons are sconces to light up, providing some relief, but because you are lighting the place up, you’re also alerting the enemies to your presence, and that will lead to conga lines of hollows rushing silently from all directions to snuff out your torch, and you along with it. Being honest, these were some of the most terrifying places to visit, and I mean that in a good way. These are areas rich in atmosphere and that tense kind of dread where you just know some evil thing is creeping up silently behind you. Torches have a time limit to them, as well, so there’s another kind of dread roaming a dark dungeon and watching that timer count down knowing that a snuffed torch will likely mean sticky dark death. So for as much as I hate the dark areas, I also love them. It’s a bit of a paradox, I know.

Pitch blackness, however, was apparently not enough visual fuckery for From, and so there’s an area shrouded in fog where the enemies are white phantoms. Oh, and you can’t camera lock them even when you do finally see them about four feet away from your character and drawing back their swords for an attack. (Pro-tip: Bring a weapon with a slash attack, as lunges are easily dodged, leading to much punishment of your backside.) Again, I hated this area, and yet I loved it. I know this is something I’ll be dreading on my next run, for sure, and yet, I’m also kind of looking forward to it. Maybe I’m developing some kind of masochistic streak.

If I make any of this sound too hard, it’s not, not really. The enemies don’t move around much, so once you know where an ambush is, you can either creep up on it to pull one enemy at a time or use a bow to draw them to you. Or you can rush in with the biggest sword or mace you have on hand and lay waste to them before they know what hit them. Half the fun in these games is planning out your revenge for having been ambushed, and you have a massive variety of ways to revenge yourself. There’s mage sorceries, cleric miracles, and explosive witch pyromancies. Or if you prefer to be more physical and intimate, there are hundreds of swords, maces, whips, scythes, bows, daggers, and axes to choose from. There’s even a pair of boxing gloves if you feel particularly suicidal. There should be something in that vast collection that makes you go “OOOOOH!” and want to level up enough to handle that weapon in delightful mortal combat.

The weapon upgrade system for this game is much more streamlined than the first game, and in a refreshing twist from most From Software games, the materials to upgrade are plentiful enough to allow for some experimentation. Most of their games will punish you for not knowing what you wanted to specialize in because there’s only so much upgrade materials to go round. So if you upgrade say, three starting weapons, you will find yourself tapped for the resources to upgrade the better weapons when you finally find them mid-game. Not so in this installment. You can upgrade the starting stuff up to level 6, and you’ll still find plenty of supplies to upgrade stuff you find later.

There is a caveat here, in that titanite chunks, the material needed to get past level 6, can become somewhat scarce. I made the mistake of fully upgrading my armor before realizing I needed to build up another katana, and I never found any chunks through the last part of the game. And by the last part, I mean all three of the DLCs. This isn’t so much a problem if you start using boss weapons, as they use a different material to upgrade, petrified dragon bone, and that stuff drops like Halloween candy in the later stages. This is ironic, as given my first build’s strength and dexterity limits, I couldn’t handle most of them.

And then there’s titanite slabs. In the first game, these were real, REAL hard to find. In this game, they give one to you pretty much near the start, long before you can even use it. Before you get even one weapon up to level 6, you’ll have found three slabs. I had fully upgraded two swords, two bows, and a full outfit of clothing, and still had 8 slabs in my inventory at the end of the game. This is not a complaint, y’all. This is a gushing song of joy and happiness. THE HILLS ARE ALIVE WITH THE CLUNK OF SLABITES.

I got off track, sorry. Let’s get back to the bosses. Most were extremely easy for me to beat them with one attempt, as I said before, and that makes quite a few of the early fights unmemorable. I think it’s somewhere around the middle of the vanilla game that the bosses decide to take the kid gloves off and start testing me for realsies. Even then, I was beating most on my first attempt. Some of those fights saw me panting (for real panting) and shaking (for real shaking) while looking at my stats and seeing I had no health potions or other healing items left. Those fights were one attempt runs, but they did push me to my limits to stay alive, and those fights are thus more memorable. There’s even one of From’s tradmarked gimmick boss fights that manages to be fun for once, with a chariot racing around a ringed hallway, armed with giant wheel-mounted blades. It’s a glorious spectacle, and after I sorted out how to beat it and put down the crazy siamese twin horses, I set down the controller and declared, “Well, that was a hell of a thing.”

Then we get to the DLCs, which are for me the most uneven set of experiences in the whole series. The idea behind them sounds great. Each of the DLCs tasks the player to collect one crown from three ancient kingdoms and end the cycle of fire and dark for good. Doing this and possessing the crown of Vendrick, king of the base game, grants the player the ability to die over and over without going hollow. Those of you who don’t play From Software games won’t get why this is a big deal, so let me explain. If you die in these games, you lose your humanity and part of your health bar. Each death cuts a little more away, and to correct that you need human effigies. It’s not all that hard to find these, and it isn’t until you hit a really hard boss fight that you may start to sweat losing them. But wearing any of the four crowns means you can die over and over without consequences. So, was there a boss you skipped because they were too hard to learn how to counter? Go back and fight them again. There’s no consequence for failure, so why not?

The thing is, to get the crowns, you have to traverse the worst of the worst in terms of ambushes and traps, and almost every enemy in these areas has such high poise that nothing staggers them. The bosses here are hit or miss in terms of challenge versus bullshittery. In The Crown of the Sunken King, I whacked Elana with ease, while fighting Sihn the slumbering dragon took me many attempts and left me relieved to have finally caught him. (Dude bounds around a lot. This is not a complaint. He is a dragon, and I expect that to be a hard boss.) But then there was the bullshittery with Graverobber, Varg, and Cerah, a triple boss room in which two motherfuckers run around chasing you while the third fires great arrows at you. (Pro-tip: do not go for the archer first. The others will punish you for that with back stabs and instant death.) You can summon two NPCs to “help” but those morons will often commit suicide before even making it to the boss room. Even if they do make it there, they are all but useless in drawing the heat off of your character. It’s really better to go in solo and play a war of attrition. About the only thing that might make this fight enjoyable is changing the orchestral music out for Yakety Sax. (AKA: The Benny Hill song.) It’s an awful fight filled with bullshit, and even the cavern it takes place in is bullshit. When I finally put those assholes down, I wasn’t happy, or even relieved. I wanted to fly to Japan, find the director of the DLC, and kick him in the dick so hard he’d be peeing blood for a month. That’s the level of hate this one boss fight generated.

Compare that to Fume Knight in The Crown of the Iron King. I think I died 65 times to that dude, and I tried multiple weapons and ring loadouts, both solo and with the pathetic pair of NPCs offered to me. (Seriously, here’s a knight with two swords, one of them twelve feet long, and who do I get as backup? A BOXER AND AN OLD FART? ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!) I finally took him solo, and yes, there was much relief at being done. I never once felt he was cheap or unfair. Each time I died, it was for a mistimed dodge, or for a misread tell. (It is damned hard to tell whether he’s going for an overhead slam or a side to side sweep because both attacks have near identical starting positions.) I didn’t feel anger at having to fight him over and over because I knew I could beat that guy. I just needed to find the holes in his defense and exploit them. So when I finally did it, I got up, poured a drink to toast my success, and raised my shot glass in honor to the hardest, but fairest boss in the whole game. By comparison, the Blue Smelter Demon was easy, and then there’s Sir Alonne, who…no, let us not speak of that level of bullshit. Because it is a manure factory of pure bullshit.

The same goes for the final DLC, The Crown of the Ivory King. Once I found the item to make the first boss visible, taking the giant tiger Aava down was easy. The optional fight with Lud and Zallen was the “tough but fair” fight, although a bit repetitive because it’s just two more tigers that I faced less than two hours before. Then there’s the crowning achievement in bullshit, The Burnt Ivory King. You’re sent all over this castle looking for four knights of the realm to fight with you, and yet going into the fight, you find three portals spewing out enemies at such a ridiculous rate that within one minute it’s a twelve to four fight. The knights start freezing the portals, taking themselves out of the fight and leaving you to fight an increasingly ridiculous number of enemies. Survive all of that bullshit, and then and only then will you be allowed to fight an asshole with a magical blade that can grow to become twenty feet in length. This fight took me forever to finish, and when I put the bastard down I stood up and said, “And Fuck you too, buddy.”

By comparison, the triple boss ending with The Throne Watcher and Defender, Nashandra, and Aldia, the titular Scholar of the First Sin, was a walk in the park. As for the optional boss I used the crown to finally defeat? The Ancient Dragon. (Again, I won’t complain about a dragon being hard. He’s forty feet tall and can fly and breathe fire while my character is tiny, crunchy, and good with ketchup.) It took me many attempts, but when I slayed him, I knew I was thus ready for the end-game. Which was funny because the final bosses were nothing compared to the DLC bosses. It was like playing in the pro leagues before moseying back into the bush leagues for one final fight.

So, where does that put my final verdict? Well, let me put it this way. I just finished my first run, and I’m already planning another to focus more on the bigger swords. (I love the katanas, but damn, some of the great swords in this game look real sweet.) And if I’m already wanting to play it again, you have to know it’s at least fun enough to get me over the bullshitty bits.

I can’t say I really understand the hate this game gets from the Dark Souls community. Okay, it’s isn’t like the first two Souls games. So what? If it had been exactly the same, you would be bitching for them not trying anything new. From is damned if they do, damned if they don’t. And for the most part, your complaints come across as so much entitled whining. “WAAAAH, IT ISN’T THE WAY I WANT IT!” Yes, and? You play From Software games on their terms, not yours. You learn the rules for each of their games, and then you learn when and where those rules can be broken. That’s the whole point. So if you don’t like this one because it made minor tweaks to the formula, you must have really hated Bloodborne for not being Soulsy enough. And really, you’re missing all the good stuff by whining about little shit.

Finally having played all of these From fantasy games, I have to say, the fans and the company both need to stop talking up the difficulty like that should be the main selling point. The Souls series has a lot to offer players. It’s got great locations with a ton of variety of play styles to suit all kinds of players. It’s got fantastic music and an understanding of when to play it and when to leave it off so the player can (hopefully) hear an enemy approaching their backside. But best of all, it’s got a method of storytelling that only gives as much as the player wants to invest. The player who just runs through hacking and slashing will have no idea what is going on, or how the trilogy’s three installments tie together. And likely, they won’t care, and…that’s okay. They miss out on some fascinating stuff, but so long as they enjoyed the hacking and slashing, the finer details don’t matter. But to the player who digs into the lore notes and really looks around, they will find this marvelously dense story, and they will see how their character has become an integral part of that story. Their character, should they succeed, will become part of the next legends before time erases them, as it has so many heroes before them. I think that’s fucking brilliant. I could write whole posts gushing about how brilliant From is at just giving as much story as I feel like absorbing. It doesn’t need intrusive cut scenes to do it, and most in game dialog is very short. The story is in the details, in the lore notes of every item. To find it, you have to want to know it. That’s awesome.

So, my final verdict for Dark Souls II: Sins of the First Scholar, even with the bullshitty bits, is a strong 4 star rating. I would be hard pressed to say whether I liked this or Dark Souls III more, but the entire series is worth looking into. You may have shied away because you heard how hard it is. I was pushed away by that message too. But ignore that crowd and give these games a try if you’re any kind of fantasy gaming fan. Yes, at first there is a learning curve to really understand these games. But once you’ve got the basics down, every one of these games offers a fantastic voyage that will last hundreds of hours. They are worth every penny you pay for them even if you only play them once, and having played almost everything From Software has produced with the exception of Demon’s Souls, I can say that I love their work and look forward to whatever they plan to publish in the future.