Hot off of playing Bloodborne's The Old Hunters DLC, and with Dark Souls III just over the horizon, I thought I'd get myself hyped up by playing through the re-release of Dark Souls II, Scholar of the First Sin. This version of the game was a next-gen enhancement of the original game that was released on the PS3, XBox 360, and PC a year prior, and it includes improved graphics, faster frame rate, and more challenging enemy-placement. It's available on PS4, XBox One, and PC, and is treated as a completely different game as the original version. It's not a DLC or a patch update (though it does include all three of Dark Souls II's DLC content).
Scholar of the First Sin looks much smoother in motion, with higher resolution and framerate.
Lighting and textures are (at best) only marginally improved from the last-gen release.
I was honestly expecting Scholar of the First Sin's graphics to be considerably better than they are. In fact, I honestly don't think the graphics are much better than the last-gen release; I think the only difference is that it displays at full 1080 resolution and plays at a high end of 60 frames per second. Colors are a little more vibrant, and the game doesn't look as washed-out, but models and environments don't seem any more complex, and textures are only maybe slightly more detailed. Unfortunately, darkness still isn't as dark as it needs to be to make the torch as necessary for exploration as it was apparently intended to be. In pre-release demos, darkness was implied to be a complete fade to black that rendered objects within the dark invisible. Simply adjusting the brightness of your TV wouldn't change that. In the released version, darkness doesn't go completely black, so objects are only hidden if your TV brightness is low - lower than the recommended brightness level of the game. Even then, the release game looks brighter, and Scholar of the First Sin does very little to change that.
PREVIEW FOOTAGE showcased greater contrast between light and dark, and more detailed textures and geometry...
This graphical downgrade, the complete failure of FROM or Namco/Bandai to inform the public about it, and the resultant misleading marketing that repeatedly showed demos, screenshots, and footage that wasn't representative of the final product left a huge negative impression on a lot of players - especially those who pre-ordered it. That poor initial taste is probably a huge part of the reason why this game has gotten such a negative reception, even though that negative reception is mostly warranted. Scholar of the First Sin was an opportunity to wash that bad taste out of consumers' mouths and give us the game that was advertised, marketed, and pre-ordered. But Namco and FROM didn't bother.
Darkness is just rarely ever a meaningful component of the gameplay. Darkness may lower the range of target locks though, so even though I could plainly see enemies, I felt like I wasn't able to target lock them as readily as I could in the PS3 version. Even so, there's enough sconces laying around that you can light a sconce, extinguish your torch to fight, then re-light it at the sconce after all the enemies have been dispatched. It ends up just being some extra overhead if you care enough to bother with it, and not an essential element of gameplay.
... FINAL PRODUCT shows low contrast between light and dark, frequent repeated textures, and simplified geometry.
Textures, character models, and world geometry don't look noticeably better. Many areas still have generally blander textures than what was presented in pre-release videos, and the textures noticeably repeat. World geometry also seems less detailed and intricate compared to pre-release videos, which takes away a lot of the personality that these preview areas exhibited. I was expecting Scholar of the First Sin to restore many of these superior textures and models from the previews, and I'm really disappointed that the game doesn't look better than it does.
Darker contrast in previews [LEFT] made real-time shadows more vibrant,
and creatures more threatening and mysterious than in the release build [RIGHT].
The improved textures also don't do much to help the game's generally bland art design. There aren't many visually-appealing locations in the game, as they are all just variations of run-down castles and forest paths. Most of them have pretty sparsely-decorated hallways with simple geometry that has little-to-no personality. There's nothing here that even approaches the ominousness of Demon's Souls' Latria, and the oppressive environments of Bloodborne make Dark Souls II almost serene by comparison. Again, Scholar of the First Sin does little-to-nothing to address this. No Man's Wharf probably remains my favorite location in this game, as it's one of the few locations that takes place in a fairly unique setting that actually utilizes light and dark for gameplay purposes.
So while the visual upgrade doesn't really add much to the game, the higher framerate definitely does make a noticeable difference. The PS4 doesn't seem to maintain a full 60-fps at all times, but it seems to always run better and smoother than the 20-30 fps of the PS3 version. Animations are much smoother, and ambient effects (such as foliage swaying in the wind) look much better. I admittedly had to spend some time re-adjusting to the game's speed. After coming back from the rapid pace of Bloodborne, this game almost seemed to be moving in slow motion, and the higher framerate probably contributed greatly to that sensation. That's not necessarily a bad thing; it's just a stylistic difference. Scholar of the First Sin plays smoothly (on the PS4), and it looks decent (even though it should have looked better).
Other technical improvements
There's also some other items of subtle technical polish added to the game. One of the most immediately-noticeable ones will be shorter load times. This could be the result of me having the game installed on my PS4's hard drive instead of streaming from the disk, but load times are much quicker than on the PS3 version.
Multiple players' ghosts will be lumped into a single "pool of blood", and can be viewed simultaneously.
You might also run into a new type of online element: a "pool of blood". This is almost identical to the classic bloodstains that show how other online players have died, except that it shows multiple players in a single activation. So if a bunch of players are dying to the same foe, pitfall, or trap (which is common), then multiple deaths will be lumped into a single pool of blood instead of half a dozen individual bloodstains scattered around the room.
Another more useful change that you'll notice later is that the travel menu now highlights the most active regions for online play at your current level / soul memory. I'm not sure if this is based on just the raw number of players in the level, or if it specifically looks at how many players are dropping summon signs, but it will give you a good indication of where you can go if you need to regain your humanity, and you'll have an idea of whether or not other players will be available to help you defeat a boss in that area. Of course, these more active areas are probably also more likely to make you subject to invasions from phantoms. The game doesn't bother to differentiate between areas that are active with summonable allies, or if it's a current hot zone for PvP. It is worth noting that the standard hot zones for PvP - the Iron Keep, Belfry Luna, and Belfry Sol - were rarely highlighted, so it may be that this feature only highlights friendly online players. I'm not sure. In any case, this is very useful information that alleviates a lot of warping around when you want to drop your summon sign to regain your humanity, or if you need to find a PvP victim.
The travel menu will tell you which areas are the most active with other players.
I think this activity highlighting was also back-ported to the last-gen versions of the game, but if so, it wasn't until after I had stopped playing.
And fortunately, Scholar of the First Sin didn't undo or break any of the things that Dark Souls II legitimately fixed. Item descriptions and the help menu are more informative and useful, and there were even some changes to translations that fixed some of the few misleading descriptions that snuck into the release version of the original game. Ranged combat and magic still work generally better than the original, and throwable items are actually useful, and I highly recommend investing in firebombs and throwing knives whenever you want to bank some souls and can't afford a level or weapon upgrade. So there's still a much wider variety of viable character builds and playstyles. Showing the player character off to the side of the menu means that you can easily find the best combination of optimal gear that still makes your character look as bad ass or silly as you want him or her to look. And lastly, the game's generally stable performance (both online and offline) have only been improved with the re-release.
Where did that guy come from?!
But this isn't just a port with some visual and technical polish. The actual game has also changed in some subtle (and not-so-subtle) ways.
Heide Knights have been moved to Heide's Tower, which makes sense -
unless you had a lore theory as to why they were spread out over Drangleic...
The general architecture of the game and its levels has remained the same, but enemies, NPCs, loot and other things have been moved. Shortcuts have been added to some levels, and barriers to progress have been added in other areas. Some of these are positive changes that make sense, such as the Heide Knights being moved to Heide's Lighthouse (unless you had your own lore theory as to why they were spread out over Drangleic), NPCs being moved to more secretive areas, and the addition of a new shortcut in No Man's Wharf in a place where I always thought a shortcut was supposed to be. There's even a petrified enemy blocking the doorway to the Ruin Sentinels that forces the player to have to explore other [easier] areas of the map before challenging this difficult boss that was accessible very early in the original game. This sort of thing kind of leads me to believe that Scholar of the First Sin was planned all along, and that the developers changed things in the last-gen release simply so that they could "upgrade" them in a re-release later. It's cynical, but that's how it makes me feel.
This point is driven home by the addition of a major NPC: the titular Scholar of the First Sin, Aldia. This NPC appears to the player at certain progression milestones and dumps some expository dialogue. This character, and his dialogue, seem to be an attempt to muddy up the morality of the first Dark Souls. Since very few Dark Souls players ever met Darkstalker Kaathe, most players are never made aware that of the moral ambiguity of Gwyn's efforts to maintain the first flame, and most players might not even realize that they can walk away from the first flame and trigger another ending. Aldia's presense in Dark Souls II ensures that players are given the other side of the story and are made aware that Gwyn's actions are not appreciated by all. It's a critical piece of narrative that I can't believe wasn't present in the original version of this game, and it makes some effort to try correct one of the flaws of the first game's presentation of its narrative.
Aldia provides insight into King Vendrick, his kingdom, and the ambiguity of the first game's ending.
But then you start to find other changes that seem like weird decisions that lead me back to thinking that they just don't really know what they're doing. Some late-game enemies have been moved to much earlier in the game (seemingly simply for the purpose of putting intimidating enemies as guards to optional areas), and in many cases, they feel out-of-place - almost as out-of-place as the Heide Knights felt in some of the random locations they showed up in the original release. The two Manikins in Drangleic castle, the dragon in Heide's Tower, and some of the Pursuer's new appearances come to mind.
Moving the Bastille Key makes
Belfry Luna feel pointless.
The Bastille Key (that helps make the fight against the Lost Sinner easier) was moved so that you can pick it up almost immediately after defeating the Ruin Sentinels. You no longer have to trudge through Belfry Luna, survive the onslaught of Bell Keeper Gray Phantom invaders, defeat the Bell Gargoyles, or survive the Vorgel NPC invasion. There's still some good loot in Luna, and you can use PvP to farm Titanite Chunks (which you can eventually buy anyway), but that's going to be character-and-playstyle-dependent. This change makes Belfry Luna feel completely pointless now - even more pointless than Belfry Sol. This change just baffles me...
I never really liked the Bell Keeper covenants in DSII. I felt that they paled in comparison to the design of the Forest Hunters covenant of Dark Souls I. That area was larger, more open, and easy to get lost in, all of which could leave players lost and wandering around hoping not to get invaded. Belfry Luna is just a quick run up a couple flights of stairs and a ladder before a boss fight, and Sol is just a run across an empty rooftop to a loot cache. If you stop to fight the dwarves in the area, you'll likely hang around long enough to be invaded, but it's easy enough to sprint through. This change to the Bastille Key just makes the Belfry feel like an unrewarding waste of time unless you have a character build that would benefit from one of the few pieces of loot available in the area.
And then there's the fact that you can't get the King's Passage Key (the one that leads to the Looking Glass Knight) without solving a little puzzle. You always had to solve a sort-of puzzle that required you to kill an enemy in a specific area in order to activate a secret elevator. The original game provided you with a whole room full of enemies in which to get this done. But now that puzzle has been made more obtuse by the fact that you have to lure one of only two possible enemies into that area from another room. Hopefully they at least respawn indefinitely - I didn't test it to make sure.
I'm also not sure that I like that Gavlan's initial location in No Man's Wharf has been changed. Moving him to the first shortcut gate makes that shortcut more important to reach and reinforces it as a "safe place" and a more significant milestone of progress. But moving him out of the building that he used to be in makes that building feel empty and pointless. There's not much of a reason to go into that building once you've looted its chest, and so you never have to challenge the difficult monsters within, which (if you used the Pharos Lock to light the brazier) you can now avoid completely.
A new shortcut has been added to No Man's Wharf in a place where I always thought a shortcut was intended to be.
The new arrangements of enemies do genuinely make the game harder in some areas. It's not just a matter of suffering the occasional cheap shot from an enemy that didn't used to be in a familiar area that you're exploring. There's more enemies in mobs, and the patrol paths of various combinations of enemies overlap. Both of these changes make it harder to isolate certain enemies in certain areas. Perhaps the best example is the Shrine of Amana, which now has more sorcerers with overlapping lines of sight so that almost everywhere you go along the main path leaves you vulnerable to their homing spell attacks. It makes the level a bit more tedious to replay if you die frequently, but it also forces you to play smarter and not get too aggressive and open yourself to attacks. The Heide Knights in Heide's Tower are another good example. The large Old Knights in the area hit hard, but they are slow and easy to dodge. Even engaging two or three of them simultaneously was never that overwhelmingly tough because of just how slow they are. Having the much faster Heide Knights around forces you to have to watch your back more closely. Granted, the Heide Knights just sit there until you either attack them, or they all wake up after defeating the Dragonrider boss, so this only becomes a problem if you make the mistake of defeating the Dragonrider before going to the Cathedral of Blue.
There's also some areas that have new enemies that just make the level feel annoying. The new NPC invading phantoms in the Gutter and Black Gultch come to mind. This is a sequence of levels that was always too short and easy (provided you obtained a hefty supply of Poison Moss), so From's solution was to fill it with a guantlet of NPC invaders. These invaders feel cheap, as they have very powerful weapons and high HP, and are an order of magnitude harder than the other enemies in the area. And the ones in the Black Gultch can't easily be avoided, and suffering repeat deaths to them can easily force you to whittle away your reserves of Poison Moss, forcing you to go back to farm for more.
More NPCs to make up for lack of online players
But at the same time, some areas actually feel easier. I breezed through the Huntsman's Copse, which was an area that consistently gave me trouble in the original version of the game. Part of this was the presence of new NPC summons, but it was also partly the result of the new enemy placements that made the ambushes feel less intense. The two summonable NPCs even made the path to the Executioner's Chariot feel trivially easy. I'd much rather have just seen a ladder shortcut get added from the bridge approach bonfire up to the actual bridge (instead of that pointless tree-toppling shortcut that nobody ever uses), and be able to just skip these enemies entirely. And what's with that hollow that runs away from you like a scared little child? Was he always in the game?
New NPC summons can sometimes act as support characters, occasionally stopping to heal you and allies.
There are numerous new NPC summons scattered throughout the game. And they don't just act as meat shields anymore. Some of the new summons are even full-blown support characters that will even stop and heal you and your allies after skirmishes. This is especially helpful, since this version of the game doesn't seem to get as much online play as the original launch did. These new summons provide extra insurance to help the player get through tough areas, but also make some of these same areas feel easy.
Unsurprisingly, I haven't encountered much PvP play. I saw a little bit when I first started with my low-level characters, but by the time I hit about level 25 or 30, player invasions became a thing of the past that I wasn't even thinking about anymore. I had absolutely no reservations about leaving the controller unattended. Even former PvP hot-spots like Iron Keep are virtually devoid of activity (at least at levels appropriate to a first playthrough). I got some PvP activity from the Belfries and Doors of Pharros, but that was about it. I was kind of disappointed by this. I was hoping that other players would be picking up the game in anticipation of Dark Souls III (or to fulfill their Souls-style cravings left over from Bloodborne), and that there'd be more players experimenting with the invasion mechanics. Not so.
Dark Souls II generally had smoother PvP than the first Dark Souls (from my experience). I never ran into instances of lag stabs or other unpleasant network behavior. My biggest problem with DSII's PvP was the same problem that I had with DSI's PvP: that invasions were almost always performed by very elite players that were near impossible for moderately-skilled players to beat, and Soul Memory only confounded that issue. None of that seems to have changed with this package, which means it maintains both the good and the bad from Dark Souls II's PvP mechanics and systems.
Even the usual PvP hotspots like Iron Keep are devoid of invasions, except for the occasional Red Summon Sign.
Part of the problem is that the PvP mechanics themselves aren't improved. The covenants centered around PvP and counter-PvP still feel underwhelming and unrewarding. They offer some unique weapons and spells, but they generally aren't very useful unless your character is built around PvP. So joining these covenants has little utility beyond enabling further PvP play. If you're not in a PvP covenant, then there's virtually no incentive to engage in PvP. If you want to duel, then you're better off just using the arenas. The cleverness of the PvP and summoning mechanics in Bloodborne completely put Scholar of the First Sin to shame in my opinion, and I really hope that Miyazaki and company use Bloodborne as the model for Dark Souls III's online systems, rather than using Scholar of the First Sin.
Speaking of covenants, I don't like how you can switch between them so willy-nilly. I much preferred how the first Dark Souls made covenants more an integral part of your character's identity and playstyle. It's also annoying that you still can't offer more than one covenant item at a time when trying to level them up. I also really wish that the Company of Champions covenant had some more universally useful rewards. The First Dragon Ring is a good reward (level 2) (assuming you don't already have one of its superior sister rings), but the others are more geared towards very specific character builds. Personally, if I had designed this covenant, I'd have given a ring or something that increases the liklihood of enemies dropping Human Effigies (to offset not being able to play co-op), or a non-scaling weapon similar to the Drake Sword from the first Dark Souls. Those would both be items that any character of any build could use.
Obviously doesn't fix the fundamental, underlying obnoxiousness
And now comes the part where I basically re-review all the problems with Dark Souls II. I feel that this is important to do because it is important to emphasize that the problems with Dark Souls II wasn't just limited to the downgrade in graphics and lighting and Namco / Bandai's subsequent failure to inform the public. The game that we got suffers from numerous nagging design flaws that would have dragged the game down even if our expectations hadn't been set higher by marketing that ended up being un-representative of the final product. It's unclear how many of these problems are the result of changes and re-designs after the downgrades and lighting backpedaling happened, or how many of them are the result of poor design and direction from the start, but they exist, nonetheless.
Despite being able to shuffle enemies and loot around, the extra development time didn't allow the developers to take any steps to address the numerous major problems of the game in general, or any of the nagging issues that plague certain areas. First and foremost, it does nothing to address the tremendous disconnect between an opening cinematic that seems to establish the backstory of a male character losing a wife and child as a result of his curse, with the fact that shortly thereafter you're given the character creation screen in which you can chose to create a woman. It then goes on to completely ditch its interesting themes of characters loosing themselves and their identity to the undead curse, so that the game can rehash the plot of the first game. And, oh by the way, can you go ahead and re-link the flame for us while you're here? That would be just swell. The interesting ideas that the game had regarding the lore of the universe are just completely squandered. For example, Blacksmith Lenigrast and his daughter Chloanne have a half-finished narrative arc that starts to hint at the larger themes of the loss of identity as a result of the curse, but then just fails to ever resolve this. Oops.
Mob-clearing is a common requirement (even at bonfires!), but the camera and controls aren't well-suited to the task.
The enemy designs and placements also conflict with the game's general controls and mechanics. Demon's Souls was designed for mostly one-on-one engagements, and its control mapping and camera reinforce this. This same control scheme and camera system were ported into Dark Souls, which mostly retained the paradigm of focusing on fighting one enemy at a time. In the occasions where there were mobs, the mob enemies were usually very weak and could be dispatched in a single attack. Dark Souls II, on the other hand, regularly pits the player in engagements against mobs of hard-hitting, armored enemies - including bosses! The camera isn't suited to track mobs, since you can only target lock one enemy at a time, and the controls and weapon movesets aren't generally geared towards mob-clearing (though there are admittedly more AoE and spinny attacks than in the previous games). Trying to clear out a group of melee enemies while a ranged caster fires soul spears at you is aggravating because the game's mechanics aren't designed to accommodate this. You should be fighting with the enemies; not with the camera and controls! Admittedly, this was a problem in Bloodborne as well, but the more fluid nature of Bloodborne's combat meant that maneuvering between multiple enemies wasn't as much of a chore as it is with Dark Souls II's lumbering, defensive controls, and many fights took place in narrow paths and corridors that funneled enemies together so that the camera could keep all of them in-frame. Not so in Dark Souls II. It wasn't fair when Demon's Souls or Dark Souls did it either, but those games didn't do it nearly as often (seriously though, fuck you, Capra Demon! And your little dogs too!). And if any enemies in that mob are flying or low to the ground, then the game kind of throws up all over itself due to weapons generally failing to track elevation, even when locked-on. Seriously, this elevation problem is the biggest hurdle in killing crystal lizards, and it's absolutely obnoxious!
Enemies literally burst through walls to insta-kill you, and the monument in Majula proudly tallies player deaths.
The difficulty of Demon's Souls and Dark Souls rarely - if ever - felt malicious. It always seemed like an emergent property of the designer's attempt to immerse the player in the narrative and setting of a hostile and unforgiving world, and of putting the player character on the same level playing field as the enemies that you fought. It challenged the player to constantly be vigilant because you could always see an imminent threat coming if you simply looked for it, and you can always avoid the threat if you do spot it. Dark Souls II seems to have abandoned this genuine goal of fairness. There's insta-death traps that you legitimately cannot see coming or anticipate (e.g. the beam collapsing while descending the pit in Majula). And enemies will literally smash through walls and insta kill you simply for the LoLs. The game revels so much in killing the player that it provides an achievement for the first time you die, and the monument in Majula proudly highlights how many times the game has killed players, as if the developers are keeping score. There's a shift in design philosophies happening here from "challenge the player" to outright "kill the player". That isn't to say that I'm complaining that the game is too hard. It isn't. In fact, most of it is actually pretty easy once you know what's around the next corner. But the deaths that do come feel more cheap and less deserved.
Leveling still feels too fast and easy, and you're forced to sink points into stats that your character feels crippled without. The adaptability stat is still poorly implemented, as it disassociates the rolling animation from the I-frames, and makes avoiding damage a more confusing game of guesswork than it was in the first game. I'd be fine with this change if agility actually affected the rolling animation so that it would be more obvious where in the animations your I-frames are, and when you should therefore roll. Instead, it's only equip burden that affects your rolling animation, but that has absolutely nothing to do with the i-frames! Stun locks and knockdowns are obnoxiously common, which makes armor less valuable and makes rolling be the end-all-be-all of defense (like it was in Demon's Souls), unless you have low agility, in which case you're just screwed. And the Poise stat that was so wonderfully implemented and utilized in Dark Souls (aside from some hyper-armor nonsense) is now something that provides almost no utility unless you make efforts to max it out because most of the enemies in the game that are fast and dangerous enough to necessitate having poise are variations of dudes in armor that cut through low or moderate poise anyway. And as nice a feature as dual-wielding is, you still can't block while dual-wielding weapons (even though enemies can). The extra mobility afforded by ranged weapons is also still undercut by problems with the target lock and the lack of any sort of "almost out of range" warning.
Darkness and the torch still aren't the game-changers that they were speculated to be,
partly because there's torch sconces every ten steps.
The world itself still feels too spread out and lacks the vertical elegance of the first Dark Souls, and its geography is completely nonsensical! There's still a measly pile of chest-high rubble that blocks the path to Drangleic Castle and provides the impetus for having to play the entire first half of the game! It still feels like entire transitionary areas were removed, or entire areas were shuffled around late in the game's development (Earthen Peak and Iron Keep being one of the most obvious). But then again, I didn't expect the world map to undergo any wholesale changes, and I'm willing to accept that there's a little bit of abstraction of distance in order to keep the game flowing more smoothly. But it's still a far cry inferior to the near-perfect realization of the world of Lordran in the first game. Even Bloodborne, with its checkpoint teleportation and literal ethereal nightmare areas, has a greater sense of continuity to its world. Levels themselves are too small, and checkpoints are too close together for most of the game, taking away the grueling, dungeon-crawling feeling, and eliminating the need for creative shortcuts that act as a marker of progress and incentive to re-visit old locations. Later levels are a little better, as they at least try to hide the bonfires in secret areas out of the way of the main path so as to reward exploration and risk-taking.
Soul Memory still remains to confound multiplayer, and enemies still despawn after you kill them enough times, meaning that you can raise your soul memory, die, fail to get your souls back, then not be able to re-grind those same enemies to earn souls to actually improve your character. And there's still some ultra-rare item drops that you need to grind to acquire - which means you have to replay the same tedious bits, and needlessly inflate your soul memory (though the addition of the Agape Ring certainly helps, if you are able to find it). Dark Souls II is already a long enough game without having to needlessly grind for items for your specific character build, and the inclusion of Soul Memory just makes grinding that much more frustrating a proposition. But the inclusion of the Bonfire Ascetic just means that forcing the player to grind was a major goal of design. Yeah, good luck getting that Lizard Staff for your sorcerer build, or upgrading yourself in all the covenants...
The Gutter and one or two other areas might be
dark enough to necessitate the torch.
Being summoned as a shade and using human effigies still fully restore your humanity, making the incremental hollowing feel less relevant. There still isn't much incentive to invade other players unless you dedicate your character to a PvP covenant, which still offer meager rewards. Online play in general is still hampered by most (if not all) of the problems from the original release of the game, and none of my suggestions for improving online play have been implemented. The only covenant that offers worthwhile rewards is the titanites from the Belfrys, which means that nobody bothers with Red Eye invasions or the Blue Sentinels, which offer only meager, covenant-specific rewards.
On the topic of nagging annoyances, you still can't manually sort your inventory, and the soapstones aren't in the front or back of the list. So you have to scroll through items to get to them. And being able to equip 10 items in your quick inventory means that you can easily get caught having to scroll through a bunch of items. Doing so in a critical situation can easily result on overshooting your intended item and having to cycle all the way back through. The profile selection screen doesn't display Soul Memory, which is the value used for multiplayer matchmaking. Messages telling you about secret doors can still get in the way of actually opening said secret doors. Enemies still throw themselves at me and explode, which annoys me to no end (especially when they blow up treasure chests along with themselves). There's still a swarm of poisonous spider enemies literally at the bonfire in Tseldora Cove. The platforming bits scattered throughout Huntsman's Copse, Iron Keep, and Earthen Peak are still as obnoxious as ever and lead to cheap deaths. At least there's a worthwhile reward for your efforts now, but that almost makes it worse, because now I can't just ignore it! I also still hear a nonsensical heavy "thud" sound (the same sound that enemies make when they drop down from a higher elevation) whenever I walk over a certain spot in certain levels, even if no enemies are around to make the sound. It's particularly noticeable in the Huntsman's Copse, No Man's Wharf, and Lost Bastille.
The platforming in Huntsman's Copse and Iron Keep is still optional, but also as obnoxious as ever.
And the Earthen Peak somehow seems to be even more frustrating than it used to be, even though it didn't change much. It was always a pain in the ass with the narrow hallways, pit falls, and poison pots that all limit your mobility and almost completely prevent you from rolling. And on the topic of poison: the NPCs who sell you anti-poison consumables can't be reached until after you clear a poison level! The whole level turns into a test of your ability to tank through the enemies with your shield, as it slowly grinds away at your reserves of poison moss. And then there's the platforming! It's hard, but it feels hard in the cheapest ways possible. Somehow this area feels even harder for some reason. Maybe the higher framerate slightly changed the window for parrying the enemies? Fortunately, there's a couple summonable NPC shades available for you to summon.
And these sommonable shades still have problems. Completing the questlines of NPCs still requires you to jump through annoying hoops. You have to summon them to fight against a certain number of bosses, and they must survive those fights. This is annoying because each phantom or shade that you summon increases a boss' HP (thus making them harder), and the NPC summons are generally inept at combat (particularly Lucatiel) and routinely get themselves killed. They're useful as a distraction to divert the boss's attention away from you while you heal or cast spells from a safe distance, but having an NPC summon survive a boss fight is a considerable crap shoot, especially if you don't have a powerful player summon to help you.
Dragonrider, Mytha, and other bosses are cake-walks and have uninspired designs ...
Bosses also continue to vary wildly in difficulty and design. Dragonrider, Mytha, and even the Old Iron King still feel like dull, uninspired bosses that are easy to beat (especially with the help of the overly-accessible NPC summons that the game provides). The Flexile Sentry is a more interesting-looking boss with a potentially cool trap of an arena, but he's a complete pushover (again, partly the result of having multiple NPC summons to distract him) until you encounter him later in the game guarding the path to the Lost Sinner. Some of the most visually interesting bosses (like Duke's Dear Freja and the Demon of Song) have predictable, telegraphing attacks that make them feel like pushovers despite their impenetrable armor. Other bosses like the Ruin Sentinels, Pursuer, and Smelter Demon continue to kick my butt up and down their respective arenas. The Pursuer even has several additional cameo appearances beyond just the Forest of Fallen Giants and the Iron Keep. He also shows up several times in the Lost Bastille and promptly dead-ended my progress there. I took these appearances as a personal challenge though, and I didn't give up until I beat the bastard!
... while bosses like the Ruin Sentinels and Pursuer are still absurdly hard and practically require allies.
I could go on with the nitpicks of the core game's design, but I need to get onto more of the changes for Scholar of the First Sin. Needless to say, this long section of pessimistic ranting shouldn't be interpreted as meaning that the game is terrible. None of these problems - individually or as a collection - render the game unplayable. But they do all combine to make the game less enjoyable, more annoying, and to make it feel lazy or poorly thought-out.
The Lost Crowns are slightly better integrated
I never got around to buying any of the three DLC packs (the "Lost Crowns Trilogy") for Dark Souls II on my PS3. One of the reasons that I decided to buy Scholar of the First Sin (besides the hope that it would be a substantially better experience than the original release) was that it comes packaged with the DLC, and so it would give me an opportunity to play the DLC.
In the original DLC on the PS3 and XBox 360, the keys to the DLC areas just automatically appeared in the player's inventory after buying and downloading the DLC. Very un-immersive. It makes the DLC feel like a tacked-on after thought. Now, the keys are hidden in difficult to reach areas of the main game world, which makes reaching those areas feel a bit more rewarding and makes them feel a little bit more like part of the world (as opposed to just being tacked on). Hiding these keys in secretive areas, under the guard of very difficult enemies, also helps to reinforce the idea the areas they unlock are of end-game difficulty. Of course, players can still sprint to pick up the key at much lower levels, without having to fight the tough enemies that guard them. I really do wish that the difficulty range of the DLCs had been a bit more varied. Having to resolve them all at the end of the game feels like adding a whole extra set of grinding to the process of going through the memory of the giants. They'd feel a lot more comfortable if they were spread out over the course of the game more. Maybe have one low-level DLC, one mid-level DLC, and one high-level DLC?
"Key to the iron door in the Iron Keep.
The Old Iron King's Castle sunk into a lake of fire, weighed down by the castle's iron, and the burden of the king's conceit.
Over the ages, the iron was stripped from the castle by the opportunistic passers-by. The iron door, too, must be somewhere, far away."
For example, you can find the Iron Key under a fire trap in the Iron Keep. The key claims to unlock an iron door in the Iron Keep, but that door isn't in the Iron Keep anymore; it's the iron door just before the Last Giant boss fight in the Forest of Fallen Giants. Of course, you're given no clue as to where this door may be, and that old iron door can be difficult to remember. Anyway, this door leads to the fire pit containing the fire-spitting salamanders, which are among the hardest enemies in the game. In this pit, you can find the Heavy Iron Key that unlocks access to the Old Iron King DLC. And that's just one of the three DLC! I can tell you that I'd certainly have never found the Forgotten Key under Black Gultch if not for the wiki. So yeah, you really have to work to find this stuff.
Unfortunately, the DLC areas themselves aren't better integrated into the game world; you still have to teleport to them, and so they don't really feel like an organic part of the game world. There's no indication of where these places actually are, whether they are meant to take place in the past or future, or what their relation is to the locations that you warp to them from. In all fairness though, the base game already had you teleporting to the memories of the giants. So unlike Dark Souls I, there was already a precedent in this game of time travel / warping that makes the DLC not feel quite as out-of-place as the trip to Oolacile in Artorias of the Abyss.
Crown of the Sunken King
The first of the three DLC is the Crown of the Sunken King. Or at least, it was the first DLC to be released. It probably won't be the first DLC that you actually play though, since I think most players save the Black Gultch for one of the last places that they go for the four great souls, and that's where you need to go to unlock and access this DLC. Most players probably get to the Iron King DLC first, since the Iron Keep feels like the more natural path of early-game progression (even the order of the locations in the bonfire travel menu corroborates this). Ironically, Black Gultch is probably the easiest of the four paths to finish, since it's so short. Take out the new NPC invasions, and Black Gultch is kind of a cake walk provided you have a decent fire weapon and plenty of poison moss.
Shulva Sanctum City is an underground labyrinth and one big environmental puzzle.
Anyway, the Sunken City is an interesting environment that actually uses the geography of the level in creative ways. The level is packed with switches that raise and lower various platforms that can grant access to remote areas and secret paths, or which can outright be used to damage or kill enemies. The whole level feels like a giant puzzle, and every time I encountered a room of enemies, I wondered if there was some switch that I could pull somewhere that would kill or damage them all for me. There's also a maze-like structure to the environment, and it's easy to get confused and lose track of where you are. Regardless - or because because of it - I love the level's architecture, with its myriad of shortcuts and alternate paths that helps to provide that small sense of progression and achievement as you explore the level and discover these paths, even if you do keep dying. Anyone who played the first Dark Souls' Artorias of the Abyss DLC will likely feel a sense of familiarity here, since scaling the ramparts and rooftops of Shulva will look and feel similar to trekking across the rooftops of Oolacile, but with a wider variety of alternating paths.
Bring plenty of arrows to compensate
for arrows getting stuck in mid-air.
You'll need to bring a lot of cheap arrows to allow you to shoot the various activation switches and trigger the moving platforms. This means that you'll unfortunately have to deal with the numerous problems that this series has with projectiles. Poor collision boxes can make it hard to line up shots, and you have to be very careful not to walk off a ledge as you try to aim around corners.
The enemies themselves are as hard-hitting as the enemies in any other DLC, but they don't have as many tricks up their sleeves as the enemies in the other DLC levels. They do like to combine ranged and melee fighters in the same group, which means you have to stay on your toes and use the platforms to manage line-of-sight.
However, when I got into the second area of the DLC, I ran up against wall that started to really grind away at my patience. A gauntlet of dual-scimitar-wielding ghosts. I had fought them before, but there was a way to dispel their ghostliness and make them easier to kill. Now there wasn't, and they ground away at my stockpiles of Estus. I eventually got the hang of parrying them, only to defeat them and come up against an NPC black phantom: Jester Thomas. Oh Jester Thomas, you weren't this much of a mean, tough son-of-a-bitch when I summoned you to help me beat Mytha - not that I needed you to be, since she's easy as pie. But here, he's aggressive and explosive, and just getting close enough to get a hit in was tough. To make matters worse, once I cleared the area around the opening bonfire, I had a hard time finding allied phantoms and shades to help me out. Maybe my soul memory wasn't high enough yet, but it was annoying.
This combination of dual-scimitar ghosts and the Jester Thomas invasion stone-walled my progress for a couple days.
I eventually found the hidden bonfire that prevented me from having to go through the whole gauntlet every time, and that enabled me to finally make it through this grueling portion of the level. I later found the other secret room that helped me to make the ghosts vulnerable and much easier, but that wasn't until after I had already dealt with them all and progressed further. I didn't even bother fighting the T-Rex-looking monsters in the lake below Jester Thomas. I took one look at them and decided to heed the advice of a message that suggested I "Dash through".
After making it through a platforming section that actually works within the game's controls and physics (unlike the optional platforming of earlier in the base game), we proceed to a couple of bosses. The first was kind of annoying. First of all, she looks and feels very much like a reskin of Nashandra from the base game (so a bit un-original). But more annoyingly, the one thing that makes her unique is that she summons other enemies to help her. One of those enemies can potentially be a copy of Velstadt (another boss from earlier in the game). I always end up getting hit in the back with a spell I couldn't see coming while trying to deal with these summons. This is one of those bosses that basically requires that you have a phantom ally, but with so few players playing the game (and the high level-requirement of the stage in general), there's virtually nobody ever available to help me. The game provides two NPCs, but they are complete garbage. What I really need, is a phantom to help distract the summons while I pound on Elana (or vice versa). The NPC summons aren't smart enough to distract the summons, and they're too weak to reliably take on Elana while I distract the summons. So frustrating!
After some platforming that actually works, we fight a pair of bosses, including an unimpaired dragon!
Eventually, I managed to summon some human help (along with the two NPCs for additional distractions), and voila, the boss went down pretty easily! Next, I proceeded on to the much better boss battle against Sinh the dragon. If you played Artorias of the Abyss, then this boss fight might remind you a lot of the fight with Kalameet, except that this dragon doesn't seem to have a wounded wing and can fly freely around the arena (even though he still has a giant javelin stuck through his chest). This fight is very fun, as the boss is difficult, and has a lot of hit points, but I felt like I could actually take him on a deal some damage (unlike the fights against Elana where I spent the whole battle dodging attacks from summoned enemies and never even getting to attack her). I could have done without the obnoxious toxin effect. He hits hard enough that if you're inflicted with toxin, it usually eats away at whatever measly hit points you're left with and kills you before you can compete the animation to heal or cure the ailment. This actually caused me to die after beating the boss because he hit me with the toxin just before I got the killing blow, and the toxin killed me before I could heal. I actually had to restart the boss fight because the game didn't give me credit for the win, even though the "You are victorious!" message did appear on-screen. Ah well, I liked the fight overall, nonetheless.
Overall, I love the layout and progression of the level as a whole. There was a kind of "Indiana Jones" feeling to exploring the temple and triggering the various switches and pressure plates, and I even loved coming across a few rooms with opened chests that made it feel as though this ancient temple has already been explored and looted by adventurers past. The enemies are a bit underwhelming in terms of being interesting designs or unique challenges, but the boss fight with Sinh more than makes up for it!
Crown of the Old Iron King
Brume Tower offers some apocalyptic scenery.
The first DLC that I unlocked and played was the Old Iron King. I was really liking it at first. Brume Tower is very similar to Shulva, in that it is a very large, vertical level with spaced-out checkpoints and interweaving shortcuts. The whole level was also presented as a sort of puzzle challenge. There's a series of Ashen Idols that have various effects ranging from resurrecting enemies to causing curse, and you have to use a special item to destroy them. Even combat encounters had a bit of a puzzle-solving mechanic due to the presence of exploding enemies, fire traps, and a lot of exploding barrels. There's even some new enemies that provided tough new challenges that required careful observation and even more deliberance than usual. So this DLC was shaping up to be everything that Shulva was, and more!
But then I hit a wall - an even more frustrating and annoying wall than the one I came up against in Shulva. I can pinpoint the exact moment that this DLC started to get on my nerves: after defeating a giant, iron golem that periodically spews lava from its elbows by luring it into blowing up exploding barrels, then opening the giant, iron door that he was protecting, I found myself on a narrow ledge being ambushed by axe-weilding enemies while a new type of spell-caster threw annoying, area-of-effect spells at me.
These Fume Sorcerers on this ledge [LEFT] gave me endless frustration and dead-ended my progress for days.
These casters drove me nuts. I really regretted having specialized my character as a sorcerer without also having some adequate bows. I had trouble getting close enough to use any of my own spells, and they were surprisingly competent in melee. The spell they cast has a wide area of effect that filled the entire ledge, and which persists for a few seconds, blocking your ability to retreat or advance, and leaving you vulnerable to ambush. I was stuck on this ledge for a couple days of playing this game! I felt as though the design philosophy was shifting from "How can we provide a rewarding and challenging experience?" to "How can we kill the character as many times as possible?" These guys show up later on, but there's a trick to beating them that made the encounters less of a brick wall for me.
On the better side of things, I really liked the large, iron golems that periodically shoot fire out of their elbows. Many of them can be trapped or tricked into blowing themselves up, but when I did have to fight them directly, I also enjoyed the battle. The fire alternates from elbow to elbow, which prevents the player from repeatedly rolling under one arm. You must cross the enemy's face every roll in order to not be caught in the fire. This is very smart design. There's also a new type of hovering enemy that can contort its body in all kinds of weird ways that make it hard to predict its attacks. Each attack is like a feint that could lead into a follow-up combo, and which kept me hesitant about approaching to get in my own attack. It's an ingeniously-devious design, but the massive amount of hit points that these Possessed Armors have makes encounters with them drag on for longer than they are welcome.
Fire-spewing Iron Golems prevent you from repeatedly rolling under the same arm, and force you to mix up your tactics,
and Possessed Armors are an ingeniously-insidious enemy due to their unpredictably contorting attacks.
And this is a trend that continues on to other enemies, including the bosses. Fume Knight is a particularly difficult endurance fight. It was easy enough for me to dodge, but every now and then, I'd get staggered and stun locked, and he'd land a killing blow. The two NPC summons the game gives you are also practically worthless (as usual). Much of this level, in fact, is a painful endurance fight, and the secretive, high-level nature of the level once again means that human allies are few and far between. Despite this, I enjoyed the level's overall design - aside from that stupid ledge with those casters.
Crown of the Ivory King
While all the DLC levels have some nice imagery, the Ivory King has one stand-out visual element. The arctic blizzard white-out in Frozen Eleum Loyce is something completely different from what we've seen in Dark Souls before, and it's a shame that we don't get any actual gameplay under these conditions. I have to admit, that the fact that From could successfully accomplish white out conditions made me wonder why they couldn't manage to make the black out conditions promised by pre-release videos work. Whatever...
Sadly, this white-out blizzard clears up once you unlock the proper key to Frozen Eleum Loyce.
But these white-out conditions only exist if the player attempts to visit the location before actually acquiring the key to unlock it. The actual playable parts of the level don't look like this, which is a shame. Nevertheless, there are some wind and snow effects once you get inside the castle, and this area does have a very unique aesthetic to it. For an added level of immersion, you'll even notice your character's boots turning white with snow as you walk around the level, and rolling will even cover yourself in a layer of snow for a while. They're nice effects that show a level of immersive detail that the core game mostly lacked. It's just too bad that the vast majority of the level (except the final boss room) is a pretty drab, sterile castle.
Too much rolling in the snow!
There's also a growing sense of menace about the entire level, as you explore it and find treasure chests, enemies, and even possibly NPCs trapped in ice, as well as potential passages and shortcuts. Like the other two DLCs, the whole area begins to feel like a puzzle, as you wonder whether you'll be able to melt the ice open the Pandora's Box that is the level. The DLC itself feels fairly confined, as it consists only of this one single level. But the level itself is fairly sizeable, and it makes up for the lack of locations by allowing you to re-explore the entire level after the ice has melted. Doing so will reveal new challenges, loot, and even something that will make the area's final boss fight much easier. The level also loops back in on itself, making it feel like - with a little more polish - it could have fit right in with a level from Demon's Souls.
Or at least, that's how I felt before beating the first boss. After that, you're forced to backtrack through the entire level again in order to access areas that were unlocked by the unfreezing of the ice. Well, technically, you're not forced to, but it's all but necessary in order to challenge the final boss. This wouldn't have been so bad if the level designers had created bonfires and shortcuts that gave you quick access to the branching paths. Instead, I had to re-explore the entire level from start to finish, now with more enemies and fewer obstacles to use to block enemy line of sight or provide cover. This meant being assaulted by more mobs. Mobs of sorcerers, mobs of giant golems, mobs of annoying porcupine enmies that roll around and damage you on contact. Ugh.
The final insult though was a pair of incredibly annoying phantoms. Hexer Nicholai shows up in the middle of a swarm of casters and proceeds to spam a very annoying hex that causes victims to tip-toe around like they're on egg shells. You can't even block or dodge while this spell is in effect. After beating him, there's another NPC that disguises himself as a white phantom and then runs away and hides when you attack him - including hiding behind a reskin of the Covetous Demon from Earthen Peak. This was an absolutely miserable sequence that had me shouting profanities at the TV and waking up my girlfriend while she was trying to nap.
After this, the level settles down a bit and starts to get better. Worthwhile shortcuts start to open up, including one very clever one that utilizes the unique theming of the level. It's just a shame that the shortcuts that open are only good for easily getting you out of the optional areas; they aren't at all useful for helping you to get into those areas, so you still have to grind through every square inch of the level a second time in order to get everything. It really ground on my patience.
What treasures or horrors might lie frozen in that ice?
The boss fight is a mixed affair. On the one hand, the boss himself is fine on his own. The problem is that he comes with a small army of armored knights who [as far as I can tell] cannot be parried, backstabbed, or even stunned. I was also hoping for something a little bit more creative than just more bad guys in armor for this boss fight. After going toe-to-toe with a dragon in Shulva, I was hoping for some kind of choas monstrosity here. But no, just more armored knights to add to the game's excessive repertoire of armored knights. This mob-supported boss practically necessitates having multiple allies by your side. So once again, the secretive nature of the DLC means that finding good help (or any at all) is difficult, and the couple NPCs that are provided once again act more as a liability by padding the bosses' HP.
This was easily the weakest and most annoying of the DLC. Prior to beating the first boss, it was feeling like yet another excellent addition to the game. But after that, it quickly started to degrade to feeling like one of the worst levels of the game, stretched out several times as long. If I had paid for this DLC, I'd have been very disappointed.
Still not the game Dark Souls II was meant to be
Technically, Scholar of the First Sin is definitely a step up from the original retail release of the game. It still doesn't look quite as pretty as the previews made it look, but that is mostly the result of the toned-down darkness and contrast. I still feel as though this version of the game is a far cry away from what the developers' original vision of the game was supposed to be. It isn't the dark, treacherous dungeon-crawl that was hyped up in previews, and the torch and lighting features really do feel like they were stripped down to cater to broader audiences (or as a result of technical limitations of the consoles). I was really hoping that Scholar of the First Sin would have brought some of those elements of design back for a more difficult experience for "hardcore" players. But that didn't happen, and the end result is that I still feel disappointed by this game.
Scholar of the First Sin wants to be the definitive version of Dark Souls II, but it doesn't change up the experience enough to really make it feel worth the repeat investment. It doesn't fix the fact that, despite being a good game overall, Dark Souls II seemed to get all the little details completely wrong. It also doesn't live up to the dream of what Dark Souls II could have - and should have - been. I would only recommend it if you never played the DLC (which might be the best collection of levels in the game), and even then, only if you don't mind starting the game over from scratch and grinding through the first half once more.