Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin Review
There was a short run, a tap of R2, and a massive swing of a greatsword, and Aldia, the hideous abomination known as the Scholar of the First Sin, went down in a fiery gust of wind. The fight took five tries. I was still surrounded by phantoms--wild, fearless NPCs who chipped at the Scholar even as they burned alive standing too close. I was draped in the armor of a dead enemy, the Smelter Demon, one of the myriad moments when Dark Souls II threatened to break my spirit in half. I stood in an empty arena while the disembodied spectre of Aldia gave his last lecture on the nature of good and evil. And it was right at that moment that Dark Souls II and I finally, truly saw each other.
In the game, Aldia says in his first appearance that there're only two paths: “Inherit the order of this world, or destroy it.” It's the Souls ethos in a nutshell. There's nothing in that simple statement or any of his later dialogue to suggest that winning or saving this world or its people is a goal or anything to aspire to. It suggests simply that the world of Dark Souls II has a way of digital life that involves sacrifice, hard decisions about the distribution of power, and the fact that seeking more has an iron price. There's no cowardice implied in abandoning hope. It acknowledges power and glory coming at great cost, with no shortcuts or easy roads. And it acknowledges that it's inevitable that most will fail.
This was what From Software had in mind for its players. But it's not what I had in mind standing in that arena.
What I had in mind was Whiplash.
You know Whiplash: that drumming movie with Cave Johnson as Terence Fletcher, the world's most evil jazz conductor. Specifically, in the last scene, when, after months of abuse, of blood spilled over drum kits, of mistakes and broken bones, and one final, cruel joke, Neiman, the prodigy, goes back to his set and proceeds to improvise one of the greatest musical performances ever set to film. Right before the final notes, he and Fletcher share a silent look. “Now you understand.”
After three games of hitting a wall at the 30-hour mark, Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin eventually stopped screaming at me and started teaching, in the way that every good teacher should: it took away comfort. Every moment that felt safe and familiar from the last outing was infused with danger, with a new enemy, a new reaction to obstacles, a cue to always be ready to face what's around the corner--a constant awareness that doesn't go away the closer you get to the endgame. A dragon awaits you instead of a knight. Where an enemy with the high ground might have shot arrows before, your path is peppered with firebombs. Red phantoms and The Pursuer are now common aggravations, placed just about anywhere you once thought was safe, and occasionally where you were already overwhelmed, just for the extra kick to the teeth.
Revisiting older stages at a higher level, and with better gear, very often finds enemies far more hostile and still able to punish arrogance. Remember that merchant you know is in a specific room, that bonfire you just have to kill one more knight to access, that one Chloranthy Ring +2 that would go nicely with that stat-raising shield of yours, that zipline that would shortcut you into a saferoom? They're probably not there anymore. Few of the hardwired safety nets players know of exist, and even experts have no idea just how devious the game can be in doling out hard lessons in pain and frustration by not approaching every situation with the same care as you did the first time.
And so, once again, every Dark Souls II player is on equal ground. Every Scholar of the First Sin player is powerless, with returning enthusiasts only able to say that they've seen these massive places once before and that they know how to do battle in them, not that they know what to expect. Their new-game-plus advantages go out the window, a hefty but worthwhile technical price of admission for the complete rearrangement of the game's layout and flow. This goes double for the now-fully integrated Crowns add-ons, with the keys to access no longer magically appearing in inventory, instantly accessible after their respective Primal Flames but hidden in the game's most diabolical locations, which is far more befitting three Herculean tasks now woven into their story the way they're meant to be: as a means to make King Vendrick dispel the Curse of the Undead once and for all.
That word's an important one: befitting. During this runthrough, part of the problem I faced after the 30-hour wall was the idea of never feeling the urge to continue because, ultimately, what I was fighting for was so nebulous, the world I was trying to save so oppressive, that it made the task ahead seem all the more futile. Scholar of the First Sin sweetens the pot ever so subtly. The murky, choppy ruin that was its graphical showing in the last-gen had been transformed into 60-fps awe hour after hour, a feeling that the series hadn't been able to inspire previously on consoles, settling at most for impressively desolate. It's an invisible boon, in that precision is even closer within your grasp now that you don't feel the console struggling to catch up to every heavy move you make. Every new environment, even when laid waste by thick clouds of poison, or drowning in lava feels like a place worth surviving in, is a place of intricate details waiting to be noticed. The texture of a shield gleaning in pale sunlight, the reflection of neon plants and sorceress' spells reflecting off the water--these are the details that you find yourself immediately drawn to while you catch a brief moment of respite. Granted, PC players have enjoyed that privilege since the first release, which has improved with each new unofficial mod. For them, this will be an example of added nuance rather than a breathtaking overhaul, but it is an improvement, regardless.
The world of Dark Souls II has a way of digital life that involves sacrifice, hard decisions about the distribution of power, and the fact that seeking more has an iron price.
Every new item, even a dead boss's soul, armor, or weapon, isn't just a tool with a vague description but now has new bits of story to impart, a bigger piece of this world to engage with, to realize that the story of your Hollowing is unique, just like everyone else's. Aldia, as an NPC, starts literally and metaphorically blowing up on the scene the second Dark Souls II starts getting rather linear, and it's perfect timing: Aldia is there to question your next steps and make the last segment feel like a march to something potentially beyond your understanding, a contrast to the Emerald Herald, whose blind, unyielding hope feels less like simple encouragement but whose directions feel like the strongest chance to do some good. The stream of information, the steady escalation of stakes and intensity, continues, with the knowledge that the inevitable fights with this thing, the mad king, and his wife are coming and that their deaths will only have meaning if you choose it. As opposed to a willfully obtuse collection of setpieces, the Scholar Edition knits in all the disparate parts that came after release, creating a much more organic experience, which is the best feeling to have when separate content is being included with a standalone game. It feels like a whole experience that won't usher you from start to finish like most games, but certainly has a complete, gratifying feel to it.
This is all brilliant and bold flesh held together by the tempered adamantium skeleton that is the Souls' series unforgiving combat system, which is still unchanged. It is a game of neverending considerations of risk and reward, questions about what to do with power when given, and will it prepare you for everything, despite the fact that, until the bitter end, nothing, not even the enhancements, will ever mean that you are prepared to do anything but die in Dark Souls. The changes in Scholar of the First Sin show the why. The how remains brutal and intimidating from beginning to end.
Three things assuage the fear: one is the knowledge that you are not alone. Through messages, carefully laid hints, and the ability to summon a bigger army to your aid, to gather all the souls possible, versus enemies or other humans, everyone works to slay this beast in his or her own way, and while one often expects the worst of gaming communities, the help and messages of luck vastly outnumber incidents of stupidity. Scholar's addition of an additional enemy on each side makes a world of difference. Every call to protect your covenant, every cooperative boss slaughtering, and every straight-up brawl is less like a tag team match and more like an all-out war. The game experiences its sole jitters here, on occasions of multiple spells crisscrossing the playing field, but the hiccups never last more than a second.
The second is the fact that moments come, with time, effort, and drive, when Dark Souls II's hostility gives way to mercy, moments where one's careful considerations are rewarded. Perhaps the greatest new example is the Dragon Aerie and Shrine, where dragon eggs and their mothers are virtually everywhere. Breaking more than three eggs means that every dragon wakes up ready to tear you to shreds, and, in an evil gambit, three eggs block your path inside a cave. But carefully breaking only two of them, just enough to pass, means that every dragon stays peacefully asleep. Later in the Shrine, gold-plated guards new to Scholar of the First Sin now line every major passage. They are completely peaceful as long as you never angered the dragons, which leaves you with only the giant knights to deal with.
The third thing that broke me through that wall, after so many deaths and so many hours of hell, was simply realizing the problem was myself. Every gamer has been trained to take from a game that supreme mastery of the world is a given. Enemies want to die. Stories want to be told. Pushing a button meant that everything in my character's line of sight was in danger. Even after the credits roll and the throne is yours (or not), you are never the master of Dark Souls. You survive. You sometimes persevere. But Drangleic will always have it in for you, and rushing into a new area thinking that you’re its master is a sure way to find yourself taken down multiple rungs. In being beaten by Dark Souls, I found patience. I found patterns. I found how I wanted to take on the world, and the leveling system was more than happy to oblige my decisions. I found the world itself telling me more of its fascinating secrets the braver I became. As the game became linear, with the three crowns obtained, the souls of dead giants in hand, and the Emerald Herald urging me to slay Nashandra, I found that Dark Souls II had taught me to never over- or underestimate a game world.
And it's a hard-won love that Dark Souls II has you earn, a love that took a second, enhanced port to truly find. It is a demanding and seemingly interminable game that puts up its most beautiful and its most evil machinations right at the outset. Its greatest spectacles are the ones that will kill you the fastest. It will taunt. It will demoralize. And yet, it has never done a better job than now of beckoning you on than in Scholar of the First Sin. It will never offer you true power, but those who seek it with enough conviction will at least find satisfaction. That's a feeling that few games offer and few even should. And yet, the exultation of hard-earned victory here, of saying “What's next” with all the fear, fascination, and excitement of any good, bloody fight, has more joys than most, and even though the game is won, I find myself itching to go back.
Dark Souls II, in its final form, is just my tempo.