Dark Souls 2: Scholar of the First Sin

A lot has been said about what made Dark Souls work so much as a game. I said some of it myself. And Dark Souls 2 is great, because most of that is still there. Some things are different.

I enjoy feeling like I’m “colonizing” a world, which is why lit sconces which last forever are a nice idea, and so is bringing most of the NPCs together at one convenient hub. In the case of Souls games, I feel that the world should resist me to some extent, and occupy a sort of fixed geographic reality in my head, but I’ve always liked kicking down ladders and opening up shortcuts the most, and quick-travel in particular invalidates the purpose of a lot of that. I don’t like that you can freely warp all around in DS2. On the other hand, I’d like to see more purely physical forms of making my mark, like a stonecutter NPC who cuts a tunnel through a mountain or carves staircases out of the rock in exchange for some favor. It’s not all for the sake of my convenience, but the feeling of accomplishment and ownership. It could even be accompanied by a very Souls-esque unwelcome twist, like bringing stronger monsters into the opening areas of the game.

Despawning enemies once you’ve killed them a dozen times is another new and somewhat interesting idea, but I think what it mostly does is incentivize a grinding period, especially in that first run where you’re not intensifying any bonfires and you really benefit from clearing out a high-traffic passageway. Why not a difficult-to-pull-off Dark Hand-esque effect which taints a specific spawn of an enemy, so it would never reappear there until you reapplied the effect to another? That could be really fun, especially with the ability to gain a few charges or slots of the technique, to repress the two or three most troublesome foes along the way to a boss.

Many of the multiplayer changes are great, specifically the ease of matching up with other people, and the many new spells, with friendly AoEs and sharing passive buffs and so on. Players are encouraged to help each other, which is probably great for advanced challenges like No Death runs, but acts against the traditional experience of really learning to understand the subtleties of a boss before being able to defeat it. I might suggest staying away from help during the first playthrough, but with some of the covenants being more appropriately cleared at low Soul memory, and with specially-awarded NPC gear being tied to summoning them to help with bosses at every opportunity, it’s easy to feel penalized for trying to go it alone. I also think that the ability to freely restore humanity and flask charges on the spot just by helping another player in their own world for a little while feels almost like an exploit.

Many of the bosses also feel too easy. Some show a lot of variety in their moves and combos, like The Pursuer, or Fume Knight, but there are always a bunch more like Old Iron King, which are kind of a joke. Other times, the difficulty comes from just doubling up on the dangers. I felt pretty tense fighting Darklurker, but I checked a wiki after my fifth death and found out that with AoE pyromancy, double the targets just meant double the damage inflicted, and once I knew that, I was done that fight in seconds.

There’s still room to die a million times while exploring, but I came away feeling like some of those deaths weren’t my fault. It could happen all of a sudden. You lose all your health in one shot, or you get grabbed. You open a mimic chest and die immediately. On the other side of things, if your adaptability stat is raised high, you’ll have so many invincibility frames that you’ll roll through something that your instinct tells you should’ve smashed you into pieces, and the only thing you can really say about it is “lol, okay”. The stat was a bad idea. The thought of doing a low-level playthrough and having fewer iframes than other players is frankly a bummer. There was nothing like that in the original game. There was one roll and it was all you had.

I could talk forever about every little tweak and system here, but I’m trying to keep this short. A few others need some mention, though. Durability was actually something I really liked the changes to. In DS2, gear repair isn’t something you have to concern yourself with the tedious aspects of. All gear is freely and instantly repaired when you sit down at a fire, unless it was fully broken, in which case it costs a meaningful amount of souls to fix. It becomes an aspect of gameplay, rather than just a tacked-on feature that is largely ignorable, as it was in DS1. It ties into other systems. Enemies that degrade your items are a real concern. There’s a secret weapon you get by “breaking” another weapon with a large boulder on the end of it, uncovering the true weapon underneath. Rings of sacrifice will break and remain in your inventory instead of acting like consumable items and simply disappearing, which I think is good: after all, I never once used a ring of sacrifice in the original Dark Souls. I’m neurotic about wasting things when supplies are forever limited. It’s not to say that the system couldn’t possibly benefit from further experimentation: the costs are static; it’s set up so the cost of repairing a ring of sacrifice will become relatively less compared to the amount of souls you’re protecting over time. Maybe instead you might require titanite to repair a ring. Maybe if you used the ring to protect or recover a bloodstain with hundreds of thousands of souls, you might need to repair that ring with a titanite slab instead of a smaller chunk or shard. Food for thought.

A few quick systems I’m less impressed by: Dyna and Tillo, who are more RNG-based than anything in DS1. Lengthy grind-based challenges, like collecting Loyce Souls. And the changes to illusory walls, so you have to tap the interact button to open them. It felt esoteric in a way that wasn’t really conducive to discovering things for yourself. I don’t know–maybe it was always like that. But I did like Pharros’ contraptions.

I have to admit I gave up on parrying, despite doing a bit of training and pulling it off a couple times. The variable wind-ups just bugged me and ruined what I enjoyed as a purely reactive technique in the original Dark Souls. I’m glad to hear that the change is being reverted for DS3, which makes me even less willing to grow accustomed to it as it stands now.

Soul Memory was another unfortunate idea. In the long term, meaning the point where I’d expect to have 4 million souls or more and move into NG+, either I decide to max out all my stats, or I wear the Agape Ring 99% of the time to prevent gathering any souls at all. Would it have been possible to prevent tweakers at very low Soul Level from hunting newer players without making the grim totality of all souls ever gathered weigh on everyone like an arrow of time, like entropy? I think so. Maybe the matchmaking could only measure the number of souls dumped into a character’s level plus the cost of upgrades into their equipment, or a system which applies a score to pieces of gear, with high-scoring pieces found only later in the game, all for the sake of using that as another matchmaking variable–the player who farmed for the ghost blade maybe has more going on than the guy with just the basic hand axe. Or maybe Soul Memory should be simply considered as a secondary variable between matchups of players of the same Soul Level first, so tweakers play with other tweakers first. But ultimately, tweaking is too small of a concern to the health of the game to have messed with everything else.

Places feel disconnected, and not just because of the quick-travelling and warping into the shrines and the memories of old trees. The environment artists really knocked it out of the park, and I love the gorgeous vistas of ancient ruins, but in the original game it was all far more cohesive. You didn’t see anything quite like the view from the wyvern’s room of Aldia’s Keep in DS1, but you saw the Undead Parish, so meaningfully far away from Anor Londo. Coming up a long elevator ride from the Earthen Peak tower overlooking a poison swamp, and seeing lava all around you, just doesn’t make sense–it hasn’t tried to make sense. The endless rows of tall trunks of numinous trees deep below the earth in The Great Hollow weren’t so detailed in appearance, but it meant something, having just bravely ventured down only one such tree. It made you understand the nature of the world, and it made you feel small.

Dark Souls 2 is in many ways an enhancement, an iterative improvement from the original. Exploration is still a delight, and the game is huge. I still want to keep playing, to find things I missed. The PC version of DS1 was a shoddy port in a handful of respects, which is clearer than ever when the better-looking DS2 performs just as well on the same hardware. But you can also plainly see where the heart isn’t quite there.

This game was thoroughly enjoyed by the reviewer. It is an excellent game that may be too simple or not ambitious enough to be a 5, or there are design flaws meaningful enough to prevent it from enduring as something truly beloved. Highly recommended.
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