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Published on April 7th, 2016 | by silent brotagonist


Revisiting Dark Souls 2: Scholar of the First Sin

Of the few games that I bought for the PS4, Dark Souls 2: Scholar of the First Sin was strangely not one of the games that I carry remorse over. Mostly because I was able to get it for about $15 on Black Friday, but the game is a complicated beast that deserves another look before Dark Souls 3 comes out and renders it obsolete. The important distinction is that the PS4 (Xbox One, Direct X 11 for the PC) edition isn’t just a ‘game of the year’ port with all of the DLC, it is a remix album. After finally slogging for the Platinum trophy, which was nowhere near as exciting as the journey through Bloodborne, I think I need to sit down and debrief.

The first, obvious topic is whether Dark Souls 2 at it’s core, is still a turd. I can’t really argue against that. Two main complaints from the original game still ring true- Soul Memory and Hollowing. Soul Memory, as I understand it, was supposed to be a more accurate match-up system compared to soul level, where informed players who prioritize reinforcing equipment over pumping their stats would not be matched with players who did not spend their souls on anything special, but were just at the same low level range. But Soul Memory doesn’t really play out like that at all.DARK SOULS™ II: Scholar of the First Sin_20160406201200

Soul Memory was supposedly to balance invasions, and “twink” characters who played low level runs to use end-game equipment without limiting themselves to higher-level multi-player. This is a fallacy, as “twink” players are following the unwritten rules of the game, that player skill is more viable than character stats, and that upgrading equipment can be a far more viable priority than upgrading character levels. Not to mention that a player who commits to pvp invasions in the first place will have an edge over someone focusing on pve, as tactics that are useful against other players are often unprofitable against enemies and bosses. Soul Memory as a mechanic exists to fix something that was never an actual “problem” in the first place.

DARK SOULS™ II: Scholar of the First Sin_20160411002104

No, it is a curse. This isn’t a question.

Soul Memory not only fails to fix the problem as intended, many side-effects are also created by the mechanic. Soul Memory measures all souls ever held, which first of all misses the point of low-level pvp disparity in Dark Souls 1. What would have been important is a measure of Souls actually spent, in this case on anything other than increasing Soul Level. Measuring the amount of souls ever held by the player then only limits the lifespan of the character, as inexperienced players will find their characters slowly age out of their multi-player lifespan merely by playing the game… not to mention potentially punishing players from experimenting and utilizing higher-level Hex skills. Only experienced players will be able to make long-term characters, as experimentation with armor and weapons would become irrelevant, in turn with having to utilize the Agape Ring and informed farming of useful enemy drops. Additionally, Soul Memory has the side-effect of incentivizing over-leveling of characters, opposed to Dark Souls 1 incentivizing upgrading equipment, as Soul Level is disconnected from calculating multi-player connections.

Hollowing in Dark Souls 2 is another example of trying to fix what was never broken. There are two elements to this: the economy of Humanity, and the segregation of single-player from multi-player play. In Dark Souls 1 and Bloodborne, there is the classic, and clearly still relevant economy between Humanity (Insight) accumulated by the player and the items that would grant points of Humanity (Insight). The items that gave points of Humanity are naturally spread throughout the world, but also had one or two rare enemies that dropped them more reliably than others. The true purpose of these items is for a desperate player to become eligible for multi-player actions. It was the multi-player actions that were central to the economy, as both cooperative and competitive play rewarded you with an accumulated point of the stat. The accumulated stat was then used as currency, either for items directly, with Bloodborne, or for side objectives with covenants, with Dark Souls.

DARK SOULS™ II: Scholar of the First Sin_20160410212526

When I was new to the game back on the PS3, before the DLC, this ate up all of my Effigies because I am not claiming to be a good player. It wasn’t as bad this time, though.

But unlike those games, Dark Souls 2 removes this entirely. Multi-player play is not equally rewarded, and the vestige of the earlier covenant economy only trades in the Human Effigy item itself, which is only a consistent reward for pvp. This skews the incentives for cooperative play, as the “humanity” gained from successful cooperative play does not stack. This transitions into the second issue; that the changes to Hollowing in Dark Souls 2 are a mess. Simply: you are still restricted from initiating most multi-player actions unless you are human, but because hollowing is now a spectrum, you are almost always open to pvp invasion. This fits the common theme of fixing non-existent “problems”, as the health penalty for the hollowed state was always counteracted by an easily acquired ring. Dark Souls 1, and even Bloodborne had an elegant system that worked: seeking cooperative play is what opens you up for pvp invasion and that was a risk that you had to weigh as a player. Dark Souls 2 destroys this by making you pay for the option of cooperative play, but always leaving the door open for invasion. It becomes less of a choice.

Coming back to Dark Souls 2 from Bloodborne was an adjustment, but not quite the adjustment that I had thought. The first thing that I noticed is how slow Dark Souls 2 was compared to Bloodborne. Animations were all slower, which is accounted for by the Adaptability stat which lowers animation times. As my favorite weapons in Bloodborne were the Blades of Mercy and the Rakuyo- which both seemed to best fit the aggressive philosophies of Bloodborne and my assumptions of higher-level Souls gameplay- I was right at home with Rapiers. In general, the basic weapon balance between Dark Souls and Bloodborne isn’t really that different. What I did find was that the mechanic of using weapons in a Power-stance seemed to be useless. The trade-off between dual rapiers in power-stance, and a single rapier held in two hands seemed to be minimal, and didn’t really give me much faith in exploring the mechanic much at all. In the end, the focus on aggressive and mobile play was very ‘backwards-compatible’ between Bloodborne and Dark Souls 2.

If you take an elevator straight up from the middle of this tower…

I know that I opened with the “remix album” comparison, but the changes in the 8th gen version of Dark Souls 2 are simple. While item placement only effects the first trip through the game, it’s the changes to enemy placement that really change the nature and tone of the world. First off, the world of Dark Souls 2 was always shoddy and patchwork. Areas overlap when put up to scrutiny, and many transitions between areas are absurd, the token example being the top of the tower of the Harvest Valley leading further up into the ground level of the Iron Keep, which is slowly sinking into the volcanic steppes. Drangleic is filled with one-way paths, the most obvious is of which is the Lost Bastille completely cut off from the mainland as if it existed in a vacuum. The only truly satisfying areas are microcosms: the Huntsmans Copse to a minimum degree, the Shaded Woods, and the DLC areas which still suffer from existing in vacuums cut off from the world.

…you end up here.

What the Scholar of the First Sin edition does change for the better are the enemy placements. That sounds very trivial, I give you that, but there is some incredible value in it. There are a variety of enemies in more environments, some of which actually tie the areas together in meaningful ways that hope to undo some of the damage that the patchwork world-building had done to the Dark Souls brand. Simple things mostly, such as the warriors from No Man’s Wharf becoming a more significant connection to the Lost Bastille besides the arbitrary boat that you take between the two, the Falconer mercenaries are actually relevant for once, and the Heide Knights actually have something to do with the Heide’s Tower of Flame. Little things like that.

The use of extra petrified enemies changes the way you access areas, limiting access to early game areas, blocking bonfires unless you are prepared, and in the case of the Dragon Aerie proving a roadblock that can be strategically left intact to screw with invaders. The most striking of the enemy changes is the far more expanded role of the Pursuer encounters outside of the original boss fight. In the previous version of DS2, your few encounters with the Pursuers were tied with increased tiers of the Ring of Blades, but in the 8th gen version, those encounters are far more common and provide extra challenge that rewards you with rare upgrade material. In the Heide’s Tower of Flame, there is now a dragon enemy to intimidate new players and make access to the Blue Sentinels covenant more of an accomplishment instead of a dead-end. Also, the otherwise rare Suspicious Shadow enemy makes far more appearances.

An example of a petrified enemy blocking access to a bonfire.

But some of the new enemies are there to mess with your head more than anything. The normally invisible enemies have a far expanded role in the Shaded Woods. The broader multi-player functions of the Souls games are common knowledge by now: the appearance of fleeting ghosts of other players as they go about their business. When you see a transparent model of what is probably another player, you think nothing about it., but when you enter deeper into the Shaded Woods, you might notice that a ghost isn’t going away. You realize too late that this isn’t another player echoing through your game. Normally these enemies were isolated to a foggy area where the effect rendered them completely invisible, which only played to frustration with invisible enemies, but now game tricked you. Your expectations, intentionally built up by the game, were used against you. It’s beautiful. In the basic game, the only place that came anywhere near this level of subversion was the King’s Passage, and how those broken, inert, horse-headed, statues that you’ve seen all over the castle are intact in that corridor and attack you.

The last thing worth mentioning is the lighting. Supposedly, this was the cut feature that probably motivated the 8th gen re-release in the first place. With all the emphasis on the torch, on the dark areas, and the strategic value, not concerning your shield but concerning the trade-off of being unable to buff or two-hand your weapon, that was in the per-release materials, the original release of Dark Souls 2 was disappointing. I find it a bit hard to tell what the difference was though. In the PS3 release, the lighting differences were just a matter of the in-game brightness setting, the meaning of the utility of the torch was debatable. In the 8th gen release, there is effort to add substance and opacity to the darkness and the negative space, but the most noticeable seams in the lighting system are doors, and the sudden transitions between areas of different lighting. I wasn’t a big fan, it felt less like a system of lighting and more of an opaque particle effect that activates when you enter an enclosed space.

Other than that, not much has changed, the DLC areas are almost unchanged, except for the activation keys for the areas having to be found and earned. The weapons and scaling are the same, for the most part. Even my favorite rite of passage boss is the same: the Fume Knight is the one boss that can efficiently separate the mid level players from the low level players, which is the first step in feeling any basic competence at the game.

So, then, what is the verdict? There isn’t much of one, with Dark Souls 3 released in Japan and coming to North America this month. Everything that Dark Souls 2: Scholar of the First Sin represents will become irrelevant very soon, if it hasn’t already been so since the release of Bloodborne. Reasonable opinion still stands that the core of Dark Souls 2 is a turd, but the Scholar of the First Sin edition really does put some polish on the old game. Given that I personally bought the game for less than $20 and you are very likely able to do the same on a Steam sale, I do not have buyers’ remorse over this. The experience was dynamic enough to not be stale, and the basic turd at the core of the game is still fully enjoyable.

You would need to weigh that with the small amount of time before Dark Souls 3 proper comes out, and how that game will apparently be the focal point of the community and player-base, or compare it to the ease of access of Dark Souls 1 on PC and that despite it’s age, it still has an active life and possibly represents a more polished, if maybe less developed, single-player experience.

Played on PS4
Also Available on Xbox One, PC (DirectX 11)

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About the Author

is still pretty much an amateur at this. When he's not trying to relate everything to the Doom Patrol, you can find him @quietagonist maintaining a pulse.

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