As someone who considers the ‘Souls games to be some of the very best ever made, I picked up Dark Souls II immediately upon its release in 2014, and although it wasn’t an instant classic like other games in the series, it was still excellent and a “Game of the Year” contender in its own right. However, 2014 was also the year I transitioned to current generation consoles like the PS4, and when the DLC for this game was released I held off; I held off because I knew at some point they must *surely* release this game onto newer systems, and hopefully they would bundle all the DLC in with it to boot. Well, From Software has done just that, and this year saw the release of Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin on PS4 and other current-gen consoles. Surprisingly though, this is a bit more than just a remastered port, and while preparing this version of the game, the developer took it upon itself to change and improve several aspects as well as addressing some of the complains levelled at the original. I’m not going to re-review the whole game again here, and you should check out my review of Dark Souls II that I wrote earlier in the month as part of a retrospective for a better idea of what the game is like overall. Here, I’m going to address the changes made to the remastered game and make a judgement on whether they significantly improve the experience.
From Software has gone back to the core experience of Dark Souls II and altered many of the areas, some more significantly than others, but generally speaking most changes are certainly for the better. Enemy placements, for instance, have been altered quite a lot and some of the old road-blocks are now missing or moved somewhere else, and instead there is a bit more emphasis on the lore and story when determining where and how you encounter different enemy types. The Heide knights are now exclusively at the Heide Tower of Flame, the Shaded Ruins now have more ghostly shades roaming about and less lion mages, etc. Most of these changes make sense and they don’t seem simply there to catch returning players off-guard; although this might be an added bonus if you’re looking for a renewed challenge. Some of the late-game items have also been moved about and make more sense in their new earlier location, with the exception of the ‘dull ember’ which now makes McDuff look retarded that he didn’t just find it himself. More significantly, there is now an extra pivotal NPC character who offers an alternative ending, which was absent from the vanilla version of Dark Souls II, and which attracted a bit of criticism last year. The titular Scholar of the First Sin appears throughout the game, and offers a bit more in terms of lore and story than was present before, which combined with revised and expanded item descriptions and other titbits of lore *really* help to enrich the world of Dark Souls II.
Obviously, with the shift to current generation hardware, there are some cosmetic changes too. The game now runs at a full 1080p resolution, with high quality textures and assets giving the world a much needed makeover; coupled with an eye-watering 60fps update and the days of Blighttown seem like distant memory. There has also been an overhaul of the lighting system, designed to give an experience much closer to the controversial E3 footage of early Dark Souls II builds, you know the ones where you actually required use of a torch in certain parts of the game. Well now there is a *much* higher contrast in the lighting of key areas, with some being almost pitch-black regardless of brightness settings, and you will have to use a torch to see. Lighting itself is also improved in terms of illumination effects and strength; the warm glow of a bonfire is particularly striking but it also extends to spell effects and even sparks from colliding weapons. Unfortunately, the high resolution and framerate come at the cost of detail and geometry, and certainly after Bloodborne on the PS4, the world of Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin feels a little empty and flat. It’s a shame that From Software didn’t spend a bit of time enriching the detail of the world, but I guess that would have been a lot more work, might have changed the feel of the game, and resulted in a lower 30fps framerate (something that I personally don’t mind at all).
As a returning player who had only originally played through the core story of Dark Souls II, I was mostly interested not so much in the tweaks and changes to the main areas, but to experience the DLC included: Crown of the Sunken King, Crown of the Old Iron King and Crown of the Ivory King. These areas are accessed by collecting key items scattered throughout the main game world, and once acquired can be travelled to from special shrines, often encountered after major boss battles and story beats of the core game. However, the challenge of these areas and the use of the late-game items within them really means that they’re best tackled right towards the end of your time with Dark Souls II, before you drop the axe on Nashandra and finish the narrative. These hidden labyrinths are *excellent* and are truly some of the best level designs on offer in the whole game, with some excellent enemies and bosses to boot. The Sunken City is a twisted changeable maze of ziggurats and sandy crypts, the Brume Tower is a heated smelting pot of violent encounters and ashen idols, and the frozen wasteland of Eleum Loyce is breathtakingly beautiful and melancholy with its frozen vistas. These areas feel like they’re frozen in time, just waiting for you to plunder their secrets and uncover the things hidden in their depths, including bosses such as Sinh the poison-spewing dragon or the ancient memories of the proud knight Sir Alonne. It’s here in these DLC packs where you will find the best co-operative opportunities too, with many encounters specifically designed to be played with others, and they’re great fun.
To conclude, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed revisiting the ‘Souls experience in Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin, and it’s a fantastic package for anyone who hasn’t played this game before. Coming off the back of Bloodborne it will feel a little dated (already!) and clunky in places, but the sense of roleplaying is much stronger, and the locales are varied and huge. If you’ve already played the game but not the DLC, this is a good way to get all that extra content as well as an upgrade to the core game. However, for those players who have already exhausted everything that Dark Souls II has to offer, including the DLC, I’m not sure that the altered placements of things is completely worth it – as that’s the only extra you’ll be getting along with the visual enhancement. Whilst the more story-driven and lore-grounded makeover of the game is very welcome, it doesn’t improve it significantly enough to enter the “classic game” status of its ‘Souls peers. Still, this is a *bloody good* game and still an excellent entry in what will hopefully a long-running successful franchise.
A much improved experience in terms of visuals and storytelling, as well as offering a *massive* experience with all the DLC included - this is great value for money! This would elevate Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin to almost-classic status, but comparisons with Bloodborne, a true-current-gen ‘Souls title, reduce the score back to pretty much where it was before. Still, this is an excellent entry point if you’re looking to get into the game, and a worthwhile upgrade for many (if not all) existing fans.
This review now officially concludes my “Month of ‘Souls”. Over April I have been writing many articles and reviews regarding From Software’s masterpieces: check out my special article looking at Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls and the original Dark Souls II. I also reviewed Bloodborne when I completed it earlier in the month, as well as four specials: one about remasters and remakes that need to happen, one about Berserk, one about finding a happy place in the dark worlds of ‘Souls, and an article about running “Guts Mode” in Dark Souls II. Please check out my blog for all these articles and thanks for reading.