If you often feel as though you aren’t being punished enough for simply progressing through a game’s storyline of late, or like many others, really got stuck into the excellent Bloodborne; then prepare to be castigated again. From Software is back, in a sense, to give us all another kick in the gaming teeth with the re-mastered Dark Souls II. Including all the previous DLC, running at 60fps and hopefully looking a little more refined, we could well be on to a winner here.
Whilst it certainly eases you in a little more gently, Dark Souls II still packs a wallop if you attempt to play it like any other game. Apparently completely forgetting what game I was playing, as soon as I gained control of my character, (after what still looked like an incredibly high budget intro scene many years on) I attempted to explore the wilderness stretching out before me. It wasn’t long before I’d found my first enemy, a giant troll looking character that, inevitably, beat me into submission several soul crushing times. I conceded defeat, and ruefully went about my business following the implied ‘proper’ way to go. From then on, it was a lot easier, there were instructions to heed, little notes informing you of the controls and many susceptible enemies in weak, vulnerable formations that don’t really occur ever again. I savoured this bit whilst it lasted, slowly remembering the horrors that yet await me.
After some nervous foraging and a visit to a disparate warrior complaining nervously about a stone statue blocking the path, I arrived in the hub town of Majula. A place with several branching paths, an unnervingly large pit complete with visible treasure, and a merchant selling a ring to reduce fall damage. I didn’t trust him or the pit, so I left. Oddly serene, Majula instantly felt welcoming due to its soft, never-ending sunset and mostly safe setting. Save for a few small, surprisingly aggressive pig resembling creatures that is. Once again, I will point out is that there is a very helpful woman who resides here, remaining as the only place where you may level up.
Veterans of the series will know exactly what to expect in terms of the combat mechanics, every move and decision you make during combat, even against the lesser foes, could spell disaster. It’s all about learning your opponent’s patterns and exploiting their occasionally wonky AI with your own timing and stamina management. Bosses are of their own unique styles and of course, possess challenges far beyond what you’ve come to face. Once you finally manage to slay one however, the elation is incomparable, until, much like many other RPG’s, they turn up as ‘normal’ enemies… Unlike how it originally arrived on the last gen consoles, Scholar of the First Sin runs at a silky 60fps now. Fortunately for us, this means less screaming at the game when it used to diddle us out of a few crucial frames during a particularly vicious battle in the past. Now if you die, it’s quite likely your own impatient fault!
The basic mechanics of the original release still remain of course, resting at a camp fire, you can fast travel to any other unlocked camp fire without any form of either payment nor punishment. Due to the layout of the world map, and all of its different routes and avenues to explore, you really don’t want to be wandering all the way back. Especially so when you consider that in this version, Scholar of the First Sin, enemy placements and even archetypes have been tinkered with, giving those who’ve already given the game a good seeing to, something unexpected to come across. Plus it makes the frequent and inevitable return trips to Manjula significantly less painful!
As before, numerous deaths will whittle away at your maximum health bar, up to 50% in fact; to replenish that lost health, you’ll have to use a human effigy, which are rare. Of course, the counter to this being that you can quell the amount of enemies in an area by repeatedly beating them to a pulp; whilst some may argue against this, I’ll take it. The last thing you need whilst stuck on an already, inherently difficult boss, is to either attempt to kill the horde of enemies along the way, or attempt to leg it past them, each and every time. For those, still on the fence regarding the controlled respawns, there is an item just for you that you can burn at a camp fire which will spawn more deadly variants to battle.
Whilst a player new to the series is always going to experience difficulties with a game like this, certain design choices don’t help along the way either. The menus, whilst archaic in looks, are filled with many, many stats that are going to go straight over most newcomers heads. Alongside this, items you acquire and come across are not named in any relative fashion to what you might expect of a traditional RPG. During the create a character stage, you are offered to pick one item from a list of gifts, most of which, inevitably sound useless yet presumably have a hidden function, accessible later in the game. I appreciate that the Dark Souls series has a reputation to uphold, but increasing the user base must also be of a benefit? I for one, would not be put off via the sheer difficulty of the game itself, but rather having to spend a few hours looking up what each item does, when you can use it and why. Some items, thankfully, are more readily accessible nearer the start of the game now, such as the dull ember, a minor health potion essentially. This for many will be a blessing when this time around; you only start off with one Estus flask.
Dark Souls II was never the prettiest game on the previous generation of consoles; the lighting issues alone were enough to irritate me, never mind the almost ‘rough’ looking finish the game shipped with. The spruced up current gen version certainly improves the majority of the games graphical imperfections, yet it’s of no match to any game designed from the ground up for current hardware. Torches seem more useful this time around, whereas before they were recommended by the game, yet for me at least they held little merit. Now they illuminate dark areas appropriately, casting shadows and the like, however I’d still take a shield in its place!
Online play, once again makes its return with players able to invade other peoples games, help them out or just add a further source of difficulty. The written notes also make a return, either signifying danger or, depending on the player, giving ‘helpful’ hints to others. Entering a certain covenant can also help protect you against these threats should the need arise, or you can play in offline mode to help limit game invasions, at the downside of missing out on what can make this franchise so unique.
Incorporating the DLC and tweaking item and enemy placements will grant even more playtime than the originals already healthy dosage. Newcomers can easily expect at least 60 hours out of it, and fans of the previous version will no doubt find any excuse to give it another run through, especially if they missed out on the DLC before. Whatever you might think of the Dark Souls series, this game isn’t going to change your opinion. If you’ve played and enjoyed the others, you’ll feel right at home; yes it undoubtedly improves on the last gen release with multiple benefits, yet as you might expect, it won’t hold a torch to Bloodborne.