GAME REVIEW: DARK SOULS II: SCHOLAR OF THE FIRST SIN / DEVELOPER: FROM SOFTWARE / PUBLISHER: NAMCO BANDAI GAMES / PLATFORM: XBOX 360, XBOX ONE, PS3, PS4, PC / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW
The infamously hard fantasy-come-survival horror franchise comes to next gen consoles for the first time, its most recent effort upgraded and added to with its Scholar of the First Sin. Wait, what? Survival horror? Well, sure, Dark Souls II won't be giving the likes of Resident Evil much to worry about any time soon, but there's so much more at stake – as anyone who has ever, say, accidentally dropped over the side of a cliff and lost several thousand souls as a result, will surely testify.
Telltale may be doing a sterling job with their Game of Thrones adaptation, but, for our money, Dark Souls II comes far closer to capturing the atmosphere of life in Westeros than anything before. After all, it's punishingly cruel, doesn't care how hard you've travelled to get where you are now, and will kill you without a moment's warning. The stories are entirely true – playing Dark Souls II, you will die. All the time. In that respect, it gives the perfect experience of being a Stark in Westeros or Sean Bean in almost everything. It's like a Fighting Fantasy gamebook in which the die are consistently weighted against you.
And yet, there is method to the game's madness. It does a good job of easing players into the world of Drangelic, with a reasonably prolonged introduction and tutorial section. From there, you'll progress to its hub town of Majula, where you can purchase character and weapon upgrades and seek advice from the mysterious Emerald Herald, who acts as a sort of guide, dispensing vague pointers and veiled history lessons. Expect nothing spelled out, though – with not so much as an onscreen map to aid you on your decidedly not-so-merry way. There's a reason most of the friendly NPCs of Drangelic can be found sitting around with their heads in their hands – it's a thoroughly depressing place to be, like an ugly Skyrim crossed with a Fallout game. It has moments of prettiness (Majula is deceptively beautiful, in a deceptive Lovecraftian kind of way) but where Skyrim feels massive and expansive, so much of this is blocked-off and linear. Dark Souls II is a big game, but exploration isn't as high on the list of priorities as levelling up, staying alive and occasionally trying to kill a behemoth boss or two while you're there.
“...The hell am I fighting that,” you'll say, crossing paths with its gigantic boss bastards, running for the nearest (and invariably now blocked) exit. But fight it, you will, and, believe it or not, sometimes you'll actually win. The combat to Dark Souls II is best approached like a puzzle – learn your enemies' weaknesses and rhythms, and soon you'll learn that it's a game which is firm but, ultimately, fair. Not that it seems so at the time, punishing for every slip-up or loss of life. “I hate you!” you'll cry, switching off in a rage, but you'll be back. Nothing feels quite so rewarding as finally finishing off a foe you've sunk hours into fighting, cursing every step of the way.
For those who've already played and completed the game during its previous iteration, the new material consists of some re-jigged enemies (having moved around on the maps since you last played) and sharper-looking graphics. Whether that's worth the price of a double-dip will depend on one's level of passion for the game (which can go sky-high for some fans of the Souls series) but most would be recommended seeking out the recent Bloodborne instead, or waiting for it to come down in price somewhat.
For everyone else, however, Dark Souls II is one hell of a gaming experience. It's frustrating, esoteric and steadfast and its refusal to pander to a larger audience. More casual gamers and those who stink at video games won't have quite have so much fun, and its fans will probably already own it, but otherwise, Scholar of the First Sin is a tremendous, remarkable game. By which I also mean, depending on precisely when you ask, it's frustrating and cruel and either one of the best or worst video games ever played.