The Dark Souls series by name has become synonymous with difficulty. In a post-Wii age where accessibility became paramount, From Software’s dark temptress was lauded for its uncompromising level of challenge; its hostility placing players on high alert as the risk of death lingered amongst the depths of its bleak dungeons and spiralling gothic cathedrals. With Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin, a re-edit of the sublime sequel including previously released DLC, From Software drives that difficulty to punishing new heights, but the result lacks the famed developer’s usual methodical touch.
To its credit, players returning to the shimmering isles of Drangleic will find the rug pulled from beneath them almost immediately. The action-RPG’s enigmatic systems and precise combat remain untouched, but the world has been altered dramatically. Stone gargoyles sit in front of previously accessible passageways; one-eyed trolls now patrol otherwise quiet hilltops; and a dragon, of all things, has rudely made its nest atop a tower you’d usually find yourself merrily strolling across. Suffice to say, boss battles beyond the fog gate are pushed a little further out of sight and to progress you’re urged not to just persevere but consider new battle strategies, or even explore alternate routes – in fact, it’s quite likely returning players will traverse the world in an entirely new sequence.
But this rearrangement of enemies, while mostly posing a refreshing test of mettle, often clashes with the existing pacing. Those critical runs between bonfires (Souls’ checkpoints) and fog gates have been unnecessarily prolonged by simple but time-consuming opponents, with tediously stretched health bars and infinite respawns proving a regular frustration rather than the usual fiendish AI. Dark Souls games fit together like a bewitching puzzle, each piece delicately connecting numerous others to the bigger picture. Here, new elements have been wedged into the frame without consideration to the rich complexity of Dark Souls II’s existing structure.
But that’s not to say Scholar isn’t entirely inviting, and many of Dark Souls II’s triumphs, not least its matchless sense of achievement, return untarnished by needless meddling. It’s an embellished New Game Plus mode and a compelling curiosity, capable of drawing you into its wretched maw for dozens of hours. However, this is far from a definitive edition and newcomers are advised to start with the original. And any hope-filled lost souls looking for their next franchise fix will be better served braving the more arduous and, crucially, more inventive pathways of Bloodborne.