Time to die. Again. And Again.
If theres one thing the Souls games love doing, its screwing with expectations. Thats no less true of the upcoming Dark Souls 2: Scholar of the First Sin. On the surface, it looks like just another cheeky 'remaster' - an expanded edition of last years game that includes all three DLC packs, a smattering of new items and NPCs, tweaked online and a pinch of additional plotline. I spent an hour with the PS4 version recently and, superior frame rate and resolution aside, the handling is identical. Youll explore, youll fight, youll die, youll struggle to reclaim your souls, youll die again, youll throw your controller at the wall. Business as usual?
Well, not quite. The brilliant thing about Scholar of the First Sin is that its an elaborate trolls gambit. The systems may be fundamentally as before, but certain areas have been altered just enough to trip up players who have committed those areas to muscle-memory. Here are a few things you might fall afoul of, plus some thoughts on the titular Scholar and rejigged multiplayer.
There are new enemies in odd places
How familiar are you with the leafy riverside walk that leads up to the first bonfire in the Forest of the Fallen Giants? You might recall there being a few Hollows dotting the shallows, an archer at the far end near the ladder to the rotunda, with an axeman playing dead beside a bridge of twisted branches. Nothing an enterprising adventurer with a shield and dagger cant handle, right? Well, in Scholar of the First Sins version the first enemy youll encounter here is a sodding Ogre. Luckily, the creature is easy enough to bypass providing you hug the left bank.
It gets worse. Just up the ramp to your first brush (or is it?) with the Pursuer, some diabolical fiend of a designer has swapped out one of the regular infantry for a Turtle Knight. You know, the chaps who sit on you when you try to backstab them. During my playthrough, the big metal goof managed to explode himself while chasing me back towards the cliff face. I suspect he trod on an all-new oil barrel that escaped my notice, but there could be another explanation. Uncertainty, eh? Uncertainty is exciting.
Old cheap tactics wont work
When enemies do show up in the same areas, they wont always be exactly where you left them. One of the nastiest shocks in the Forest of the Fallen Giants comes as you scale the ladder to the rotunda, ready for a scrap with a Heide Knight and his retinue of Hollow soldiers, only to find the Knight gone and all the Hollows playing dead. Its like jogging down the stairs to breakfast, only to discover that somebody has removed the lowest step (though admittedly, the Knights absence may have been the work of another player, using the same save).
Theres method to the madness. From Software has studied the most common player strategies per area, and cooked up a few surprises. One of my favourite tricks when fighting the rotundas occupants, for example, was always to scurry up the ladder to the right, then wait for the Hollows to pursue and stab them one by one. In the new PS4 build that I played, theres a Hollow up there wholl clamber down and trap you mid-ascent.
The PvP options arent entirely newbie-friendly
One of the new items is the Agape Ring, which absorbs souls from defeated foes itself, rather than allowing its wearer to have them. This stops your soul memory count going up, which, sneakily, means that youll be able to match-make online with less experienced players, rather than being automatically partnered with people of a similar standing. Perhaps youll use this item to help the newbies out against tougher bosses. Or perhaps youll use it to brutalise them before theyve found their feet.
Thats right, the curbing of the soul memory system naturally implies that seasoned combatants will be able to invade the worlds of stripling players whenever they choose - all they need do is equip the Agape Ring to slam on the brakes once theyre comfortable with their gear or the rhythms of a particular area.
There's a new boss
Aldia is the brother of Vendrick, Drangleics gloomy erstwhile king. Hes a bit of a nerd, the kind you dont leave alone with sharp objects. After Vendrick locked him away in his keep for the crime of being far too creepy by half, Aldia conducted a number of unsightly experiments that led to the creation of hideous monsters and some powerful weapons. He knows everything there is to know about Drangleics history and its inhabitants. So, how would you like to meet the guy?
In Scholars of the First Sin - or in a copy of the original game thats been updated with the 1.10 patch - Aldia can be found near the final primal bonfire you light (if youve lit them all already, hell appear in Black Gulch). Depending on the flow of the conversation and your actions elsewhere in the world, hell reappear at other bonfires and can eventually be fought. Watch out. For a bookworm, Aldia is no pushover. His fireballs and flailing branches will make short work of you if youre careless.
Multiplayer headcounts are higher
The Xbox One and PS4 versions have the grunt to support six players at once in an online session, transforming what was once a game of intimate duels into something a little more unpredictable. Its not clear whether youll be able to pit five players against one - I hope not - but four on two spats are possible, and this has obvious ramifications for the build you field.
In particular, waltzing into a scrap with a thickly armoured, heavy-footed character now seems tantamount to suicide. It wasnt exactly a great idea in the first place, given that dodging with high stamina is a lot more effective in Dark Souls than turning turtle, but against three or more opponents, each skewing towards a certain range and damage type? Yeah. Im about as useful in PvP as a goose with a shotgun, but even I can see that that isnt going to go well.
OK, its not all bad news
A fair few of Dark Souls 2s new ingredients have been added with your health and sanity in mind. The Covenant of Champions, for instance, allows players to farm enemies indefinitely - the enemies will be harder to fight, but they wont stop respawning once you meet a certain quota. Item descriptions are also meatier, in a bid to decrease newcomer reliance on FAQs and walkthroughs.
Given how frustrating it can be to roam regions beloved of invaders, the revised bonfire selection menu is especially attractive. It highlights areas that are currently popular among online hooligans, so you can reduce the odds of an encounter if youre feeling sore.
Insert your own reasons to worry here
Im not allowed to discuss some portions of Scholar of the First Sin in this article - that would be spoiling the surprise, and besides, Im sure you all have active imaginations. Consider: if you wanted to transform an favourite area from Dark Souls 2 in such a way that familiarity with the game is actually a disadvantage, what would you do?