It was about an hour in, once we reached Heide’s Tower of Flame, when we realised that Scholar Of The First Sin is exactly what we wanted it to be. Essentially a rejig of the GamesMaster Game Of The Year 2014 winner we know and love, this current-gen re-release does much more than simply serve up the PC version’s visuals with the stellar DLC collection.
Alongside such admirable feats, Scholar also manages to force those who have passed through the corridors, caves and climes of Drangleic hundreds of times to rethink their approaches. It forces us, basically, to sheath our cocksure trail blazing and raise our shields in sweet trepidation once more. It does so with admirable, minutely architectured and always surprising design.
Take the aforementioned Heide’s Tower. Previously this area was home to hulking, bearded statue types, whose attacks would carve vast swathes of the air around them to get at you. We mastered these chaps through hours of failed attempts. We know when to pull them, when to roll, when to backpedal and when to get our hits in. Here in Scholar, these enemies are augmented by the Heide Knights themselves.
These white-clad warriors sit passively until they are attacked, at which point they’ll harangue you with lightning-fast swipes and hard-to-read strikes. You’ll need to measure up whether you want to take on these guys or leave them sitting forlorn as you muscle through the rest of the area. Of course, there’s always the risk that one of the wide-ranging strikes of your hairier foes will tap one of them and trigger their aggression… It’s a wonderfully Soulsian balance of risk versus reward.
It's worth pointing out that our review was based off of the full game, but before the multiplayer servers went live. There's scope for up to six players to meet up in PvP or co-op once it's all up and running.
And - naturally, knowing FromSoft’s ways by now - there’s an extra twist to this game of will-you-won’t-you. Best the area boss and suddenly, laden with his tasty souls as you are, all of the Heide Knights you left behind will awaken and chase you across the map. A masterful touch that will have you both agape and legging it to the nearest bonfire. You may have bested the area, but whenever you head back to journey through it again it’ll be more dangerous than ever. This happens again and again as you venture through this reborn Drangleic. We’ve picked an area near the start of the game to focus on here, as we don’t want to spoil the surprises that lie in wait beyond.
Perhaps a little less surprising is that Dark Souls 2 on current-gen outstrips its last-gen counterpart at almost every turn. The most immediately appreciable factor is that frame rate. At 60fps it’s silky smooth, so much so that we actually found ourselves having to slightly alter the speed at which we played. The character models and environments are generally a lot crisper now, too, with minute details, such as the embossed covering of a Twin Dragon Greatshield or the leathery dimples on your wanderer coat really popping out.
It’s not all perfect, however. Certain enemies, we noticed, still have jarring frame rate drops when they’re far away from your character. The boars that charge about near the Brightstone Cove bonfire in Tseldora, for example, will jitter about when more than a few paces away. Also some areas, such as the Shaded Woods, don’t really benefit from the new visual crisp-ification. Remember when Silent Hill 2 got remade in HD and suddenly that horrible fog wasn’t quite as foggy? A similar thing happens here and enemies that were once invisible, and therefore terrifying, are now clear to see, taking away their hold on us somewhat.
Before you start shaking your head, let’s reel it in. On Dark Souls 2’s initial launch last year a horde of gamers took to the interwebs to rail against a lighting feature which was apparently removed from the final game, yet had been shown off pre-release. It’s back. In Scholar you’ll find yourself entering areas which are jet black without torchlight to guide you. Whereas once these flaming brands were used sparingly, at least until the second DLC pack, now you’ll find yourself praising the sun every time you pick up a Flame Butterfly, a newly essential item used to light a torch without trailing back to a sconce or bonfire.
This new lighting system means that there are, on occasions, entirely different techniques required when approaching certain areas. Where once you would cut through a tight corridor with caution thrown to the wind, now you’ll have to use all your senses to pick up sounds of movement beyond your torchflame or the slight indication that there’s something waiting in the darkness.
It can be nail-ruining stuff, especially as many of the enemies you wouldn’t normally meet until later in the game now get up in your grill much, much earlier. Heck, one enemy you come across in the Shaded Woods can’t usually be spotted until you’ve restarted in New Game+ in the original version.
We admit it's a tired term, but the word ‘definitive’ really does apply to this version of Dark Souls 2. Is this the best place for newcomers to get involved? Yes. Many of the graphical foibles that we forgave in the original version have now been ironed out. Is it worth veterans unsheathing their greatswords once more? Yes. The returning lighting system and artfully re-placed enemy encounters ensure you can tap into that sense of discovery, foreboding and mastery that was once so prevalent and has since become rote.
We kept thinking of Fallout and Skyrim when we we’re playing Scholar. You know how sometimes when you’ve played those games for a while you feel like starting over from scratch? You can drop all of your inventory off at a house, or even load a new game and just walk in another direction to see what’s there. In Dark Souls it’s your own experience that gives your character most of its power, rather than arbitrary numbers attached to gear found on the way. You can’t lose all of that knowledge; you’re stuck with it. By releasing this version, FromSoft has allowed players a chance to truly rediscover one of the most involving game worlds in existence. And that is quite something to behold.