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Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin (Xbox 360) artwork

Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin (Xbox 360) review

"Of a fallen kingdom and enough player deaths to repopulate it completely."

Following Dark Souls II's release in 2014, From Software eventually produced an upgraded edition called Scholar of the First Sin. It was available in two forms, depending on what generation of system a person was playing. If you had one of the newer systems, you legitimately got an enhanced port. Not only did it include all three of the game's DLC expansions, but it added a number of new NPCs: both summons to provide assistance with boss fights and invaders to make traveling the world a bit more difficult. There also was a true final boss included for players diligent and capable enough to trigger that confrontation, and standard enemies were rearranged throughout the game's world to offer veteran players a somewhat new experience.

But I didn't play that version. I bought the Xbox 360 one, and things are trimmed accordingly. You have the original enemy arrangement, with no new summons or invaders. Basically, this Scholar of the First Sin is nothing more than Dark Souls II packaged with its DLC, including that potential new final boss.

Not that I'm complaining. I loved the original Dark Souls, so I expected to also love Scholar of the First Sin and I was right. There are some differences between the two games, which don't always work in favor of this second installment, but the core experience remains the same. You'll once again control a person who is fighting through the ruins of a once prosperous kingdom, searching for clues as to why it's now a shell of its former self and primarily populated by monsters and the mindlessly violent undead. Things will not be easy, as your character can't take a lot of damage and has a stamina meter that prevents him or her from constantly assaulting foes. Unless standing in front of a massive armored dude holding a weapon twice the size of your body while finding yourself too exhausted to attack or evade for a couple seconds seems like a good idea. If it does, I hope you aren't bothered by "Game Over" screens; you'll see them countless times.

In Dark Souls II, you find yourself in the unfamiliar land of Drangleic, but let's be real: Drangleic, Lordran, whatever…for gameplay purposes, they're all the same. Each possesses forests, ruins, castles, caves, communities and other locations overrun by undead humans and monsters, while being nearly devoid of non-hostiles. You'll be overjoyed whenever you come across a friendly denizen, because they often have useful items or equipment or spells available for purchase. Or they might improve your equipment, or even allow you to sell the 500 random helmets and daggers you've scavenged off the countless corpses that lie in your wake.

Once again, you get souls for killing stuff. In the hub town of Majula, there's a woman who allows you to spend those souls to gain levels, allowing you to put points into stats in order to incrementally improve your character. Or you can use those souls as currency, purchasing and upgrading equipment, ensuring you have enough arrows to keep using your bow and the like. If you're killed, you lose your precious souls. But if you can reach the spot you perished and touch your bloodstain, you regain them. Or you could die yet again while making the attempt and realize that 30,000 souls just disappeared and you'll never get them back. It happens. What's more, it happens often enough that by the end of my run through the game's campaign, such losses barely elicited from me a reaction more severe than a grimace and a mildly perturbed head shake.

If you played the first game, you'll easily fall into the familiar Dark Souls routine. You'll start as a really weak character, slicing your way through foes that only are imposing due to your lack of power, endurance and other useful monster-fighting attributes. Well, unless you make a wrong turn in the game's introductory area, run into a big ogre and get your head bit off so quickly you're convinced the programmers just played a cruel joke on you. Then again, if you spent much time with the first game, you probably won't be surprised by such an occurrence. These games do love to feast on your tears!

After a bit of exploration, you'll reach the relatively safe hub area and, from there, will be able to access a number of different destinations. Some of those areas are blocked off at the time of that initial encounter and others might be populated by foes too powerful for you in the early going. You'll eventually figure out the proper path for a beginning adventurer and start making progress. You'll find some new equipment, some useful items and even obtain a key so the local blacksmith can get into his house to start enhancing your stuff. You'll start to feel pretty good about yourself, at least until you climb a seemingly innocuous ladder, watch a giant knight drop in front of you and get your head cut off so quickly you're convinced the programmers just played another cruel joke on you.

But you'll learn from silly mistakes like trying to explore your surroundings, and you'll start making real progress. You'll beat a few bosses, add a few items, spells and other assorted goodies to your repertoire and only occasionally run headfirst into a brick wall and find your progress halted while you try to extract those pesky skull fragments from your brain. You'll be frustrated, but finally figuring out how to overcome some encounters (such as a showdown with three massive suits of armor known as Ruin Sentinels) provides a level of exhilaration many games are incapable of reaching.

In a lot of ways, Dark Souls II is an echo of the first game, except in the new kingdom. However, there are a few notable alteration to the game's mechanics. For me, one positive change was that I didn't develop a sense of "ending fatigue." As I played the previous game, I found that a lot of the late-game environments didn't match the standard set by the places I explored during the adventure's first two-thirds. This game does have a few uninspired zones, but they're evenly spread throughout the campaign and they tend to be short transitional paths that link larger and more interesting locales.

Some credit for this evolution goes to the DLC. The content added by those three expansions is a joy to explore, more vast and convoluted than anything the main game offers. Frozen Eleum Loyce wound up being my favorite location. Primarily taking place in and around a crumbling city, it starts out as a linear jaunt loaded with tough enemies. However, once you acquire a key item and defeat a boss, the entire area opens up and gives you access to new areas with all sorts of secrets to unearth as your prepare for an epic battle with the city's former king.

Other changes aren't quite as nice. This is From Software's one Souls-like game that director Hidetaka Miyazaki didn't helm, and some adjustments feel like they were made just so the new guy couldn't be accused of too closely copying the formula established by his predecessor. As before, you go from human to Hollow when you die and need to use a consumable item to restore your humanity so you can do things like summon NPC help during boss encounters. However, you now also take a penalty to your maximum health meter until you use one of those items. Because if an enemy is tough enough to kill you, it obviously remedies everything if you have even smaller margin for error when the time comes for a rematch! Even better, that penalty stacks several times in the event you suffer further deaths, so it's possible to wind up a pitiful shell of your former self if you're struggling with combat or lacking in Human Effigies.

There also are limited enemy spawns. In the first game, every time you rested at a bonfire, nearly all enemies returned. Here, the same holds true for about a dozen or so times, but after that they're gone for good. In a way, this is a positive development. If you're having trouble with a certain area, at least you know that with enough persistence, simple attrition will eventually carry you through to different challenges. On the other hand, this mechanic does place a cap on how much item farming a person can do. A limit on mob encounters translates to fewer opportunities for vanquished foes to drop goodies that restore your humanity or enhance equipment.

Overall, it's tough for me to pick a favorite between the initial two Dark Souls games. The introductory installment occupies a special spot in my heart because I played it first, and a number of locations and bosses in the second game gave me the impression the designers were trying but ultimately failing to duplicate the same magic. But Dark Souls II also felt a bit more vast and provided me with more consistent enjoyment, rather than starting out great and petering out a bit towards the end. Then again, some of the mechanical changes detract from the overall quality of the product. Which experience you might wind up preferring is tough to say. Myself, I feel the first entry set the standard and this follow-up just happens to be a great sequel. It provided me with many more hours of enjoyable adventuring in a beautiful world loaded with powerful and deadly opposition, and that's nearly everything I could have asked for.

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Staff review by Rob Hamilton (March 06, 2020)

Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.

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