As FromSoftware’s Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin celebrates its fifth anniversary, I’ll be going over why the most talked down title in the Dark Souls trilogy stands as it’s finest achievement.
There are few games whose footprint has stamped upon the wide world of videogames and left a greater impact than that of Dark Souls and its predecessor, Demon’s Souls. Standing tall as a genre-creating RPG, categorizing the blueprint of dual-handed third-person combat with a myriad of customization and obtuse storytelling that hides a rich lore behind a veil of dark, Gothic fantasy and brutal difficulty. The prominence of the Dark Souls trilogy spans nearly a decade, with more titles being made from under FromSoftware’s shadow than one can count; and while numerous companies have attempted to forge their legacy in this highly touted genre, none truly hold a flame to the masters of its craft.
When Dark Souls burst onto the scene in 2011 the game garnered a spike in popularity and acclaim the company had never seen in its then 17 year lifespan. Its inclusion in numerous Best Video Games of All Time lists and being influential enough to create an entire sub-genre, many were chomping at the bit to see what FromSoftware had in store for its inevitable sequel. But what came was a cocktail of over-hype and a feeling of under-delivery. What were the big issues that players had to justify disowning Dark Souls II the way it currently is and had been? I’ll provide what I found to be the three hottest buttons to denigrate the title and why I feel these common misconceptions are, well, misconceptions:
First, lets start with level design:
Dark Souls, as a series, has been known for meticulously crafted worlds that manage to intertwine a variety of gameplay with seamless style. The game sold players on its non-linearity and sense of discovery by following every stage with a neighbor more grand and mysterious than the scene before it. Many believe that Dark Souls II did not carry the same sense of wonder and care that the previous title had before it, but I feel that Dark Souls II carried the torch by iterating on the style that Demon’s Souls attempted (and in turn, Dark Souls III leaned even harder into this comparison.)
Dark Souls II centers the world of Drangleic in Majula, a sparse, dilapidated town that becomes a bustling area for your character to upgrade items, purchase armor and weapons, and level up. This town is realized as a more useful style of the Firelink Shrine, where the opportunity to prepare yourself for battle is not marred by moving to multiple areas to stock up and upgrade but still rewards exploration by having to find these soon-to-be merchants, giving them the chance to seek shelter in town. A game working smarter, not harder, to make sure the player can be equipped for the tasks ahead.
But I will note now that this isn’t a total smear campaign among the other titles in the trilogy, because Dark Souls does house easily some of the more visually stunning and intricately assembled levels within the trilogy, and Dark Souls III pulls the most consistent difficulty scaling with its areas. But for every Road of Sacrifices and Sen’s Fortress, you have a Blighttown and Lothric Castle that are notorious for all the wrong reasons. What Dark Souls II holds is a pattern of consistency where its levels will tantalize and test a player’s resolve, but will not find itself within controller-throwing rage.
A great example is The Gutter, which feels like Drangleic’s version of Blighttown. As the entire area is shrouded in darkness it’s the perfect set-up into Dark Souls II‘s torch mechanics. Do you take visibility at the cost of added difficulty by sacrificing a hand for a torch to light sconces available around the level, or do you tread carefully through the rickety wooden skyrises with only a few feet of light? Broken panels can drop you into unknown areas and force re-direction, while purposely teasing a distant fog door, like a night light in the most dangerous bedroom. This level is intricately designed to be absolutely nerve-wracking, but not bullshit. I hate and love this place in equal measure, and that’s solid design.
This is just one example, and while some levels may not be as varied in pathways and design they serve their purpose in challenge, and do so just as well as the other titles. Oh, and for people who are upset that enemies stop respawning after you kill them 15-20 times, there are plenty more ways to grab souls in Dark Souls II. Stop it.
Secondly, lets go over bosses:
Dark Souls II gets flack for running a “quantity over quality” approach with its bosses, and to an extent, I can agree. The multiple Dragonrider bosses (why are some bosses and some aren’t?), Prowling Magus and Congregation, and Covetous Demon could’ve easily been omitted or just…not been bosses. The staggering 32 count of bosses does waft in the scent of overcompensation for adding challenge ahead of acquiring a regularly needed bonfire.
But indulge with me for a moment on the experience of defeating a Dark Souls boss: a tough but fair challenge, using your patience and intellect to carve out a fool proof plan to topple enemies who are bigger and stronger than you are. The elation of finishing off a tough stretch of enemies and hazards and slapping an emphatic period on your statement, dragging your character to the nearest bonfire to rest and replenish: a job well done.
Dark Souls II is absolutely chock full of these moments. Lost Sinner, Nashandra, Sinh, Fume Knight: these bosses shine valiantly with the tough patterns and suffocating difficulty that the series is known for. But what I love the most is not how hard it is, but the legion of NPC phantoms that are available at almost every boss. While the Dark Souls series has been established as preferably a test of solitude against formidable odds, Dark Souls II‘s option of a helping hand is something that many casual players have reached for since the inception of the franchise. It’s this accessibility and willingness to help players that really showed progression in the franchise (and if you wanna tell me to “git gud”, head over to Victor’s Stone and join the Company of Champions you fucking coward).
When Scholar of the First Sin increased the number of characters from 4 to 6 it added more NPCs to aid in your Undead’s fight. While the company of player controlled phantoms is still in effect (though largely unreliable with the game’s current age), and the bosses do get beefier with each addition to the party, it’s nice to see the developers understanding that Dark Souls II is a game worth completing. If help is needed, it’s there.
I go over combat and leveling, as well as final thoughts on the next page.