I've sunk roughly 200 hours into Dark Souls II so far, and while it's my favorite game of last year, I'd be lying if I said some parts of FromSoftware's impressive sequel didn't leave me wanting more.
Since the Dark Souls games are meant to be replayed and mastered, after reaching the end of part II, I wanted nothing more than to jump back in and see what surprises its New Game Plus mode had waiting for me. To be fair, what's found in the sequel stands as a greater offering than the original Dark Souls' —which simply made enemies progressively tougher with subsequent playthroughs—but I still craved something more: A new challenge that would use my existing knowledge of Drangleic against me. (And yes, I realize it's a bit selfish to expect additional content on top of an already beefy 50-hour RPG.)
Last week, I had the chance to play a portion of the upcoming Scholar of the First Sin port of Dark Souls II, and I'm happy to say what Bandai-Namco had on display essentially gave me exactly what I felt the original version lacked. And the meaningful changes to the original game only underline just how much FromSoftware seems to be playing by an entirely different set of rules than everyone else. While most would be content with including all the available DLC, slapping a "Game of the Year Edition" sticker on the box, and calling it a day, From has gone the extra mile in making their reworked bundle of content absolutely worth a double-dip. And if you think you've seen everything Dark Souls II has to offer, you're in for a pleasant surprise.
While Scholar of the First Sin doesn't add any substantial content or new areas outside of the included DLC trilogy, the main draw for Dark Souls II veterans can be found in the reworked enemy placement. This may not sound like a big change, but since Souls games emphasize becoming very intimate with specific enemy encounters—like the Anor Londo archers (*shudder*)—returning players won't be able to cruise through the game they used to know so well. Though Bandai-Namco only showed off four of Dark Souls II's early areas, the alterations to these once-familiar environments had me seriously rethinking my approach. Some of these changes amount to From dropping a tough enemy into a fairly easy area: The Forest of the Fallen Giants, for instance, now features one of those hippo-ogres stomping through the stream at the entrance, and Heide's Tower of Flame—one of the least challenging levels in the game—is now home to a massive, red drake that breathes a destructive wave of fire at all who approach.
Scholar of the First Sin has a few more tricks up their sleeve, though: Thanks to a boost in technology—SotFS runs on DirectX 11 rather than the original DSII's DirectX 9—the land of Drangleic can throw many more terrifying creatures directly at your face, and From has definitely taken advantage of this opportunity. The areas I played offered more enemies to fight at once, including ones usually found in other areas of Dark Souls II: Heide's Tower of Flame is now littered with Heide Knights, which only attack if you strike first—so, of course Scholar of the First Sin puts one right in front of a treasure chest. Enemies don't only have power in numbers, though; Scholar also makes them a lot smarter. Before, you could blitz past enemies or lure them out as far as their AI leash would allow. This time around, enemies can and will pursue you to the ends of the earth, and global producer Atsuo Yoshimura assured me there's ostensibly no limit to how far you can be pursued—even through the fog gates that stand between you and an area's boss.
There's been a bit of confusion about Scholar of the First Sin, since, as of yesterday, players who already own Dark Souls II should have had their game automatically patched to include some of this new version's features. This free update features a general rebalancing of many elements, improved and rewritten item descriptions, and a new NPC (presumably with a new quest line), but you'll need to purchase Scholar of the First Sin if you'd like to take advantage of the more interesting additions. These include the altered placement and AI of enemies, improved graphics and sound, and six-player co-op. As expected, From has yet to divulge the finer points of some changes to Scholar: In terms of the expanded co-op, we only know that it won't be limited to specific areas—making me wonder how strange it's going to be to steamroll through Drangleic with five players in tow.
Scholar also improves the graphics of Dark Souls II, but don't expect anything mind-blowing—if anything, the PS4 version I played looked nearly identical to the 60 frames-per-second PC port I've spent so much time with. Really, the minor improvements shine in the smaller details; particle effects now look better, and the lighting feels much more natural, which should please fans who grumbled when From had to scrap their original plans in order to get a consistent frame rate out of the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions. Unfortunately, I didn't have the ability to access any darker areas to see if they looked more like what From showed off in early Dark Souls II trailers—I'm really interested in knowing if the Torch will be an essential item this time around.
If anything disappointed me about Scholar, it's definitely the loading times. While the PS4 version I played essentially cuts your waiting time in half compared to Dark Souls II on PS3 and Xbox 360, this 15-or-so seconds of inactivity when loading or reloading an area still feels a little excessive compared to the 5 seconds it takes in the PC port of the original DSII—if I had to take a wild guess, the PC version of Scholar could very well be the superior version of Dark Souls II once again.
We've already seen a few current-gen re-releases of games that barely made it out before the Xbox One and PS4 launched, but Scholar of the First Sin makes the most compelling argument for a double-dip I've seen so far. The technical improvements are a welcome addition, for sure, but I'm psyched to sit down and play through a remixed version of a game I know so well. Few developers are given the chance to return to and improve old projects, and I can tell FromSoftware is definitely taking advantage of the incredibly fortunate situation they've found themselves in. My only hope is that they one day return to the original Dark Souls and apply the same sort of post-mortem knowledge they're implementing in the sequel. But I'm sure that would spell the end of me.