So I played Dark Souls II again.
Scholar of the First Sin is a re-release for current-generation consoles with several improvements, especially if like me you didn’t play any of the expansion content that was released as paid add-ons for the original. There’s marginal graphical upgrades that are barely noticeable since even improved it does not look like a new Xbox One game. The meaningful changes, I shall endeavor to classify below:
Lore-wise, the game offers some augments to the existing narrative. ‘Narrative’ is a loose term when referring to Dark Souls since it barely has a plot and its lore is driven on atmosphere, item descriptions, and creepy and mysterious happenstance. The titular Scholar follows suit, when he erupts out of a bonfire (checkpoint) partway through the game as a sort of fleshy-hairy-slimy thing that speaks/gurgles. Aldia, a personage briefly mentioned in the base game (there’s an estate named after him and you get the idea he was experimenting and conjuring up monstrosities) will pop up at various points and pontificate on the responsibilities of a true monarch, and the main character’s suitability as such. He also shows up as a final-final boss fight after the previous last boss. It’s an okay addition but not much to write home about.
The enemy and item placement has been rebalanced. Enemies appear where they did not before. Some are removed. Some behave differently (carry a torch and watch spiders skitter away in fear). This mostly succeeds — you get key items at smarter times, there’s a few zones like No Man’s Wharf which totally embrace the neglected torch-carrying mechanic of the base game to great effect. The newbie areas are made slightly less devastating. Others changes are dubious. Heide Knights were found in the base game in unique locations — for instance, sitting with their back against a tree, unstirring and contemplative. You had to attack them first. Now they’re just another enemy wandering a different area. There’s some baffling changes like removing nearly all of an enemy unique to the Shaded Ruins — armored lion knights — in favor of semi-transparent soldiers who are difficult to see and cannot be targeted with auto lock on.
But the real meat of the changes, which isn’t a change at all if you bought the downloadable content as it was released, is the three new areas of the game.
Brume Tower (Crown of the Old Iron King)
Adjoining the Iron Keep of the first game, a castle that literally sunk and collapsed into a volcano, is Brume Tower, which shares some of the architecture and look of the main structure. It’s an entirely vertical level, which is very cool. You’re generally climbing down, and once you turn on the ‘elevators’ (giant impressive stone statues that go up and down), you’re up-down-down-up-down-etc.
What you’ll find, other than new, more difficult enemies and environmental puzzles, is some kind of misshapen, imprisoned woman, huddled amidst her extra limbs. You’ll hear her moaning from a distance and she’ll be trying to kill you or lending your enemies her benefice (healing them, resurrecting them, powering them up). If you’re armed with a consumable item called a smelter wedge, you can drive it into her heart and pick up a fragment of the soul of ‘Nadalia, Bride of Ash’. All 12 gets you the full soul. This is key because all of the new areas involve a Queen and a King and a fallen Kingdom. All of the queens have names similar to the Queen of Drangleic and main-game last boss, Nashandra. As you play through each new area, you start to feel there is some kind of space-time hyjinx going on with the same story playing out in other lands with different-but-the-same players.
The bosses of Brume are difficult — potentially the hardest in the entire game. Not beasts or demons, just lone swordsmen with quick and complicated movements.
Shulva, the Sanctum City (Crown of the Sunken King)
I wanted to like trap-filled Shulva. You descend even further than the depths of The Gutter from the main game to an expansive, ancient mesoamerican-looking city. There’s a dragon flying around crashing into things and you just know you’re gonna have to do him in (you do). But mostly it just annoyed me.
All of the new areas crank up the difficulty. In base Dark Souls II, if you hit an enemy that doesn’t have a shield up, they have a decent chance to flinch (based on the strength of the attack) and have their attack or movement interrupted. Most enemies in Shulva do not have this feature. So what could have been tense fights on precarious stone bridges hanging over the abyss devolves into ‘get off the fucking bridge’ because the enemy has all the advantages.
For such a cool set piece on entry, you do not really interact with the Sanctum City much. Mostly you run around on its rooftops, or drop into a few upper rooms, all with the same drab blank-wall, square look. There’s switches you can activate to raise and lower buildings, but I found this quite humdrum. The place is loaded with traps too; maybe I’m just a gigantic baby but I just found these cheap and annoying. Yeah, I could have examined every brick in the floor to see the trigger for the killer spike-protruding walls that were about to instantly murder me on the next flight of stairs, but that’s just not the sort of patience I like to have to test. Wah wah.
The bosses are pretty cool though. I do like a good dragon.
Frozen Eleum Loyce (Crown of the Ivory King)
Last is the frozen fortress of Eleum Loyce. It wraps up the story, in part because it’s the only one with a friendly rather than antagonist queen, who explains via dialogue why Eleum Loyce is a frozen wasteland and where she came from. It’s cryptic, but it’s there!
This area is the best tuned, difficulty-wise. Enemies are dangerous but fair. The environmental hazard here is the poor visibility with snow-and-wind blowing in your face whenever you’re outside. Halfway-ish through, you can trigger the melting of much of the ice in the level, meaning you can return to areas frozen over before and open chests or access new areas. It’s kind of cool, but it’s really simple in design — it doesn’t completely change the level, just a few different paths which starts to make the repetition of going through areas you’ve already traversed a bit grating.
The level builds to the boss fight by asking you (just kidding; it doesn’t ask — you have to figure it for yourself) to recruit several Loyce Knights who stayed loyal to the king, to fight on your side in a showdown boss fight versus the knights who did not.
Anyway. More Dark Souls is always good.