“Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin” is both a continuation of the series’ escalating skill thresholds and a sign that some limit has been reached. It’s a game in which the fantasy of self-improvement depends on a vast system of artificial trickery, and one that confuses simple variation for genuine discovery.
A remaster of last year’s “Dark Souls II,” “Scholar of the First Sin” is a technical revision — with higher resolution textures, significantly improved lighting effects, and reworked enemy placement — that feels like an attempt at redemption. “Dark Souls II” received overwhelmingly positive reviews during its release, but a sense of disappointment has come from many of its most ardent players due to a severe downgrade in visuals from the original press demo, and high-level players lamented a certain flatness in the game’s upper difficulty curve.
In hindsight, “Dark Souls II” feels like a game that was riddled with major concessions to scale, something that might have been rapturously imaginative in early concepts but in its final form turned out to be a clattering of thought confetti that only half-fits together. Yet, the Souls games are made with such deliberate obscurity that one only realizes the pieces don’t fit until after it’s all over. They inspire such exhaustive mastery from their players that a first run of the game is almost a throw-away, an inelegant muddling through new places and enemies before discovering the “real” Dark Souls.
The new textures and lighting do make once dreary environments like The Gutter, a grotesque refuge of wooden scaffolding built in a deep, dark hole, seem wondrously dramatic. But other areas like Earthen Peak and the Shaded Woods retain a spare and technical ugliness that higher resolution and dynamic shadows can’t fix. Comparing what’s here to the original footage of “Dark Souls II” shown two years ago, it’s clear that even this version is a distant echo of what was promised.
The new enemy placements don’t necessarily make the game harder, but they do return a sense of uncertainty to the environments that had begun to seem commonplace. Dextrous white-cloaked Heide Knights have been added alongside the lumbering Old Knights in Heide’s Tower of Flame, there are roughly twice as many homing-spell sorceresses in The Shrine of Amana, and red phantom paladins will appear in every room of the Undead Crypt if you choose to light its main chamber. All of these changes don’t necessarily add difficultly to anything from the original version, but their unfamiliarity inspires a caution that I hadn’t felt since my very first run-through. It’s an inescapable irony of the series: The games demand that their players become masters and then subtly make them long for their days of blundering discovery.
The effects are short-lived, in part, because there is only so much room for variation in the mechanical balance between stamina management, attack animations, and options for evasion. One of the final stages imparts a sense of exhaustion with the game’s systems, producing mobs of enemies so large, fast moving, and heavily armored there’s no reasonable way to fight them except in some parody of a Benny Hill sketch, leading the pack back through earlier areas to thin them out and snag their pathfinding AI on sharp corners. This is not game design as precision, learning, or self-improvement, as fans of the series are fond of arguing, but a kind of retreat to exploiting the limits of computer code in order to keep players in a torturously stimulating panic for as long as possible. If chess is “hand-to-hand combat between two labyrinths,” as André Breton once wrote, “Scholar of the First Sin” is a competition between timetables.
The limits are clearest in the Fume Knight fight, where a downloadable boss takes the timing window for dodges and counterattack to such a high degree of specificity that it feels like marionette work once you’ve figured it out. Will the animation for taking a healing drink overlap with the beginning of one of his combos? Should you risk attacking after his five consecutive attacks even if doing so will leave you with no remaining stamina? These are ultimately boring questions that become interesting only when given a half-second to respond while your body chokes on free-flowing adrenaline.
The more one plays Souls games the more often one thinks, “I can’t do this anymore.” But then you come back again, and again, and eventually you do it. And soon enough the once-impossible task seems childishly simple, and a new cycle of yearning starts, a wish to believe something is impossible and to be proven wrong, to be overwhelmed by something and dominate it so thoroughly it eventually becomes trivial.
“Scholar of the First Sin” attempts to return awe to a game that has been overrun by its own players. It is a sprawling and wildly uneven game designed to produce the nihilistic obsession with self-empowerment its story repudiates as an ultimate corruption. It’s the kind of game that only has meaning when it produces maximum anxiety, accelerated heart rates, and sweaty hands, and claims one’s dreams as workshop for replaying old fights. It’s a game that keeps promising new beginnings but delivers only dysfunction repackaged as progress.
Michael Thomsen is a writer in New York. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Slate, The New Republic, The Daily Beast, The New Inquiry, Kill Screen, Edge, and Gamasutra. Follow him on Twitter @mike_thomsen
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