Dark Souls 2: Scholar of the First Sin
Playing Time: 117 hours, plus 123 hours of the original Dark Souls 2 release
Want to know a dirty secret? Don't worry, it's nothing sexual. It's just something that people know, deep down, but they refuse to admit it.
Dark Souls 2 is the best Dark Souls game.
Now, I know that a lot of people would call me a heretic for saying that, but Galileo was called a heretic for arguing against a heliocentric universe, and he turned out to be right about that. I also know that people will call my Souls game judgment credentials into question for saying that, so as I've mentioned in my Bloodborne review, I've played Demon's Souls and all three Dark Souls games, including the DLC for the first two, and I've gotten the platinum PSN trophy for all of them except for Dark Souls, so I know a thing or two about the series.
That having been said, let me underscore that I specified it was the best Dark Souls game, not the best Souls game. I think the latter title is a three-way tie between Demon's Souls, Dark Souls 2, and Bloodborne. All clear? Good.
The ultimate core of any game is the gameplay, and on that front, Dark Souls 2 delivers. Yes, the movement feels a bit different compared to the other Souls games. Big fucking deal. It takes maybe 5 or 10 minutes of playing to get used to it, and then it's perfectly comfortable. In fact, not only is it comfortable, but it offers features that were inexplicably cut from later Souls games.
Sure, nominally, Bloodborne and Dark Souls 3 still let you run up ladders, but there's a world of difference between the maximum speed in Dark Souls 2 and in those two games. Hell, it took me a long time to even notice that there was a faster speed in Bloodborne, since it was such a tiny improvement over the standard speed. Not only does Dark Souls 2 let you climb up ladders as if you just mainlined a gallon of PCP, but it has a steep stamina cost for doing so. This is good! It combines a useful gameplay feature with a potentially meaningful choice, i.e. whether to spend the stamina to climb more quickly or to save it to do something when you reach the top of the ladder. With the possible exception of lining up certain timings, there's never a reason not to run up ladders in Bloodborne/Dark Souls 3, since not doing so means you're spending more time climbing a ladder for no reason. Dark Souls 2 gave you a reason to make you think about the choice. That's what good game design should do.
Dark Souls 2 gives the most freedom in how to use your weapon/offhand equipment slots. Aside from doing everything that you could in Demon's Souls or Dark Souls, you also have the (potential) options to two-hand your offhand item and to power stance/dual wield. Now, yes, granted, the individual weapon movesets in Dark Souls 3 have more quantity because of the weapon skills, but that came at the cost of losing the flexibility of dual wielding what you wanted. If, say, you want to run around dual wielding fume ultra greatswords, well, tough shit, because Dark Souls 3 only lets you dual wield the weapons that it wants you to. Dark Souls 2, on the other hand, lets you flex on fools as long as you've got the stats to qualify.
And if you decide that you don't want 60 strength/45 dexterity anymore because you want to play as a mage instead? Tally ho, motherfucker, because not only does Dark Souls 2 let you reallocate your stats (unlike Bloodborne), but it also doesn't put some artificial limits on how often you can do so (unlike Dark Souls 3).
Oh, wait, what's that? You say that dual wielding fume ultra greatswords would be a stupid thing to do anyway because you'd need to be deep into NG+ before it's even an option? Not so fast, my friend, because Dark Souls 2 has you covered YET AGAIN. Bonfire ascetics let you bring any area of your choosing into its NG+ (or NG++, or whatever) state as you will, including respawning bosses. Yes, there are a handful of specific chests that don't get refilled, but for the most part, it eliminates the problem of resources being limited without resorting to NG+ cycles. Just another good gameplay innovation that was cast aside for no good reason.
In fact, Dark Souls 2 is so respectful of its players' convenience (insofar as any Souls game is, at least) that it even just about eliminated the whole bullshit minigame of farming for equipment upgrade materials. It's pretty easy to get your items fully upgraded. The Scholar of the First Sin edition goes a step further by also making it much easier to get formerly assholishly rare equipment like the shadow gauntlets or visible Aurous armor by either adding respawning enemies who drop those items or just having them as a chest reward somewhere.
Want even more player convenience? How about getting able to experience some of the good parts of online play without having to deal with laggy connections to dipshits on wifi who won't stop their porn torrents? Scholar of the First Sin has you covered yet again, since it adds more invaders (including randomized ones called Forlorn who are even bigger Gary Oak motherfuckers than good old Navlaan was) as well as scripting phantoms (both allied and invading) to use more gestures.
If there's one thing specifically about the Scholar of the First Sin edition that was a disappointment, though, I'd say it was that it didn't do more to make covenants meaningful for offline play. Again, don't get me wrong here, since Dark Souls 2 does more with offline features of covenants than any of the other Souls games by simple virtue of having the covenant of champions (which scales up all enemy stats and removes the limits on their respawning for anything that isn't once-per-NG+ cycle) and the pilgrims of the dark sidequest. However, it would've been nice to do more with it somehow. I'm not sure exactly how, honestly, but then, I'm not working for FROM.
On that note, how are the changes brought by the Scholar of the First Sin edition? Pretty cool, overall. In addition to the Forlorn, the Pursuer actually lives up to his name by showing up in a ton of new places, too, for even more Gary Oak goodness, though those spawns just give twinkling titanites instead of more ring of blades variants. Aside from that, though, there are tons of altered enemy spawns, most of which feel better from a lore perspective. Heide's Tower of Flame is home to plenty of Heide knights, there's more interconnectivity between areas with little touches like shadow ninjas showing up in Earthen Peak or Syan knights guarding certain chests, and so forth. Mind you, it's not always sensible, like with manikins showing up in parts of Drangleic Castle, but even when it's not, it's almost always fun, which is the more important consideration.
Speaking of fun, I haven't even mentioned the DLC areas. Simply put, Sanctum City Shulva and Brume Tower are probably the best areas in the whole game, especially when the Nadalia idols are still around in Brume Tower to whisper their psychotic ravings in your ears. Frozen Eleum Loyce isn't as good as those two, but it's still solid in its own right, even if I do think the boss fights with the King's Pets are among the worst parts of the DLC content. They're honestly not so bad once you get used to them, but fuck me if it wasn't frustrating as hell to deal with their janky attacks. Fortunately, the other DLC bosses were more than able to make up for it. The Fume Knight was my favorite boss in the whole game (and easily in my top 5 for the Souls series), and aside from the blue flame Smelter Demon and the two fights with the King's Pets, all of them were pretty good. The Burnt Ivory King has some technical issues with the allied knights not always figuring out how to close the portals, which is another thing that the Scholar of the First Sin edition missed an opportunity to improve on, but otherwise, the DLC as a whole is pretty wonderful content.
Now, I've said a lot about what Dark Souls 2 did that makes it better than the other Dark Souls games, along with some words on the DLC and the Scholar of the First Sin edition specifics, but what about the game as a whole? In particular, what about the things that people complain about? Well, there are four points that I see brought up the most often when it comes to disliking Dark Souls 2, and frankly, they're all pretty weak.
Point 1: For whatever reason, a lot of people seem to hate the music in Majula. I'm really not sure why. It's far less obtrusive than the themes in the Nexus (for Demon's Souls) or Firelink Shrine (for Dark Souls). It's melancholic, but that's kind of the fucking point, since the whole damned game is pretty damn melancholic. And really, it's not like you're going to spend hours in Majula, anyway, so even if you don't particularly like the theme, it's pretty easy to just not have to listen to it.
Point 2: The story doesn't continue from Dark Souls. To this I say, does any game in the Dark Souls series really have a story? I think a lot of people confuse story with lore, here. Lore is an element of the setting which grants depth and history to the world. Story is an element of plot progression. Because the plot in Dark Souls games is left mostly unsaid, relying on the players' own interpretations of what's going on, you can't fairly say that there's any real story in Dark Souls. There is a story in the player's head, yes, but that story is not in the game itself, because if it was, players wouldn't have to fill in the gaps for themselves. As for the lore, the main objection people have is that Dark Souls 2 makes its own lore instead of expounding on what was in Dark Souls, but again, this is a natural occurrence. Much like the story, a lot of the lore in Dark Souls is communicated indirectly and in a piecemeal fashion, so seeing as Dark Souls 2 takes place in a different area of the world (or at least at such a different time that it might as well be a different area, if you're of the opinion that Drangleic and Lordran are the same geographic location, and the very fact that this is even a matter of debate should highlight how weak the lore actually present within the games themselves is and why I called it overrated in general in my Bloodborne review), it's obviously going to relate to different topics. If you don't like that, go back to playing Dark Souls.
Point 3: The geography of the world is impossible. This complaint always tickles my fancy because it acts as if the geography was such an important part of why Demon's Souls was so good (spoiler: geography meant fuck-all in Demon's Souls). The only real reason why the geography of the world mattered in Dark Souls was because the game makes you wait so fucking long to be able to travel quickly between areas that you had to do a ton of manual travel. Dark Souls 2 lets you warp between bonfires right from the start, as did Demon's Souls, Bloodborne, and Dark Souls 3. If 80% of the games in the series did things in a different way, including the 60% that came after Dark Souls, there's a good chance that that's because the way Dark Souls did it wasn't the best. Now, yes, the fact that the world's geography made physical sense in Dark Souls was cool...the first time you play it. Considering that the games are designed with the clear intent of being played multiple times, it's a hindrance in the bigger picture.
Point 4: The agility stat annoyed people. This is probably the second dumbest complaint, after the first one. Once again, as with Bloodborne, Dark Souls 2 is an RPG. Stats in RPGs should have a meaningful impact on your character's abilities. Agility does this. Therefore, agility is a sensible RPG element. For the record, I played through Scholar of the First Sin with a purposefully underleveled character who had barely any agility. It was perfectly doable, and it helped me really appreciate the difference when I could use equipment that improved agility. While I don't recommend playing an underleveled character for the same reasons that I mentioned in my Bloodborne review, the fact remains that playing with low agility is perfectly reasonable.
I feel like Dark Souls 2 gets a lot of hate for being different. Yes, it was absolutely different from the other Souls games in many ways. Being different doesn't necessarily mean it was worse, though. While it's got flaws (much the same as the other Souls games, having shallow difficulty that becomes nonexistent once your character is too high level, an utter lack of story, and a dearth of music are all issues), it also has several things that it does well, a good number of which are unique even among the other games in the same series. Give it a real fair and balanced thought, and it's clearly a very good game.
Playing Time: 117 hours, plus 123 hours of the original Dark Souls 2 release